European Union foreign ministers have vowed to boost intelligence cooperation and push for controversial data-sharing legislation, as they gathered under the guard of Belgian soldiers to forge a response to the wave of terror-related attacks, foiled plots and arrests across Europe.
The meeting came days after Belgian authorities thwarted a plot by a terror cell with links to Syria to massacre police officers in the street.
Two of the suspects were shot dead by police in Verviers in eastern Belgium on Thursday night, just over a week after 17 people were killed in attacks by suspected Islamists on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in France.
The Belgian terror cell had links in France and Greece, while French, German and Irish police also made terror-related arrests last week, putting EU governments and citizens on high alert.
“The threat is not only the one we faced in Paris, but is also spreading in many other parts of the world, starting from Muslim countries,” said the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.
In pictures: Counter-terrorism raid in Belgium
In pictures: Counter-terrorism raid in Belgium
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Police block the street of Colline in Vervier Eastern Belgium, 15 January 2014, after an anti terrorist operation
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Police block a street in Vervier, eastern Belgium, following an anti terror operation.
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Police forensic experts inspect the scene in Rue de la Colline in Verviers, Belgium
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Belgian police inspect the entrance of an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border
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Riot police secure the scene in Rue de la Colline in Verviers, Belgium
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Police investigate a shootout in a street in Verviers, Belgium
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Eric Van Der Sypt, center, from the Brussels federal prosecutors office speaks with the media at police headquarters in Brussels
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Belgian police exit a building in Palais street, near Colline street in Verviers, eastern Belgium
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Police block the street of Colline in Vervier Eastern Belgium
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Marc Elsen, Mayor of Verviers and President of Local Police gives a press briefing in Rue de la Colline in Verviers, Belgium
To tackle the fluid, cross-border nature of terror networks, European governments are considering everything from tightening free movement between EU nations, increasing surveillance and data sharing on the bloc’s citizens, and confiscating travel documents of citizens who travel to Syria to fight.
But they are facing calls for caution, with Amnesty International’s expert on counter-terrorism and human rights, Julia Hall, warning against any knee-jerk reactions.
“Counter-terrorism measures must always contain strong human rights safeguards, and must never be at the cost of human dignity,” she told The Independent yesterday. “This principle should be upheld in all counter-terrorism measures and operations, especially in the immediate aftermath of a violent attack when emotions and fear run high. We know all too well how much damage can be done when rights protections are sacrificed wholesale.”
After the meeting, Ms Mogherini said nations would increase intelligence cooperation within the EU and with other nations including Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf nations. The aim is to help governments better monitor the movements of citizens who headed to Syria.
Security officials have been warning for years that thousands of European Muslims taking up arms with Islamists in Syria could pose a threat back home, and many of the suspects rounded up in Belgian had been to the Middle East to fight with radical Islamists.
While the issue of confiscating passports of foreign fighters will fall to justice and home affairs ministers, Ms Mogherini said the foreign ministers will ask the European Parliament to look again at legislation which would force airlines to share data of passengers entering the EU.
MEPs have blocked the “Passenger Name Records” legislation as they are concerned about the data protection implications of letting the EU store information on the bloc’s 500 million citizens.
“It has been on the shelf for some time and I do believe this is an issue that should be progressed,” said Irish Foreign Minister, Charles Flanagan, adding that they needed “a coordinated response for what is a real and serious threat”.
Ms Mogherini also said the EU would station new security attachés in EU delegations overseas, and would be working with Muslim nations on as yet unspecified new counter-terrorism programmes.
Further potential measures within EU borders will be on the table next week when Justice and Home Affairs ministers in the bloc meet. Later this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry will chair talks in London to assess progress in the military campaign against Isis.
All the talks will lay the groundwork for a summit of EU heads of government on 13 and 14 February which will be dedicated to battling the threat of extremism in Europe by implementing measures which may prove controversial.
Ms Hall from Amnesty raised particular concern about increased internet surveillance and its impact on free speech, racial profiling via the passenger name records and other data sharing, and the implications of removing citizenship from an individual.
“There must be safeguards so that any person subjected to having her or his citizenship revoked can challenge such a serious penalty,” she said. “If a person has only one nationality any such stripping could create a stateless person, which is the most severe of penalties.”
The head of EuroPol, Rob Wainwright, has estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 Europeans are fighting alongside Islamist militia in Syria, with most coming from France, Britain, Belgium and Germany. Belgium has already taken a number of domestic measures after the raids last week, including legal measures to confiscate identity cards of suspects and criminalising travelling overseas to fight.
Soldiers were deployed on the streets of Belgian at the weekend for the first time in 30 years, while authorities are also working to track down the alleged mastermind of the plot to attack police.
He has been named in local media as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian of Moroccan extraction who travelled to Syria to fight last year. Greek police have confirmed that they have arrested an individual with possible links to the Belgian plot. Belgium has started proceedings to extradite him.