European Counter-Terrorism Culture and Methodology

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 8

More than a year after the al-Qaeda linked bombings in Madrid, a general appraisal of counter-terrorism developments in Europe generally yields a worrying picture. Many analysts argue that the European Union has made little progress in coordinating and enforcing measures involving intelligence swapping and police cooperation. Although the December update of the EU “Plan of Action on Combating Terrorism” reports progress on most of the covered issues [1], Member States are most often fast to agree but slow to implement. This makes the effectiveness and relevance of adopted measures often questionable, certainly in the short term.

An embarrassing example can be found in the futile attempts to launch Joint Investigation Teams (JIT), prompting the European Commission to release an exceptional naming-and-shaming report on the slow and inadequate implementation of agreed legislation. [2] Even the much appraised European arrest warrant, which came into force in July 2004, has a long history of protracted implementation after it was principally agreed on. Moreover, EU internal political woes – like those surrounding the appointment of a director to head the recently established Europol – do not provide much reassurance either about the effectiveness of EU measures.

Nonetheless most analysis seems to be distorted by the perception that security cooperation in the EU is only a centralized phenomenon, while in fact the opposite is true. The generally assumed image of inadequate police cooperation and information exchange in the EU changes considerately if one looks behind the central EU level. One straightforward example in regards to the limited relevance of Europol for instance, is the fact that EU police agencies exchange ten times the amount of messages through Interpol’s communication facilities than through Europol. [3]

In practice the EU Member States have a wide range of efficient (informal), bilateral (and sometimes multilateral) police cooperation structures. Apart from these structural cooperation platforms, a few hundred police liaisons have been posted over the last years by Member States in and outside the EU. These professionals – sometimes regarded as essential for policing in Europe – manage the flow of information between their respective agencies and as such play a significant role in countering terrorism. Of equal importance are the senior police officers in the field of counter-terrorism that personally know many of their colleagues and – communicating by mobile phone and e-mail – form efficient informal networks in and beyond the EU. Altogether these practices provide for swift and flexible responses and information exchange without the hindrances of centralized bureaucratic structures.

Most EU countries are well aware that coordinating intelligence is at the heart of countering terrorism and have set up multidisciplinary counter-terrorism taskforces that include police, (military) intelligence agencies, immigration and customs. But data mining has so far not returned the expected results, showing that the human factor is crucial in accessing and analyzing intelligence. Examples of taskforces set up in the last year are the “Contra-Terrorism Infobox” in the Netherlands [4] and the “Common Anti-Terror Center” (Gemeinsames Terrorismusabwehrzentrum; GTAZ) in Germany. [5] Like the longstanding French “Terrorism Combating Coordination Unit” (l’unité de coordination de la lutte anti-terroriste; UCLAT) they embody the widely accepted understanding that national institutional harmony forms the first step in countering terrorism.

Aware of the seriousness of the terrorism threat, even the three French intelligence agencies that have frequently engaged in turf wars embarked on an unprecedented cooperation. For the first time in history a permanent unit staffed with professionals from the General Directorate for External Security (la direction générale de la sécurité extérieure; DGSE), the Central Directorate of General Information (la direction centrale des renseignements généraux: DCRG) and the Directorate of Territorial Security (la direction de la surveillance du territoire: DST) was created in September 2004. [6]

International cooperation between intelligence services is by default bilateral, but close coordination in and around Europe is achieved informally through the so-called Berne Club, that was set up in 1971 and today comprises 18 countries and through the Kilowatt Group. The latter, that is actually a secure telex network, was set up in 1977 and comprises 15 countries, of which the following 5 are outside the EU: Canada, Norway, Switzerland, the US and Israel.

Intelligence agencies are traditionally better equipped and experienced in gathering the initial intelligence on covert terrorist networks than law enforcement. Following the distribution of their intelligence, police counter-terrorist units face the challenge of organizing timely and effective responses. Whereas in criminal cases intelligence typically forms the starting point for thorough investigation and evidence collection, the imminence of an attack leaves law enforcement little time for further investigation and calls for immediate action. Dealing with this time pressure was identified in an evaluation by the Dutch National Police Agency (KLPD) as one of the key elements in investigating terrorism. [7] Such insights from operational experiences have prompted European law enforcement to create new strategies and tactics.

The same report identifies overcoming the language barrier as another vital part of successfully investigating and disrupting terrorist networks. Most European law enforcement agencies have few Arabic speakers in their organization and have only recently started actively recruiting for such speakers. Meanwhile in Germany progress is being made in finding ways to deal with the inconsistent Romanization of Arab names – there are more than 10 ways of spelling ‘Mohammed’ for instance. Even if Islamic extremists would not intentionally use multiple aliases it takes extensive efforts to keep databases effective. Using in-house developed software, police in Bavaria were able to identify duplications and consequently decreased the number of extremists on their databases by 20%. [8]

Also staff numbers at counter-terrorist units were increased substantially in 2004. In the Netherlands alone over 200 extra staff has been allocated for counter-terrorism work. Another example is the increased funding for the British Intelligence and Security Agencies and the boosting of police counter-terrorism activities in the UK. [9]

The increased quantitative and qualitative capacity all over Europe is reflected in various foiled attacks, successful investigations and hundreds of arrests. In Spain the number of detentions of suspected Islamic terrorists in 2004 rose to 131 compared with 34 in 2003 [10] and in France a total of 103 suspects were arrested against 65 in 2003. [11] Notwithstanding these changes, the successful prosecution and conviction of suspected terrorists remains a major challenge.

Apart from the primary focus on the prevention of actual attacks in Europe, a large proportion of the investigations focus on persons and groups suspected of providing support and recruiting for terrorist attacks in post-war Iraq. Arrests have been made in Sweden, Italy, Belgium, France, and Germany. EU countries have also made progress on the ideological battlefield by tackling imams preaching extremism and making statements supporting the al-Qaeda terror network. Imams have been arrested (and in a few cases expelled) from France, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy.

Moreover, the ratification of anti-terrorism laws and stricter immigration controls has also significantly aided the fight against terrorism. In most EU countries legislation now enables investigators to successfully prosecute those that engage in terrorist conspiracies. This is crucial insofar as intervention in the early planning stages of terrorist attacks has tended to restrict the amount of evidence. In France adequate legislation was put in place soon after the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) bombings in 1995. The Madrid bombings had the same effect on legislation in many other countries in the EU. The ongoing trial of the Dutch Hofstad network is largely based on such new legislation.

Evidence on terrorist activities that is essential for successful prosecution is frequently encapsulated in the intelligence provided by the intelligence agencies; but the admissibility of such information is questionable under the fair-trial principle of the European Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless in several EU Member States an increasing use of information gathered by intelligence agencies as evidence in court is becoming the norm, especially when the intelligence has been gathered by technical means and does not compromise sources or methods.

European security cooperation is certainly not flawless but it should be stressed that the structures and networks that are currently being developed will most likely improve European counter-terrorism in the decisive years ahead. Moreover, while there is ample scope for improvement the overall picture is more positive than generally acknowledged.

Ludo Block is a former Dutch senior police officer and served as the Dutch police liaison officer for Russia and surrounding countries between 1999 and 2004. He is currently writing a PhD on police cooperation in the European Union.


1. EU Plan of Action on Combating Terrorism – December 2004 update.

2. Report (2004) 858 from the European Commission, January 7, 2005.

3. Estimate based on figures from the Europol annual report 2003 and the Interpol General Secretariat annual report 2003.

4. Letter from the Dutch Interior and Justice Ministers to the Dutch Parliament, January 24, 2005.

5. “Schily: Anti-terror Center starts working”, Press-release of the German Ministry of the Interior December 14, 2004.

6. “A permanent counter-terrorism unit has been created around the DGSE”, Le Monde September 18, 2004.

7. “Investigating Islamist terrorism: A first reconnaissance.” Report from the KLPD, November 2003

8. “German Police Battle Extremist Spelling”, Deutsche Welle May 28, 2004.

9. “Annual Report 2004-2005”, UK Intelligence and Security Committee, April 2005.

10. “Antiterrorist Activities International terrorism 2004”, Report by the Spanish Ministry of the Interior.

11. Activity report from the French Ministry of the Interior 2003; figures 2004 from a presentation at the conference “L’Europe face au terrorism” in Paris March 8, 2005.