New technology gives new tools “to those who want to do harm”, warns EU’s counter-terrorism chief

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Ilkka Salmi is the EU’s top man when it comes to counter-terrorism. He recently took up the role of coordinating the response of member states 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. Just some of the issues that we discussed with him, at the European Council, in Brussels.

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

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: I would say that we have to still keep in mind that terrorism exists. If we consider, for example, let’s 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 up this role at a time that terrorism seems, somehow, to have gone away and is a bit low on the agenda. Has the threat just slipped off the political agenda?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: Unfortunately, the terrorism threat is constantly there. We would have to say that it’s partially… it’s perhaps elevated. We can’t really say that it’s gone away completely. Of course, issues like – especially from the European point of view – the pandemic might have had an impact. I mean, people don’t move around as freely as they used to. One thing that I probably also would like to highlight, and it is, of course, a good thing, it’s resilience.

We have seen, in Europe, small scale terrorist attacks, very unfortunate ones, where lives have been lost. Nevertheless, societies have actually managed to recover.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: What is, in your view, the current situation when we talk about terrorist threats in Europe and the pressing issues?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: I would say basically two… actually three things. The first one, jihadism or the radical Islamist threat is still there. Secondly, 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 the new technology also plays a role in spreading hate speech or terrorist content online.

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

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: Well, what we saw, let’s say back in 2012, 2013, 2014, especially, or in 2015 linked to the crisis in Syria and the formation of Daesh or ISIS back in those days, the situation really tempted some Europeans to leave and join the ranks of those terrorist organisations. Theoretically speaking, it still exists in a way. We have seen the developments in Afghanistan. It’s certainly one question that we will follow.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: In the last quarter, migration again became a big topic on the agenda. Do you think there is a link, as some people argue, between migration and terrorism or that’s not the case at all?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: Drawing a line – you know – a kind of direct line between migration and terrorism is far from the case. At the same time, and having said that, we have to keep in mind that if there is a great movement of people around the world, terrorist organisations might try to use that to their benefit and try to infiltrate individuals into it.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: We’re in Brussels, a city that has been touched by terrorism in the past. In your view, what are the priorities to make Europe a safer place?

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

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: Moving to a different topic. On the pandemic, which is a pressing issue as well, a recent Europol report referring to 2020, stated that terrorist-linked organisations are taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to exacerbate hate speech and hatred, and online propaganda in that direction. What is being done to fight this and to address this issue, which has the potential to become bigger in the future?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: It’s actually very timely to tackle these challenges. The so-called Terrorist Content Online legislation will come into force. This is European legislation, with basically the bottom line being that service providers and social media platforms are obliged to remove terrorist content, which they see online… I mean, based on reports, by member states, authorities, and also it goes through Europol. So basically within one hour that sort of information or messaging should be removed. And I think this is a very, very good development over the last years that we have managed to pass this sort of legislation, which will come into force now next summer.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: These days we also see a lot of speech against vaccination online, in the context of the pandemic. Do you consider that this has the potential to be used by right-wing extremists to sort of degenerate and thus win over more followers?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: I don’t see that we would ever label that as terrorism for the time being. Having said that, of course, there has been some concern that, you know, marginal parts of those who are very much against would radicalise again through that and perhaps seek alliances with different groups, violent right-wing extremism, for example. But for the time being, we still have to keep in mind that freedom of speech and expression is still there and the right to demonstrate.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: As tech evolves, it seems so, terrorism is evolving. How do we tackle all of this?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: First of all, of course, we have to put lots of effort into preventive work, trying to make sure that people don’t radicalise, they don’t get these views, especially when you speak about Europe and, of course, globally as well. Secondly, we have to make sure that law enforcement agencies, the security authorities have (a) enough resources and (b) a legal framework that they can operate in.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: Is online the weapon of choice for the future and how would you deal, in that sense, with fighting cyber-terrorism?

ILKKA SALMI, EU COUNTER-TERRORISM COORDINATOR: I absolutely believe that’s indeed the way forward. It will not replace, of course, what will happen in the real world. Because that’s where, unfortunately, all the terrorist incidents would have a psychological impact. But at the same time, the new technology, keeping in mind that it’s 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 have to make sure that we keep up with technological developments.

PEDRO SACADURA, EURONEWS: In your view is there a sort of one-size-fits-all approach, a pan-European approach that can be applied?

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

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