Exposing Europe's intelligence failures

There are huge gaps in the capabilities of the continent's security agencies

December 02, 2015
Two Belgian police officers guard the Grand Place in Brussels. © AP Photo/Michael Probst
Two Belgian police officers guard the Grand Place in Brussels. © AP Photo/Michael Probst

Developments in Syria and recent IS atrocities have spotlighted the issue of intelligence failures. British intelligence agencies, apparently, did not foresee the Russian decision to move equipment to Syria to prepare for bombing what it claims are terrorist targets. After the Paris attacks, the French said that other EU countries did not inform them that one of the perpetrators, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had reached France from Syria. No doubt there have been failings in both cases, though the causes may well have been different.

All intelligence agencies are told by their governments to focus their efforts on certain targets. Thus, they do not devote resources to matters lying outside these areas, however significant they may be or become. In David Cameron's foreword to the newly minted National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, one of the more telling passages reads "we cannot choose between conventional defences against state-based threats and the need to counter threats that do not recognise national borders. Today we face both and we must respond to both.  So over the course of this Parliament our priorities are to deter state based threats [and] tackle terrorism."

The 2010 National Security Strategy made no reference to state-based threats.  Indeed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's expertise on Russia had been run down.  It is now pledged to be "expanded"—and about time, too. The agencies will have followed policy priorities set by ministers and while Russia will not have been omitted, Syria may not have been ranked high enough. The 1,900 extra staff promised to the agencies will have plenty to do.

The intelligence failings in relation to the Paris attacks were serious. A central question is how much of the deficiency is to be attributed to French agencies alone and how much to shortcomings in the exchange of information and anti-terrorist co-operation across Europe.

There is much more to effective anti- and counter-terrorism than simply good intelligence. Among other measures, governments need to undertake programmes tailored to deal with individual cases of radicalisation and with the integration of society as a whole. Such programmes are culturally specific and there is no "European" solution.

But the same is not true of other aspects of counter-terrorism which involve knowing not just who the targets are, but where they are and then going after them. Border security is, at long last, regarded as relevant but it is hard to believe that the ideal solution—an effective fence around the outer edge of the Schengen area where reliable and relevant information could be acquired—can be realised. To avoid a breakdown of the system, the Schengen countries urgently need to agree to checks at national borders. The European Parliament, which has consistently blocked Passenger Name Recognition in relation to air travel—a measure  that the French government are now demanding—needs to be called to order.  The institutions of the European Union should have an eye to their legitimacy. Too many voters are already disillusioned by the economic consequences of the euro. Better not get a reputation for failing to provide security.

Policing should be aided by better information systems about the location of individuals, especially in countries where the capacities of police forces are being strained. The Belgian police are struggling with a security situation in Brussels which looks well beyond their capabilities and which has been allowed to grow unimpeded for decades. It is to be hoped that they will accept technical assistance from partners. Huge gaps in national capability obviously limit the value of cross-border cooperation but even where local policing standards are high, cross-border co-operation is patchy. There are a number of instances on record where the German police have not received information in time.

In a democracy, domestic security is a sensitive issue, but EU solidarity has a hollow ring if national regulations prevent lives being saved on the other side of an open frontier. Following the Paris attacks, key intelligence tipoffs have come from third-party countries. A massive overhaul is needed with the duty to provide security within the EU being given its due priority.