Terror in Europe

Taking the right measures in response

Almost two weeks after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the cold-blooded murder of four Jewish hostages at a Paris supermarket, Europe remains on high alert, with soldiers on the streets of France and Belgium and governments rushing to introduce new security measures. Dozens of people have been arrested in recent days, in police raids in France, Belgium, Germany and Greece aimed at preventing further terror attacks by Islamist extremists. But as Europol director Rob Wainwright acknowledged last week, the authorities cannot provide total security or monitor every potential terrorist.

The focus is on those European citizens, believed to number between 3,000 and 5,000, who have travelled to Iraq, Syria and Yemen to join violent extremist groups, and a smaller number who have since returned, perhaps with the intention of carrying out attacks in Europe. The European Commission last week gave its backing to plans by a number of EU member states to confiscate the passports and identity cards of suspected extremists to prevent them travelling to the Middle East. A number of governments are seeking new powers to spy on online communications and to oblige internet providers to allow investigators to gain access to encrypted messages.

States must take appropriate steps to protect their citizens and there is a difficult balance to be struck between security and liberty. There is little doubt that extremists are using encrypted online communications to co-ordinate actions and social media to recruit support among disaffected young Muslims. Some of the measures under consideration, however, are so sweeping that they would allow the state to monitor the private communications of every citizen. They should instead focus on targeting surveillance on those reasonably suspected of intending to carry out attacks or encouraging others to do so. Evidence that has emerged since the Paris shootings suggests that the intelligence failures that preceded them owed less to inadequate surveillance powers than to poor choices by those tasked with monitoring the gunmen.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has rejected claims that Ireland is soft on jihadist fighters, pointing out that strong legislation, including the Offences Against the State Act, are already on the books. The Passport Act allows the State to withdraw passports and revoke citizenship in certain circumstances. The authorities are monitoring closely the small number of foreign fighters who have returned to Ireland and, as the Minister noted, the risk of an attack here cannot be ruled out but the threat remains small. As the Government remains alert to the extremist threat in Europe, its actions should also be informed by the need to preserve and build upon the successful integration of people of different faiths into what was until recently a fairly homogenous society.