Intelligence is Schengen’s best defence against terrorism

Belgium is being criticised for allowing itself to become a jihadist breeding ground, but trying to isolate the country is not a sensible option. (Olivier Hoslet, EPA)

Belgium is being criticised for allowing itself to become a jihadist breeding ground, but trying to isolate the country is not a sensible option. (Olivier Hoslet, EPA)

If the first casualty of war is the truth, maybe the second is common sense. It has become common to declare that Europe’s borderless travel zone must go if security is to be restored after the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Before abandoning part, of the European Union’s most popular achievement – freedom of movement – let us think it through.

The first thing to say is that, even when there were border controls between the 26 European countries that are signatories to the Schengen Agreement that established the free-travel zone from 1995, traffic flows were so great that most cars were waved through unchecked. That was in the 1980s and 1990s, when cars drove at least 800-million fewer passenger kilometres a year across Europe than they do now.

Let us say systematic checks were made, even then it would be no panacea.
On the night after the Paris attacks, French police set up checks along the road to Belgium and stopped Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, the one Paris gunman who didn’t detonate his suicide belt, three times, according to the lawyer of the man who helped him escape. The police let Abdeslam go because they didn’t recognise him. The manhunt continues.

How about weapons? Europe’s illegal small-arms trade draws on weapons that weren’t registered when tougher regulations were imposed in countries such as France. It also involves arms trafficked from the ex-Yugoslav countries (where Bosnians alone are estimated to hold 750 000 private guns left over from the war), and weapons that were neutralised for sale as souvenirs or props and are subsequently reactivated.

Even before Schengen came along, you could drive through Europe with hardly any checks at all. Given the amount of commerce and travel, that would be extremely difficult to change now. Then you have the likely number of weapons being trafficked: we’re talking about a very small number into France a year, no more than a few hundred. So imagine a car carrying five or 10 Kalashnikovs – what is the chance of that car being searched on its way into France? You would be better off playing the lottery.

This is a problem that can be addressed only by intelligence and undercover police penetrating the buyers and dealers in organised crime gangs.

Isolating Belgium wouldn’t fix the problem, either. According to a 2010 French government estimate, there were about 4 000 automatic rifles circulating in Paris suburbs such as Saint-Denis, where Abdelhamid Abaaoud was found and killed. Someone determined enough to give up his life is unlikely to be deterred from finding a gun in Paris, if the softer Belgian option is closed.

To address the terrorist threat, Europe’s governments would need to do what they should do anyway to bring the Schengen system up to date. They would need to harden external borders, preferably by putting them entirely under a jointly run agency such as the EU’s Frontex, using a common terrorist watchlist and fingerprint database. That way, for example, agents at the free-travel zone’s Balkan borders – in Slovenia and Hungary – could check cars and trains heading north.

The EU should also do a better job of clearing out jihadist cells in weak-link countries such as Belgium. But, above all, the answer to nearly all these problems is better intelligence and intelligence sharing. That’s more likely to happen by modernising a shared system than by retreating behind resurrected national borders.

If that’s still unpersuasive, consider that, after the attacks of September 11 2001, the United Kingdom – not a Schengen member – was tarred as Europe’s weak link in the defence against jihadist terrorism, just as Belgium is now.

London was nicknamed “Londonistan” for letting radical preachers recruit in mosques and for tolerating the sale of al-Qaeda-style literature up and down Edgware Road. It’s where Zacarias Moussaoui was radicalised before joining al-Qaeda’s September 11 plot. So was the “shoe bomber”, Richard Reid, who tried to bring down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.

Being out of Schengen didn’t prevent any of these British failures. Nor did it stop the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground in 2005, or smaller attacks since. The answer was to fix what was broken in the approach to Islamist extremism, a work still in progress in Britain.

The EU’s proposals to fix Schen­gen’s weaknesses and crack down on Europe’s weapons trade since the November 13 attacks in Paris certainly aren’t enough, and the failure to adjust the free-travel zone’s rules to cope with the sudden influx of refugees from Syria is serious.But if the EU’s responses are implemented, they would do more to counter the terrorist threat than closing borders, and at a far lesser cost. – ©?Bloomberg

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