The failure of Europe in the war against terror


For the last three years, Turkey has been constantly criticized in the international arena – mostly by Western governments – for not “doing enough” to deal with foreign fighters and the fight against terrorism. In many different testimonies by U.S. officials and Western observers, the Turkish government was criticized on this issue. There were constant calls from these governments to Turkish authorities to “do more” to deal with the threat of terrorism. Although Turkey went beyond its capacity to control its borders through risk assessment centers, increased border control in Syria and launched an extensive array of investigations, these measures were never enough. The expectations on the part of Turkey for further cooperation in intelligence and information sharing in regards to foreign fighters fell short. There was not even sufficient empathy to Turkey in the last two years, while Turkey has been the target of international terrorism attacks.

However, things started to change after the Brussels attacks. While everybody was trying to understand the network of terrorists and how they remained under the radar of the European security services, Turkish authorities released information that the terrorists were detained in Turkey, sent back to their home countries and law enforcement agencies in the country informed about the suspects’ detention and deportation. It demonstrated a significant failure on the part of European authorities. While many were getting ready to accept this as an exceptional instance, a recent Frontline episode, “Terror in Europe,” demonstrated further failures on the part of European authorities.

The documentary shows a series of failures and negligence on the part of security services around Europe. According to the experts and officials interviewed for the program, there were significant missteps and systemic problems around Europe. Former intelligence officials admitted that they could not assess the extent of the threat and considered them less dangerous than they were. Some were under the surveillance of the state for more than 10 years, detained multiple times and taken to court. And most significantly, in the last few years they very frequently took advantage of lax border controls in European countries. Interestingly, one of those individuals being followed by security services for a while left France and went to Yemen to join al-Qaida. Later, although U.S. intelligence alerted French intelligence about the individual, the French security service could not find anything suspicious. After three years of surveillance, the French authorities stopped monitoring the individual and his gang. Soon they organized the Charlie Hebdo attack in the heart of Paris.

In the meantime, another red flag was raised with the emergence and rapid rise of Daesh in Syria. This time, security services from various countries, including Spain, alerted their European partners about the rapid increase in the flow of young people to Syria. However, the security structure in Belgium had significant deficiencies, including a lack of budget and also significant interagency problems. More significantly, it turns out that although it is a “union” now, countries in the EU shy away from sharing intelligence with each other. Under the nose of Belgium authorities, a group of young people went to Syria to join Daesh. Among these, one individual from Belgium was particularly important. He was among the people who went to join Daesh and came back. Some of the members of his gang were later arrested, and all of them admitted that they were planning to attack soft targets, one specifically was a rock concert. There were an increasing number of warning signals about a coming attack. In all of these instances, the most significant suspect was the same individual that left Brussels. While every security agency in the European Union was searching for him, he made his way back to France from Syria. Lax border control once more let him to travel to Europe. There was no security coordination in Europe – not even efficient use of Interpol databases. Two terrorists were stopped by the police on their way to France. One was on a terrorism warrant and one was on an EU terrorism watch list but again the police let them go. There were significant failures in intelligence sharing and a discrepancy in information about suspected terrorists in European countries. While they were looking for the brains of the terror gang in Syria, he organized one of the most deadly attacks in Paris. Almost all of them were either on the terrorism list or under surveillance. There were multiple chances to stop the attacks. All of the members of the group were questioned, detained or stopped by police. More seriously, the ones who were being warranted after this attack later organized another very deadly attack in Brussels.

The frontline documentary demonstrates that there are serious risks for the future of international security. As mentioned by the experts, most of these risks still persist in Europe. And the threat comes from the European failure to coordinate their security services and share actionable intelligence with their counterparts in different parts of the continent. The lack of intelligence also risks the security of Turkey. And it is time for Europe to become more serious about this threat and cooperate more effectively with each other and countries like Turkey that have been targeted by terrorists for several years now.

*Kiliç Buğra Kanat is the Research Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington DC. He is also an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie. He is also a columnist at Daily Sabah Turkish newspaper.

(Published in Daily Sabah on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016)