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The threat of terror is still very high

PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

Interview with Julian King, European Union Commissioner for Security Union.

Q: You have been holding the post for approximately ten months. What have you been focusing on during that time and what the plans for the future?

JK: Estonia’s presidency is happening at a very significant time, since we had five terrorist attacks in Europe during the past month. Two large cyberattacks took place during the same period. These threats are quite real and combating them has been my primary goal. My task has been anti-terrorism struggle, cybersecurity and combating organized crime.

I think that we have made progress, but there is definitely a lot to do, since the threat of terror is still very high. Even if a country is no directly struck by an attack, is citizens may still suffer as you know quite well here in Estonia. Awareness of cybercrime has increased and accordingly there is need for more resolute action against it. Of course, organized crime remains a problem as well and requires our attention.

Q: We know that there has been significant progress in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The coalition forces’ offensives have noticeably weakened its positions on the ground. Can this mean that the terrorist organization will try to prove itself more in Europe and the number of potential attacks will grow?

JK: I do not believe that these matters are mathematically related. Of course we have to continue pressure on Daesh in Syria and Iraq. They have done horrendous things. It is right that we concentrate on their suppression.

There is a risk that those who joined the terrorists will begin to return from Iraq and Syria. This is a real threat, but I would not want to overemphasize it. There is also the threat that they will begin more widely spread their propaganda over the Internet, tempt people to radicalize and convince then to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. Threats exist, but these risk factors are already there and we have to be prepared to fight them.

In order to prevent terrorists from entering we have strengthened border control over outside borders and paid attention to information exchange between countries. Some are coming back, but we do not know exactly, how many. The presumed figure fluctuates, but it is believed that there are roughly 2,000 of those people there. Some of them are being killed, because they take part in the fighting. Some are attempting to move elsewhere, to continue their “fight”. Some may return to Europe and we must be ready to handle it, because if they commit crimes, which include cooperation with terrorist organizations, the criminal justice system has to handle them.

Q: Do we have an idea of who has gone there and who may return?

JK: I certainly would not release misleading information. We know quite a lot about those who have gone there and we have information, which may prove useful if they should decide to return.

Q: There have been several terrorist attacks in your country, the UK, during the past few months. Nevertheless most of the police officers do not carry firearms. Shouldn’t it change in the light of recent events to provide the police with better response capability?

JK: There are different traditions in different countries. Indeed, most of the regular police officers in the UK do not carry firearms; there are specialized units for that with corresponding training.

As we discussed before, there have been five attacks in Europe within four weeks, but one very important aspect in call these attacks was the speed of response.

It is true that most of the British police officers are unarmed, but in case of the Westminster Bridge and Borough market attacks the armed police units reacted with unusual dispatch. There is at present confidence in the UK that specialized armed units are the right solution.

Q: What are your expectations to Estonia’s EU presidency specifically from the security point of view?

JK: I do hope that we can accomplish a lot and a number of urgent issues are waiting to be solved right now. We want to use information as efficiently as possible. Information is a tool, which needs to be organized at the European Union level to improve the efficiency of agencies and institutions in the frontline of anti-terrorism struggle.

Estonia has an extensive experience of e-state. We want to accomplish the work on various databases we are currently compiling; it is also necessary to ensure that we can make maximum use of the existing databases. It is necessary that the databases could cooperate, that the information would be easy to retrieve and that there were no gaps.

We had problems with people operating under an alias. They were entered in our databases, but we could not identify them, because they had several identities. This can be avoided if the databases are more compatible.

Q: How could we prevent radicalization over the Internet? This is a hugely complicated task, since billions of people are using the web. How could we cope with that?

JK: This is a very complicated process at several levels. It is very difficult to prevent radicalization even outside the virtual world. Regarding the Internet we can cooperate with the major service providers at the EU level so that we would speed up their efforts in handling the problem. We have been cooperating with them for the past 18 months.

If we draw their attention to content promoting radicalization, they take it down quite quickly in nine cases out of ten. This is excellent! We have done in tens of thousands of times, but there are hundreds of thousands of sites on the Internet containing such materials and these sites are put up very quickly. Studies show that such content has the greatest effect during the first hours.

We must become better in that sphere. We must be able to respond faster and remove the content sooner.

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