In the 1930s, Bonnie and Clyde seemed unstoppable. Their gang was infamous for a series of brazen bank robberies, zig-zagging across state lines to exploit rules that prevented police officers from following them into another jurisdiction.
The United States was confronted with a problem. Bank robbers could cross borders, but law enforcement officials could not. By the 1930s, automobiles had become widespread and criminals were more mobile than ever before.
America found a solution in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Agents of the FBI had federal jurisdiction, allowing them to investigate and pursue felons wherever they went.
Today, Europe faces an even more mobile threat. Transnational terrorism and criminal gangs exploit freedom of movement within the European Union to evade capture, and the good guys often struggle to keep up.
We had a comment from Alexander, who believes that the chances of “preventing the next big terror attack in Europe would be greatly increased if European intelligence agencies did more to share and pool resources. Information sharing between agencies in particular could be improved.”
To get a reaction, we took his comment to Dr. Sajjan Gohel, a visiting teacher at the London School of Economics whose research includes radicalism, terrorism, and trans-national political violence. What would he say to Alexander?
Intelligence sharing is critical to counter-terrorism. Without it, it becomes much harder to foil and disrupt terrorist plots… The November 2015 Paris attacks, or the Brussels bombings at the airport and railway station, those were examples of people that had actually travelled abroad to carry out an attack in Europe. One thing that has unfortunately aided them has been the ability to travel across the Schengen zone unhindered.
Now, of course, freedom of movement is a key principle of the European ideal, and it’s something that is very important. But the problem with that is that terrorists are misusing it. Another example would be what transpired during the Berlin marketplace attack in December 2016. The individual that carried out that attack travelled across five countries after the attack before he was identified in Italy and killed by police.
The reason why I mention these examples is that you have so many people that are using the Schengen zone to travel, and if you are going to have freedom of movement then there has to be a mechanism whereby information can be exchanged between various countries, law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies. There needs to be a real-time information exchange so that a plot can either be prevented or, post-incident, an individual that may be on the run can be quickly identified and apprehended. So, intelligence sharing is absolutely critical.
Now, you have Europol, which principally interacts with national and federal police forces, but it doesn’t really interact with intelligence agencies, and that restricts access to potentially significant information. Last year Europol actually announced the formation of the European Counter-Terrorism Centre to combat terrorism in Europe, and to try and act as a central information hub to boost cooperation. It’s too early to judge whether that will be a success or not, but that is a very important mechanism that could fill the gap that currently exists.
To get another reaction, we also spoke to Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol. His agency has no executive powers, and acts to support national law enforcement agencies rather than launching investigations independently. What would he say to Alexander?
We also had a comment from Betti, who thinks Europe needs its own version of the FBI.
What did Sajjan Gohel think about her suggestion?
If one were to create a kind of European-wide federal law enforcement or intelligence agency that could supercede national organisations within EU countries, that might help to mitigate the problem, but I don’t ever see that actually happening because no country’s federal or national law enforcement agencies would willingly cede power to such a body. That creates a potential problem then when it comes to trying to counter the threat and the problem…
Finally, we put Betti’s suggestion to Rob Wainwright, the Director of Europol. Did he see a need for a ‘European FBI’?
Would a ‘European FBI’ help prevent terror attacks? Or is such a thing politically impossible? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!