Towards a Softer Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Europe

“Legislation in some countries has far exceeded reasonable limits of information gathering and has laid the groundwork for Orwellian surveillance.” Pic: flickr user Erich Kesse, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Following the terrorist attacks in Manhattan in 2001, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, the “War on Terrorism” has become the prevalent paradigm among policy makers. It is in this political climate that the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy (EUCTS) was agreed. Its hard-approach measures have since disproportionately affected minorities and institutionalised universal suspicion.

In light of recent terror attacks, and the measures taken to counter them, there is a dire need for softer approaches in order to successfully implement counter terrorism in Europe.

Securitising Society: Community Surveillance and Emergency Laws

The EUCTS acknowledges that a lack of political or economic prospects and of educational opportunities may lead to a higher susceptibility to radicalisation. However, these factors are said not to be generally present within the EU, but maybe in some strata of the population. In its first attempt to approach radicalisation and terrorism, the EUCTS omits the recognition of segregational and discriminatory conditions as common characteristics in all Member States. Such reluctant formulations are due to the fact that the EUCTS and the Member States’ agendas were mutually constitutive. Thus, the following paragraphs seek to demonstrate how the EUCTS failed to inform appropriate measures tackling terrorism, as exemplified by some Member States’ dealings with the topic.

The EUCTS’ Prevent pillar seeks to vigorously promote human rights, identify key environments for radicalisation as well as prevent counter-terrorism to exacerbate division. However, most measures undertaken by the Member States seem to be informed by general suspicion and prejudice rather than justifiable evidence.
Since 2005, French intelligence services have made use of the practice of inspecting locations such as halal butcher shops and mosques on the pretext of inspecting hygiene conditions, security regulations and accounting books.
After the Paris attacks of Nov. 2015, the state of emergency was declared and since then prolonged repeatedly, recently until Nov. 2017. The emergency laws permit the arrest of suspects and searching for their houses without a judicial warrant at any time as well as performing house arrests. Between Nov. 2015 and Feb. 2016, over 3.000 house searches were conducted, but less than 1% of them led to terrorism-related charges. French President Macron promised to end the state of emergency, but seeks to integrate current arrest and search powers into common law.

Under the UK PREVENT strategy of 2005, the British government tried to enforce partnerships and investments in social projects, mainly targeting Muslim communities. Besides the sentiment of stigmatisation, these communities have voiced concerns over covert intelligence gathering, including additional CCTV cameras in highly populated minority areas.

Regarding pre-charge detentions, the UK upholds a limit of 14 days of pre-charge detention periods. Although, this period can be extended to 28 days should the situation be urgent.
Similarly informed by suspicion, stop and search powers have led to increasing numbers of people being searched without any reasonable evidence: While the number of people searched reached 50.000 in 2005, much like the findings in France, only a maximum of 1.4% led to arrests in the UK and have therefore been replaced by more limited control powers in 2012. In France, stop and search figures have shown that Arabs and Blacks were eight times more likely to be searched than Whites.

The EUCTS’ Pursue pillar stresses that national authorities have necessary tools to collect and analyse intelligence to investigate terrorists. However, legislation in some countries has far exceeded reasonable limits of information gathering and has laid the groundwork for Orwellian surveillance.
Under the Polish Counter-terrorism Law of 2016, foreign nationals in Poland can be subjected to covert surveillance measures such as monitoring of electronic communications, surveillance of networks and devices as well as wire-tapping without any judicial supervision for three months. The mere requirement of those surveillance measures is fear of involvement in terrorism-related activities.
Following the Paris attacks of January 2015, France passed a bill empowering intelligence services to tap suspects’ devices without judicial approval and gather anonymous meta-data from communication and internet providers.

The EUCTS’ Protect pillar stresses the importance of border controls measures. While their necessity is entirely justifiable, it is worth examining the impact of their implementation. While there certainly is a need for an effective control of borders, excessive powers — such as those of UK border officers to stop, question and detain any person for up to nine hours without suspicion — have been found to lead to arrest in only 0.03% of cases in the UK.

The disproportionality with which minorities are affected implies that these actions are guided by the belief that there is a linear pathway from ethnic or religious affiliation to radicalisation. This assumption is disputed among social scientists and far from being empirically evidenced. A 2008 report by the British MI5 acknowledges this controversy of such an assumption as it concluded that there was no clear profile of individuals involved in terrorist activities and that they were described as far from being Islamist fundamentalists.

Conclusion and Recommendations

There is no doubt that fundamentalist terrorist attacks are horrific crimes and produce excruciating pain and suffering. However, they warrant neither the universal suspicion nor the institutionalised discrimination some religious or ethnic groups subsequently have to face in their daily lives.

Given the ineptitude of some hard power CT-measures, such as intelligence gathering, surveillance as well as search practices informed by ethnic profiling, the EU is called upon to sanction its Member States’ practices which favour guilt by association and over evidence-based and fact-informed threat assessments.
Furthermore, the EU ought to counter a political rhetoric which seeks to scare citizens into accepting further infringements of their fundamental freedoms.
In order to prevent radicalisation, the EU must recognize that segregational and discriminatory conditions are a common characteristic of societies in all Member States and that adverse economic and societal conditions provide the substratum of radical ideologies. Furthermore, the EU should make greater efforts to develop effective approaches to the integration of all religious and ethnic communities.
Finally, an adequate definition of societal resilience should not be limited to a society’s capacity to respond to shocks and crises, but should also include how societies prevent and proactively diminish the very conditions leading to marginalisation, discrimination and finally, radicalisation.


Stefan Pfalzer is currently pursuing two bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and International Business Administration in Vienna, having spent an exchange semester at Sciences Po Paris. Previously, he has been working as Middle East and North Africa Student Correspondent of the EU Foreign Policy Research Group, as an intern for the Institute for Conflict Research in Vienna, the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, as well as for NGOs and institutes in East- and North Africa.