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SWIFT, PNR, Internet control: Europol launches operational counter-terrorism department

The EU police agency Europol yesterday launched the new "European Counter Terrorism Center" (ECTC). The center was presented to the public by Europol Director Rob Wainwright in the presence of EU Interior Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Dutch Interior Minister Ardvander Steur in Amsterdam. The Netherlands currently holds the EU Council Presidency, so the EU interior and justice ministers have been meeting in Amsterdam since yesterday.

According to Europol, the facility based in The Hague is declining at the urging of the Europol director, the European Commission first announced the ECTC in April last year. As things stand, the ECTC belongs to the "Operations" department at Europol. It is seen as a "support unit" for other Europol activities.

The ECTC will comprise five departments that already exist at Europol. These include the "Hydra" and "Travelers" contact points, where Europol stores data on "foreign terrorist fighters". As the central office for financial investigations, Europol wants to track financial flows in the area of ​​"terrorism".

Europol also acts as an intermediary contact point for the "Terrorist Finance Tracking Program" ("Swift Agreement") agreed between the US and the EU for the search and tracing of financial flows.

More cooperation between the state security departments

Just recently, Europol complained that few Member States provided information on "terrorism". The EU data collection “Travelers” is largely filled by five member states and the USA. In the meantime, however, deliveries have increased significantly.

The “Firearms” contact point is now also part of the ECTC to investigate the illegal distribution and use of firearms. Finally, the "EU reporting office for Internet content" set up at Europol six months ago will also be integrated. It is supposed to track down “Islamist terrorist” content as well as postings in the area of ​​escape aid and arms trafficking and report it to Internet service providers for removal.

The bodies involved in the ECTC and the EU member states communicate via Europol's encrypted SIENA network, to which the authorities of almost all EU members are connected. In the meantime, Europol has set up a "closed user group" for the state security departments within SIENA. In this way, individual points can communicate with one another in a bilaterally and multilaterally encrypted manner. From Germany, the Federal Criminal Police Office is involved in the exchange of information as the “Europol National Unit”. The Federal Police and the Customs Criminal Police Office also use the unit as an intermediary.

Start-up help from the Federal Criminal Police Office

Participants can also access the Europol Information System via the ECTC. The "Check the Web" system set up by the Federal Criminal Police Office for Internet monitoring is also integrated. Internet content that has been observed and / or flagged for deletion is stored in the database.

For the future, Europol is calling for an interface to the Schengen Information System SIS II and to the planned EU passenger data register (EU-PNR). According to the new Europol regulation, which has not yet come into force, the agency is also allowed to exchange personal data with internet providers and other private companies.

Europol acts as a contact point for several “expert groups” from the Member States. These should also contribute to the ECTC. These include the “Dumas” working group for the persecution of “foreign fighters” as well as experts on explosives and the defusing of explosive devices.

During the German EU Council Presidency, the EU set up the “First Response Network” in June 2007. The network supports Europol in the event of “major terrorist incidents” by sending experts from the EU member states. As a quick investigation group, for example on the Breivik attack in Norway or on the occasion of the most recent attacks in Paris, the team collects information and findings across borders.

"Prediction" of attacks?

On the occasion of the opening of the ECTC, Europol published the report of a meeting of the "First Response Network". According to the event that took place at the beginning of December, further serious terrorist attacks by the “Islamic State” are to be expected. The authorities should therefore develop more activities to educate people about the activities, contacts and travel of suspects. Otherwise it is impossible to foresee future attacks (“to exactly predict when and where the next terrorist attack will take place”). Procedures for anonymization, obfuscation and encryption would also hinder the investigation.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) has now also set up a counter-terrorism unit, and Europol concluded an administrative agreement with the EEAS a year ago on the exchange of classified information. Europol wants to work more closely with “third countries” outside the EU in the future. The Dutch Presidency had distributed a discussion paper on this for the Conference of EU Interior Ministers. “Security dialogues” are planned with Libya, Egypt and Nigeria, among others.

All member states are now to delegate additional "experts in the field of counter-terrorism" to the ECTC. However, it is unclear when the new department will be fully operational. Because the current Europol regulation creates a clear legal position neither for the ECTC nor for the “reporting office”. The new version will only come into force in spring 2017 (April 1 or May 1).

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About the author

Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist and member of the editorial board of the magazine Bürgerrechte & Polizei / CILIP. All texts at, in English, on Twitter @matthimon. Not a believer in conspiracy theories of any kind. Use the Binnen-I despite the rumble of annoying masculists.
Published 01/26/2016 at 2:45 PM