Securing the State: Structures to Counter Contemporary Terrorism

September 25, 2017
Securing the State: Structures to Counter Contemporary Terrorism
Andrew Staniforth
Andrew Staniforth Non-Resident Fellow - Counter Terrorism & National Security

Despite developing ever increasingly sophisticated responses to counter-terrorism, successful terrorist attacks continue to occur with alarming regularity; which includes the sudden surge of terrorist attacks across Europe. On the afternoon of 17 August, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub drove a van into pedestrians on La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain, killing 15 people and injuring at least 130 others. The atrocity looked first to be a lone actor attack, but a more complex plot has now emerged involving at least twelve suspects, armed with knives and explosives, suggesting both an element of careful planning by the perpetrators and the potential failure of intelligence by authorities, highlighting the challenge of keeping pace with an ever-changing terrorist threat.

Changing threat landscape

According to Statista, who provide leading online statistical analysis of global terrorist events, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has declined between 2006 and 2016, with 14,371 terrorist attacks being recorded in 2006, compared to 11,072 in 2016.  But the number of deaths due to these attacks for the same period has risen sharply. During 2016, Statista reported that 25,621 people were killed by terrorists compared to 20,487 in 2006.

The increase suggests that terrorist attacks are becoming more deadly, and it is a concern shared between counter terrorism policy-makers across the world. Europol, for example, provide a detailed analysis of the terrorist threats to European Member States in their 10th edition of the yearly European Union (EU) Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT). The 2017 TE-SAT report reveals that during 2016, a total of 142 failed, foiled and completed terrorist attacks were reported by eight EU Member States.  More than half (76) of the attacks were reported by the United Kingdom (UK).

Structural reform

Following the catastrophic events of 9/11, new counter-terrorism structures have evolved as governments reoriented themselves to take up the future challenges of countering the threat from new-era global terrorism epitomised by Al Qaeda’s ‘Planes Operation’ of 2001.[1] The analysis of these structural changes is best shaped around two principal trends: ‘Amplification’ and ‘Melding’, which can be explored in terms in relation to both Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies.  These two themes are not new phenomena within traditional security architectures but since 2001, ‘Amplification’ and ‘Melding’ have proved to be the primary ways in which the Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies of governments across the world have developed in direct response to international terrorism. In turn, these themes can be applied to different sites of change. They have impacted both upon the structures of Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies and also on their operational practices.

The evidence of structural amplification since 2001 within the security structures of governments emanates from the emergence of new Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies relevant to terrorism. These can be said to constitute amplification because they explicitly focus on terrorism, and in this way, there is an intensification of police effort which is marked by structural change. Prime evidence has appeared in the shape of the formation of new counter-terrorism networks, units and teams within Law Enforcement Agencies across numerous jurisdictions.

Building capacity

Specific evidence of the melding of structures includes situations where security services and police work together. A recent example of the effective melding of Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agency assets to counter terrorism is found in the creation of the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC). Established in January 2016, the ECTC is an operations centre and hub of expertise that reflects the growing need for the EU to strengthen its response to terror.

A constituent part of Europol’s Operations Department, and providing an excellent example of the melding of security agencies, the ECTC works closely with other operational centres at Europol, such as the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) and the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC). As a result of the ECTC’s information sharing operations, Europol has been able to upgrade its overall counter-terrorism capabilities. It is now better equipped to provide Member States, and key partners such as Interpol, with new possibilities for the effective management of counter terrorism intelligence.  This melding of assets at a supra-level provides evidence that key structural changes to counter-terrorism structures continue to evolve in direct response to the changing nature of international terrorism.

Data sharing

The amplification and melding of counter terrorism structures has solved many problems but it has also created some new ones, as well as resulting in consequences that were unintended. The initial problem encountered during the amplification and melding of security agencies, whether in the rapid response to a terrorist event, or as a result of a review or other action, is that it serves to magnify the problematic sharing of intelligence. Problems arise because agencies guard their own territory and sources of empowerment and therefore have a reluctance to share information.  There is a risk of exaggerating the shortcomings in current data-sharing between government agencies, and also of failing to understand that some existing limitations defy any kind of simple solution. These difficulties range from different national legal frameworks and rules on classification of secrets, to the problem of making sure that raw intelligence is not just shared, but that it is framed in a way which is actionable and useful.

In Europe, the barriers to sharing information are complex: not only does each individual EU Member State have its own domestic sharing restraints, but passing data across borders between 28 countries throws up far bigger legal and political hurdles, evidenced by the comments of Bernard Squarcini, France’s spy chief under former president Nicolas Sarkozy who states: “With eastern European countries as EU members, no one wants to share details on sensitive operations. It’s a question of trust. Europol is useful to arrest criminals. But no one wants to disclose details on covert operations, the sources you have infiltrated or taken out of judicial procedures, you want to protect your sources”

Integrated structures

The primary lessons to be learned by authorities from the amplification and melding of counter terrorism structures is that Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies, indeed any arm of the State, cannot effectively tackle contemporary terrorism or violent extremism alone.  Collaboration in counter-terrorism is key, where information must be shared and jointly assessed to better protect citizens from terrorist threats.

A truly integrated approach across government departmental structures is required to effectively tackle all manner of threats from contemporary international terrorism, which relies upon the maintenance and continued development of strong strategic partnerships forged across the full operating landscape of all government assets. But the delivery of refurbished counter-terrorism structures will not resolve all problems. Above all, a commitment to civil liberties and rights are strengths in the amplification and melding of counter terrorism responses, and they are still far from secure in this new disposition.

[1] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, (Washington DC, 2004)