After the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, the U.S. government overhauled its intelligence apparatus to confront the threat of global jihadi terrorism that crossed borders with relative ease. As head of the Justice Department Criminal Division and later as Secretary of Homeland Security, I was directly involved in increasing our capabilities to collect intelligence about terrorist travel, finance, and communication, as well as integrating and analyzing intelligence. The reformed and enhanced U.S. intelligence architecture was later able to disrupt large-scale plots, such as the 2006 scheme to explode multiple airliners flying from Heathrow to North America.
The nature of global terrorism has since evolved.
As we have seen from Mumbai to San Bernardino to Paris, terrorist groups are now carrying out attacks with small, overlapping and informal networks of extremists capable of conducting both sophisticated and crude attacks. Plots are increasingly smaller in scale, simpler in their methods, and often launched by terrorists in their own cities. With the use of online recruiting and the influx of European recruits to the Islamic State, the terrorism threat has become more widely distributed.
Al-Qaeda’s attacks, by contrast, tended to be hierarchically-organized and complex attacks like 9/11 and the 2006 airliner plot. Its operatives were subjected to relatively strict quality control screening and often travelled to or from a base area to plan and train for the attack. The terrorism we are seeing today that is directed or inspired by the Islamic State, however, blends small, overlapping, and informal networks of extremists capable of conducting crude strikes as well as sophisticated operations. Crucially, these attackers are increasingly linked to criminal activity and have better tactical and operational skills than what we tended to see in past jihadist cells seeking to launch attacks in the West. This was perhaps best seen in the November 2015 Paris attacks. The cells that carried these out used encrypted devices and other means to evade detection. The terrorists of today can, therefore, be more difficult to find.
As one counterterrorism expert who we consulted put it, “these people leave a lot fewer bread crumbs [traces] on the way to terrorism,” with the speed of radicalization and use of crude weapons in attacks particularly difficult to detect. Today’s terrorist networks increasingly blend often rapidly radicalized Muslims with European citizenship and links to criminal gangs with cell leaders trained in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, while ISIL is getting most of the attention, Al-Qaeda remains a major threat.
As a result, the jihadist terrorist threat inside Europe has never been more acute. Between May 2014 and January 2017, at least 22 serious ISIL-related attacks have occurred in Europe, killing 286 and wounding over 1000 citizens, at least 217 of whom were critically injured. The arrests of seven suspected jihadist terrorists in Marseille and Strasbourg in November, and the Berlin market attack in December, have clearly highlighted that the jihadist threat to Europe has not diminished as ISIL is rolled back in the Middle East. Indeed, the group’s external operations may intensify, and will likely evolve as it faces defeats on the battlefield. There is no sign the group will lose interest in targeting Europe even if its so-called caliphate is dismantled.
As revealed in our recent report, a very rough estimate based on data since May 2014 indicates that if you are a member of the public in France or Belgium, you now have a greater than 1/10,000 chance of being killed or wounded in an ISIL attack in the next two years. This is obviously significantly higher for urban residents, commuters, and certain groups, such as Jewish communities. Moreover, it marks a vast increase in the chances of death or injury from terrorism since the end of 2004.
The attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark, as well as in the United States, have exposed major loopholes in some nations’ security architecture.
First, the recent attacks have highlighted clear weaknesses in the counter-terrorism capability and capacity of some nations. They should strive to strengthen these, with a focus on vertical integration of intelligence among national foreign intelligence and domestic security services. Second, these attacks have also revealed vertical and horizontal information sharing weaknesses at the international level. The European Union has integrated its borders, but has not yet fully integrated its law enforcement and counter-terrorism capabilities, at both the domestic and transnational levels. For example, one of the Paris attackers passed through a police checkpoint to enter Belgium after the attack. Meanwhile, other terrorists have dropped off surveillance due to a lack of resourcing, or had not been placed on watch lists despite being flagged by allies.
Further, many intelligence agencies in Europe and the United States have not traditionally worked closely with local law enforcement and social organizations, thereby weakening their ability to gather often vital human intelligence from within the communities most vulnerable to exploitation.
While we recognize that progress toward better personal data and intelligence sharing is being made by the European Union, Europol, and the Club de Berne in the wake of the recent attacks, the research of the Globsec Intelligence Reform Initiative (GIRI), a high-level international group of experts from 16 countries I have chaired for the past year, has revealed that major seams remain in the transatlantic security structures. Some of these are the result of nations’ differing legislation as well as their lack of capacity and capability. This is compounded by a failure to adopt existing best practices and a lack of trust that underpins rapid and effective information exchange between nations.
For the most part, we do not propose new institutions. Rather, our new report offers real world, bottom-up solutions to these issues, based on already existing best practices and networks.
Our first proposal calls for the establishment of a permanent Core Transatlantic Counter-Terrorism Hub, which would represent the first step towards providing a secure space for linking existing national counter-terrorism centers with high degrees of mutual trust, such as the British Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre or the Dutch counter-terrorism Infobox. Rather than a new institution, initially at least, this would take the form of an organic fusion center. It could build on the recent good progress made by the Club de Berne in establishing a database and meeting more regularly. The success of this core hub would encourage less capable and less willing nation states to improve their services in order to join. Experience has shown that co-location leads to collaboration and strategic coordination can lead to integrated approaches built on a solid foundation of trust enabled through enhanced social relations.
Second, we call for operationally-focused Case-Based Task Forces to be set up within the Hub, designed to react to current, emerging and residual counter-terrorism challenges. Such ad hoc task forces would promote proactive, intelligence-led operations through the better fusion of assessed intelligence and personal information.
Third, our report advocates for a single search interface to enable real time information exchange. This so-called “hit-no-hit” single search interface would enable each nation to hold and control its data, but encrypted searches would help identify information or patterns for follow-up. As one former official told us: “No longer should the word ‘secret’ be an inhibitor to good and effective information exchange.”
Fourth, we recommend a new transatlantic counter-terrorism center of excellence that would enable joint risk assessments, standardization, and training. It would also create a much-needed bridge between intelligence and law enforcement professionals and, crucially, promote trust. We recognize this proposal is the closest to a new institution, but in its initial stages it should be organic to the Core Hub in order to promote trust and attract the best intelligence officers needed to sustain its credibility.
Europe now has a clear need to better integrate its intelligence architecture to save civilian lives. The United States is also increasingly concerned about the threat of terrorism. At the same time, still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, the migrant crisis, and the rise in terrorist attacks, the European Union needs to deliver some visible gains for its citizens, especially post-Brexit. The United Kingdom, one of the most capable nations in terms of counter-terrorism, will be looking for ways to remain closely engaged with Europe post-Brexit as well. As the Trump presidency begins, increasing counter-terrorism intelligence liaison with the United States will also help to keep Washington engaged in Europe
Civilians across the transatlantic space have the right to demand action on these issues, and policymakers the duty to respond. Political will is crucial to this proposal’s success. Now is the time to adapt.
Michael Chertoff is a former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. Please read the Globsec Intelligence Reform Initiative report.
Image: Andreas Trojak, CC