European spy agency to boost intel-sharing on potential terrorists
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European intelligence agencies plan to boost their fight against Islamic militants by creating a virtual network to share information among up to 30 countries, officials said Friday.
The Counter Terrorism Group (CGT), a discreet and informal grouping of domestic spy agencies from the European Union countries as well as Norway and Switzerland, aims to create the new platform by July 1.
The November 13 attacks in Paris by terrorists linked to the Islamic State (IS) group prompted renewed calls for greater cross-border intelligence cooperation in Europe, especially after it was revealed that Belgium had information on the perpetrators of the attacks.
But it was far from the first time that the prevention of terrorist acts has been hindered by the lack of information sharing within the EU.
"Terrorist attacks in Europe, like recently in France, have shown time and again that both IS and al Qaeda operate in international networks," the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, said in a statement.
A delicate balance
Founded in 2002, the Counter Terrorism Group is currently chaired by the Netherlands, which has been tasked with setting up the new intelligence-sharing platform in the first half of 2016.
“The CTG doesn’t follow EU decision-making rules because they are an independent body,” James Walsh, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, told FRANCE 24. “And it is hard to tell how they operate because they don’t have an office or headquarters or a staff. The current chair is the Netherlands, so a member of the Dutch secret service organises meetings and facilitates communication.”
It wasn't immediately clear how the CTG would deal with the different laws that restrain what information its members can collect and share with other agencies – a perennial problem in the EU, where security remains the task of individual states, who are determined to maintain sovereignty.
“Even countries in the EU, which have similar goals, have found it difficult to share because you lose control over information as soon as you share it,” Walsh told FRANCE 24. “Intelligence services don’t want to share their sources and methods, but if you are another country looking at information without sources, it is hard to know what you can trust.”
Rob Bertholee, head of the Dutch AIVD service, said the platform would focus on "foreign fighters and the threat they and their associates pose, and to do so on a multilateral basis and as quickly and as completely as possible".
Because of these security risks, Walsh thought that the information sharing would be limited.
“I would suspect that they will share useful but not sensitive info, like travel records,” Walsh said. “They might share lists of suspected people but that could be tricky, too, because different countries define that in different ways.”
Ewan Lawson, a security analyst, applauded the fact that information was going to be shared, but said it was difficult to know whether a virtual network was the best method.
“There are different ways of sharing information,” Lawson told FRANCE 24. “If I’m a Belgian official and I find information that might be useful to France, I could try to reach out to them. If there’s a network, I could put the information there. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The first method requires focus – an individual has to realise that information is important and then find a way to share it with the right person. It takes a lot of initiative and energy. It’s easier to put it into an intelligence pool, but it is also easier for the information to get lost.”
This information-sharing network for European countries isn’t the first. In 2014, Europol launched Focal Point Travelers, a project to share intelligence on people suspected of crossing borders to engage in acts of terrorism. But according to a report by Politico, Europol received broad support and only about half of the EU’s member states contributed information about specific fighters.
The Counter Terrorism Prosecutors Network, described as a virtual network of prosecutors working on terrorism cases, was launched in September 2015 by the International Association of Prosecutors and the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate.
With the addition of the CTG virtual platform that operates independently of the EU, intelligence sharing might appear more uncoordinated than ever. But Lawson is hopeful.
“It’s very easy to be skeptical and to find reasons that this won’t work,” he told FRANCE 24. “But these are small steps towards trust-building, which is the most important component of all in intelligence-sharing.”
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)