The Mediterranean has long been a focal area for conflicts and terrorism. These conflicts have worsened and the terrorism threat emanating from the Mediterranean region has also morphed into a domestic issue in several European countries.
Analysts have long said that the European Union was surrounded by an “arc of crises,” as instability and wars prevailed in the Middle East (Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel wars with Syria and Egypt, the two Iraq wars) and Islamist violence rocked Maghreb countries (notably the Islamic Salvation front in Algeria), occasionally reaching European soil (terrorist attacks in London and Madrid).
Today’s wars have reached new heights of violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya, especially with the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL). Jordan and Tunisia are weakened by events occurring on their borders, while Egypt has reached a form of stability that seems shaky. Turkey, for its part, is unsettled by the violent cycle of insurgency and repression in its south-east, while terrorism from both ISIL and the PKK has tragically reached the heart of Istanbul and Ankara.
From a European perspective, tackling terrorism in the Mediterranean now requires a substantial policy reshuffle.
Europe has a long history of fighting terrorism on its soil, from the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Faction in Germany thirty to forty years ago, or Al Qaeda fifteen years ago. Tracking and defeating terrorist networks requires the same techniques now as it did then: intelligence gathering, infiltration, police action, strong judicial apparatus, and cooperation within the EU and at international level.
The new phenomenon today is homegrown jihadism. Like the left-wing terrorist operatives of the 1970s, Jihadists are young citizens of European countries enjoying the same freedoms as all others, but they are acting with a clear objective of destabilizing their own society. But jihadi operatives today are acting on the basis of a religious and ethnic ideology and with the support of terrorist organizations abroad – and they can now move much more freely throughout most of Europe. This in turn calls for new counter-terrorism methods in terms of Internet surveillance, movement controls in the control-free Schengen area, de-radicalization programs in schools and prisons. In many ways, countering homegrown jihadism leads the governments concerned to reduce the hitherto emblematic individual liberties on which European democracies rest (liberty of movement, expression and association). These policies have opened new fields of work for governments and specialized agencies that extend in multiple fields not directly connected to counterterrorism policies in the traditional sense.
A specific challenge lies with the strong operational links between terrorist organizations abroad (such as ISIL in Syria) and operatives in, say, Belgium and France acting under the protection of their EU citizenship. Radicalization and recruitment policies of ISIL in Europe are posing an acute challenge.
While most counter-terrorism policies have been put in place at national level, developments in 2015 and 2016 have made it abundantly clear that countering terrorism in Europe and the Mediterranean required more, not less, action at EU level at a time when, for a host of reasons, EU member governments have grown reluctant to sign up for policies that look like “more European integration.”
In other words, the prevailing political proclivities in Europe play against effectively countering terrorist organizations, at the very time when Europe is under great terrorist threat. A large part of the necessary actions need to be taken at national level, and this is complex enough. Yet, the ease with which terrorist operatives have made use of European policies (e.g. Schengen area) or lack thereof (e.g. non-harmonized legislations on weapons, absence of a PNR, different levels of counter-terrorism cooperation with third countries such as Turkey) clearly demonstrates that a more consistent and better-coordinated response at EU level is needed.
Will EU leaders rise to the challenge at a time when they have to cope with simultaneous political emergencies such as Brexit and the refugee crisis?