The Brussels terrorist attacks could result in new efforts for the United States and Europe to better cooperate to combat terrorism, but such efforts also would confront a fundamental problem of differing priorities and approaches – and even distrust.
The attacks have spawned a torrent of calls on this side of the Atlantic for stepped-up counterterrorism cooperation between the US and Europe.
The rationale is clear enough, and not just because the US worries that Europe, a key ally on matters of global security, could end up a less effective partner if it becomes bogged down in its internal battle with terrorism.
As in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which claimed the lives of so many foreign nationals in addition to Americans, the Brussels attacks – like last year’s Paris attacks – are a reminder that the continents have a shared concern in securing the safety of their citizens. Belgian officials have confirmed, for example, that four of the 35 victims of the Brussels attacks were Americans.
Yet deepening intelligence and counterterrorism links across the Atlantic isn’t an easy thing, say experts on these issues. For one thing, European nations have their plates full to improve their own internal collaboration among policing agencies. Other forces that could have a chilling effect are deeper questions of trust: a divide between the two continents on the issue of data sharing and privacy, and uncertainty in Europe about what kind of leader will emerge from the coming US presidential election.
“We’re seeing in the aftermath of Paris and now even the Brussels attacks some real differences over how personal information should be handled and how much data-sharing should be allowed, and that is on top of the residual mistrust [of the US] in Europe going back to the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq,” says Markus Thiel, director of the European and Eurasian Studies Program at Florida International University in Miami.
It’s not that efforts to Europe-US collaboration is totally absent in the wake of the Brussels attacks.
On Monday, for example, The Wall Street Journal reported that Belgian authorities have enlisted FBI help to gather data from seized computers and cellphones that might yield information about the terror network behind the attacks.
And calls to enhance collaboration have been loud in recent days.
“To protect our citizens, we must deepen our partnership with Europe and other allies to defeat ISIS and other terror groups,” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement last week after confirmation that Tennesseans Justin and Jennifer Shults were among the victims of the Brussels bombings.
But, surveying the prospects for deeper collaboration, Dr. Thiel sees some significant US-Europe divides, including longstanding suspicions in Europe about the intention and wisdom of many US policies, particularly in the Middle East.
“There are still very strong feelings that the US meddles in the Middle East – and then Europe has to live with the consequences of that,” he adds.
Thiel also counters those in the US who say that a slow-moving Europe has done nothing to improve its counterterrorism capabilities in the wake of recent attacks claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He notes, for example, the creation following the Paris attacks of the European Counter Terrorism Center, where 30 European countries (the European Union’s 28, plus Norway and Switzerland) share information under the auspices of Europol.
But Thiel, who is German and travels frequently to Europe, also cites the example of debates on proposed policy improvements in Europe that have been prolonged in part by suspicions over how the adjusted policies might be manipulated by the US.
One such debate is over creation of a Passenger Name Record (PNR) that would track air travelers in and out of the EU and would be shared with other countries like the US. Thiel notes that within days of the Brussels attacks all 28 EU interior ministers had called for passage of the PNR by the European Parliament. But he says he expects concerns over how the shared data would be used will put off approval of the PNR at least until November – for reasons related to US electoral politics.
“A lot of people favor passage of the PNR bill, and I would agree with them, but my best guess would still be that the European Parliament will wait until November – until we know who will be in power in the White House.”
Some officials and experts advocating some sort of US-EU counterterrorism initiative say now is the right time – with the experience of the Brussels attacks still fresh and with President Obama, who has remained popular in Europe, still in office for some months.
But others say such thinking fails to consider the deep impact that the revelations in 2013 of NSA spying on Europeans – including on the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – had on Mr. Obama’s image in Europe, and on prospects for greater trans-Atlantic data sharing more generally.
Another area where some say the US could help Europe is in sharing its experience with fostering cooperation in immigrant Muslim communities. The revelation after the Brussels attacks that the Belgian capital has only eight community-relations police officers working the city’s majority Muslim neighborhoods stood out to many as an example of Europe’s shortcomings.
But it remains unclear how much “lesson-giving” on community relations European countries would accept from the US, or even how applicable the American model would be in a Europe of strong national identities.
What Europe really needs, some experts say, is stronger coordination among law-enforcement and intelligence agencies within its borders, and a concerted move beyond the largely elective (rather than required) sharing of data and intelligence among agencies – steps that US cooperation could help with but which largely will depend on internal European action.
While Europe “really needs to push to improve cooperation with countries outside of the EU,” the key to Europe’s success with thwarting terrorism will rest largely with internal efforts to better integrate security and civilian protection activities, says Michelle Benson, an associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo in New York specializing in conflict and international institutions.
“The dissemination and use of police information [among] EU countries is largely voluntary,” she says, adding that “the EU cannot force [member] states to change their internal policing and protection laws.”
Stepped-up trans-Atlantic cooperation would benefit both sides, but Americans also need to remember that adjusting and reforming policing, intelligence, and data-sharing practices take time, says Dr. Benson, responding to questions by email.
Referring to the US experience after the 9/11 attacks, Benson says it “took years to fully implement cooperation” among the myriad US security and intelligence agencies, “and that was inside one country. Streamlining cooperation between the 28 EU countries,” she adds, “is a much bigger task.”