Counterterrorism must get back to basics

Brussels, March 22, 2016: King Filip and Queen Mathilde of Belgium visit a military hospital where victims of the latest terror attacks are treated (source: dpa)
Brussels, March 22, 2016: King Filip and Queen Mathilde of Belgium visit a military hospital where victims of the latest terror attacks are treated (source: dpa)

Terrorists have once again struck Europe. These attacks have developed into a series – more, at fairly regular intervals, can be expected. All of this is both shocking and very sad, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

Belgium has reacted to this barbaric crime with admirable grace. It continues to mourn, but has shown bravery and composure. Its citizens have gone back to their daily lives. This is just the opposite of what the terrorists want, and stands in contrast to the high-profile outrage that swept France after the Charlie Hebdo attack, which brought the terrorists precisely the sort of attention they were seeking.

European countries continue to respond to these attacks with more monitoring and surveillance. This affects everyone. Financial transactions are tracked, telephone calls and e-mails are recorded, and airline passenger lists are handed over to governments.

The result is a violation of people’s right to privacy. Moreover, the flood of information throws law enforcement and intelligence agencies off track. This works to the terrorists’ advantage.

What is ignored is how “professional” terrorists have become in committing their heinous crimes. Carrying out terrorist attacks like those in Paris last November and this week in Brussels is fairly straightforward. They require little money, so monitoring financial transactions will not prevent them. And fortunately, anti-money laundering procedures in Europe are robust. The idea that we can prevent terrorism with even tighter controls on financial transactions is misguided.

Professional terrorists know not to use telephones or e-mail for planning purposes and they typically travel by car to avoid flying. They can evade our modern surveillance techniques quite easily.

However, Europe must respond powerfully to the terrorist threat and do its utmost to prevent more attacks. The only solution, then, is old-fashioned intelligence: observing and infiltrating terrorist groups. This requires undercover agents and informers. The work is certainly difficult and dangerous, but it is effective. So much cannot be said for monitoring regular citizens and breaching their right to privacy.

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