Event report – Balancing Security vs Liberty in the Age of Global Terrorism

The library team attended a conference entitled ‘Balancing Security vs Liberty in the Age of Global Terrorism’ hosted by the AJC Transatlantic Institute and Friedrich Naumann Stiftung. The main speaker was Gilles De Kerchove, the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator.

Mr De Kerchove began the discussion by stating that the terrorist threat facing the EU has become far more diverse and dangerous and is unprecedented. He identified three types of threat – home-grown terrorists who are radicalised by the internet, their time spent in prison or through contact with Salafi preachers; foreign fighters; and organisations. He said that it is a mistake to ignore Al Qaeda. He explained that although Da’esh is now on the defensive, as it has lost Fallujah and Aleppo may lose control of Raqqa, it is now more likely to resort to terror plots as it wants to be seen as victorious in the public eye.

Mr De Kerchove acknowledged that public debate has constructed a toxic link between terrorism and the migration crisis.  He said that there is a need for a judicial response to terrorism, and that we should have a directive defining terrorism. He also argued for the need for more security checks at external borders. He expressed his regret about the fact that digital evidence is often the only evidence available on which to convict terrorists, and that we often need to have recourse to MLA (Mutual Legal Assistance) to obtain this type of evidence. This is because the WhatsApp servers are in California, despite incriminating conversations taking place on phones in Europe.deker

Gilles De Kerchove stated there is a need to know how we would create a social response to terrorism. In this regard, he suggested training social workers to recognise and act on signs of radicalisation. The questions he asked included the following: How do we promote rehabilitation for radicalised people? How can we facilitate reintegration in order to pre-empt radicalisation? How do we promote a European Islam? Of course, Mr De Kerchove made it very clear later on in the discussion that policies on interfaith dialogue and integration should exist on their own merits, and not be exclusively linked to terrorism. While our relationships with Third Countries provide counter-terrorism intelligence and assistance, there is a need to assist those countries in preventing radicalisation. However, the question remains whether the EU should engage with governments which support state-sanctioned violence.

In relation to privacy, Mr De Kerchove stated that he did not understand why the PNR (Passenger Name Record) requirement was so contentious, and why it had taken the European Parliament five years to agree to pass it. The removal of content from the internet is another contentious issue as it is often triggers a debate on free speech. However, Mr De Kerchove expressed his belief that we should be able to differentiate between distasteful content and unlawful content which inspires violence.

He also considered that the collection of data is less discriminatory than standard airport security procedures which often rely on profiling. For instance, certain criteria make it easier to identify  foreign fighters: they tend to travel alone, they buy a ticket with cash shortly before (a day before) taking their flight, they do not have any luggage and their ticket is one-way. The ability to pick up on such information would help identify such people and enable airport security to be more effective and less discriminatory.

Mr De Kerchove then answered some questions from the floor. He stated he saw a future in funding rehabilitation programmes for returning foreign fighters. In his view 24/7 monitoring is far too resource-intensive as this requires employing twenty people to monitor one person. It is therefore both more economically and socially desirable to focus on rehabilitation.

Among the positive steps taken by the member states, he singled out France’s creation of a hotline to deal with radicalisation. This is not just used to mobilise security forces, but also to provide  support. For example, a worried parent or relative might use such a service in order to obtain advice and guidance. Mr De Kerchove concluded that privacy is a huge issue in Europe, especially in the former Eastern bloc. This is also a sensitive issue in Germany because, with its memory of secret police agencies carrying out arrests on the basis of ‘intelligence’ and not on evidence. There is a need to strike a careful balance between liberty and security in today’s world.

The library is open to all staff of the Council of the European Union and the European Council, trainees, permanent representations of Member States and staff of other EU institutions and bodies, and to researchers and students (an appointment must be made, by emailing library@consilium.europa.eu). Access to some library resources may be restricted to on-site consultation.

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