European officials gather in Istanbul to discuss top terror threats

Security leaders agree that improved co-ordination and sharing of information is critical in the fight against terrorists.

By Zeynep Cermen for SES Türkiye in Istanbul — 06/11/13 – Turkey and the Council of Europe co-organised the International Conference on National and International Co-ordination in Counter Terrorism, which drew representatives from the Council of Europe’s 47 member states and five observer states to Istanbul on October 24th-25th.

The conference included discussions of the threat posed by home-grown terrorism, radicalisation, and global terror organisations like al-Qaeda.

Tunc Ugdul, director for security and intelligence with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told SES Türkiye that the country “has serious experience” in dealing with terrorism during the past four decades.  “The sources of terrorism originated both internally and externally,” Ugdul said. “Inside of the country we have the Kurdish outlawed Workers’ Party, PKK, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front, DHKP-C, the Turkish Communist party, the Marxist-Leninist Movement, TKP/LM, al-Qaida and Hezbollah arising from different religious, political opinions or from ethnical differences.” He said foreign-linked terrorist organisations have threatened Turkey, including al-Qaeda, 17 October from Greece, and the Armenian terrorist group ASALA.

“Those have long been targeting Turkey,” Ugdul said. “That means for 40 years we have been trying to neutralise the social effects of these threats and fighting against them. In this sense, in the international arena Turkey is a very respected country.”

Because the PKK and DHKP-C have connections in European countries, Turkey and the EU are improving their co-operation every day without any problem in sharing information, Ugdul added.  Turkey and the United States co-chaired the Global Counterterrorism Forum for the past two years. The 30-nation group has extended Turkey’s co-chair status for another two years. “Chairing such an important forum for four years is very serious work,” Ugdul said.

Experts who spoke with SES Türkiye described the two-day conference as a quality platform for discussing what each country has learned from previous experiences, successes and failures.  The security analysts emphasised the importance of sharing information and co-ordinating with one another to prevent terrorist attacks. “We know from the past that a number of terrorist attacks have succeeded not because the information wasn’t there but because of different agencies did not share the information,” said Jan Klejssen, director of the Council of Europe’s Information Society and Action against Crime.  Carlo Chiaromonte, secretary of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on Terrorism (CODEXTER), told SES Türkiye the group is working to address the growing threat of terrorists who act alone. “They constitute serious threats for all Europe,” Chiaromonte said. “Those people are not specifically linked to mass structured groups like al-Qaeda. … It is a very challenging issue for us to detect and prevent their attacks.”

Klejssen agreed terrorists who do not belong to any network are particularly difficult to stop.

“We have experienced one in Norway, in the case of Anders Behring Breivik,” Klejssen said, citing the right-wing extremist who in 2011 killed eight in bombings of government buildings and committed a mass shooting that killed 69 on the island of Utoya.  Al-Qaeda remains at the top of the agenda for security experts, who agree that the global terror organisation poses a substantial threat to Europe.

“We struggle within the rules of democracy and rule of law. Through these principles we tell people not to engage in terrorist acts,” Chiaromonte said on the matter of Europeans joining with al-Qaeda. According to intelligence officials, hundreds of European nationals have joined al-Qaeda-linked groups since the civil war began in Syria more than two years ago.

Gert Vercauteren, head of the analysis department with the Co-ordinating Unit for Threat Analysis (OCAD) in Belgium, said Brussels has been trying to deal with Belgians who joined the Syrian jihad and ended up as members of fundamentalist groups.

“These people returned home with radicalised opinions and they pose a significant danger to security in the country,” he said.

Along with operational and technical measures, Belgian institutions take administrative measures and provide psychological support and job opportunities to returning fighters, Vercauteren said.

Atilla Sandikli, a security analyst and head of Turkey’s Wise Men Centre for Strategic Studies, told SES Türkiye such steps are crucial.

“We have been witnessing that foreigners who go to Syria or Afghanistan to take part in the war face serious social problems when they come back to their countries. These people can pose serious threats for the security of their countries unless there is application of an efficient rehabilitation programme,” Sandikli said. Security experts said they are working to understand the reasons why Europeans join al-Qaeda despite not having any cultural link to the organisation.  “Somehow they are attracted by the message of the organisation,” Klejssen said. European countries have had an influx of Syrian refugees, many of whom have entered Europe illegally, creating a serious security deficit.

Syrians have become the EU’s fastest increasing group of asylum seekers, with almost 25,000 in 2012 — more than triple the number in 2011.

“Mass amounts of people have been flooding into Europe through illegal means due to humanitarian needs, that is clear,” Chiaromonte said. “It is also true that there are people who have either links to terrorist groups or criminal organisations. It is very difficult to differentiate between them.”