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Europe Moves Against Terror Cells. Should There Be More Coordination?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's note two recent events in Europe, both involving men known to authorities. Anti-terror agencies had records on the men who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They still carried out their attack.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Two suspects in Belgium failed to carry out their apparent plan. They were killed in a police raid before they could try. Sometimes the system works. Sometimes it does not. And arrests have continued over the weekend, including in Greece.

INSKEEP: So let's ask how European security agencies are meeting the challenge of extremists. Peter Neumann of King's College London directs its International Center for the Study of Radicalization. How anxious were European security agencies before the Paris attacks?

PETER NEUMANN: For about two years, you've had security agencies, especially in the larger European countries, warning about the conflict in Syria, how it was producing more extremists than ever before and how many people were traveling to Syria. So there has been a great deal of concern.

INSKEEP: And when you say Syria, that's because some of the suspects who've been arrested recently have had some connection to Syria.

NEUMANN: Yes. What you have seen across Europe is that the Syrian conflict and the consequences of the Syrian conflict have really rejuvenated a lot of extremist networks.

INSKEEP: How well do European security agencies share information and collaborate?

NEUMANN: Well, that's difficult to say. There is an agency called Europol. The Europol is not like the FBI. It is a sort of switchboard of counterterrorism cooperation, but it doesn't conduct investigation of its own. And typically when larger countries, especially want to cooperate across borders, they go to these countries directly.

INSKEEP: One other layer of this I want to get at - of course, in the United States since 9/11, there's been a debate well over a decade long over how to balance security with civil liberties. Is a similar debate developing in Europe?

NEUMANN: There is a similar debate, and there has been, for example, in Britain, a debate for over 10 years since the London attacks. There are similar debates in Germany, even though they're always about different issues. So, for example, in Germany, there's a huge debate about surveillance and people don't like that at all, whereas in Britain, it is completely accepted to be on camera on average in a city like London 400 times a day, whereas the Brits, for example, get very agitated about the idea of national identity cards, whereas in Germany, for example, that is completely accepted. So, yes, there is a debate, but the debate is about different issues in each country.

INSKEEP: Germans were very angry in the last couple of years because of revelations about national security agency spying from the agency in the United States, including spying on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Have the recent attacks changed German attitudes about the value of surveillance?

NEUMANN: Not fundamentally because I don't think a lot of Germans understand how dependent German security agency and in fact all European security agencies are on information and intelligence coming from American sources, especially the NSA.

Only today in the city of Dresden, where a lot of anti-Islamic marches were taking place, those marches were being called off because of piece of intelligence about a planned attack on these marches. And it was reported in newspapers that that piece of intelligence was coming from foreign intelligence services, which almost certainly were United States intelligence services. So the German public wasn't as happy to take that information, does not always appreciate where it is coming from.

INSKEEP: What other role does the United States play in Europe right now?

NEUMANN: Well after 9/11, the United States, especially CIA, has become almost like a broker of intelligence. After 9/11, European Union countries were not collaborating that much. The CIA came in and said, look, we have a lot of information to offer. But in return, we want you to work together. And as a result, there have been reports that essentially the CIA station in Paris has become an almost quasi-Europol that facilitates information exchange through American offices for European countries.

INSKEEP: Peter Neumann of King's College London. He has also advised the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on extremist issues. Thanks very much.

NEUMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.