The recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and France have provoked debate about whether the UK would be safer in or out of the EU. Nigel Inkster argues that cooperation, not fragmentation, is needed for modern counter-terrorism.

Munich Security Conference

By Nigel Inkster, Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security

More and more I find myself being asked about the security implications of a British vote to leave the European Union. For some time the media has been filled with various assertions that the United Kingdom would be safer or less safe from threats such as terrorism or organised crime if it left the EU. These assertions have intensified in the wake of the turmoil recently witnessed in France and Belgium, where the scale of mass-casualty attacks perpetrated by Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has shown that this organisation has far greater capabilities and is more deeply entrenched within Europe than had generally been supposed.

As the dust settled after the latest atrocities, there was growing talk of intelligence failure, while invidious comparisons were made between the capabilities of Europe's intelligence and security services, and those of the UK. One former United States intelligence chief has even suggested that Europe is an inhibition to, rather than an enabler of, effective counter-terrorism.

A decade ago such claims would have had much validity. Then there was a significant disparity in the counter-terrorism capabilities of European states. Many security and intelligence services were under-resourced and viewed with distrust by their own political class and judiciaries. There was no common tool-kit of capabilities and hence no certainty that a terrorist moving from one European jurisdiction, where his activities could be adequately monitored, would be subject to equal scrutiny in another. And although intelligence-sharing had been institutionalised since the 1970s, the extent of such sharing did not in practice adequately reflect the transnational nature of jihadist terrorism. Europe was heavily dependent on the US for counter-terrorism intelligence, but Washington's intelligence relationship with individual European states was often fraught.

Now things look rather different. The capabilities of Europe's intelligence and security services are much improved. Intelligence-sharing and operational cooperation are the norm, as is the sharing of best practice. And as is always the case in intelligence work, collaboration has engendered greater levels of mutual trust. It is true that within Europe the UK remains an intelligence superpower, with stronger capabilities than its counterpart services. But it is in the nature of modern counter-terrorism that no single country or intelligence service can hope to have all the pieces of the puzzle.

The UK is just as dependent on cooperation with its European counterparts as they are on the UK. And by working within the EU framework, the UK is able to access data sets that it would otherwise struggle to obtain and which, combined with other data sets, can make a vital difference in identifying and tracking terrorist cells. The UK is also able to exercise influence on the overall direction of EU counter-terrorism policies and operations to a degree that would not be possible if it were no longer part of the EU club. Just as the November 2015 Paris attacks took place, European intelligence services had been due to meet in Paris to establish an operational task force to address the threat posed by ISIS. This shows how far cooperation has evolved.

But so too has the scale of the threat: Europe's intelligence and security services are now facing a new kind of challenge. Al-Qaeda had focused on bomb plots designed to replicate the effect of 9/11, directing European cells from its base in Pakistan's tribal territories. Few of those involved in planning attacks in Europe had much in the way of operational training or tradecraft expertise. Nonetheless, it took time to get on top of this model of terrorism. Success owed much to CIA drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which inhibited al-Qaeda's ability to plan attacks. But during that process, European services learnt much about the nature of the threat and got much better at knowing where to look for it.

The ISIS terrorism model, on the other hand, involves a far greater number of potential jihadists many of whom are trained and battle-hardened, a focus on fedayeen-style mass shootings, and a devolved approach to command and control. With little direction emanating from ISIS headquarters, there are fewer communications links for intelligence services to exploit.

There will inevitably be further terrorist successes before Europe's intelligence community gets to grips with the ISIS threat. History suggests that this new form of terrorism will result in a high concentration of attacks in the early phase, followed by a reduction as intelligence and security services develop a better feel for the problem, and are able to adopt a more heuristic approach to terrorist investigations.

Last week I featured briefly in the BBC's Panorama programme, which depicted in remarkable detail how ISIS had planned and orchestrated the complex, multi-phase Paris and Brussels attacks. As is always the way, many of my comments ended up on the cutting-room floor. But during my interview to camera I tried to explain the difficulties intelligence and security services face in dealing with transnational terrorist plots.

Intelligence does not come in a regular flow and when it does come it seldom admits of only one interpretation, nor does it always lead inexorably to the next piece in the puzzle. Items of intelligence that in retrospect seem crucially important do not always seem so when they first come to light. Working in counter-terrorism is to see the world always through a glass darkly. Panorama showed that Europe's intelligence and security services knew they were facing a major problem, knew many of the actors involved and were in a desperate race with the terrorists. They were able to avert some of the plots, but could not pre-empt them all. I know from personal experience what it feels like to lose that race. Successful counter-terrorism operations involve a degree of luck. To talk of 'joining the dots', as if the complexities and uncertainties of such work can be reduced to the predictable simplicity of a child's colouring book, is not helpful.

Europe's response to the threat from ISIS has been far from perfect. That is to be expected in the face of a terrorism that is very different from what has gone before. But we can draw comfort from the courageous and dignified response of the French and Belgian peoples, who have made clear by their actions that they will not be intimidated by such atrocities.

European governments will need to look again at their intelligence and security capabilities, and ask if they really are adequate to deal with the scale of the threat. They will also need to redouble the extent of their engagement with communities that perceive themselves to be marginalised, in order to address the problem of radicalisation. And sooner or later they will have to face up to the imperative necessity of dealing with the problem at source, by working to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS as an organisation. Collectively, Europe's leaders need to rediscover an awareness of security as a public good and to understand that the open society they have created will always be under threat from some form of fanaticism. It is hard to see how European fragmentation will facilitate these outcomes.

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