Written by Bruna Costa, edited by Paolo Stohlmann

  1. Introduction 

This paper addresses transnational terrorism as a threat to international security, more specifically the fight against terrorism by the European Union (EU), based on the analysis of academic literature and official documents, in order to analyse the role of the EU in this field, thus framing terrorism and the actorness of the EU in the international security arena. 

The terrorist attacks of September 11 (2001), in Madrid (2004), and London (2005) put transnational terrorism at the top of the international security agenda. For most States and International Organisations, transnational terrorism is currently considered one of the main threats to international security. Along with climate change, global poverty, and human rights, terrorism has emerged as one of the most important political discourses of the modern era. Since 9/11, the fight against terrorism has become one of the central areas of the European security agenda, being considered both an important task and a major challenge for the Union, despite having been previously considered a threat to internal and external security. 

2. Transnational terrorism 

Terrorism is a relatively recent phenomenon. There is no concrete or globally accepted definition of terrorism, as its conceptions are generally controversial and complex. For Wilkinson (2006), terrorism is “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies as to the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological” (Wilkinson 2006 apud Kaunert 2012, 579). It can also be defined as “the calculated use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2021). In general, we can define terrorism as the use of violence in planned and systematic acts to achieve particular political objectives and is inherently calculated and premeditated.  

Wilkinson (2006) states that terrorism can be distinguished from other forms of conflict and violence  by the following characteristics: (1) it is premeditated and designed to create a climate of extreme fear; (2) it is directed at a wider target; (3) it inherently involves attacks on random or symbolic targets (4) it is regarded as extra-normal by the society in which it occurs since it violates the norms that regulate disputes, protests, and dissent; (5) and it is used to influence the political behaviour of specific governments, communities and social groups (Wilkinson 2006).

In 2015, France was the target of major terrorist attacks. On 7 January, two armed individuals attacked the editorial office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people and injuring 8 others (Europol 2016). On 13 November, a series of synchronised and complex attacks were carried out in Paris, divided into three groups, targeting busy and strategic spaces such as theatres, cafés, stadiums, and restaurants, to cause large-scale killings. These attacks were among the deadliest on European soil, followed by those in Madrid, in which 130 people lost their lives and 368 were injured (Europol 2016).

3. The European Union as a counter-terrorist actor  

After the 9/11 attacks and the ones on European soil in Madrid and London, the EU underlined the importance of combating transnational terrorism, thus increasingly becoming an emerging actor in this field. Since then, the EU has made great strides in increasing integration and encouraging cooperation among its Member States and has played a galloping anti-terrorism role in its foreign policy (Kaunert 2012). For others, the EU is characterised as a weak actor in counterterrorism (Beyer 2008;             Martins and Ferreira-Pereira 2012) and portrayed as a paper tiger (Bures 2006, 71). It is further characterised as a counterterrorism actor in the making (Brattberg and Rhinard 2012). 

To create, guide, and achieve more concrete European action in the field of security, the EU’s efforts to increase security in the European space and, consequently, to combat transnational terrorism, can be evidenced through the adoption and implementation of official documents, whether these are treaties, strategies, policies, among others. In addition to these documentsit should be noted that institutional bodies have also been linked to the EU or created, such as the case of the strengthening of EUROPOL and EUROJUST and the creation of the EU Intelligence Centre (SITCEN), as well as the adoption of legal mechanisms such as the European Arrest Warrant. 

3.1. The EU response and efforts in the fight against international terrorism 

For a long time, the fight against terrorism was an integral part of the EU judicial and domestic policy, materialising as an important multidimensional policy area within the institutional space of the third pillar of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), where it focused, for example, on criminal justice and judicial cooperation. It was only after the attacks on US and European soil that counterterrorism moved into the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) domain, thus representing a new external dimension of EU counter-terrorism (Argomaniz 2009; Martins and Ferreira-Pereira 2012). The sense of emergence and political will motivated by these events served to challenge the existing inertia in the JHA pillar, with exogenous factors being the most significant in explaining how counterterrorism was promoted to the top of the EU agenda (Argomaniz 2009). 

9/11 represented the first critical juncture for the EU to act on the counter-terrorism side. Soon after these attacks, the European heads of government declared their intention to make the fight against terrorism one of the top priorities of the EU (Argomaniz 2009). On 21 September 2001, the Extraordinary European Council approved a comprehensive European Counter-Terrorism Policy as an Action Plan (Bures 2006). This intention was quickly verified, with the issuance of a comprehensive Action Plan that focused exclusively on counter-terrorism activity. This plan involved more than sixty measures, which would be updated and revised periodically. Wilkinson (2006) presents the six main aspects of counter-terrorism cooperation: policy and judicial cooperation; diplomatic activity; humanitarian aid to Afghanistan; improvement of airport security through the EU; enhancing cooperation on the suppression of terrorist financing; and, sharing expertise in emergency planning. 

In 2002, the European Arrest Warrant was introduced by the EU, which was based on the principle of mutual recognition of criminal decisions of the courts of all Member States, this being an administrative procedure intended as a quick means of transferring suspects (Wilkinson 2006). This mandate was considered the most important operational tool in the European fight against terrorism because of “its impact in the reduction of the length of time of the extradition procedures and its extensive utilisation by national authorities” (European Commission 2005 apud Argomaniz 2009, 115). 

The European Security Strategy (ESS) of 2003 constituted the whole cross-cutting framework of the attempt to find a common response to global challenges and major new threats (terrorism, failed states, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), regional conflicts, and organised crime),  which in comparison to previous threats are more diverse, less visible and less predictable. Terrorism was one of the main threats recognized and to this end, it was called upon to work to counter this threat using a mix of means. The ESS, despite confirming the emergence of terrorism as a priority for the Union, failed to address this fundamental weakness (Argomaniz 2009). 

The biggest catalyst for EU counterterrorism came in 2004, as a response to the attacks in Madrid. That was the year when counterterrorism started to become a truly differentiated policy space.  On 25 March 2004, the European Council adopted the Declaration on Combating Terrorism, stating that it was necessary for Member States to fully implement the measures on police and judicial collaboration. It also adopted new measures that were “focused on reinforcing operational collaboration and intelligence exchange at the state level but, importantly, also between national authorities and European bodies such as Europol and Eurojust” (Argomaniz 2009, 158). In June of the same year, the ambitious Plan of Action to Combat Terrorism was updated and expanded, expressing seven strategic objectives in about 175 specific measures. Some of these main objectives were: to deepen the international consensus and intensify international efforts to combat terrorism; to reduce access to financial resources by terrorists; to maximise the capacity of EU bodies and the Member States to detect, investigate and prosecute terrorists and prevent future attacks; among others (Wilkinson 2006). This plan was accompanied by a declaration, the EU Declaration on Combating Terrorism, a powerful statement of solidarity against terrorism following the Madrid attacks (Wilkinson 2006). 

In 2005, the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy was launched by the Council of the EU to combat terrorism globally and to make Europe a safer place. It was an attempt to streamline and clarify EU counter-terrorism activity (Argomaniz 2009) and was established by the European Council in March 2004 (but not launched until the following year) following the Madrid terrorist attacks. This Strategy is based on four structural pillars – prevention, protection, pursuit, and response, – constituting a comprehensive and proportionate response to the international terrorist threat, also recognising the importance of cooperation with non-EU states and international organisations. These pillars are a common element of the EU’s role in the world (European Council 2005).  

The first pillar related to prevention is based on combating the causes of radicalization and terrorist recruitment, both within Europe and internationally, to prevent recourse to terrorism by identifying the methods, propaganda, and tools used by terrorists. The protection pillar aims to protect Europe’s citizens and infrastructure and reduce vulnerability to attacks on European soil by improving border security, protecting strategic targets, and enhancing transport security. The third pillar aims at pursuing and investigating terrorists across EU borders and around the world while ensuring respect for human rights and international law. Regarding the response pillar, the EU in a spirit of solidarity intends to prepare for, manage and minimise the consequences of a terrorist attack. (Eur Lex 2018). 

Five years after the adoption of the ESS, the Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy was released. It continued to treat terrorism as one of the greatest threats to subsistence, stating that after Madrid and London, attacks continue to occur both on European and international soil, and that the EU has made efforts to prevent them from occurring. It also states that the Union and its members need to do more work on the financing of terrorist groups and the need for an effective and comprehensive European policy on information sharing (Council of the European Union 2008). 

In 2015, in light of the attacks in France, the Declaration of the Members of the European Council on Counterterrorism was issued to guide the work of the EU and its Member States. This joint declaration called for a series of specific measures based on three areas of action: ensuring the security of citizens; preventing radicalisation and protecting European values; and cooperating with international partners. 

The 2016 Global Strategy reinforced the importance of encouraging greater information sharing and cooperation between Member States’ intelligence services and EU agencies, as well as the importance of developing counterterrorism cooperation on human rights and common programme to counter violent extremism and radicalisation (EU Global Strategy, 2016). 

More recently, the Strategic Compass states that the EU will strengthen the response to better prevent and counter-terrorism. By using the CSDP instruments, the EU will support partner countries, “including through diplomatic engagement and political dialogue, stabilisation efforts, programmes for preventing and countering violent extremism and cooperation in the area of rule of law, while promoting full respect of human rights and international law” (EEAS, 2022, 37). Moreover, the EU will step up its engagement with strategic partners, tackle new developments (the use of new technologies for terrorism financing and the dissemination of terrorist content online), as well as strengthen the network of counter-terrorism experts in EU Delegations (EEAS, 2022).

These documents are just some examples of the various efforts that the EU has taken to mitigate and counter international terrorism. As noted above, the EU’s response to this threat has been complex and diverse.

4. Conclusion

International terrorism remains one of the greatest threats to global security. Contemporary terrorist attacks are unpredictable, targeted, and far-reaching. It is not known when they will occur or where.  Therefore, greater attention from the international community is needed to prevent these attacks from occurring, through, for example, the implementation of anti-terrorist policies, cooperation between international police forces, and greater border control. 

As evidenced, the EU has been a very active player in the fight against international terrorism through its efforts over the past decades. Before 9/11, terrorism was considered an internal EU policy area. Since then, terrorism is considered one of the main threats to European and international security, and it is one of the Union’s top priorities to combat and mitigate the threat. The response of the EU and the Member States was quite complex, with the adoption and implementation of measures, strategies, and action plans in order to mitigate and combat terrorist attacks on European soil, but also to make Europe a safer place. 

The efforts that the EU has undertaken in recent decades have served to guide and achieve greater actorness (the capacity to behave actively regarding other actors in the international system) in security and defence, more specifically in the fight against terrorism. Despite the decrease in attacks on European soil, there is still a long struggle ahead to combat terrorist groups. The EU needs to be ready to adapt to the genesis of new attacks, as terrorist groups always adopt new means, targets, and strategies for attacks. The EU will continue to have counterterrorism as one of the central security priorities, as although it remains one of the main security threats, it is increasingly unpredictable. 


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