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– Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Prediction 1: Continued tension and backlash against Muslims in Europe

The EU and the threat of European jihadists
Al Monitor - Wassim Ibrahim

When European officials complain that they are not getting the powers they need to face the threat of "jihadists," the officials rush to compare jihadists to "a cancer." The officials say that unless they receive the powers for a firm common policy in time, it may be too late.

However, the nature and speed of counterterrorism actions have meant that have Europeans have experienced unprecedented surveillance procedures that have raised controversy and objections, as some of the officials view them as a threat to public liberties.

In this context, Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, the European law enforcement agency, told As-Safir, “The real threat that terrorists, particularly the Islamic State, pose is the attack against our dearest values, which they take advantage of to achieve their own gains.”

At Europol headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, nearly 800 employees provide daily coordination among police agencies in the 28 EU member states, lead joint operations and cooperate with the European intelligence services.

During a visit to Brussels, Wainwright said measures to counter the risk of “jihadists” harm public liberties and lead to restrictions on “Europeans' freedom of preserving an unknown identity online and on the freedom of travel and movement, which is guaranteed in the EU.”

A common European policy to confront this phenomenon has been in the works since June 2013.

Since then, the number of European jihadists has doubled and official figures estimate that there are over 3,000 jihadists at present.

Over the past few months, Europe has adopted unprecedented measures, most recent of which is the implementation of a systematic and simultaneous inspection on the outer limits of the Schengen Zone. Even the citizens of the 26 European countries in the Schengen Zone, who are free to travel within this zone as internal borders were abolished, will be required to have their travel documents checked by electronic surveillance devices.

Previously, inspection was conducted on intermittent occasions, through random surveillance, but the Schengen Information System will now be used after its inclusion of the names of wanted or suspected “jihadists.”

European fears that jihadists will conduct terror attacks if they come back from Syria with combat experience have caused unprecedented moves.

Stripping citizens of European citizenship is taking place in both Britain and the Netherlands and is subject to debate in other countries, including France, Belgium and Spain. At the same time, France is stripping potential jihadists of their passports in an attempt to prevent them from heading to Syria and Iraq.

This crackdown has sparked debate and objections in many quarters. There are those who oppose it because they do not see the practical advantage. Yet, some politicians accuse right-wing governments of exploiting these circumstances to pass their hard-line policies.

A European politician working on the issue told As-Safir, “Countering terrorism has become a good excuse for Europeans to remain silent and accept measures that are somewhat similar to emergency provisions.”

For instance, the procedure of revoking citizenship is applied to those who hold dual citizenship and who join the fighting within the ranks of extremist groups. Yet, its implementation does not require a judicial conviction, since the collection of evidence, the trial and appeal require a lengthy period. Judicial objections could come later, turning the well-known rule into “You are guilty until proven innocent.”

These concerns were also tackled by Eurojust, an EU agency which deals with judicial cooperation among EU member states.

During a hearing in the European Parliament, the president of Eurojust, Michèle Coninsx, said, “We should not exaggerate, and we need to balance between countering terrorist threats and guaranteeing freedom of movement and civil liberties.” Coninsx is on the same page as European lawmakers.

Socialist member of the European Parliament Ana Gomes was among those who strongly objected to revoking citizenships and argued that there was no logic that justifies such a punishment, “because citizenship is a human right that should not be denied.” She asked why European policy considers the jihadist issue to be an urgent priority while at the same time easily disregarding the contradictions, including that “Saudi Arabia and Qatar are taking part with us now in the fight against IS, while we are ignoring that it was their support that got this group where it is.”

Fear for civil liberties has become an issue in the work of police and intelligence services, with growing concern about significant violations of the principle of privacy.

This comes after Edward Snowden, a former US security contractor, revealed that the United States had spied on the communications and messages of millions of Europeans.

The director of Europol spoke before the European Parliament (EP) on the difficulty it is facing when gathering information, especially on the Internet. He said private companies tend not to work with governments, which he considered “a problem” that marke what he called “the post-Snowden environment.” He cited Google as an example, in that it has imposed encryption that hinders access to information, regardless of whether there is a court order allowing government intercepts.

Doubts reinforced by the Snowden scandal have deprived European agencies of a tool it has demanded for a long time, which is the adoption of a European law that allows the automatic exchange of traveler manifests between EU countries. Last year, the EP refused to pass this legislation, in light of the Snowden scandal, as it considered the proposal to be an invasion of privacy.

Nevertheless, under great pressure, the new parliament, which was elected this year, has begun a new discussion on the so-called “Passenger Name Record” (PNR). What is needed is to require all airlines to include passenger data in a digital system, thus allowing European agencies to know the name of every person who enters, leaves or crosses the European space.

The European countries say they urgently need this law and concerned officials are applying pressure, citing United Nations Resolution 2178, which calls for taking all necessary measures to halt the flow of foreign terrorist fighters.

Coninsx, the Eurojust president, who urged that the threat not be exaggerated, said the exchange of passenger information is part of “indispensable” common European policy to confront “jihadists.” She said quick action was critical in this confrontation, because it was similar to “a cancer treatment.” She said, “It will be too late if we do not take action in timely manner.”

Nevertheless, the gains made by IS support networks from the post-Snowden world were not the only source of problems. There are obstacles generated by competition among European intelligence agencies, as the Europol director said. “We need the European intelligence agencies to share information with us. How do they share them with each other and do not do so with Europol?”

The Europol director was talking about “the point of contact” that his agency has created to gather and analyze information on “jihadists,” which comes from all EU countries. Its team is making the list of most-wanted people to “determine who, out of thousands of people involved, represent the biggest threat,” Wainwright said. He told As-Safir that he expects the United States to join the list of suppliers and users of such a mechanism and the signing to take place very soon.

In the meantime, work continues on the formation of “a strategic working group on Syria,” which is more like a European ad-hoc committee to engage in a war on "jihadist propaganda,” after receiving 1 million euros ($1.24 million) from the European Commission.

The team of specialists will also have to deal with “Internal problems,” as they were dubbed by European parliamentarians, some of which are linked to the isolation and extremism that prevail in some environments in the Muslim communities in Europe.

In this context, EU counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told As-Safir that efforts should be taken “to create a European Islam and not an Islam in Europe,” saying, “There is a separation of religion and state, but we can create a more favorable environment for the development of a European Islam, because Europe has its own values and is not ready to compromise on values such as equality between men and women.”

One of the problems mentioned by Kerchove comes from imams who preach in the mosques of Europe. “There are nearly 20 million Muslims in Europe, most of them are very moderate and it is very important to have trained imams,” he said. “There are imams who appointed themselves, but, as is the case in other religions, they are supposed to undertake a long training and have a minimum level of education.”

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