The EU was not well-prepared to deal with jihadist terrorism in 2015, despite the indications of intensifying threat from 2011 on, nevertheless in 2019 it is much better aware of and equipped to face future threats stemming from jihadist terrorism. Whereas the term “effectiveness” is taboo in counter-terrorism circles, there is a widespread consensus that the ISIL threat that began to take shape from 2011 on caught EU Member States unprepared. National administrations largely underestimated the rising threat, while practitioners, struggling to find the appropriate counter-terrorism measures, were learning the added value of cross-border cooperation. The latter realisation, compounded with the plethora of EU legislative measures introduced since 2015 provide for a much better preparedness for the terrorist threat. Although the EU was not prepared to deal with jihadist terrorism in 2015, despite the indications of intensifying threat from 2010-2011 on, in 2019 it is much better aware of and equipped to face future threats stemming from jihadist terrorism.
Threat assessments from Europol’s TE-SAT reports, stemming overwhelmingly from national authorities’ data indicate that these security risks and the development of terrorist activity in Europe were known to EU Member States. However, it took the attacks in 2015-2016 to spring governments into action. What followed was a plethora of national and EU measures retroactively put in place to address the gaps in governance exposed by various successful and foiled attacks, specifically of jihadist conviction. This is the issue area where the EU was most underprepared to respond, it is also the area that almost single-handedly caused a paradigm shift in EU counter-terrorism. Nevertheless, the nature of the threat has since evolved, and while that can be explained to a degree by effective measures put in place making it harder for extremists to explore certain avenues, it also means that the nature of the threat needs to be considered in its dynamic nature.
According to policy-makers, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris on 7 January 2015 served as the opening of the window of opportunity for the policy’s harmonisation, while latter attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels 2016 opened up that proverbial window even further. In the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, in January and February, three sets of Council Conclusions were adopted, serving as the official mandate for the EU’s new involvement in counter-terrorism – the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council Conclusions from 30 January, the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) Conclusions from 9 February and the Informal Heads of State Summit Conclusions from 12 February 2015. The hitherto mandate for the EU in counter-terrorism was severely constricted due to the area’s interpretation as a subject of national security, thus requiring sovereign national response. The combined effect of these Council Conclusions amended this mandate by granting the EU the opportunity to legislate in counter-terrorism, to a degree deemed unimaginable until then.
Counter-terrorism in the EU classifies as a judicial issue, as it deals with criminality, which is why in many EU Member States the policy and its relevant institutions are under the auspices of ministries of justice. The Commission attempted for years to legislate on harmonising measures in counter-terrorism, where it often met resistance from Member States. It was not until late 2015 that attitudes started shifting, which is also why the Commission then began to flood the co-legislators with proposals in various domains – it is well-aware of when it can(not) foster inter-institutional consensus, and in case it cannot, it simply does not propose legislation. Repressive security measures such as restricting firearms and explosive precursors, curbing terrorist financing, etc. are considered relatively low-risk legislative initiatives, especially in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, which is why the Commission began legislating there. After a period of progressive development of a number of policies and repressive legal measures, the EU had managed to legislate in almost all sub-fields of counter-terrorism. The fact that EU Member States are eager to engage in a cross-border, cross-agency dialogue on radicalisation is another unexpected change in attitude, which is currently generating constructive initiatives systematically funded by the Commission, demonstrating long-term commitment to cooperation on topics of radicalisation – online and offline.
While EU counter-terrorism will likely never fully integrate into an EU common policy, due in large part to the significant operational, functional and sovereignty hurdles to overcome, it is well on its way to overcoming the gaps in governance that may have enabled an easier organisation and execution of terrorist attacks on EU territory until 2015. This paradigm shift was caused by a shake-up of conceptual constructions of security policies as belonging to EU Member States’ sovereign jurisdictions alone, and not crossing borders, thus not having to be relinquished or shared with the Union. EU policy-makers appear to be well-aware of Member States’ reservations as well as adept and strategic about pushing forward important legislation in politically opportune moments, however both European publics and national policy-makers needed to be convinced of the necessity and added value of the EU’s role in issues of terrorism. While the policy continues to be a hybrid, it is well on its way of becoming a well-functioning one, through the clarification of mandates, proper utilisation of instruments, and certainly a necessary element in counter-terrorism policy-making – a high common threat perception, induced by rather symmetrical political pressure across Member States.
The effects of the comprehensive reform in the policy have the potential to last, as it has put the experts and structures in place that were needed for a functioning EU counter-terrorism apparatus. They have created the relationships necessary, on both political and operational level, to be considered as transformative for the policy, and they have created a political rationale and legitimacy for such coordinated EU efforts – while the EU has proven itself a useful channel for such coordination. Apart from filling in gaps in EU governance, Member States have also been developing measures on national level in response to the illuminated problem areas. Thus, insufficient information exchange has been tackled in many Member States by the establishment of fusion centres, considered a successful tool to remedy such shortcomings. Yet it is evident that with the threat being so malleable in nature, by the time one well-placed measure is introduced, a threat has evolved elsewhere. One of the current issues of concern is how to deal with the so-called “jihadi brides” and the children of ISIL fighters, who are attempting to return in high numbers since the decline of the caliphate. Certainly, this is a question of national politics and security, however as Member States do not know the answer, they have chosen to work together on voluntary basis on such issues. Another future threat is that a number of terrorism conspirators and highly radicalised individuals (including recruiters) will soon be released from prison due to short prison sentences for such offences. As prisons have been identified as hotbeds for radicalisation and de-radicalisation programs are yet to prove their value, EU Member States are at a loss on how to handle this developing threat, as intelligence services are already overwhelmed. It is important to note that one of the lessons learned from the volatile state of internal security in the EU in the past five years is precisely the elasticity of the threat and the need of the security apparatus, on both national and EU levels, to adapt to a changing threat. This will, however, only truly be evidenced by the approaches to these upcoming security threats. The real test to such lasting effects will be a subsiding terrorist threat in the future, when it will not be a matter of political pressure to share data and coordinate efforts, but rather a matter of good will, and subject to perceived necessity.
 PhD Candidate, Dublin City University (DCU), firstname.lastname@example.org
 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
 Interview n.2.
 Interviews n.12, 19, 34, 35, 36, 38.