Europe and Arab, Muslim countries anti-terror alliance? How could this work better?

After the attacks in Paris EU calls for anti-terror alliance with Arab countries. In your opinion, what would be the best way how the EU can engage with Arab, Muslim countries on the topic of terrorism and is it something what the might expect from Europe?

Jean-Marc RickliAssistant Professor, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London and Qatar National Defence College

The decision at the latest EU Foreign Affairs Council to increase EU cooperation in counter-terrorism with Arab countries is not surprising considering the latest terror attacks in Paris and the ensuing crackdowns on islamist terrorists cells in various European countries. The calls of both ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for Muslims to strike foreigners at home or abroad only added to the urgency of identifying and neutralising potential terrorists on European soil. Several avenues for cooperation could be explored at the operational and strategic levels.

Firstly, the high number of European citizen moving to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS and Jabbat Al-Nusra has become the most important national security priority for European states as returnees present a threat to carry out attacks on European soil. Terrorists are aware of the coordination problems of intelligence agencies and use it at their advantage by crossing different national jurisdictions to prepare and conduct their attacks. For instance, in the case of the Brussels attack against the Jewish Museum, Mehdi Nemmouche a French citizen, spent a year in Syria, returned to France to prepare his attack and conducted it in Belgium. Similarly, the weapons used for the Paris shooting were procured in Belgium. Improvements in intelligence sharing with Arab countries would therefore be an important contribution to the prevention of terrorist attacks in Europe and would also benefit the participating Arab countries as terrorist networks are globalised. Intelligence sharing already exists between Arab and Western states. For instance, Jordan provides key intelligence on Syria and Iraq. However, the key enabler in intelligence agencies cooperation and intelligence sharing is trust. Therefore bilateral relations are always preferred to multilateral cooperation settings. Even among EU member states, intelligence sharing is an issue. So, to add foreign partners to this type of cooperation, it is very likely that states won’t be willing to disclose their most sensitive information. The only way around this is to build trust among the different intelligence agencies. This probably implies the reduction of the number of key partners interacting with each other. One could imagine the creation of a core group of European states sharing very sensitive information with foreign partners and feeding the required intelligence to the other EU member states. This would probably increase trust and reduce the likelihood of leaks but would be very sensitive politically as it would de facto establish different status among European member states.

Secondly the fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda should be a joint undertaking of Western and Arab states. So, far some European states are contributing to the US-led coalition against ISIS but the EU as such is absent. The EU should play a more active role militarily. It should move beyond just providing military training as it does in Mali with the EUTM mission, to offering rapid counter-terrorist reaction forces. One could imagine a partnership with some Arab countries based on a similar template as the EU Battlegroup but specifically focused on counter-terrorism. This would involve joint training and close cooperation with Arab countries. This would also require increased financial commitments of EU member states in defence policy. The problem here is that there is a different perception of which organisation should be considered as terrorists. The example of the different perceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood between Europe and some Gulf countries is a case in point.

At the strategic level, the EU and the Arab countries should work hand in hand to promote a counter-narrative to the one of radical Islam. This process however cannot be driven by the EU or other Western countries. The Arab states should be leading it but European countries should help them in diffusing this moderate narrative by for instance adopting a common policy when it comes to the education or training of Imams. The key enabler for the success of a counter-narrative is its coherence. So far, however, the Arab states have not managed to speak with one voice. The EU could help them by providing financial assistance to states willing to embrace a moderate stance.

Bruno Oliveira Martins, Assistant Professor, Aarhus University

When compared with previous Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe occurred since 2001, the attacks in Paris both confirmed previous trends and exposed new dynamics. Similar to the perpetrators of the July 2005 London attacks, for example, who were British citizens, the militants in France had French nationality. In that sense, the international character of the events, then, comes not from the origin of the perpetrators, but rather by the ideological context in which they operate and by the fact that the militants seem to have received inspiration, training and likely material support from abroad.

The new dynamics come from the scale of the threat. It is certainly difficult to assess the actual, concrete threat posed by EU citizens that return to Europe after having spent periods in Iraq and Syria. But the number of people travelling to those destinations is of a completely new scale. In the case of France only, for example, the authorities have around 1300 people under vigilance who have been or are planning to go to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State. From countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK, Sweden and Belgium, among others, thousands of EU citizens have spent time or are now with the Islamic State. In what regards size and dimension, this element is new.

The Islamic State presents two characteristics that are particularly acute that make them a new player, different from Al Qaeda:

1)  They are extremely active and efficient in using social media and video productions as tools of recruitment. Professional graphic designers and video operators cooperate in the production of their videos, granting them an appeal that is very different than the rustic productions by Al Qaeda in the years following 9/11. Part of their success lies in their efficient and broad capacity of recruitment.

2) They have effectively conquered vast amounts of territory which they have controlled already for several months now.

In this logic, the EU’s willingness to engage with Arab countries seems natural and easy to understand. Yet, the efficiency of this measure is yet to be proven and it sounds more appealing in paper than, most likely, its implementation will reveal. If Arab states neighbouring the region controlled by the Islamic State were able and willing to fight this threat, they would have done it already. It is not EU’s Counter-Terrorism Alliance that will change the coordinates of this very complex picture.

It should be kept in mind that this idea draws on previous EU counter-terrorism efforts in engaging countries from North Africa and the Middle East in the fight against Islamist terrorism. One of the measures introduced by EU’s counter-terrorism policy following 9/11 was to insert the so-called ‘counter-terrorism clause’ in every EU agreement signed with third countries. In practical terms, nevertheless, the results of this external counter-terrorism measure have been uneven at best and totally absent in some cases.

In the aftermath of an event like this there is a tendency to introduce new legislation and to pass new measures that – so it is believed – will prevent a new attack to occur. But there are many problems with this approach, starting from the fact that every attack is different from the previous ones. EU’s democracies should stand faithful to their constitutional foundations and should resist entering a ‘state of exception’ where fundamental rights and freedoms are breached. The US response to 9/11 has shown time and again that states of exception in the domain of counter-terrorism tend to eternalize and to become the ‘new normal’.

Knowing, as we know, that the French militants that perpetrated the attacks had been on French watch-lists, we conclude that something has probably failed in the internal communication and that more resources should probably be allocated to face this threat. More cooperation and intelligence sharing should be canalized to the Joint European Union Situation Centre (SitCen).Yet, one should never pursue the illusion that all terrorist attacks can be avoided and that all individual suspects can be monitored around the clock. That is simply not possible.

Finally, what seems to be relevant at the EU level is to actively engage the communities where these citizens have departed from and to which they return. This requires a relevant amount of resources but an active policy along these lines is far cheaper than arming rebels that will fight the Islamic State today and that will probably shift their loyalties in the future. France has recently announced that it is recruiting dozens of new Muslim clerics to work in prisons. Community leaders and local authorities should cooperate in order to monitor and follow designated citizens and resources should be allocated to build teams that focus on de-radicalization. Some measures in the EU Counter-Radicalization Strategy still lack proper implementation and this should be absolute priority in the current context.

James FlintPhD Researcher and Associate Lecturer in International Relations, Plymouth University

The EU is seeking greater coherence of external relations, including within foreign and security policy. However, for defence related issues, bi-lateral agreements and the NATO alliance are likely still the more robust avenues. Colonial legacy also should not be overlooked, nor should regional complexities (such as Hamas, as Arab Muslim governance, but also a terrorist organisation themselves according to some).

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Research Fellow, Baker Institute, Associate Fellow, Chatham House, Visiting Fellow, Middle East Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science

The EU should engage with the Arab and Islamic world to encourage a constructive dialogue on political inclusion that can dial down regional tensions in the Middle East and North Africa and engage with moderate Islamist organizations, rather than following an exclusionary policy that risks driving them underground and facilitating the radicalization that drives individuals towards acts of violence and terrorism.

James M. DorseySenior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Engagement with Arab nations is just one aspect. The problem in the Arab world is that its in part their domestic and regional policies that stoke political violence, particularly through sectarianism and repression. The more immediate issue for European countries is engagement with their own minorities to ensure that they have a stake in society rather than feel alienated and excluded.


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