Thursday, June 23, 2016

Anti-terrorism: threat level in Europe likely to remain high for long time

The terrorism threat level in Europe will probably remain high for the long term, although significant progress has been made particularly in information sharing across the continent, Dutch National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) Dick Schoof told the press on Wednesday.

"The threat level in Europe remains high and probably will also be high in the near future and maybe even in the long future," said Schoof.

The coordinator explained that though the current Dutch threat level called "substantial", which is only one level lower than the highest level called "critical" and indicates that an attack is a real danger and can actually happen, has remained unchanged for three years, actually a lot has changed since it was first announced.

"Three years ago, we were at the downside level within the bandwidth of 'substantial', and by now we have arrived at the high-risk side," he said.

The coordinator told the press that the Netherlands' new threat report, to be published in the week of July 11, will be roughly the same as the previous assessment, but even more so warning for the possibility of an attack.

"After the attacks in Paris and Brussels, we have big worries that operatives from ISIS are in Europe and are trying to get a network together again and attack somewhere in Europe. At the same time we have big worries about Al Qaeda as well, because Al Qaeda is still planning attacks in the West and also for Europe. Also, the danger of the 'one wolf' has not diminished. The targets they are headed for are as wide as you can imagine," he explained.

The Dutch head of counter terrorism noted that a lot of progress has been made in the sharing of information within Europol. Different authorities in Europe feed their information into the Schengen Information System (SIS), the Europol Information System, and the Focal Point of Foreign Fighters within Europol, and the information is also being sent out to all other countries.

For example, one of the important improvements is that the SIS, in which most of the suspected foreign fighters are put, will have a marker saying "terrorism related", which will trigger the relevant security checks and controls.

Also, the Counter Terrorism Group, headed by the Dutch Intelligence Services AIVD during the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the EU from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2016, has created a platform to share a lot of information, mostly focused on terrorist fighters, among its members.

"In the so-called roadmap that the Justice and Home Affairs Council made up of justice and home affairs ministers from all the EU member states endorsed two weeks ago, one of the points was also about sharing information on law enforcement, migration, and borders, because these topics are more related than we previously thought. So we are still building a lot of relations between the systems and bringing a lot of parties together," he added.

Regarding counterterrorism measures in the Netherlands, Schoof stressed the importance of keeping the balance between preventive and repressive measures.

"If we only go to the preventive side, we will probably not be prepared when a real attack occurs, but if we only work on the repressive side, we will probably miss a lot of information about what is going on," he explained.

In January 2015, the Dutch government put out 125 million euros (about 141 million U.S. dollars) extra for preventive and repressive work within the field of counterterrorism, such as intelligence, protection services, and local street work related to counter-radicalization.

  • The intelligence service in the Netherlands, the police, the prosecutor's office, local authorities, immigration services, etc. have regular meetings to discuss the current threat and the state of the information.

On a local level, radicals and potential foreign terrorist fighters in the country are studied case by case, with police, intelligence, health care and education joining forces under the guidance of the local municipality to discuss developments, risks and ways of prevention or prosecution.

This specific Dutch way of de-radicalization with its local focus has proved effective thanks to the country's decentralized system, reliable local authorities and a long tradition of community police.

"But it is not a guarantee that we are going to be the most successful state in Europe trying to prevent attacks," cautioned the Coordinator.

The previous NCTV assessment published in March of this year stated that the jihadist movement in the Netherlands has hundreds of supporters and several thousands of sympathizers. Up until March 1 of this year, a total of about 240 Dutch people had traveled to Syria or Iraq, of whom 42 had been killed and 40 had returned to the Netherlands. Around 160 Dutch people were still in Syria, around 40 percent of them were female.

In the last two months, a little less people have left, roughly 4 to 6 every month, as intervening has proved to be a bit more successful.

However, the coordinator is not convinced that this drop of the past two months will become a trend, as just the month before that it went up.

The upcoming threat assessment will therefore not state that the number of foreign fighters leaving the Netherlands has dropped, Schoof told the press.

"With one or two exceptions, the 40 returnees in the Netherlands came in the early days of the foreign fighters' issue. They were really disillusioned of what they achieved or with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq," said Schoof.

  • On the contrary, those who are capable to leave ISIS territory these days are to be considered as high-risk and will be immediately arrested.

"All our foreign fighters that actually have left and are in Syria, have a European arrest warrant. When they travel back they will be picked up by any country which detects them," said Schoof.

The coordinator also pointed out that ISIS has shown that they use the refugee route to bring European nationals from Syria back to Europe.

  • "It is their modus operandi. At the same time, the current amount of refugees coming from Syria through Turkey and Greece has diminished, so therefore it is not as big a risk as it was," he said.

The Netherlands is still a possible target and the NCTV has the strong idea that there are still ISIS networks in Europe, capable of attacking, trying to regroup or organize themselves, and they could also be attacking the Netherlands.

"We are on alert. We are more aware of the fact that European nationals can be travelling on false passports from Syria as false refugees, using the transport facilities that the smugglers create through the hotspots," he said.
  [Xinhua -]

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