EU braces for ji­hadis’ re­turn from bat­tle

Europol chief de­fends coun­ter­mea­sures

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

THE HAGUE | Europe’s top in­tel­li­gence and coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials are brac­ing for a surge of bat­tle-hard­ened Is­lamic State for­eign fight­ers re­turn­ing home to the con­ti­nent as the ji­hadi group loses its ter­ri­to­rial base in the Mid­dle East, the head of the Euro­pean Union’s main law en­force­ment agency says.

“We haven’t seen yet the sort of flood of re­turnees that we were pos­si­bly ex­pect­ing over the last year when [Is­lamic State] started suf­fer­ing ma­jor mil­i­tary losses and los­ing ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq,” Europol Di­rec­tor Rob Wain­wright told The Wash­ing­ton Times in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, but as many as 2,500 Euro­pean-born fight­ers are likely to be in “var­i­ous stages of re­turn­ing” to their home coun­tries.

In a wide-rang­ing dis­cus­sion at the agency’s head­quar­ters, Mr. Wain­wright also ve­he­mently chal­lenged Amer­i­can crit­i­cism of EU coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts after a wave of Is­lamic State-in­spired at­tacks over the past year across the con­ti­nent.

U.S. of­fi­cials fail to ap­pre­ci­ate the progress be­ing made to­ward cen­tral­iz­ing in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing and anal­y­sis among the union’s 28 mem­bers, work­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages and le­gal tra­di­tions, said Mr. Wain­wright, a 49-year-old former in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst with Bri­tain’s MI5 who has headed Europol since 2009.

Mr. Wain­wright touted what he said were un­prece­dented ad­vances in the cy­ber realm by Europol op­er­a­tives coun­ter­ing ji­hadi dig­i­tal pro­pa­ganda and so­cial me­dia over the past two years.

De­spite the loom­ing threat of re­turn­ing for­eign fight­ers, Mr. Wain­wright stressed that the ma­jor­ity of at­tacks car­ried out in Europe dur­ing the months since Is­lamic State op­er­a­tives in­flicted co­or­di­nated hor­ror on Paris and Brus­sels in Novem­ber 2015 and March 2016 have been “con­ducted by peo­ple who never went to Syria and Iraq.”

“We are even more con­cerned by that phe­nom­e­non right now,” he said, point­ing to Fri­day’s one-year an­niver­sary of the Bastille Day at­tack in Nice, France. In that in­ci­dent, a “lone wolf” ex­trem­ist of Tu­nisian de­scent plowed through crowds with large truck, killing more than 80.

While the vast ma­jor­ity of the 19 mil­lion Mus­lims liv­ing in the EU are hor­ri­fied by and ab­hor the Is­lamic State, Mr. Wain­wright noted the im­pact that a sin­gle, un­sta­ble in­di­vid­ual can have when touched by the ter­ror­ist group’s so­phis­ti­cated on­line pro­pa­ganda out­reach.

“As we come up on the an­niver­sary of Bastille Day, it’s a re­minder of the bru­tal sim­plic­ity of ter­ror­ism, in that you have one man who was rad­i­cal­ized very quickly,” Mr. Wain­wright said. “One guy, hir­ing one truck, 86 peo­ple dead.

“It’s an il­lus­tra­tion of the prob­lem that we face here in Europe, with such a large num­ber of largely dis­con­nected rad­i­cal­ized peo­ple who are op­er­at­ing in al­most a ran­dom­ized way to carry out the at­tacks that we’ve seen now on a reg­u­lar scale in the EU.”

Loom­ing threat

The Is­lamic State threat could grow dra­mat­i­cally more com­pli­cated if an in­creas­ing num­ber of EU pass­port hold­ers man­age to slip back home.

The Europol di­rec­tor said that roughly 750 of some 5,000 EU na­tion­als who trav­eled to the Mid­dle East to fight with the Is­lamic State have re­turned. An­other 1,600 or so are be­lieved to have died.

“That still leaves half, or just un­der half, who are still out there or maybe in var­i­ous stages of re­turn­ing,” Mr. Wain­wright said.

He added that of­fi­cials have ob­served a “sig­nif­i­cant re­lo­ca­tion” of Euro­pean-born fight­ers to Libya.

“We’re con­cerned that the squeeze in the ter­ri­tory held by [Is­lamic State] will partly re­sult at least in a re­lo­ca­tion to North Africa and then back to Europe,” he said.

Sort­ing out which re­turnees pose le­git­i­mate threats adds an­other layer of com­pli­ca­tion for se­cu­rity of­fi­cials.

“There is some part of the re­turn­ing pop­u­la­tion who gen­uinely re­gret trav­el­ing out there and are mak­ing gen­uine at­tempts to rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety, but there are also a good num­ber that are com­ing back in a fren­zied men­tal state bent on re­venge,” said Mr. Wain­wright, adding that some “might be com­ing back on a mis­sion.”

The vir­tual caliphate

Mr. Wain­wright ac­knowl­edged deep and un­set­tling un­knowns about the ex­tent of the links be­tween Is­lamic State lead­ers in Syria and Iraq and prospec­tive field op­er­a­tives al­ready set­tled in­side the EU.

While he pointed to “cases of en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions” be­tween Is­lamic State high com­man­ders in Raqqa, Syria, and peo­ple in Europe, Mr. Wain­wright said it is not clear whether such com­mu­ni­ca­tions are driv­ing at­tacks in Europe or are de­signed just to main­tain some de­gree of con­tact.

He said in­ter­cep­tion of such com­mu­ni­ca­tions is dif­fi­cult be­cause of en­cryp­tion.

A more vis­i­ble and po­ten­tially greater prob­lem cen­ters on the ocean of Is­lamic State and other ji­hadi pro­pa­ganda dis­sem­i­nated on­line, es­pe­cially through so­cial me­dia.

“Our con­cern is that … we’ll have to deal with that legacy for many years to come,” said Mr. Wain­wright, stress­ing that Europol is en­gaged in an ag­gres­sive cam­paign to counter and wipe ex­trem­ist pro­pa­ganda from the in­ter­net.

Since the launch in July 2015 of a spe­cial In­ter­net Re­fer­ral Unit, Europol of­fi­cials have tar­geted ex­trem­ist mes­sag­ing in at least eight lan­guages. “We’re mon­i­tor­ing it across, in fact, 90 dif­fer­ent so­cial me­dia plat­forms. We know how much con­tent is out there, how it works,” Mr. Wain­wright said.

“This is a ma­jor and new strate­gic di­men­sion of in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism,” he said. “We haven’t seen this be­fore — an at­tempt by an in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist group to dom­i­nate the vir­tual as well as the phys­i­cal world.”

No United States of Europe

Mr. Wain­wright re­jected U.S. crit­ics who have lamented the slow­ness with which EU states have em­braced a sin­gle, co­he­sive coun­tert­er­ror­ism pol­icy.

In a series of back­ground in­ter­views with The Times last year, sev­eral U.S. and Euro­pean of­fi­cials de­scribed a quag­mire within the bloc’s vast bu­reau­cracy when it comes to cre­at­ing a strong multi­na­tional in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing part­ner­ship.

U.S. of­fi­cials have also pub­licly ar­gued that ji­hadis hold­ing EU pass­ports are at the core of Europe’s ter­ror­ism threat. The fight­ers re­turn from the Mid­dle East and ex­ploit the union’s open-bor­der pol­icy to set up clan­des­tine re­cruit­ing and op­er­a­tions cells.

It was in Jan­uary 2016 that the EU in­tro­duced a spe­cial Euro­pean Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter be­neath Europol. Par­tic­i­pa­tion with the cen­ter re­mains tech­ni­cally vol­un­tary. There is also the is­sue of the Pas­sen­ger Name Record ini­tia­tive, which would oblige in­ter­na­tional air­lines to hand over pas­sen­ger data to in­tel­li­gence ser­vices for any com­mer­cial flight land­ing within the bloc’s bor­ders.

The EU reached an agree­ment on the ini­tia­tives in April 2016, but mem­bers have un­til mid-2018 to trans­late them into their own na­tional laws. Crit­ics say that means the ini­tia­tive is es­sen­tially a rec­om­men­da­tion rather than a re­quire­ment.

Mr. Wain­wright ac­knowl­edged that many things with re­gard to EU in­ter­nal se­cu­rity op­er­a­tions should go faster but in­sisted progress was be­ing made.

“A top-line pri­or­ity in the EU at the mo­ment is to bet­ter con­nect the in­for­ma­tion and data hold­ings that we have in the sys­tem al­ready, whether it’s pas­sen­ger name records, visa in­for­ma­tion [or] po­lice data in dif­fer­ent pools,” he said. A ma­jor push is on to get EU coun­tries to em­brace Europol as “the in­for­ma­tion hub or fu­sion cen­ter for most of that se­cu­rity-re­lated data.”

“We’re get­ting there,” said Mr. Wain­wright. “Some­times folks in D.C. crit­i­cize Europe, and some­times the crit­i­cism is jus­ti­fied, but they re­fer to Europe as if it’s one coun­try.”

“We don’t have a United States of Europe,” Mr. Wain­wright said. “[But] we’ve done a pretty darn good job, I think, of unit­ing 28 in­de­pen­dent na­tions within a frame­work that is the most well-de­vel­oped, in­te­grated frame­work of any­where in the world.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Europol Di­rec­tor Rob Wain­wright said the Is­lamic State threat is com­pli­cated.

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