Belgium rounds up 26 in anti-terror raids

Police busted Tuesday a Chechnya-linked Islamist network plotting to attack Belgium and rounded up another extremist group suspected of recruiting jihad fighters, amid heightened terrorism fears in Europe.

Authorities detained 11 people in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as part of an investigation into a plot against an unspecified target in Belgium.

Hours later, Belgian officials announced the detention of some 15 people in Brussels in connection with a separate probe into a group suspected of recruiting would-be “jihadists” willing to do battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the first operation, a Chechen and six Belgian-Moroccan men were detained in the northern Belgian port city of Antwerp, three Dutch men in Amsterdam and a Russian national in Aachen, Germany, officials said.

“There were plans aimed at committing an attack in Belgium by an international terrorist group using for this purpose an extremist internet site, Ansar Al Mujahideen,” said the Belgian prosecutor’s office.

Belgian investigators spearheaded an international inquiry from 2009 into the suspect network, largely based in Antwerp.

“The target of the attack was not yet specifically determined,” the prosecutor’s office added, but there were “sufficient facts” to justify the raids.

No extra security measures will be enforced in Belgium, home to the European Union and NATO, a spokesman for the government’s crisis centre said.

Those arrested are also suspected of recruiting “jihadist candidates” and financing “a Chechen terrorist organisation, the Caucasus Emirate”.

A judge was to decide by Wednesday whether to keep them behind bars pending charges.

Belgian authorities said several other people had already been arrested in Spain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia as part of the same probe, conducted with other countries and the EU’s judicial cooperation unit Eurojust.

The Belgian prosecutor’s office announced later the arrest of “around 15 people” following searches in homes across Brussels in a pre-dawn operation aimed at “dismantling a group with terrorist characteristics”.

The arrests followed a three-year investigation into the Belgian Assabil Islamic Centre, considered a hotbed for Muslim radicalism since the 1990s.

A French-Syrian imam from the centre, Bassam Ayachi, was sentenced to four years in prison in Italy in May 2009 for smuggling illegal immigrants and is under investigation in Al-Qaeda-linked plots in France and Britain.

Europe has been on high alert for several weeks over heightened concerns of possible terrorist attacks.

Western security officials have warned that Al-Qaeda may be planning attacks in Europe similar to those that struck the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.

On Monday the cupola of Germany’s Reichstag parliament building was closed until further notice to visitors after media reports said the popular tourist site was a potential target for Islamist extremists.

Germany’s interior ministry said Tuesday’s arrests were not linked to recent security threats in the country.

In Denmark, intelligence services warned of new information “that foreign-based terrorist groups will try to send terrorists to Denmark to stage attacks” and urged police to be “extremely vigilant” ahead of Christmas.

The United States issued on October 3 a travel alert for its citizens travelling in Europe, citing the risk of potential terrorist attacks on transportation systems and tourist attractions.

Netherlands and US sign deal on fingerprint exchange

The Netherlands and US have signed a treaty to exchange crime suspects’ dna information and finger prints, the Dutch justice ministry said on Friday.

Dna and fingerprints found at crime scenes may also be exchanged even if there are no suspects, the treaty states. The treaty gives US investigators direct access to the Dutch dna and finger print databases.

The information will be identified by a code name and judges will have to decide if the actual identity of the suspect should be handed over, the justice ministry states.

New calls for the increased use of drones in Pakistan, experts worry about side-effects

The United States has renewed pressure on Pakistan to expand the areas where CIA drones can operate inside the country, reflecting concern that the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is being undermined by insurgents’ continued ability to take sanctuary across the border, U.S. and Pakistani officials said in the Washington Post.The U.S. appeal has focused on the area surrounding the Pakistani city of Quetta. Pakistan has rejected the request. Pakistani officials stressed that Quetta is a densely populated city where an errant strike is more likely to kill innocent civilians, potentially provoking a backlash.

The White House is also considering adding the CIA’s armed Predator drones to the fight against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen. Gregory Johnsen at the Waq al-Waq blog offers the following thoughts on the possibility of using drones in Yemen:

I have sat and thought … and yet I can’t find a way that using drones in Yemen doesn’t exacerbate the problem of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (…) The results of a year of drone strikes will be no different from a year of airstrikes: al-Qaeda will gain more recruits, grow stronger, and continue to launch increasingly sophisticated attacks at the US and Europe. The US may kill a few commanders, but those men will be replaced many times over.

Johnsen argues that comparisons with Pakistan are likely to be unhelpful and a better model for Yemen would be the campaign the
Saudis waged against al-Qaeda between 2003 and 2006:

“That campaign combined the hard fist of
military and police power with the softer approach of encouraging
qualified Islamic scholars to challenge al-Qaeda’s claim that it
represented Islam. But most importantly it used al-Qaeda’s mistakes
against itself, leading to a public backlash that left the terrorist
organisation nowhere to hide.”

Brian Whitaker comments:

Johnsen’s main point, though, is something I alluded to
yesterday: the need to change the public discourse in Yemen in order to
undermine al-Qaeda’s support. That is not going to be achieved by drone
strikes; quite the reverse. 

“Yemenis need to be convinced that AQAP
is bad for them and bad for Yemen,”
Johnsen writes.
“But at the moment al-Qaeda is the only one doing the arguing.
It puts out statement after statement that depict the group as some
sort of Islamic Robin Hood defending Yemen’s oppressed and weak people
against western military attacks. While largely unnoticed in Washington
these unchallenged and baseless claims are carrying the day in Yemen’s
hinterlands.”

Some have gone so far as to suggest we’re heading for a new drones-arms-race. The WSJ reports now that China is “ramping up production of unmanned aerial vehicles in an apparent bid to
catch up with the U.S. and Israel in developing technology that is
considered the future of military aviation.”

China’s apparent progress is likely to spur others, especially India and Japan, to accelerate their own UAV development or acquisition programs.

U.S. anxiety about China’s UAVs were highlighted in a report released Wednesday by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was formed by Congress in 2000 to assess the national security implications of trade and economic relations with China.

“The PLA Air Force has deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and combat purposes,” the report said. “In addition, China is developing a variety of medium- and high-altitude long-endurance unmanned vehicles, which when deployed, will expand the PLA Air Force’s ‘options for long-range reconnaissance and strike,’ ” it said, citing an earlier Pentagon report.

European Commission adopts internal security strategy

The “EU Internal Security Strategy in Action” adopted today comprises 41 actions to be regulated in the coming four years and is imed at implementing the extra powers in the field of home affairs acquired by the EU once the Lisbon Treaty came into force. It also responds to requests from the European Parliament to have EU-based data extraction and analysis on bank transactions to terrorist organisations, instead of sending all the banking data to the US, where such a programme has existed since 2001. Read COM(2010) 673 final here.

The EU Internal Security Strategy in Action identifies five strategic objectives and outlines a series of actions for each of them:

1. Disrupt international crime networks
– To identify and disrupt criminal networks, it is essential to understand their members’ methods of operating and their financing, the Commission says.

The Commission will therefore propose in 2011 EU legislation on the collection of Passenger Name Records of passengers on flights entering or leaving the territory of the EU. These data will be analysed by the authorities in Member States to prevent and prosecute terrorist offences and serious crimes.

– The Commission also suggests to revise the EU anti-money laundering legislation and setting up joint investigation teams

The Commission will propose legislation in 2011 to strengthen the EU legal framework on confiscation as well.

2. Prevent terrorism and address radicalisation and recruitment
The Commission stresses that the core of the action on radicalisation and recruitment is – and should remain –
at national level.

By 2011, and in partnership with the Committee of the Regions, the Commission will promote the creation of an EU radicalisation-awareness network.This network will consist of policy makers, law enforcement and security officials, prosecutors, local authorities, academics, field experts and civil society organisations, including victims groups. The Commission will also support the work of civil society organisations which
expose, translate and challenge violent extremist propaganda on the internet.

The Commission will in 2012 organise a ministerial conference on the prevention of radicalisation and recruitment at which Member States will have the opportunity to present examples of successful action to counter extremist ideology.

More importantly the Commission will in 2011 consider devising a framework for administrative measures under Article 75 of the Treaty as regards freezing of assets to prevent and combat terrorism and related activities, and it will develop a policy for the EU to extract and analyse financial messaging data held on its own territory.

3. Raise levels of security for citizens and businesses in cyberspace
– Establishment of an EU cybercrime centre (2013).
– Establishment of a network of Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERT) (2012).
– Establishment of a European information sharing and alert system, EISAS (2013).

The Commission adds:

The handling of illegal internet content – including incitement to terrorism – should be tackled through guidelines on cooperation, based on authorised notice and take-down procedures, which the Commission intends to develop with internet service providers, law enforcement authorities and non-profit organisations by 2011. To encourage contact and interaction between these stakeholders, the Commission will promote the use of an internet based platform called the Contact Initiative against Cybercrime for Industry and Law Enforcement.

4. Strengthen security through border management
– Establishment of European external border surveillance system, EUROSUR (2011).

EUROSUR will establish a mechanism for Member States’ authorities to share operational information related to border surveillance and for cooperation with each other and with Frontex at tactical, operational and strategic level. EUROSUR will make use of new technologies developed through EU funded research projects and activities, such as satellite imagery to detect and track targets at the maritime border, e.g. tracing fast vessels transporting drugs to the EU.

According to EU observer “Eurosur is likely to spark controversy among human rights groups
pointing to the fallacy of mashing together asylum seekers and irregular
migrants with traffickers and organised crime lords. “

– Better analysis to identify ‘hot spots’ at the external borders (2011).
– Joint reports on human trafficking, human smuggling and smuggling of illicit goods as a basis for joint operations (2011).

The Commission shrewdly states that Frontex should be able to process personal data.

During its operations, Frontex comes across key information on criminals involved in trafficking networks. Currently, however, this information cannot be further used for risk analyses or to better target future joint operations. Moreover, relevant data on suspected criminals do not reach the competent national authorities or Europol for further investigation. Likewise, Europol cannot share information from its analytical work files. Based on experience and in the context of the EU’s overall approach to information management, the Commission considers that enabling Frontex to process and use this information, with a limited scope and in accordance with clearly defined personal data management rules, will make a significant contribution to dismantling criminal organisations. However, this should not create any duplication of tasks between Frontex and Europol.

5. Increase Europe’s resilience towards crises and disasters
– Proposal on the implementation of the solidarity clause (2011).
– Proposal for a European Emergency Response Capacity (2011).
– Establishment of a risk management policy linking threat and risk assessments to decision making (2014).

The Commission will submit an annual progress report to the European Parliament and the Council. The Commission will support the Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation on Internal Security, COSI, which will play a key role in ensuring the effective implementation of the strategy.

Implementing the strategy: the role of COSI
The Commission will support the activities of the Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation on Internal Security (COSI) to ensure that operational cooperation is promoted and strengthened, and that coordination of the action of Member States’ competent authorities is facilitated.

Comments
Commissioner Malstrom:

“EU internal security has traditionally been following a silo mentality, focusing on one area at a time. Now we take a common approach on how to respond to the security threats and challenges ahead. Terrorism, organised, cross-border and cyber crime, and crises and disasters are areas where we need to combine our efforts and work together in order to increase the security of our citizens, businesses, and societies across the EU. This strategy outlines the threats ahead and the necessary actions we must take in order to be able to fight them. I encourage all relevant actors to take their responsibility to implement these actions and thereby to strengthen EU security”, said Cecilia Malmström, Commissioner for Home Affairs.

Background
In February 2010, the Spanish EU Presidency outlined the security challenges for the EU in an Internal Security Strategy (“Towards a European Security Model“), and called on the Commission to identify action-oriented proposals for implementing it.