It’s not hard to understand why the recent arrest of Mohamed Abrini, and the discovery that the March 22 Brussels bombings were originally intended for French soil, are being treated as yet another argument for greater intelligence sharing among European countries.
Abrini – the now infamous “man in the hat” – participated in both the Paris and Brussels attacks as part of a jihadi network that we now know crossed multiple borders on multiple occasions, taking advantage of the Schengen Agreement’s removal of passport controls on the continent. The terror group’s last-minute decision, after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, to attack Brussels rather than La Défense, Paris’ business district, showed that anyone with sufficient agility can shift targets among nations as necessary.
And if terrorists can so easily cross international borders, why shouldn’t intelligence? That’s precisely what Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, French President Francois Hollande, and his interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, among others, have called for in the wake of the Brussels bombings.
In doing so, they have echoed other official proclamations over the past several years. After the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish market in Paris, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini boasted of EU plans “to share information, intelligence.” After Moroccan terrorist Ayoub El-Khazzani tried to gun down a train full of passengers traveling to Paris last August, European ministers huddled to try and make sure such a thing could not happen again. Then, the Islamic State killed 130 civilians in France. “We have been hit together; we will respond together,” proclaimed Harlem Desir, France’s minister of state for European affairs. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called for the creation of a “European CIA.”
The problem is “more intelligence sharing” isn’t a serious proposal, so much as a well-worn cliché. It’s no accident that every previous vow to improve the situation has led to nothing. And until European officials finally accept their preferred policy is a delusion, they won’t be able to move past it.
It is certainly true that European counterterrorism systems are inadequate. For example, Europe, wary of privacy rights, does not currently keep a record of those who travel by air within Schengen areas, so it cannot have a no-fly list. (In a move that’s been too long in coming, however, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday in favor of moving toward a continentwide system for collecting and sharing information on airline passengers, though the system still needs to be approved by national governments.) The intelligence databases that do exist are jumbled and unhelpful. The New York Times reported last month on a shared European database with 90,000 fingerprints but no capacity to search within it. The French have committed to feeding information into the Schengen Information System, a database that contains the surveillance records of criminal suspects. Yet other countries rarely do the same; and EU regulations bar its use for checks at various Schengen borders anyway.
Fixing these systemic problems is clearly desirable. However, the answer is not the existence of a new European intelligence sharing agency. Attempts to create anything like this will fail, for the same reasons they always have.
First, there’s the control principle. As Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, explained in 2010: “The service who first obtains the intelligence has the right to control how it is used, who else it can be shared with, and what action can be taken on it. It’s rule No. 1 of intelligence sharing”.
These are not just British principles. They are the established rules of the intelligence game. As Jean-Marie Delarue, a senior French intelligence official, commented:
“Is it not in the nature of intelligence agencies to keep the information for themselves? Information is power. In intelligence, one only has enemies, no friends.” There are good reasons for these rules. As Sawers says: “No intelligence service risks compromising its sources. … Because whenever intelligence is revealed, others try to hunt down the source. Agents can get identified, arrested, tortured, and killed.”
Competing agencies are often unwilling to share information within the same country. This is a problem the U.S. realized it had after 9/11: The FBI was adamant that the CIA took far too long to pass on information that one of al-Qaeda’s hijackers had acquired a multiple entry U.S. visa – and this was in what former CIA and NSA head Michael Hayden said was, even then, “the most integrated intelligence community on the planet.” Imagine the same dynamics at work across an entire continent — on top of whatever domestic inter-agency rivalries already exist. (France alone has 33 intelligence-gathering agencies.) As the U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond recently commented, “There are different legal structures, different powers, and often there are even turf wars, all of which reduce the operational effectiveness of [other countries’ agencies] compared to ours.”
Another hindrance is that European views on privacy differ from country to country. Different nations have different tolerance levels for surveillance: Just look at the relative equanimity with which the Edward Snowden disclosures were treated in the U.K compared with the outrage expressed in Germany. This is partially down to historical experience. In Britain, spying conjures up images of James Bond, Bletchley Park, and cracking the Enigma code in World War II. In Berlin, it conjures up very fresh memories of the Stasi.
But effective intelligence sharing would require a comfort level with the scrutiny of other governments that seems unlikely at best. Ewan Lawson, of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank in London, put it this way, “If you said to a portion of the British population that their vehicles’ movements in the U.K. would be shared with the French, there would be a degree of uproar.” Brits may have become used to the CCTV cameras and Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology that allows their own government to monitor their travel – but they would be considerably more dubious about letting the Germans and the French do the same.
espite such problems, it is not as if Europeans are not sharing intelligence with one another at all. Clearly, they do. New initiatives have been launched since 9/11 in order to facilitate the European intelligence effort. In 2002, the EU created the Intelligence Analyses Center (INTCEN) in order to provide strategic intelligence analysis on foreign policy and security policy, with a focus on topics such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the threat of terrorism. January’s launch of the European Counter Terrorism Centre, which sits within Europol, is supposed to improve intelligence exchange within law enforcement agencies. It is possibly too soon to conclude how much information will be passed on by instinctively cautious foreign intelligence agencies to a law enforcement body which, it should be remembered, has no power of arrest.
European nations also have the opportunity to engage with the Foreign Terrorist Fighter (FTF) program within Interpol, which presents an opportunity for nations to share intelligence on the foreign fighter threat. A similar U.S.- and European-focused initiative – the Focal Point Travelers (FPT) agreement – has been launched by Europol. Yet both have been blighted by a lack of buy-in from partner nations, leading to an incomplete database of names. Although over 50 countries have contributed to the FTF database, only about 5,000 names are listed, which is approximately a fifth of the total of foreign fighters thought to have traveled to Syria or Iraq. The FPT initiative suffers from the same problem, with an incomplete database of about 2,000 names (although, according to the head of Europol, there has been a “significant increase” on this front since the Paris attacks).
There’s a reason why “boosting intelligence sharing” has become an almost knee-jerk response of policymakers in the wake of an attack like Paris or Brussels. The idea of a “European CIA” has an ambitious, transformative appeal. It is, however, unlikely to be realized anytime soon.
Therefore, rather than focusing on aspirational, transnational initiatives in an EU framework, European countries should focus on areas where they can make an impact. Most urgently, that would mean focusing on further integrating the work done by domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies with that of their foreign and military intelligence services – no easy task in itself, it should be noted. But a situation such as that in Belgium, where the police and intelligence agencies barely speak, clearly needs fixing. Every EU state getting its house in order on this front would not lead to a shared-intelligence utopia; but it would create greater cohesion internally and hopefully better-quality intelligence.
Countries could also simply devote more funding to their own intelligence budgets. Belgium, for instance, failed to dedicate sufficient amounts of its budget to effective counterterrorism: Alain Winants, the former head of Belgium’s domestic intelligence agency, was raising the alarm on this long before the attacks in Brussels occurred. His entire agency only had slightly more employees than there are Belgians who have gone over to fight in Syria. Better intelligence sharing is of limited use if insufficient usable intelligence is being produced.
It’s worth recalling, amid all these demands for more sharing, that, in both the Paris and Brussels attacks, a major terrorist cell used a European capital as a base from which to acquire all the materials needed to construct suicide vests and plan complicated assaults. On multiple occasions, this went unnoticed. This suggests there was a major failure of human intelligence on a level that goes beyond simply the failure of various agencies to share what they knew.
Digging into the reasons behind that failure is a trickier task than dreaming up grand intelligence-sharing initiatives. Yet it would certainly be more effective.
- Robin Simcox is a research fellow in The Thatcher Center for Freedom.
- This piece originally appeared on ForeignPolicy.com
This piece originally appeared on ForeignPolicy.com