(BRUSSELS) — In 2004, the Madrid and London bombings prompted the adoption by the European Union of a counterterrorism strategy and the appointment of an EU counterterrorism coordinator, whose main tasks are to monitor the implementation of the strategy, ensure that the EU plays an active role in the fight against terrorism, represent Europe on these issues and improve the […]
(BRUSSELS) — In 2004, the Madrid and London bombings prompted the adoption by the European Union of a counterterrorism strategy and the appointment of an EU counterterrorism coordinator, whose main tasks are to monitor the implementation of the strategy, ensure that the EU plays an active role in the fight against terrorism, represent Europe on these issues and improve the coordination between the different EU institutions and the member states.
Gilles de Kerchove, a Belgian lawyer, was appointed as the second EU counterterrorism coordinator in September 2007. He argues that it is possible to reconcile counterterrorism and fundamental rights.
MintPress News (MPN): You coordinate the EU’s fight against terrorism, but there is no universally accepted definition of what terrorism is exactly …
Gilles de Kerchove (GdK): It is not completely true. It is true that we have no agreement so far on a draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. We could probably reach an agreement on definition pretty easily, but we still have some stumbling blocks, like: How do you qualify some “freedom fighters” movements. There is nevertheless a growing consensus worldwide to say that targeting civilians – be it in an armed conflict or outside an armed conflict – is terrorism and should not be accepted at all. But the definition is not an issue … well, not that much actually, because in 2006 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a counterterrorism strategy. And this is the main thing, to have a consensus of the international community on how to tackle the problem of terrorism.
MPN: But for example, the United States is putting pressure on the EU to add Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations, a move the EU has been resisting for years …
GdK: That is not a question of definition. In a way, it is an issue, yes. But what few people understand is that it is not because you are not on the terror list of the EU that you are not a terrorist organization. In order to put someone on the list, you first must meet the legal conditions. Then, you need the consensus of the 27 member states on the fact that politically speaking – not legally – it is a good idea to put a terrorist organization on the list. In the past, we have had organizations that would qualify to be on the list from a legal point of view but politically it would have been a bad idea because there were diplomatic efforts going on behind the scene.
MPN: What you are saying is that it is political …
GdK: No, no, no. … The listing process is only one tool. We have many other tools. And there is no consensus among the 27 EU member states today to put Hezbollah on the list. You may wonder whether it is wise today, because of the Syrian crisis, to polarize a Lebanese society that is trying to remain united. Many diplomats think that today, the top priority in Lebanon is to cool off the situation. Other people think Hezbollah is behaving like a terrorist organization and should therefore be put on the list. But that is a political discussion. It does not mean, for example, that if we find that Hezbollah is laundering money in Europe, we should not react through criminal law. Things are not black and white.
So, to answer your question: It is not because Hezbollah is not on the list that it is not a terrorism organization because putting someone on the list not only has criminal consequences like the freezing of assets, it also has a political dimension and it is for diplomats to assess the good timing of the move.
MPN: There are a lot of discussions about how the fight against terrorism is affecting fundamental rights, like the right to privacy, the protection of personal data, etc.
GdK: The question is wider than privacy. First, it is true that in too many states in the world, a loose definition of terrorism is used to curb the opposition; what I mean is that the argument of terrorism is used to fight against political opponents.
Second, in many states of the world, the means to fight against terrorism violate human rights: use of torture, pre-detention trial with no access to a lawyer … We know that even the Americans under Bush had secret detention camps, secret flight operated by the CIA, the use of enhanced interrogation techniques … all this was stopped by Obama when he was elected president.
Turning to privacy, this is indeed a very legitimate concern. How do you balance the need for collecting sensitive data in order to prevent a terrorist attack with the right to privacy and the right of protection of your personal data? I think it is not necessarily something you can reconcile. You could probably adopt a law to get access to more data – because I think it is necessary – but build the system in such a way that the number of those who get access is more restricted, that the conditions for getting access are stricter and that you try to minimize the impact of new technologies by design.
And you need to be much more aggressive toward those who abuse and violate privacy. I have personally always been in favor of criminal sanctions against those who use data for other purposes than the one for which they have been collected. For the time being, sanctions are only administrative, not criminal.
Balancing the two is what we have tried to do with the Americans in our negotiations on the PNR [Passenger Name Record] and despite all the criticism, I think we achieved significant improvement in our new agreement; the same goes for the TFTP [Terrorist Finance Tracking Program]. But indeed, it is a constant tension. Again, things are not black and white.
MPN: There are still many loopholes in these agreements with the Americans …
GdK: With the new agreements, we have introduced a lot of new provisions and a monitoring mechanism. I have colleagues in Washington – this week I think – to assess the compliance with the agreement on TFTP. They will report to the Council and the European Parliament.
MPN: The fact is, once the data are in the United States, basically you lose track of them and the Americans can do what they want.
GdK: I have been trained as a lawyer in the United States and this is a very legalistic society. When the U.S. agree on something, believe me, they abide by what they have agreed very strictly. And my experience is that they may be tough in negotiations but when there is a deal, there is a deal. They have supervisors, they have mechanisms to ensure that what has been agreed is faithfully implemented.
MPN: The European Union can be very critical of developing countries when they violate human rights, but when the U.S. is concerned, we barely hear Europe’s voice, like on the CIA flights, the drones issue …
GdK: It is not true. Or maybe you don’t hear Europe’s voice but it is not true that we are passive. We have started, and I must admit, maybe a bit too late, as from 2004-2005, an in-depth dialogue with our friends on the other side of the Atlantic on the paradigm used by the Americans to fight terrorism which they call the “global war on terror,” because we thought it was legally questionable. We have seen all the negative consequences of this approach (torture, secret flights) but it is a legal debate and we had this in-depth debate with the State Department’s legal advisor at the time, John Bellinger, and we have tried to reduce the scope for disagreement to all the extent possible.
Second, I went to Washington just before the election of Obama to meet the team advising the candidate and I was convinced that as soon as Obama would get in office at the White House, he would take some measures to shift the paradigm, get rid of the “global war on terror” and move to a more classical law enforcement approach. And that is what he did. The first day in office, he took a presidential order banning torture, he closed the secret detention file, he decided that Guantanamo should be closed within a year and he set up two task forces to look at two difficult issues: detention and deportation.
MPN: But Guantanamo has not been closed.
GdK: No, and it is because Congress has made it impossible. They have cut the budget to move Guantanamo detainees outside the camp, they have forbidden the transfer of detainees to U.S. soil, and that is a bit worrying.
They even have adopted the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) in 2012, which is something where we have reacted very strongly. I ran the alarm when it was not yet adopted and I said we have to do something because it is a legislation in which Congress – against the will of the president [but with his signing, Ed. note] – authorized the use of the military to detain people and the use of military tribunals to prosecute terrorist suspects. We had a very extensive discussion with the different lawyers of the Departments of State and Justice, we have provided the Americans with a lot of arguments and in the end the Obama administration adopted implementing measures minimizing the impact of this legislation.
MPN: You often say that you want to focus more on prevention and less on repression. What does it entail?
GdK: We started looking at prevention in 2005. At the time, we started working with several member states to collect best practices and look at what is working and what is not. The commission has ordered several studies to better understand the process of radicalization, the factors contributing to the process and so on. I have worked with five or six states on subjects like the role of Internet, the importance of developing community policy, how do you train the street police to detect as early as possible any sign of radicalization, what do you do when you detect a sign of radicalization, prisons … The commissioner in charge of Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, considering prevention should be a priority, set up a network called RAN Radicalization Awareness Network with something like eight or nine subgroups working on subjects like the one I mentioned.
And at the end of November, we will have a big conference to see how to promote prevention not in the EU but in third states. There are countries like Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Northern Mali, Mauritania … where we know we are faced with a serious problem of radicalization. The question is: What should we do? How do we tackle this problem?
MPN: What I mean is: What concretely do you do in the field of prevention?
GdK: The problem is that for the time being, we don’t have a real policy. And this conference aims at developing a concept, knowing that it is awfully complicated. For example, madrassah [religious schools] are a huge problem in Pakistan, they teach a completely perverse interpretation of Islam and that feeds radicalization. How do you address that? Other example: In the southern part of Punjab, in the northern part of Sindh, there are growing signs of radicalization. Authorities there are considering a program of vocational training to counter that … but this requires a better understanding of where the problems are and what sorts of policies are effective.
In Algeria, there has been a project to distribute small radios working on solar energy all over the Sahel in order to promote a counter-narrative. NATO did the same in Afghanistan. This is a possibility: develop counter-narrative programs, to explain things … so that people think differently.
MPN: Your point on developing a counter-narrative is an interesting one. To what extent have you tried to understand the reasons that make some people become violent?
GdK: I can give you piles and piles of files on this. It is a mixture of objective and subjective factors; a personal process influenced by external factors. There is the influence from the Internet, the interaction with people back from the jihad and at the same time there is the fact that you feel badly integrated in your society, that you feel discriminated because you don’t look like the natives, that you feel alienated because you live in an ugly neighborhood, because you lost your job or you can’t find one … all this may lead to frustration, but it is not because you are frustrated that you kill your neighbor.
So it is a mixture of personal reasons that leads to a feeling of alienation and when confronted with the single, stupid narrative of al-Qaida, this may sometimes lead some people to take the plunge.
MPN: Sometimes, one has the feeling that al-Qaida is a convenient excuse, an ideal culprit.
GdK: One fair question is indeed: Is it a good idea to call the regional or local groups, the franchised ones, part of al-Qaida, because by doing so, you reinforce al-Qaida by suggesting that it is a much more organized network that what it actually is.
But I never explain terrorism just by mentioning al-Qaida. I start by saying that in Europe, we still have a low-intensity form of terrorism: ETA in Spain, IRA in Ireland, the PKK in Turkey. … We also have some extreme-right and extreme-left organizations although for the time being, they are rather marginal.
Al-Qaida has mutated, it is no longer the organization it used to be; there is a core in Pakistan and Afghanistan with a lot of local groups around. We also have regional groups elsewhere which have openly adhered to al-Qaida, like in Iraq, in the Maghreb, in the Arabian Peninsula or in Africa.
So it is not as if we needed an enemy to get a budget in order to set up a big brother society and feed defense contractors. But where you are right is that we constantly have to assess the level of threat in order not to be manipulated by what the left in the 60s used to call the “military-industrial complex”. Nevertheless, if I don’t advice properly and something happens, people might say, “You did not say anything.” The question you raise is a fair question; we regularly have to assess the threat and make sure we do not overreact nor underreact.