The European Counter-Terrorism Tango

on 08.03.2018

Governments in Austria, France and Poland have recently introduced policies to mitigate terrorist threats and address the rising number of radicalised youth in their countries.

Just as experts regularly come up with new ways to deal with the increasing threat facing Europe, legislators also develop and propose new counter terror policies. The effectiveness of their combined efforts to mitigate the terrorist threat should never be downplayed. However, a clear and definite solution is difficult to find as each country proposes a different approach – where some argue for prevention, others opt for protection or punishment.

While Austrian legislators focus on the technological aspect and plan to strengthen their surveillance tools, the French have decided to focus on reintegration of returning jihadists, isolation of the radicalised inmates and training teachers to spot signs of radicalisation in students. The Polish, in contrast, are completing a long-overdue unification of the command structure of their counter-terrorism police units. The different set of challenges in each of the above-mentioned countries calls for different approaches and we are yet to see how effective the new policies will be, once enacted.

While the so-called Islamic State is crumbling as a result of several major military defeats in Iraq and Syria, Europe is also bracing itself for a wave of jihadists returning with their families. Terrorism experts have been talking about this issue ever since large numbers of Europeans started to flock to ISIS. Some countries, like France, have more of their citizens in these areas, while others, like Poland, much less. However, both are becoming increasingly aware that the threat of terrorism is evolving and that their counter-measures must evolve as well. But returning foreign fighters are not the only challenge connected to terrorism and consequently, no solution is a silver bullet. Building up counter-terrorism capacities is indeed essential and, in many cases, long overdue.

The proposed Austrian legislation addresses the issue of terrorist and extremist groups using social media platforms to spread violent and radical propaganda to radicalise and recruit new members to their cause. Another point of concern is the fact that nowadays one doesn’t need to be extra “tech-savvy” to learn how to use encrypted communication apps for recruitment and coordination purposes. These are becoming increasingly user-friendly – and so are they for terrorist and extremist groups.

Consequently, there is a wide-ranging push to prevent the abuse of such technology and to use these tools to strike back. British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for both big as well as smaller technology companies to counter the spread of propaganda by radical groups such as ISIS. Facebook, for example, responded to the call by introducing automated tools and making use of artificial intelligence to detect terrorist or extremist content and prevent it from appearing on its platform. The UK government also invests in the development of similar tools to detect and remove extremist content from the web.

The new Austrian legislation proposes to allow counter-terrorism and law-enforcement agencies to enhance video surveillance in public areas and to monitor communication channels such as social media and encrypted chatrooms in mobile apps. The procedures this legislation proposes should be enforced in cases where the suspected terrorist offences or crimes are punishable by imprisonment of more than five years.

Austria is not the first country to propose such policies. In 2017, Germany introduced a law  that came to be known as “State Trojan”. The legislation allows government agencies to install malware on smartphones and computers not only to collect metadata, but also to read messages and thus circumvent any encryption. This allows security services to collect data even before it’s encrypted.

However, surveillance of public spaces and communication apps, such as WhatsApp or Skype, is highly controversial when it comes to the question of privacy. An effective processing of all data collected through such surveillance is a real challenge, and automation and artificial intelligence, as already employed by Facebook, come to mind as a possible solution. However, there is still no definite answer to how to tackle the problem. Maybe the scenario portrayed in the film Minority Report, where the security apparatus is able to detect and prevent crimes based on foreknowledge and available data, might not be that far-fetched.

Fighting on a completely different front is France, Europe’s “top provider” of foreign fighters. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has recently introduced an initiative dubbed “Prevent to Protect” - a set of sixty measures to prevent radicalisation and protect communities vulnerable to radicalisation. Rather than focusing on the technological aspect, the French see the problem in their prison and education system. According to experts, jihadists are very effective in recruiting common-law criminals through preaching in jails. And given that French prisons are extremely overcrowded, this fact poses a real challenge for years to come. Official statistics say that while more than 500 prisoners serve a prison sentence for terrorist offences, over a thousand prisoners are said to have already been radicalised. In response to this, France is about to designate separate prison wings to house its radicalised inmates.

The French Prime Minister also talked about establishing new centres for the reintegration of returning foreign fighters and their families. However, a similar initiative has already been tested and failed due to a lack of volunteers. The centre was shut down within a year. In response, the latest set of measures include the introduction of courses for teachers to spot signs of radicalisation, tighter regulations in Islamic schools and investing in courses for students where they would learn how to distinguish between facts and propaganda.

Poland, on the other hand, has decided to make significant changes in the command of special police units tasked with countering terrorism. Polish authorities are currently assessing a draft amendment to the Police Act, prepared by the Ministry of Interior. The amendment aims to strengthen the Bureau of Counterterrorism Operations responsible for the coordination, preparation and implementation of counter-terrorism activities. The bureau, together with 16 local SWAT teams, will constitute the new counter-terrorism service responsible for carrying out rapid prevention and pursuit activities vis-à-vis suspected terrorists.

Austrian, French and Polish legislators have no doubt the best intentions in mind when preparing laws to protect their people from the threat of extremism and terrorism. Both are complex issues affecting various societies in different ways and have no easy solutions. Many like to think that technology might just be the long-term solution. Artificial intelligence and automation used for surveillance of citizens may sound like a distant future, but looking at the Austrian, German, or American reality today, one might argue that we are already living that future.

The strategy of isolation or de-radicalisation has gone through many testing rounds. Now some have decided to add prevention into the mix. The Polish security apparatus is in the meantime rearranging its structure to be more effective, spot the problem, and be more successful in preventing attacks and pursuing attackers. All these approaches seem relevant, or at least worth testing. However, what is most important is that all the above-mentioned national counter-terrorism efforts are supported and bolstered by cooperation on the EU level.


Former Head of Defence and Security Programme



Former Head of Defence and Security Programme