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In 2003, the European Security Strategy was underlined with: “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free.” in 2016 a completely different picture is drawn: the European Union Global Strategy acknowledges that the “Union is under threat,” and that “we live in times of existential crisis, within and beyond the European Union.”

During the thirteen-year period, the security landscape of the EU has deteriorated, reflecting also the global trend. The conflicts in the Middle East and in other areas have affected the EU both directly and indirectly through foreign terrorist fighters, refugees, terrorist attacks, economic volatility and increases in mass migration. Among the most important subjects of the global strategy, the EU counter-terrorism agenda, has been losing ground, being divided between the official “shared vision, common action” and the reality of “individual perspectives, bilateral acts”. Today, the complex and evolving threat represented by terrorism still needs a uniform, coherent, comprehensive and efficient strategy from the EU, with the full support of its Member States.

The roots of the European Union are motivated by economic and political objectives, while the counter-terrorism cooperation appeared on the agenda later on, as a reactive-measure to certain key events, without promoting a common understanding of the phenomenon among the member states in the first place.

Before and After 9/11

The European community acknowledged the threat of terrorism in 1970s and decided that an intergovernmental platform was necessary to ensure the exchange of information. The roots of the EU counter-terrorism policy are found in the creation of an informal body, independent of the European Community’s institutional structure: TREVI (Terrorisme, Radicalisme, Extrémisme et Violence Internationale).

The fight against terrorism has been seen as primarily a member state competence, although, in the past years, the Global Strategy has promoted more cooperation among the Member States and external partners in this regard. The 9/11 terrorist attacks represented a turning point for the EU’s vision of counter-terrorism. Previous to 2001, cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism was not carried out within the EU’s institutional framework. Acknowledging the threat and its complexity has pushed the EU officials to develop a common platform that could ensure the cooperation for their citizens’ safety. This act was, in fact, the EU’s response to the tragic events in the United States.

In line with this action, the EU’s counter-terrorism agenda has proved to be mainly ‘crisis-driven’, while four major shock waves have marked its evolution: the 9/11 attacks; the Madrid and London bombings; the Syrian civil war and rise of ISIS, the foreign (terrorist) fighters phenomenon, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and Brussel/Zaventem; and the Nice and Berlin attacks and a series of small-scale attacks featured by lone perpetrators that were radicalised at home, in the online environment.
Therefore, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in June 2002, the EU adopted its first action plan, the Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism, providing a common definition of terrorist offences across Europe. Secondly, in response to the London bombings of 7 July 2005, the UK drafted the first version of the “European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy” which was adopted in December 2005. The first strategy became the foundation for further developments and was based on four main pillars: prevention of “individuals from turning to terrorism”, protection of “citizens and infrastructure by reducing the vulnerability to attacks”, pursuit of terrorists as well as the disruption of their support networks and response such as managing and minimising the consequences of terrorist attacks.

The EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy

The “European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy” adopted in 2005 also provided the foundation for future EU counter-terrorism cooperation with non-EU countries and international institutions. Today, the EU cooperates with international organisations and bodies including the United Nations (UN), the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the Global Coalition against ISIL/Da’esh, and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The EU counter-terrorism strategy has developed both within and outside the EU borders.

On 28 April 2015, the European Commission adopted an improved European agenda on security which became the major policy instrument defining the EU response to security challenges. The main three priorities identified in the agenda are: terrorism and radicalisation, organised crime, and cybercrime. The action to be taken was further specified by a number of action plans adopted between 2015 and 2018: on firearms and explosives (2015); strengthening the fight against terrorist financing (2016); strengthening the European response to travel document fraud (2016); protection of public spaces (2017); preparedness against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security risks (2017); and on maritime security (2018).

The Global Strategy on the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) was released in June 2016, highlighting concerns about terrorism and other threats that have increased on European soil and beyond over the past decade. In the strategy’s mission statement, terrorism is no longer seen as a main threat but rather the primary danger facing the EU. The EUGS also looks at opportunities that lie ahead to preface its vision for the EU to tap its potential and use the tools it has at its disposal to address five key priorities: the security of the Union; the state and societal resilience to the East and South; an integrated approach to conflicts; cooperative regional orders; and global governance for the 21st century.

An Integral Part of the EU Global Strategy

The current EU counter-terrorism strategy has been given its current form as an integral part of the EU Global Strategy, which provided the context for its further development and action plan. Looking at the EU Global Strategy as a whole, the first message given points to the “existential crisis” that reaches the Union and beyond. The Strategy identifies the main threats that the European Union is facing in the current security landscape such as terrorism, migration, conflict, porous borders, cyber threats, climate change and environmental degradation. The terrorist threat is emphasised in the context of foreign and security policy, underlying the importance to prevent and counter violent extremism. Secondly, the European Union’s Global Strategy provides clear guiding principles in the form of the values shared by the Member States: unity, engagement, responsibility and partnership. The guiding principles pave the way for the main priorities of the Global Strategy. All of these are succinctly articulated and provide enough direction to follow when it comes to promoting resilience, taking an integrated and joined-up approach, as well as working with a wide array of governmental and nongovernmental partners. However, coherence in the form of an action plan is less obvious or accessible.

The final section of the Global Strategy – “From Vision to Action” – seemed to provide the material for the set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. Although this last section begins with an emphasis on the credibility of the Union, followed by responsiveness and cooperation for the following steps, the Global Strategy lacks clear exemplification of strategies and instruments to be used to address the security challenges. Bearing in mind the evolution of terrorism in conjunction with radicalisation and the pressures of migration that all combine to feed extremist narratives and present a vexing challenge to practitioners and policymakers, the nicely-packed EU Global Strategy remains just a beautifully-shaped surface.

Taking the EU counter-terrorism agenda out of the Global Strategy and analysing its development so far, the main criticism has been identified in the lack of uniformity, coherence, comprehensibility and efficiency of its elements. The EU counter-terrorism agenda has been elaborated as a result of a crisis-driven process that hasn’t provided the necessary time and context for an in-depth understanding of the general trend and its causes. The foundation for a uniform EU counter-terrorism strategy should be provided through a common understanding of the main concepts involved such as terrorism, radicalisation and extremism. Although the EU provides a definition of these concepts to be accepted by the Member States, the national perspectives that have been sculptured in time through various experiences and conflicts, provide different understandings of these already sensitive subjects. Moreover, the individual capacity of decision of the Member States in regard to their national counter-terrorism strategies have provided the space for the different strategic interest to be manifested, while sovereignty has only been given up only when it fit the national interest. As a consequence, EU member states prefer bilateral and informal cooperation and intelligence sharing. Yet member states’ inability or unwillingness to act as a collective when it comes to counterterrorism is not the only problem.

Although the first pillar identified in the counter-terrorism strategy is to prevent, the EU has put more effort in combating terrorism rather than preventing it. From the perspective of terrorism seen as a crime, the EU strategy has avoided the complex side of the phenomenon which involved personal, societal, psychological, economic, cultural, and ideological factors. In this way, the focus has been on the symptoms, rather than the causes of terrorism. For instance, the strategy should integrate the self-assessment element that would identify the factors that contributed to the radicalisation in the first place such as: the environment in the place of origin, the lack of efficient social policies for youth, the lack of access to education, the lack of jobs for the new generation or the lack of psychological support for the youth in their communities.

Moreover, caught in the crisis-and-reaction process, the EU counter-terrorism strategy was also affected of the pressure put by the expectations coming from the population after every terrorist attack. Although the pressure should motivate the responsible official bodies towards a more effective strategy, it pushed them in an abyss of unrealistic deadlines and short-term measures that, once again, were aimed to cure the symptoms and not the real causes of the problem.

While the EU’s counter-terrorism efforts are commendable, they have, to a large extent, been crisis-driven – reactive rather than proactive – although this is gradually changing. Still, member states are the major players in counter-terrorism. That means that when it comes to designing, implementing, and following a policy or issuing legislature, member states have the final say. The same is also true for each country’s intelligence agencies. The EU’s actual role is merely in coordinating member states’ individual counterterrorism strategies and ensure operation within a common framework.

Despite various criticism regarding its Global Strategy and counter-terrorism agenda, the EU is a key actor in international affairs that is now facing a complex system of threats and needs to adapt continuously and to respond immediately when it fails to prevent.

Current Challenges

Today the EU is facing the terrorist threat in its most complex form, coming from different ideological backgrounds, but showing common elements in terms of modus operandi.
Daesh lost its territory in Iraq and Syria, but it is still present on the online platforms accessed by the citizens, and in the hearts and minds of hundreds, maybe thousands of sympathisers unknown by the authorities. The phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters resulted in more than 5,000 citizens from the EU who travelled to Syria and Iraq. The first wave of EU foreign terrorist fighters – between 2011 and 2013 – caused an increase in the number of terrorist attacks after 2014. According to the database developed as part of my research on the Daesh phenomenon in the EU, the countries that provided the highest numbers of foreign terrorist fighters among the EU member states also suffered from the deadliest terrorist attacks committed by returnees in the period between 2014 and 2019. Throughout the European Union, after the declaration of the Caliphate and up to present, at least 10 attacks were proved to be planned and conducted by the returnees in France, Belgium, Finland and Germany.

The foreign terrorist fighters’ phenomenon also has a long-term effect which is much dangerous in its various ramifications. There is no complete record of the people who travelled to the conflict zone since the beginning of the war in Syria. The EU member states, except Germany, have proven reluctant in repatriating their foreign terrorist fighters. While important measures have been adopted related to returning foreign fighters, including increased information exchange on identification and the detection of suspicious travel, significant challenges remain. For example, gathering legal evidence to support prosecutions and proving specific actions on the battlefield can be very difficult. This reason pushes the governments to let their citizens in the insecure prisons in Syria and Iraq, places that become radicalisation heavens for the future terrorist groups.

The Women and Children of Daesh

In the same way, the women and children of Daesh do not represent a priority for the EU member states or for the EU counter-terrorism strategy. The controversy between the fundamental human rights and security together with various political and legislative concerns have made EU member states reluctant to repatriate captured foreign nationals, even in the case of the ones who have not been directly involved in violence. Thousands of fighters, women and children are in the custody of the US-backed Syrian Defence Forces in Syria. That is the new generation of jihadi terrorists, just being formed as a consequence of our reluctance in assuming responsibility and taking action to repatriate our citizens. Organised repatriation should be planned at EU level immediately, at least for women and children, in order to reduce the long-term threat.

Home-grown terrorism and online radicalisation is visible among various groups’ propaganda, especially Daesh, al-Qaeda and right-wing groups. Most of the perpetrators of the attacks on European soil in recent years, although with a salafi-jihadist ideology, were European citizens, born in Europe and radicalised without even leaving Europe. The digital environment offers easy ways to radicalise: the use of social networks, the darknet and encrypted communication channels such as Telegram for spreading propaganda, training and for recruitment purposes.

The digital environment also increases the level of cyber risks, emphasising the necessity to protect critical infrastructure. Even though such complex cyber-attacks have not yet been realised, the chances for skilled individuals to be recruited and to conduct such attacks is very high.

Firearms and explosives are also an important threat for the security of the EU citizens, as news of old ammunition found in the hands of right-wing extremist groups are spreading. So far, in the case of the terrorist attacks witnessed in the EU between 2014 and 2019, explosives were used in 8 terrorist attacks, while firearms were used in 17 terrorist attacks (personal database).

The foreign fighters’ phenomenon and the high terrorist threat have challenged the principle of free movement across EU internal borders and exposed flaws in external border control and also in the share of information between member states.

Another threat that should be tackled by the EU counter-terrorism strategy is the process of radicalisation in prison, which was observed in some member states. Two terrorist attacks carried out in 2018 (Liège and Strasbourg) were executed by individuals radicalised in prison. Many prisons are not sufficiently equipped to hold jihadists and fully prevent them spreading extremist ideology and searching out vulnerable individuals to groom. Prison staff lack sufficient training as well.


Terrorism is a multidisciplinary concept and counter-terrorism should definitely be understood as an interdisciplinary task. To start with, a better and common understanding of the phenomenon is needed and, in this regard, research is also necessary to better understand why people become terrorists and how terrorists operate and communicate but, more importantly, how they think. Beyond terrorism as a crime, its complex dimensions, such as the social and psychological ones, should be analysed. The research should not focus on the symptoms of terrorism, but it should rather aim at identifying the causes of the phenomenon, starting with our own societies, communities, groups and families. An ongoing research programme established by the EU Commission called ‘Horizon 2020’ is tangentially relevant, but the topic of terrorism does not seem to be at the focal point of this project, and little to no priority appears to be given to researching the backgrounds and causes of terrorism. The Radicalisation Awareness Network is also a great step ahead, but the platform of experts should be continuously challenged through various projects and used to its maximum potential. Such projects should include frequent reports, analysis, expert meetings, and suggestions for policymakers. Investing in applied research in terrorism would be helpful to the overall EU counterterrorism strategy in the long-term.
The EU has been identified with the concept of “soft power” and should use the experience it has in order to develop its role in counter-terrorism as a “soft power” – actor that promotes international cooperation based on intercultural dialogue and common understanding of threats. In the vicious cycle of terror and counter-terror, repressive measures and strong-arm approaches are often implemented. Unfortunately, they only succeed in nourishing the extremist narrative, leading to even more terrorism. The more dividing the threat becomes, the more unity should be promoted, and the EU has the power, the experience and the legitimacy to act and develop its soft-power strategy based on what it does best. Measures should aim to empower youth in the affected communities within the EU Member States and to provide the social policies necessary to fight the elements that caused radicalisation in the first place. The role of the family and community should be acknowledged and treated accordingly, with measures that will provide the necessary infrastructure for these families and communities to have access to information and to be able to reach and to be easily in the reach of authorities. Moreover, the new strategy should aim at building trust between affected communities and authorities, in order to provide the advantage before the terrorist groups. The EU needs to recognise the importance of investing in building public resilience rather than responding (and appealing to) public fear. Ending this vicious cycle would eventually be in the EU’s best interest.
And beyond any measure, the EU counter-terrorism strategy should be human-centric and prevention-driven instead of state-interest focused and crisis-driven. Instead of over-estimating the threat, acknowledging the human face of the threat should redirect the attention to the various dimensions of the phenomenon and, further on, to the causes of radicalisation within our own borders.


The EU’s future depends on if and how it manages to achieve a nuanced counterterrorism strategy both within its territory and outside in its various partnerships and alliances. Furthermore, the extent to which the ongoing Brexit will affect the EU’s efforts in this area remains to be seen. Some might argue that the bilateral agreements between member states will continue unaffected by the Brexit, but they can never ensure unity and cohesion to the EU counter-terrorism strategy. Instead of struggling to create a different, ‘hard-power’ oriented identity, The EU should focus on its ‘soft-power’ capabilities and opportunities in further developing a united, comprehensive and efficient counter-terrorism agenda to face the evolving threat.

Andreea Stoian Karadeli is freelance researcher based in Turkey and a PhD Candidate at Mihai Viteazul National Intelligence Academy in Romania. Her interdisciplinary research varies from cultural and intercultural studies to conflict resolution and focusses on national security and terrorism, with expertise in the Middle East.