Military forces fighting Isis should hand over secret “battlefield information” that would help European border agencies identify and intercept foreign Isis fighters who pose as refugees to flee home, the EU’s counter-terrorism chief has urged.
European law enforcement agencies have launched efforts to amass the data as part of a wider campaign to deal with the possible return of thousands of extremists after the fall of their self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, said Gilles de Kerchove.
“When the Iraqi army, the [Kurdish] peshmerga, special forces in Raqqa or in Mosul, find a mobile phone or fingerprints in a safe house, I want this information to be at the border of the European Union in real time,” Mr de Kerchove said in an interview. “The problem is that the mindset and the culture in the military is to classify as top secret defence a lot of this information.”
According to a report by the Soufan Center, a US think-tank, at least 5,600 citizens or residents have already returned home to 33 countries from Syria and Iraq — about a third of the most recent estimates for Isis’s fighting force.
Mr de Kerchove’s remarks highlight concern across many European countries about the potential dangers posed by battle-hardened fighters from the continent who attempt to come home secretly after being forced from Isis strongholds.
Security and border agencies had to be vigilant even if there was evidence that some radicals were electing to move to other conflict zones such as Libya and Afghanistan instead of returning to Europe, Mr de Kerchove said.
“The assessment of the security services is that we won’t have a massive flow of returnees, but more a trickle,” he said. “But you don’t need a lot to mount a big attack in the centre of London or Brussels.”
Some EU countries, such as the Netherlands, have taken a hard line on prosecuting returning fighters and their families. Others, such as Denmark, have taken a more lenient approach, introducing measures to try to reintegrate them into society including opening a rehabilitation centre.
The US-led coalition against Isis said more than 60 countries had contributed over 180,000 foreign terrorist profiles to Interpol.
A spokesperson added: “The coalition will continue to work together with global partners to enhance information sharing, border security, legislative measures, and counter violent extremism and counter-messaging efforts.”
European authorities have launched a programme to train Iraqi forces to use a system similar to one devised by the US that allows information about militants gathered during military operations to be declassified and shared internationally with Interpol, Mr de Kerchove said.
The EU is also in talks about data-sharing with countries — notably France and Britain — that have a special forces presence in conflict areas in the Middle East and the Sahel area of Africa.
Mr de Kerchove said European agencies were striving to improve frontier checks in other areas, building on “significant progress” in the past few years in the gathering, sharing and analysis of information on militants. Border authorities needed more biometric information and improvements in the interoperability of Europe’s myriad identity databases, he said.
“You [should] have a single portal so that the guy at the border does not have to open seven different databases,” he said. “By a click you can identify if someone is known.”
Various EU authorities are grappling with the legal basis and technical improvements needed to achieve the changes, Mr de Kerchove said. The union also had to do more on the “big challenge” of spotting homegrown terrorism, through strategies ranging from better community policing to the use of big data analytics to spot changes in online behaviour, he added.
On Tuesday an official report found that MI5 could have prevented the terror attack in Manchester, which killed 22 people, if it had not “wrongly” interpreted intelligence on the bomber, Salman Abedi.
The report by David Anderson, the UK’s former independent reviewer of terror legislation, also endorsed MI5 plans to make changes to the way it exploits data to identify terror suspects.
Get alerts on Terrorism when a new story is published