Europe’s Emerging Counter-Terrorism Elite: The ATLAS Network

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 5

Special operation forces, or in police terminology special intervention teams, are an essential asset in any counter-terrorism operation. Their deployment can be needed during a terrorist incident or as a logical follow-up on gathered intelligence with the aim to arrest terrorists and prevent an attack. The need for well-trained intervention units in Europe was first demonstrated during the 1972 Olympics in Munich when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped members of the Israeli Olympic team and the subsequent action to rescue the hostages failed tragically. Following this incident, most European countries created their own counter-terrorism special intervention units that were embedded in either police or military structures. Examples of present-day special intervention units in Europe are the renowned British SAS, French GIGN and German GSG-9 and the lesser-known units like the Austrian COBRA, Danish AKS, Dutch DSI, Estonian K-Commando and Finnish Karhuryhmä. Although the character of global terrorism has changed—broadly speaking from bombings and hijackings to suicide attacks—the need for special interventions has not decreased. On the contrary, contemporary terrorists tend to have little risk-aversion, meaning that specialized intervention is needed more than ever. This can be illustrated by the incident in April 2004 when a Spanish police officer was killed and 11 wounded as the alleged ringleader of the Madrid bombings, Sarhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, blew himself up together with three accomplices when the police raided their apartment. There is also the instance in November 2004 when a terrorist suspect threw a hand grenade, wounding three Dutch police officers part of an intervention unit, illustrating the dangers that police face when engaging terrorists.

To reach a high level of professionalism, special intervention units place much emphasis on training and, when possible, the sharing of each other’s experiences. Practical experience with counter-terrorism, however, often comes with high prices paid in terms of trial and error. Out of fear that they may lose their “competitive advantage,” they are understandably cautious in sharing their special knowledge, expertise or skills. Cooperation between special intervention units is therefore largely based on informal contacts and, above all, on mutual trust. In 1996, the European Union first politically pushed an initiative for cooperation in this field when the EU Council decided to create a directory of specialized counter-terrorist competences, skills and expertise to facilitate cooperation on special interventions between member states. Although it was envisaged that member states would take turns maintaining the director, little was actually done until September 2001. After 9/11, the Council—in an extraordinary meeting following the terrorist attacks—ordered Europol to take responsibility for the directory. At the same Council meeting, the European Police Chiefs were instructed to organize and coordinate cooperation of the special intervention units. This led to the establishment of the “ATLAS network,” an informal cooperation structure between special intervention units in the European Union. Its initial goal was to bring each special intervention unit to the highest possible level of professionalism through intense structural mutual cooperation [1].

The first meeting of the heads of the intervention units took place in October 2001, and the ATLAS network currently regroups more than 30 counter-terrorist special intervention units based in the police, gendarmerie and armed forces of the EU member states and the non-EU member Norway [2]. The little known network is, however, not formally institutionalized in any EU framework. Only in November 2005, based on a short European Commission press briefing, was there any public media coverage of the ATLAS network, revealing its name and existence [3]. In January 2006, the EU counter-terrorism coordinator in a public speech briefly mentioned the ATLAS network and its possible usage in case of hostage situations and other emergencies requiring cross-border assistance [4].

Meanwhile, cooperation between the units in the network has been enhanced on various terrains. European funds were freed for setting up an operative database to act as a library on completed operations and as support for acquisitions of common special equipment, as well as for setting up an expert group on equipment and technologies [5]. Europol was tasked with providing the units secure means of communication and in 2005 personnel from each unit in the ATLAS network was instructed in the use of Europol’s secure communication platform, “EurOPs” [6].

Joint counter-terrorism exercises as well as seminars, studies and the exchange of materials between the special intervention units in various formations have in the past six years been organized on a regular basis. Examples include a four-day international exercise in 2003 in Germany to increase competencies to handle assault and hostage taking from boats and a large-scale exercise in 2004 in the harbor of Rotterdam. Joint studies on improvement of operational procedures and techniques that have been conducted include a joint study in Spain of the effect of explosives on different types of doors to improve accessing techniques and a study and exercises in Italy of forced entry into high-speed trains [6].

According to a study of the Swedish National Defense College, the advantages of ATLAS cooperation for small countries like the Nordic states are many, ranging from joint exercises that offer possibilities to test special equipment to the possibility of exchanging experiences from demanding incidents face-to-face [7]. Meanwhile, access to alternate training situations is an asset of interest to all units in the network. The need for training cannot be emphasized enough as was sadly demonstrated recently when a French GIGN member was killed and two others seriously wounded during a seemingly routine arrest of a mentally ill person who was shooting at the police with a shotgun (Le Monde, January 20).

Although the current primary aim of the ATLAS network is mutual training to a common standard, it is foreseen that the cooperation could expand to an operational level. Plans for organizing assistance possibilities from neighboring countries have been considered from the inception of the network. Operational cooperation, however, is still somewhat of a sensitive issue. Governments are reluctant to give permission for deployment of “foreign” police or military on their sovereign territory especially when this by definition entails the possible use of deadly force. Nevertheless, in the elaboration of the 2004 EU multi-annual strategic plan on police and judicial cooperation—the so-called Hague Program—development of a legal framework for operational cooperation in special interventions was explicitly included [8].

In October 2004, the European Police Chiefs attended the ATLAS exercise at the harbor of Rotterdam and discussed the question of the appropriate legislative framework if such an operation should ever take place in reality. The idea of a formal legal framework to regulate cooperation between special intervention units, however, did not receive a warm welcome from the units themselves. They preferred a less formal approach that allows the network to draw up its internal rules, procedures and organizational arrangements [9]. From a professional perspective, the preference of the units for informal cooperation with little public exposure is understandable. Nonetheless, in the current European political landscape it would be naïve to assume that operational assistance could be rendered on the same informal basis as combined training and exchange of experience. Furthermore, since no member state can pretend that it has the capacity to deal with all kinds of large-scale situations that require a special intervention, the possibility of a request for actual operational assistance from one of the EU member states is far from hypothetical.

A further discussion on a possible legal framework for special interventions in the European Union started in 2005 and issues discussed included the scope of cooperation (the definition of crisis, type of assistance to be rendered), civil and penal responsibility, the decision-making process (chain of command during operations), working procedures and financial issues [10]. As such discussions in the EU policy-making process usually take some time, the six largest European states agreed in March 2006 as an interim solution on developing joint support teams to offer operational assistance in case of serious terrorist attacks. These expert teams or liaison officers could provide on-site support to an attacked country upon its request [11].

In December 2006, Austria presented a concrete draft of a legal framework for cooperation between the special intervention units in crisis situations [12]. The envisaged framework lays down general rules and conditions to allow for special intervention units of one member state to provide assistance and/or actual operational deployment on the territory of another member state. The most essential issues covered by the proposed framework are those regarding the chain of command and civil and penal liability, while further organizational and operational details are left to the professionals involved.

Already, the ATLAS network fulfills an important role in European counter-terrorism capabilities by enhancing mutual trust and reaching common standards between the intervention units and by further professionalizing counter-terrorist intervention techniques. With the proposed legal framework, actual deployment of special intervention units from each European country across Europe becomes possible. This would further enhance the role of the ATLAS network, which is a much needed step in the development of a common European special intervention capacity.


1. Conclusions adopted by the JHA Council (12156/01), Brussels, September 20, 2001.

2. Combating Terrorism in Nordic Countries: A Comparative Study of the Military’s Role, Swedish National Defense College, 2003.

3. European Broadcasting Service, November 29, 2005, item reference: I-049865en.

4. Presentation by Gijs de Vries, EU counter-terrorism coordinator, at a seminar of the Center for European Reform in Brussels, January 19, 2006.

5. Amendments submitted to the meeting of the European Parliament Committee on Budgets of 4, 5 and 6, October 2005.

6. AGIS project descriptions and evaluations 2003, 2004, 2005.

7. Combating Terrorism in Nordic Countries: A Comparative Study of the Military’s Role.

8. Council and Commission Action Plan Implementing The Hague Program Strengthening Freedom, Security and Justice in the European Union, Brussels, June 10, 2005.

9. Conclusions on the 10th meeting of the Police Chiefs Task Force, October 11-12, 2004.

10. Discussion document on a normative framework for “ATLAS” (8434/05), Brussels, April 25, 2005.

11. Conclusions of the meeting of the interior ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom, Heiligendamm, March 22-23, 2006.

12. Official Journal of the European Union, C321, December 29, 2006.