Hague Letter: Mixing politics with national security never a good idea

A statement from Dutch counterterrorism expert Dick Schoof seems multilayered

It should be reassuring for all of Europe when the national counter-terrorism co-ordinator for the Netherlands takes the unusual step of saying publicly that he has seen no evidence of Islamic State (IS) or other jihadist groups using the Syrian migrants crisis to smuggle fighters onto our shores.

One can reasonably assume that when he made that statement, Dick Schoof was relying not only on the intelligence resources of the Dutch security service, the AIVD, but also on the experience of neighbours such as the BND in Germany, with whom information is regularly shared.

Counterintuitively, in the world of secret intelligence, not finding a threat takes almost as many resources as finding one. So it was interesting to see the intense activity last week at Europol, the EU's overarching police agency – aimed at getting national services to "play nice" and co-operate.

Failure to share intelligence between “competing” agencies – not least the FBI and the CIA – infamously contributed to the failure to stop the 9/11 attacks in New York.


For that reason it was worth noting when Europol recently underlined Europe's common cause with the US, describing jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq as "the most serious terrorist threat Europe has faced since 9/11".

Europol gathering

First to arrive at Europol headquarters in The Hague last week were some 300 senior police officers from 50 countries to discuss “terrorism and illegal immigration” – with a warning from the agency’s director,

Rob Wainwright

, on the importance of cross-border co-operation. On the margins of that summit, directors of customs from 22 EU member states met to discuss how they could “add value” to the fight against organised crime and terrorism.

It is understood both groups were jointly briefed by counter- terrorism experts on the threat posed by foreign fighters.

Then, typically without fanfare, came none other than the director of the FBI, James Comey, who recently appointed a special liaison officer to Europol, and who was equally on message – complete with Churchillian tone – when he met Wainwright.

“No law enforcement or intelligence agency alone, no country alone, can defeat crime and terrorism and keep its streets safe. But all of us, standing together, we are strong, unbending, and unbreakable.”

And yet sovereign states must act alone too.

That’s why it was equally interesting, from a Dutch point of view, that Wilma van Dijk, until now deputy to the national counter-terrorism co-ordinator and responsible for security at the investiture of King Willem-Alexander, will begin a new job this week – as director of security at Schiphol Airport, one of the busiest aviation hubs in Europe.

What van Dijk and her former boss, Dick Schoof, know all too well is that while there may be no evidence of any co-ordinated – or as Schoof termed it “structural” – attempt by jihadists to smuggle fighters into Europe, the threat from so-called “lone wolves” is very real, arguably more unpredictable, and can be equally catastrophic.

In fairness to Schoof and to the AIVD, both have acknowledged the possibility that the migrant influx may, of course, include “individuals” who mean to do harm here if they can.

Murky world

But apart from parsing the terrorist threat, what was puzzling to many onlookers last week was why Schoof chose to offer public reassurance to the people of the Netherlands at all – when security agencies and police forces in other EU countries have not.

That’s where matters move from the murky world of security to the equally murky world of domestic politics – when a country must do what a country must do.

One widely held view is that Schoof's outing was prompted by a perceived need to slap down comments by right-wing Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, during a parliamentary debate, when he described the migrant influx as "an Islamic invasion", claiming that thousands of "terrorists" were arriving in Europe.

Such nonsense can catch on. There have even been reports of one prospective politician telling a meeting of a youth wing of the Liberals – prime minister Mark Rutte’s party – a weekend or two ago that he feared “beheadings” on the streets of the Netherlands.

The urge to rebut may be strong but, even so, mixing politics with intelligence and national security – if that is indeed what happened – is never a good idea.

Why? The odds are simply too high. The hostages to fortune are far too many.

But, most of all, playing Wilders at his own game is never going to be worth the candle.