Q&A with EU’s counter-terror chief

Gijs de Vries rejects the notion of a clash of religions.

Gijs de Vries
Gijs de Vries
He said the EU focuses on four areas: prevention of terrorism; protection of vulnerable targets including transport networks; disruption of terrorist networks, including financing and access to explosives; and mutual assistance after an attack.
Al Jazeera: How big a threat today is terrorism?
De Vries: Worldwide we all recognise that poverty, disease, [and] war continue to claim many more victims than terrorism.
But terrorism strikes at the heart of civilised life, people have a right to live in freedom from fear, and terrorists target that right and the most fundamental right of all – the right to life.
Violence and democracy are incompatible, so terrorism remains an existential threat to democracies.
Dozens of attacks in the EU have been thwarted over the past decade so there is a consistently high level of threat.
Only this summer, there were two narrow escapes – one well-known plot to bomb airlines across the Atlantic and another to bomb trains in Germany. The nature of the threat has changed.
Al-Qaeda remains active in trying to co-ordinate attacks. However, its greatest role now is as an ideological movement, an internet-based loose movement set on inciting violence.
It has, according to its own strategy, moved into using cyberspace as a political tool.
What are the main causes of terrorism?
“Causes” is a slippery and misleading concept … No automatic mechanism justifies mass murder and “causes” too easily suggests that, so I insist on individual responsibility for actions regardless of motivation, and many have not made that choice [of violence].
That doesn’t mean you should not look at factors that contribute to radicalisation and recruitment occurring. It is quite clear that many Muslims feel there has not been enough progress to arrive at sustainable peace in the Middle East.
I believe they are right.
The EU believes they are right and so do many non-Muslims. [But] no amount of frustration at lack of peace in the Middle East justifies blowing up innocent men, women and children. I reject the concept of a clash between religions.
There is no clash between Islam and other faiths – there is a small and unrepresentative minority of violent extremists that seek to hijack Islam against the convictions of the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims.
I salute those who have spoken out courageously against this effort to hijack Islam. We have seen the emergence of home-grown terrorism in quite a few countries across the world including some European countries.
It is very important that Muslims and non-Muslims work closely together to prevent such radicalisation leading to violence – violence and democracy are incompatible.
If you want to live in a democracy, you have got to play by the rules.
Are the EU and US living by their own rules given the examples of Guantanamo or CIA rendition flights through Europe?
I would have preferred to see a more rapid (EU) reaction but at least it is there. I note that there is an increasing debate in the US – late but welcome. We should not look back.
We should all look forward and unite round a mainstream interpretation of international law and the Geneva conventions.
We also need progress in Arab countries. The level of torture in a country such as Egypt still is unacceptable.
We need to work on these issues across religious divides and globally. The only way to defeat the extremists, not only through law and order but ideology, is by offering an agenda which transcends religious divisions and is positive and must be centred on respect for human rights as defined by the universal declaration of human rights.
And countries that champion those rights must respect them at home. So there must not be detention without trial, no secret detention, no torture, and there must not be refoulement [forced repatriation] to countries where risk of torture is high.
These are fundamental issues.
Does the US now condone use of torture by the CIA?
I noted after the recent Congressional elections, legislation [was proposed] to repeal and revise parts of the legislation passed before the elections, so we will see where the debate ends up.
But I note among the Democrats there appears to be a discussion on returning to a mainstream interpretation of obligations under international law.
Are the terrorists achieving their aims?
Terrorists have failed in some of their major objectives.
One, they conspicuously failed to trigger mass panic in either Spain or the UK – people have reacted with dignity and courage not mass demos or panic … Western democracies are much stronger than terrorists had thought.
Two, there has been no mass uprising in Muslim countries either, not Saudi Arabia not Egypt not Pakistan nor others – the Arab street has not followed [Osama] Bin Laden.
Three, it is a setback for violent extremists that in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia free elections have been held with mass participation.
Millions of Muslims in Southeast Asia are not buying into an agenda of establishing a caliphate. These tens of millions of Muslims prefer living in parliamentary democracies which shows democracy and Islam are perfectly compatible.
And I do not detect any support among Muslims in Europe for establishment of caliphates in Europe.
It’s just not there. The terrorists have got nothing to offer – [only] a purely negative agenda, a focus on death, destruction and misery.
So the picture is a mixed one – a consistently high level of threat but the main strategic objectives of al-Qaeda have not been met mostly because mainstream Muslims reject them.
Isn’t there a growing dissatisfaction around the world with the West?
There’s a degree of truth in that, but I would challenge it in two ways: firstly, the West and the rest do not exist as such, there is huge diversity … secondly, there exists much more that unites than divides us.
An agenda (and one where we must be more active, effective and consistent) of economic justice, protection of the environment, protection of human rights and durable peace, will have strong support among people of good will.
And that is the hope for the world – liberty, justice and non-killing of men women and children.
What is the importance of the EU’s role in counter-terrorism vis-a-vis its individual member states?
First and foremost, national agencies have a leading role: national police forces and intelligence services take the lead, but as we see terrorism has many cross-border aspects that we have got to tackle effectively – that’s where I come in.
You must not underestimate the importance of the EU qua EU in this.
EU standards for security at European airports have been significantly cranked up, the EU has adopted far-reaching legislation against terrorist financing, and the EU has just granted police and other security agencies the right to consult telephone data … to disable communication networks among terrorists.
Source : Al Jazeera

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