EU counter-terrorism chief warns against new technologies

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Ilkka Salmi is the EU’s leader in the fight against terrorism. He recently assumed the role of coordinating member states’ response to the security threats facing the bloc today. His appointment comes at a time when right-wing extremism is on the rise and online propaganda is a growing concern. Some of the issues we discussed with him at the European Council in Brussels.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: First of all, we have just started a new year. In 2022, how would you define terrorism?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: I would say that you still have to keep in mind that terrorism exists. If you consider, for example, say, radical Islamist views or jihadism, the ideology is still there, even if the caliphate has been defeated in Syria. And we have to be prepared for that.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: You take on this role at a time when terrorism somehow seems to have disappeared and is somewhat at the bottom of the agenda. Has the threat just slipped off the political agenda?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: Unfortunately, the terrorist threat is constantly there. It would have to be said that it’s partly… it may be high. We can’t really say that it has completely disappeared. Of course, issues like – especially from a European perspective – the pandemic could have had an impact. I mean, people don’t move as freely as they used to. One thing I would probably like to point out as well, and that’s of course a good thing, is resilience.

We have seen very unfortunate, small-scale terrorist attacks in Europe where lives have been lost. Nevertheless, companies have indeed managed to recover.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: What do you think is the current situation when it comes to terrorist threats in Europe and pressing issues?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: I would basically say two…actually three things. The first, jihadism or the radical Islamist threat is still there. Second, we have indeed seen right-wing extremism, especially violent white right-wing extremism, become more prominent in Europe. And then, the third issue is, of course, the development of technology. And new technology is also playing a role in spreading hate speech or terrorist content online.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: In the past, several European nationals have joined organizations linked to terrorism. In your opinion, is Europe still attractive for these organizations to recruit? And what could be the root causes of such recruitments?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: Well, what we saw, let’s say in 2012, 2013, 2014, mostly, or 2015 related to the crisis in Syria and the formation of Daesh or ISIS at the time, the situation really tempted some Europeans to leave and join the ranks of these terrorist organizations. Theoretically speaking, it still somehow exists. We have seen the developments in Afghanistan. It is certainly a question that we will follow.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: During the last quarter, migration has once again become a major topic on the agenda. Do you think there is a link, as some claim, between migration and terrorism or is there not at all?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: Drawing a line – you know – kind of a straight line between migration and terrorism is far from the case. At the same time, and having said that, we have to bear in mind that if there is a large movement of people in the world, terrorist organizations could try to use this to their advantage and infiltrate individuals into it.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: We are in Brussels, a city that has been affected by terrorism in the past. What do you think are the priorities for making Europe a safer place?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: We need to ensure that the balance between issues such as privacy on the one hand and security on the other will be covered, so we are ensuring that our legislation allows our law enforcement to work efficiently, but at the same time ensure that new technology is available to these agencies.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: Moving on to another topic. On the pandemic, which is also an urgent issue, a recent Europol report referring to 2020, said that organizations linked to terrorism are taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to exacerbate hate speech and hatred, as well as online propaganda in this direction. What are we doing to combat this and to solve this problem, which has the potential to get worse in the future?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: It is actually very timely to address these challenges. The so-called Terrorist Content Online Act will come into effect. This is European legislation, the gist of which is that service providers and social media platforms are obliged to remove terrorist content, that they see online… I mean, based on reports , by the Member States, the authorities, and this also goes through Europol. So basically within an hour this kind of information or posts should be deleted. And I think it’s a very, very good development over the past few years that we’ve been able to pass this kind of legislation, which will come into force next summer.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: These days we also see a lot of anti-vaccination rhetoric online, in the context of the pandemic. Do you see this as having the potential to be used by right-wing extremists to somehow degenerate and thus gain more followers?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: I don’t think we would call it terrorism right now. That said, of course, there’s concern that, you know, fringe parts of those who are very against it might become radicalized again through this and maybe seek alliances with different groups, right-wing violent extremism , for example. But for now, we must still keep in mind that freedom of speech and expression is still there and the right to demonstrate.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: As technology evolves, it seems that terrorism evolves. How do we approach all of this?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: First of all, of course, we have to put a lot of effort into preventive work, trying to make sure that people don’t become radicalized, that they don’t get these opinions, especially when we’re talking about the Europe and, of course, the world as well. Second, we need to ensure that law enforcement, security authorities have (a) sufficient resources and (b) a legal framework within which they can operate.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: Is the Internet the weapon of choice for the future and how would you approach the fight against cyberterrorism in this sense?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: I absolutely believe that is indeed the way to go. This, of course, will not replace what will happen in the real world. Because that is where, unfortunately, all terrorist incidents would have a psychological impact. But at the same time, new technology, bearing in mind that it is extremely useful for you and me, at the same time, also gives new tools to those who want to do harm. And that’s exactly why we need to make sure we keep up with technological developments.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: In your opinion, is there a sort of unique approach, an applicable pan-European approach?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: If we are discussing the threat, it certainly varies between different EU member states or different countries in Europe. So, in that sense, we probably can’t speak of a kind of monolithic approach to this question.

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