Friday 20 November 2015 the ministers of the member states of the European Union (EU) announced new measures to fight terrorism after the attacks in Paris a week earlier. Enhanced information sharing between the law enforcement agencies of the EU member states is one of the prime decisions made by the ministers.
The European Police Organization Europol, based in The Hague, is the prime European information hub the national information should be feed into. A report launched in March 2015 by Europol however casts doubts about the realism and feasibility of these political decisions. The call for more and better information exchange is not new, to put it gently. It stretches at least back to 2001. The conclusion by Europol, after evaluating the practical implementation of these political decisions, is rather sobering. 'Europol's experience is that the expectations generated by these political decisions have not been generally met, with the potential for the full and proper use of Europol's information management capabilities not realized in the area of counter terrorism,' the organization stated in the report.
Europol's claim is backed up by figures. Only 14 out of 28 Member States have connected a counter-terrorism unit or authority to Europol's secure information and intelligence platform Secure Information Exchange Network Application (SIENA), especially designed to exchange terrorism crime related information and intelligence. Besides that, only 4% of all messages exchanged through SIENA were terrorism related. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015, this figure increased towards 8% - for exactly one month. After that, the figure dropped again to 4%. 'There is still an urgent need to facilitate awareness and access, as well as engender greater trust in the counter terrorism environment for sharing intelligence at EU level,' Europol concluded.
The central European Information System (EIS) at Europol is also insufficiently being used for the exchange of terrorism-related information and intelligence. By December 2014, for instance, 18 foreign fighters had been inserted into the EIS by only two member states. By the beginning of March 2015 this figure had increased to 233 foreign fighters submitted by 8 member states. The same story can be told for the special Focal Point Travellers that is part of Europol. On the positive side, member states have increasingly provided information on foreign terrorist fighters to Europol. The total number of contributions was close to 620 by the end of February 2015, with over 3.600 person entities stored in the focal point travellers. However, 60% of these contributions originated from only 5 member states. And reports suggests that member states believe there are over 10.000 'persons of interest' in the EU with links to foreign fighters. 'There is still a considerable shortfall between the information available to counter terrorist services and that which is shared with or through Europol,' the organization wrote in the report.
Europol can only provide the member states and other relevant EU-agencies with a helicopter view of trends in terrorism if it is being fed by national data. Otherwise, no matter how committed and qualified the Europol staff is, important information, analyses, linkages between pieces of data, the terrorism-organized crime nexus or real-time intelligence will get lost. Of course, one should hope that this time the political decisions made by the ministers will be implemented and change national practices. However, judging by the experiences of Europol, this could be vain hope. Enabling, facilitating and structuring the daily practices of information-exchange and cooperation in the European Union may not make for good political headlines, but is imminent for effective counter-terrorism practices.