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Founder of the Brussels-Based European Foundation for Democracy: Sleeper Cells Are a Challenge for National and EU Law Enforcement Agencies

by Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi and Yasmine El-Geressi

Roberta Bonazzi, founder of the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy, focuses on prevention of radicalisation, foreign policy, democratic reforms, and extremism more broadly. She has directed successful pan-European campaigns on these and related issues. In recent months she has also been involved in a global campaign to raise awareness of how extremist organisations exploit social media to recruit and radicalise vulnerable people. 
 
Majalla interviewed Roberta Bonazzi to explore the main challenges underlying the EU’s counter-terrorism strategy and identify key spaces for improvement.

Q: What are some of the limitations of the European Union’s present counter-terrorism strategy as you see them?
 
A: The EU needs to undertake more programmes to empower civil society groups where credible grassroots organisations and other individuals can be provided with the training, organisational, and other capacity building skills to amplify their reach within their communities to prevent radicalisation. The funding application processes and reporting mechanisms are overly bureaucratic and complicated, deterring many groups from applying. Successful prevention work needs to have credible individuals who can deliver alternative and counter messaging to those who are susceptible to radicalisation – cut the red tape.  At the same time it is critically important that organisations and individuals that are funded to work on prevention of radicalisation or on integration programmes are also properly vetted. Too often public funding and support has gone to organisations that are being driven by a political religious ideology that promotes a system of values that are contrary to our liberal democratic values.

Still, the task is complicated. The attackers are acting according to a pattern that hadn’t been predicted by experts. Rather than using weapons of war, a terrorist like Bonazzi highlighted how these lone wolves are simply using tools, everyday objects or vehicles as weapons. That is really troubling in terms of how to respond from a security perspective.

Q: The UK government’s “Prevent” programme has stirred some controversy, with concerns raised that it may alienate some quarters of the British Muslim community that need to be engaged. What are your thoughts on this?
 
A: The Prevent programme is a work in progress, dealing with a raft of challenges thrown up by a number of recent deadly terror attacks in the UK and exacerbated by the risks posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters from the conflict in Syria and Iraq. The latter carry a huge security threat with the expectation that they will be responsible for future attacks in European countries. Moreover, with ISIS seemingly losing the conflict, the group has urged its supporters to carry out attacks in their own countries.

Now the Prevent programme has undertaken a number of initiatives, many of which have been successful, though as with all government policies, there are aspects of the programme that can always be improved. Many of the criticisms of Prevent have originated from political-religious groups in the UK, a number of which are funded by countries and organisations outside Europe.
 
Q: Khuram Butt, one of the London Bridge attackers, was reported to the anti-terror police on at least two occasions. He is also reported to have been seen praying with a group of radical Muslims in Regent’s Park — including Mohammed Shamsuddin, who was filmed warning that the black flag of Islam would one day fly over Downing Street and calling for Britain to adopt Sharia law. What lessons does his case provide to EU security sectors and legislators about counterterrorism practices and laws?

A: We understand that UK and law enforcement agencies in other countries in Europe have thwarted a number of major terrorist attacks in recent months and over the past year. There is a significant number of radicals in the UK – estimates are upwards of 23 000 – many of whom need to be surveilled. It is impossible that all, half, or even a third of this number can be watched 24 hours a day. No government has the resources available for this. What is key therefore is outreach work to prevent radicalisation from gaining a foothold within society. For the past 12 years, the European Foundation for Democracy has been emphasising the need for governments in Europe to work with individuals and groups who can demonstrate support for the liberal democratic values that our societies are based on. For too long, national governments — including the UK — and the European institutions have supported nonviolent extremist groups as well as those organisations that claim to ‘represent’ Muslims in Europe who do not ascribe to universally held values of equality of men and women, freedom of religion and individual rights. There is no one Muslim group in Europe any more than there is one Christian, Jewish or other religious group.      

Q: How do you think Europe can better respond to the concern about sleeper cells on the continent?
 
A: Sleeper cells are a challenge for national and EU law enforcement agencies; detection and intelligence on radical groups and individuals continues to improve though more can and needs to be done to thwart terrorist attacks. Whilst improving, security service and law enforcement agencies across the continent need to communicate more consistently and efficiently with one another to close the spaces where terrorists can plan attacks.
 
Q: To what extent is the freedom of movement of European people at stake in the context of the EU’s fight against terrorism? 

A: Agreement by the EU 28 on its Entry/Exit system and finalisation of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) by the end of 2017 is intended to deliver enhanced external border controls as well as increase security for citizens within the EU. These enhanced protection systems are intended to identify individuals who pose a threat to security at the external border. Increased cooperation and coordination among law enforcement needs to continue within the EU of course and temporary border controls within the EU are a necessary inconvenience for the moment regrettably. 
 

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