As terror threat looms over Europe, an effective counterterror strategy is essential – experts

CPH POST was in attendance at the Europe-Israel Press Association’s event ‘Middle East turmoil and the fight against terror’ earlier this month

In Hamburg, a man killed one person and injured six others in a knife attack on Friday. The killer – a failed Palestinian asylum-seeker who was born in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – was later identified as a “known Islamist” by the German authorities. According to Hamburg’s interior minister, Andy Grote, the assailant was known as an Islamist but not a jihadist.

A pressing matter in Europe
In recent years, a number of unorganised terror attacks have taken place in Europe where terrorists have used unconventional methods to attack people. Instead of suicide jackets and guns, terrorists have resorted to automotive vehicles and knives to kill people.

With such incidents taking place every now and then along with large-scale attacks in Paris, Brussels and the UK earlier this year, terrorism continues to be a major concern in Europe.

To discuss the current situation of terrorism and how Europe could learn from the example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a panel of experts recently gathered at an international conference in Brussels. The conference, organised by the Europe-Israel Press Association (EIPA), was attended by some 40 journalists from across Europe and the Middle East.

Experts talked about the need for a comparative approach to fight against terrorism, spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process 50 years after the Six Day War, and also shed light on the Palestinian National Movement.

The need for effective counterterror strategies
As the terror threat looms across Europe, the need to deepen efforts against foreign terrorist fighters as well as home-grown radicalised individuals has become exceedingly important.

In this connection, one of the most pertinent discussions at the conference concerned the development of effective strategies to fight terrorism. Entitled ‘From ISIS [Islamic State] to Al-Qaeda, what strategies are the most effective in combating terrorism?’, the intervention shed light on some very important issues.

“A counterterror strategy can only be effective if the nature of terrorism is understood,” said François Heisbourg, the chair of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“We must remember that terrorism is a means of communication, which makes it different from other forms of crimes. If you don’t treat the communication aspect of terrorism, the chances of success are slim.”

He stressed that it is vital for European Union leaders not to hype up terror more than it deserves because it empowers terrorists.

“France made this mistake after the November 15 Paris attack when the then French president delivered a big speech on how society should be changed to make it more effective in the fight against terrorism.  In this way, they demonstrated to Daesh [IS] how powerful the terror outfit is,” Heisbourg said.

Experts also agreed that all EU states should have a common standard for biometric machine-readable identification so that terrorists cannot falsify IDs and cited the examples of Britain, the US and Israel for having effective counterterror strategies.

“Like Israel, an emphasis on intrusive and massive investment in information and big data sphere is necessary”, Heisbourg said.

Terror threat in Denmark
With the threat of terror still high in Denmark according to an analysis carried out by the nation’s intelligence agency PET in February this year, terrorism experts also talked about the situation in the country.

According to PET, IS continues to be the most prominent threat, and although military efforts against IS in Syria and Iraq have reduced the combat capability of the group as well as its territorial control, IS has consequently started giving more priority to hitting western targets through planned, more complex attacks such as the ones in Paris and Brussels.

“Terror is already inside Europe and Denmark is also vulnerable.  There is no immunity against terrorism,” informed Claude Moniquet, a terrorism expert who is the co-founder of the European Center for Strategic Intelligence and Security (ESISC).

“After the November 15 Paris Attack, the EU was prepared to tackle the situation but the terrorists resorted to new methods, like using cars, to attack people instead of carrying out shootings or suicide bombings. Moreover, London is secure, but two terror attacks took place within two months. This shows that the EU is still highly vulnerable to terrorism.”

Moniquet explained that the current crisis in the Middle East will only nourish IS, and therefore, terrorism in not going to vanish. Furthermore, commenting on the rehabilitation of returning terrorists in Denmark, Moniquet said that there is no guarantee that there will be no recidivism, especially because the Danish rehabilitation program does not attempt to change the ideology of the extremists.

“In Denmark and other Nordic countries, there is a rather soft approach towards dealing with ideological problems. Unless there is a breach of law, people enjoy reasonable freedom. There is a weakness in approach, which has to be strengthened,” Moniquet said.

Moreover, commenting on the issue of immigration and the influx of refugees, he said that it should be controlled but the problem of terrorism cannot be solely blamed on immigration.

“Right-wing politics and an anti-immigration approach only alienate people, and sometimes, this alienation backfires,” he said.

Lessons for Europe from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
One of the main themes of the conference revolved around the Israel-Palestinian conflict and how Israel successfully dealt with the Palestinian terror outfit, Hamas.

Yossi Kuperwasser, the director for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a fellow researcher at the International Institute for Counter-terrorism (ICT), explained how developing a uniform approach to dealing with Islamic radicalisation is essential.

“Europe should treat both radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-radical Islamist outfits like Al-Qaeda and IS in a similar way. Otherwise, all the efforts will be counterproductive,” Kuperwasser said. “Not to forget, co-operation with pragmatic Muslims should also be on the agenda.”

Kuperwasser, who played a key role in the Israeli counter-terrorism strategy as the head of the Research Division of the Military Intelligence Directorate, cited the example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and explained that combating terrorism is a lengthy process and cannot be achieved within a short time.

“The main thing is to convince the other side that you are not going to give in to their ideology. In addition, it is important to make it clear to the terrorists that continuing with terror is not in their best interests either. Once they are convinced, they gradually give up,” Kuperwasser explained.

Speaking about Israel’s effectiveness in dealing with terrorism, Kuperwasser added that investing in intelligence is crucial. Israel invested a lot in intelligence and also gained economic benefit from it.

“Things that worked for Israel might not work in the exact similar way for Europe because Israel took a different stance on the debate surrounding data protection and privacy. However, Europe’s investment in intelligence is less than necessary,” he said.

The current situation in Palestine
Both Israeli and Palestinian experts talked about the ongoing situation in Palestine and explained the complications associated with the conflict. They unanimously concluded that long-term education on the culture of peace is a crucial issue when it comes to reaching an agreement between Israel and the Palestine.

“The education dimension was always neglected by both sides as well as the moderator,’’ said Michael Herzog, a Milton Fine International Fellow at the Washingon Institute for Near East Policy.  “This culture of peace is a critical issue. It is not only about signing an agreement between two governments. You need to educate the people.”

Bassem Eid, the founder and head of Human Rights Monitoring Group, a Palestinian NGO, agreed with the comments and said that the Palestinian Authority is not interested in resolving the conflict. He also pointed out the negative role played by the European Union in the conflict.

“A lot of funding comes from the EU, especially Scandinavian countries. Denmark also donated $20 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2013.”

Eid referred to the example of how EU funding goes to the educational system under the Palestinian Authority but yet the EU does not intervene to evaluate the curriculum in Palestinian schools. He explained that the curriculum is based on hatred and does not educate children about peace, which means that Europe indirectly becomes part of the conflict rather than the solution.

“The EU should not extend this ‘blind support’ to Palestinian Authority chair Mahmoud Abbas,” Eid stressed.

He further added that Palestinians are frustrated with the situation. They want peace and are only concerned about improving their daily lives for themselves and their future generations.

“Instead of making the conditions conducive to peace, the EU keeps sending aid to Palestine that doesn’t make any difference to the life of Palestinians,” Eid concluded.