Europol bolsters EU’s counterterrorism capabilities

Europe is currently facing the most significant terrorist threat in over ten years. The Paris attacks on 13 November 2015 indicate a shift toward a clear international dimension of Islamic State to carry out special forces-style attacks in the international environment. This and the growing number of foreign fighters are posing new challenges for EU Member States.

Europol says that more attacks in the EU may happen in the future. Therefore, there is a great need within the European Union to strengthen our response to terror, to suspected terrorist networks and foreign fighters, and have an improved strategic understanding of threats.

EU institutions responded swiftly and strongly to the terrorist attacks of last year and moved to augment the European Union’s capacity to deal with terrorist threat. As foreseen in the European Agenda on Security put forward by the European Commission, the establishment of the European Counter Terrorism Centre is a major strategic opportunity for the EU to make our collective efforts to fight terrorism more effective. I call on EUMember States to trust and support the European Counter Terrorism Centre to help it succeed in its important mission,” said Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship.

The launch of the European Counter Terrorism Center (ECTC) as of January 2016 followed a decision from the EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers last November. Europol says that the ECTC will be an enhanced central information hub by which the Member States can increase information sharing and operational coordination. “The ECTC will improve the exchange of information between law enforcement agencies. This is the kind of cooperation Europe needs in the fight against organized crime and terrorism,” said Ard van der Steur, Minister of Security and Justice of the Netherlands, currently holding the presidency of the Council of the EU.

The new ECTC has been set up within the current organizational structure of Europol that is already playing an important part in the European response to terrorist threats.

For example, after the Paris attacks, Europol assigned up to sixty officers to support the French and Belgian investigations in Taskforce Fraternité. Up to now, 2.7 terabytes of information have been received from these two countries, resulting in 800 intelligence leads and more than 1,600 leads on suspicious financial transactions.

“Our ambition is for the European Counter Terrorism Centre to become a central information hub in the fight against terrorism in the EU, providing analysis for ongoing investigations and contributing to a coordinated reaction in the event of major terrorist attacks. Europol is grateful for the support of the Member States, the European Parliament and the European Commission in the establishment of the ECTC. It will lie at the heart of a stronger EU standing up to the threat of terrorism,” said Europol’s director Rob Wainwright.

Europol says it has used this trend of increased information sharing to upgrade its counter terrorism capabilities. The aim is to raise trust and awareness among the different counter terrorism authorities in the EU and maximize existing capabilities. By serving as a center of expertise, ECTC will focus on tackling foreign fighters, sharing intelligence and expertise on terrorism financing (TFTP [Terrorist Finance Tracking Program]and support by the FIU.net [Financial Intelligence Units]), online terrorist propaganda and extremism (Internet Referral Unit), illegal arms trafficking and international cooperation to increase effectiveness and prevention.

The European Union Internet Referral Unit’s main tasks are to:

  • coordinate and share the identification tasks (flagging) of terrorist and violent extremist online content with relevant partners
  • carry out and support referrals quickly, efficiently and effectively, in close cooperation with the industry
  • support competent authorities by providing strategic and operational analysis

Since 1 January 2016, Europol’s financial intelligence and counter terrorism capabilities have been substantially strengthened by the integration of a decentralized computer network of the European Union Member States’ Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs), known as FIU.net. Under the auspices of the EU FIU platform and the renewed provisions set out in the IV Anti-Money Laundering Directive, the embedment of FIU.net into Europol aims to create more synergy between financial and criminal intelligence, ultimately boosting efforts to fight organized crime and terrorism in the EU.

FIU.net became operational in 2002 and was co-financed until 2015 by the European Commission. It supports relevant EU Member States’ authorities in their fight against money laundering and terrorist financing by allowing the exchange of information between FIUs on financial transactions with a cross-border nature. It is a decentralized network, involving no central storage of information: when sending information from one FIU to another, the exchanged data is only, and securely, stored on the FIU.net databases at the premises of the FIUs involved in the exchange.

These tasks are carried out by receiving requests from the European Union Member States or through the research for content online and are performed in accordance with the data processing rules set up in the Europol Council Decision.

Europol says it will provide the Member States, and its key partners like Interpol and Eurojust, with new possibilities to ensure the most effective management of counter terrorism intelligence:

  • upgraded information exchange for sensitive counter terrorism intelligence (Secure Information Exchange Network Application, or SIENA, and Europol Information System, or EIS)
  • the possibility to second experts to the ECTC to support enhanced cross-border investigations, capable of providing quick and comprehensive response to major terrorist incidents in the EU

The ECTC will be led by Manuel Navarrete Paniagua, a high ranking officer of the Spanish Guardia Civil with extensive practical counter terrorism experience. He was already the head of the counter terrorism unit at Europol. Currently, thirty-nine staff members and five seconded national experts work in the ECTC. Working alongside other operational centers at Europol, such as the European Cyber Crime Centre (EC3), the ECTC will be a constituent part of Europol, under the general command of its Director, and will serve to augment the organization’s capabilities as the EU’s law enforcement agency.

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