The European Union must not lower its guard against the threat from returning terrorist fighters despite a reduction in attacks by Islamist extremists, the bloc’s outgoing security chief said on Wednesday.
The threat from returning Europeans who fought in Syria and Iraq, self-radicalised Islamists and hundreds of extremists who are set for release from prison, means that the 28-nation bloc should not be lulled into a false sense of security, said EU commissioner Julian King.
He said that current events in Syria, an apparent reference to the death of former ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in a US special forces operation, did not make security conditions any easier. “There’s no way that we can lower our guard,” Mr King told reporters in Brussels. “The terrorism threat is not going away.”
Thirteen people were killed in seven Islamist terrorist attacks in the EU in 2018, a decrease from the previous year when 62 people were killed in ten attacks. Member states reported foiling another 16 attacks, according to the bloc’s policing and counter-terrorism body Europol.
Europol said the military defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq had a significant impact on its online radicalisation efforts but Mr King said there was too much material online “poisoning minds” despite efforts by law enforcement and tech firms to take it down.
He said that some 500 Europeans were believed to have been detained in Syria while another 1,400 children, either born or brought to the country, remained in the region.
Security experts have warned of the threat from “blowback” of ISIS-trained fighters, but governments have reported fewer former fighters returning home than had originally been expected.
Mr King said an estimated 1,100 people were in prison across Europe for terrorist offences, with twice that number radicalised after being jailed for other offences. “That is a sizeable challenge that we need to be focused on,” he said.
The EU was “better-equipped” to deal with the problem of returning fighters than it had been in previous years but “I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that we have solved this problem. We have not”.
Mr King, a British diplomat, is due to leave his post as Britain heads towards the EU exit door amid uncertainty about how the two sides will continue to share information to tackle organised crime and terrorism.
Jonathan Evans, the former head of the domestic security service MI5, said on Wednesday that he could not see any advantages to the UK after Brexit. The UK is a major contributor to Europol and acted as a bridge between the EU and other international agencies.
“I have to say I find it very hard to see any security upside from Brexit,” said Mr Evans at a meeting of the Policy Exchange thinktank in London. “Our task is to minimise the downside.”
He said it was “absolutely vital” for the UK to retain close ties with Europol, which operates a pan-EU counter-terrorist intelligence operation.