EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator: ISIS-terror threats the peace & security

Brussels, 11 September 2014 – Middle East Diplomatic (MED) met the EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, Mr. Gilles de Kerchove in his office for a exclusive interview regarding resent development in Middle East, the ISIS terror and its effect of EU security. As jurist, Mr. Kerchove served in different EU and Belgian institutions since 1985 and he is also a lecturer in law at several universities in Belgium.

Roni Alasor: Mr. Gilles de Kerchove, as EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, how do you see the recent developments in the Middle East, namely the actions of the political Islam motivated terror groups ISIS, Al Nusra and other Al Qaida linked terror groups in Syria and Iraq? Why they became so strong very fast ? Was their sharp rise a surprise for EU?

Gilles de Kerchove: For us the recent developments in the Middle East were not a surprise, we have been concerned for two years about these developments and we knew that it will worsen and worsen unless we will be more determined in one way or another. Probably, we have not been energic enough on these issues. These are very worrying developments and it is threat for the peace and security; it just reinforces the threat for the internal security for the members states of the European Union. I have been myself very active on the so called foreign fighters who are citizens of Europe and joined Al Nousra or ISIS. We have been working a lot on this and it is not over. But we have reached a very significant and dramatic change, because before we had a group which was active on both sides, in Syria and in Iraq and was controlling some cities, but not so much, Rakha and around. But the development in Iraq is radically different, because they control the third of the country and they have access to a lot of resources, especially oil and water. They have occupied several army barracks and have access to sophisticated weapons provided by the Americans to the Iraqi army and they have robbed several banks in Mosul, so they have a lot of resources.

Roni Alasor: What circumstances were in favour of the terror groups in order to succeed so quickly in the recruitment of people from everywhere, financing, organising transit countries…

Gilles de Kerchove: All this is not new, but the difference is that they made an alliance with the former Saddam Hussein’s people and mainly with the Sunni tribes, they were angry with the way former Prime Minister Maliki was governing the country. This sectarian policy led the Sunni tribes, which are influent in some parts of Iraq, in a sort of strange coalition and that led to the seizure of Mosul and the expansion in North Iraq. This has a lot of impact. I have not seen the most recent figures, but it is an additional boost for foreign fighters, their control of the territory, their money, their very sophisticated media branch, they are providing additional arguments…And especially the caliphate, as they proclaimed, gives additional incentive to would be jihadists to join. It could convince more people to join. I think the flow of foreign fighters has not been dried up and it continues, not only from Europe, but from the Balkans, from North Africa and from the Gulf, and even further away as far as Australia, Indonesia, Central Asia, Pakistan and so on.

Roni Alasor: You say that EU was watching very carefully the developments in Syria, but one can ask how these people came so quickly to Syria. The Kurdish organisations have been already fighting two years against those terror groups in Syria. So there was a fight between Kurds and Al Nusra, ISIS and other terrorist groups. What was EU’s position and expectations during this time of very active military confrontation between Kurds and the terrorist groups?

Gilles de Kerchove: It depends on what level. If you talk about security level of foreign policy level. I am not really the one who is in charge of the foreign policy level. But I know that Catherine Ashton and the European External Action service did their best to help a political solution. Especially during the Geneva talks, we did our best behind the scene to help Ibrahimi and UN to broker a deal, but we failed. What I have been doing myself was to try to identify many measures to try to prevent young Europeans from leaving Europe, to detect those who we cannot prevent and stop them before they leave, also to be more vigilant when they come back. Design a policy to deal with the returnees and engage with source countries like North Africa, especially Tunisia, Morocco, Libya…

Roni Alasor: How many people from Europe have joined the terrorists groups?

Gilles de Kerchove: I don’t know the last numbers, but my assessment is about 3000 people from Europe, meaning EU and Schengen area. This is a significant number, so we have started to design these measures and we are implementing them, but it takes time. It is a lot about border control, about sharing information, maximizing the existing system, like the Schengen information system, Interpol, Europol. We had several meetings with the countries, which are on the Mediterranean.

Roni Alasor:  If we speak about these 3000 people and try to localize them, by ethnic origin, from which country do they come?

Gilles de Kerchove: Out of the 28 member states there are round 10 which have most of the foreign fighters. Sometimes it is strange that country like Belgium has the highest percentage per capita. If you look at the reasons why people want to go to Syria, there are many, many reasons, but I usually identify four. The first is the feeling in the Muslim community that the international community didn’t do enough to help the Syrian opposition. When you watch Youtube, you may feel as Muslim that it is your duty to go and to fight. The second reason is the Al Qaida rhetoric of the caliphate. For Muslims, Al Sham means something, in the hadiths of the Prophet, Al Sham is the place where the world will end, there is a lot of eschatology round that. The third one is specific for the Muslim world, there is a growing tension between Sunni and Shia, so if you are Sunni and looking at what is happening there with Iran, Hizboullah, Assad, Alawui, Maliki, Shia, tracking down on Sunni, you feel that you have to do something and help the poor Sunni in threat. And four, an element, which has nothing to do with the religion. It has been very well identified by a French journalist called Thomson in a book, he spend a year following young French who went to Syria. The conclusion is not much driven by salafism. If you have seen in the USA, there is a trial of a guy who before leaving went to bookstore to buy a book “Islam for dummies”, which means the guy had not a clue. It is a sort of justification ex-post. But it is more people who have not a sense of purpose in life, they feel alone….

Gilles de Kerchove: And that`s way the media communication of ISIS is so brilliant. It provides them with sense of identity, with sense of purpose, a sense of belonging to a group. And they feel that it will be a better life for them. They think that it is exciting to behead someone, to have a Kalashnikov; maybe they have exhausted the pleasure of games on Internet. There are many other reasons. It is important, because if we want to design the right policy response, we have to do something about that.

Roni Alasor: If we don’t focus only on Europe, but we speak about terrorists coming from the rest of the world, which countries are the main sources?

Gilles de Kerchove: Many countries are involved, from Morocco to Indonesia. Tunisia has one of the highest rates. Generally Arabic countries are very active, for sure. A lot from Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. From the Balkans, round 500, from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania…

EU response and action plans to stop terrorism

Roni Alasor: Is there a good cooperation between the EU security-intelligence services to combat terrorism?

Gilles de Kerchove: Yes, in Europe it is known as number one concern and there is not a meeting when they don’t work on it. It is improving more and more. We are trying to harmonize the way in which the Member States as using the different tools we have, so stories like the Mehdi Nemouche terrorist attack will be not repeated. If you look at the media, you will see that many people are stopped before leaving, the security services manage to detect them. But of course, on Facebook we discovered people who managed to leave and we didn’t detect them.

Roni Alasor:  How EU intelligence services can prevent the recruitment of terrorists? Is there any discussion in EU how we can control the media, for example Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, to not let that the terrorists misuse these channels?

Gilles de Kerchove: There is such discussion and it is not a secret that this is a very difficult and sensitive subject, because we are extremely attached to the freedom of the media, freedom of press and freedom of expression. Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström has invited the CEOs of the big companies Facebook, Twitter etc. to brainstorming with the Ministers of Interior in Luxembourg in October. We started discussing that, but it has to be looked in a very balanced way, because we don’t want to enter in a big brother society where we control the content. We are essentially aiming to design a mechanism by which the companies themselves (and they already do it) try to monitor what they put on their platform. We should also use these tools in a positive manner to develop alternative narratives. We should not leave the narrative only in the hands of ISIS. It is important that different messages are conveyed. First, clerics showing that Islam is not about beheading and also showing the ugly face of all this. To show that this organisation is committing war crimes against humanity and this will not be left unpunished. The UN decided yesterday to send the team of experts investigate for crimes against humanity and one day these people will have to be held accountable for the ugly behaviour they have shown in a court. Their methods for go pro videos, put a Kalashnikov, sort of real time broadcasting of operation are things we have to challenge. It is much more subtle than taking down websites. It is how we address this huge propaganda machine of a terrorist organisation.

Roni Alasor: Do you think that EU will be tougher and will have more effective anti-terror action plans in the future, not only for Internet, but to stop recruitment, financing, transit countries?

Gilles de Kerchove: Just the last days you have seen the British government adopting new decisions, and contemplating new legislation on passport withdrawal, on giving more power to police to withdraw passports at the border, on forcing airline companies to systematically share information. The Dutch government adopted another set of measures. The purpose is not to be tougher, but to be more effective, the purpose is not to be tough but to step the floor of the foreign fighters and to be better prepared to handle the returnees.  The level of tolerance to violence has been extremely increased. We don’t want only to protect ourselves; we want to help the countries on the other side of the Mediterranean, especially Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, to be better prepared as well when the returnees will go back to their home countries. Like in Tunisia, which is a country smaller then Belgium and more than 3000 people joined the terrorists…We will have to handle the return of hundreds, if not thousands of their citizens, which were trained and brain washed to join the Syrian struggle. We have to work together, hand in hand to the extent we can. 

Roni Alasor: You are saying that EU intelligence services were watching the terrorists carefully in the last two years, but still there are people who are going. We are talking here about 3000 people from Europe. What is the reason for their easy transit from Europe to Syria and Iraq?

Gilles de Kerchove: You know probably better than I do, how it is easy to go to Turkey, how cheap it is. Turkey is a major destination for tourism. Of course, people can hide their intent, go to Istanbul and just cross the border and this is the main reason. In the past, going to Afghanistan, going to Mali, was much more difficult, it was a hostile environment. Turkey is all, but a hostile environment.

Roni Alasor: Do you think that there is anyone who is behind all these terrorists groups to organise them, to finance them and to facilitate their passage from Turkey to Syria?

Gilles de Kerchove: There were some salafists groups in Europe like Sharia for Belgium, this is maybe one explanation why we had so many Belgians going to Syria. There are also networks, like we have seen recently in France, (a Chechen, living in France and helping would be jihadists to find a way to fly below the radar). But you can find a lot in Internet. You can find sites, where you will be told how to avoid the control of your security service, you should fly from another country than the country of your citizenship, that you have to buy one way ticket and so on. There are several tools. It is frankly extremely easy to get to Turkey, it is cheap and it explains why we are working now on more subtitle mechanism like the passenger name record, because we need more and more mechanism for suspicious travels.

Roni Alasor: What about the role of the Turkish Islamists? There are indicators that Turks are not many among the fighters, but they are doing very good job to help logistically in the transit, provisions etc.

Gilles de Kerchove: I don’t think so. I think Turkey is facing a lot of problems, because of Syria and Iraq and the number of refugees. I think they are probably above 1 million. Dealing with this, improving the border control is a huge challenge.

Roni Alasor: But European journalists are also speaking about clear signs, meetings, shops for terrorists, and so called “humanitarian help” in Turkey. Last weeks, a German tv channel could find many documentation and facts about training camps at the Turkish border, in Antep city in Turkey…

Gilles de Kerchove: We are working with Turkey and explore how we can do more. Turkey is very willing to do so, because they realised they have been themselves victims of attacks, because returnees from Syria already mounted attack on Turkish soil. They are the first victims in many respects, because they have to host more than 1 million refugees with all the tensions it creates in the society, because these people need to get access to education and housing and this is a burden. I visited myself the refugee camp in Turkey, which was very impressive. On the economic side, they were exporting for more than 12 billion dollars to Kurdish Region-Irak and now this is more difficult. A lot of truck drivers have been kidnapped…     

Roni Alasor: Now Turkey is maybe a little bit more worried about what is happening in Iraq, but there has been more intense cooperation with some terror groups in Syria.

Gilles de Kerchove: We cannot mix all the groups and it is clear that the Turks supported, but we too, the democratic opposition. To suggest that Turkey supported the terrorists themselves, I will not go that far. I don’t have information in this respect. Turkey has a lot of challenges to meet and that’s why we are working more with the Turks in this respect.

Roni Alasor: Right now USA and Europe are trying to cooperate more with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and they are giving them arms to Kurdish forces. How do you see this new development?

Gilles de Kerchove: I can just support all this, because it is very much needed. We have to find ways to stop these organisations which start to kill a lot of minorities, Turkmens, Yezidis, Christians. Thanks to the Peshmergas the situation now is more under control, but they need our support.  

Copyright: Middle East Diplomatic (MED) /