Justice and Home Affairs

High-level conference on "the criminal justice response to radicalisation" – The discussion between ministers has revealed the extent of the issues raised by new forms of radicalisation and terrorism

The high-level conference on "the criminal justice response to radicalisation" organised jointly by the European Commission and the Presidency of the Council of the EU, which was held on 19 October 2015 in Brussels, saw an exchange of views among policymakers, professionals and experts on effective intervention, the management and the practices of sentencing in order to avoid the spreading of radicalised ideas, inside and outside the EU's prisons, which could lead to acts of terrorism. One of the public events of this conference has been a discussion between eighteen European ministers on their national practices and their expectations towards and within the European Union. The debate revealed the extent of the issues raised.

"The hotbeds of radicalisation are largely located outside prisons"

Christiane Taubira, the French Minister for Justice, felt that it was a good thing that the discussion could also be held between Ministers of Justice. Radicalisation was initially a subject discussed by interior ministers, concerned by the issue of repression. "But justice also contributes to the security response" and can "in time bring responses that actually can reduce the terrorist threat", she emphasised, "depending on the means we put into it". Christiane Taubira spoke of a "relatively new phenomenon" that challenges the procedures and legislative norms, because care must be taken to strengthen the democratic base of public liberties "so as not to provide undue gifts to those who hide behind their religiosity".

"La réponse de la justice pénale à la radicalisation""The more we understand this new phenomenon, the more effective we will be", believes the French minister who made the distinction between nationalist, separatist, anarchist and religious terrorism that came before and the new terrorism. The latter operates in EU states, in other territories or from these territories. It controls or has territories, natural resources, financial resources, logistics and military means. Its strategy involves sprawling implementation while its purpose is devastation, such that it concerns a head-on confrontation between its conception of the organisation of the territories and the democratic conception of the EU. The modus operandi is varied, with an unprecedented number of suicide bombings and including as a result of these acts the death of their perpetrators. What is also new, since the large-scale far-right terrorist attacks, such as the one committed on Utoya in Norway, is the fact that the attacks are perpetrated by "lone wolves". Or as her British colleague Andrew Selous said later on, it is the small, more chaotic groups requiring little preparation who are no longer attacking large infrastructures.

All this requires the reallocation of human resources, re-examination of procedures and strengthening of courts specialising in organised crime, with which there are crossovers.As for the authorities, there needs to be good cooperation in the EU, particularly regarding the flow of relevant information such as that which relates to criminal records.

Christiane Taubira provided some figures on the work of the French authorities: 3,000 persons monitored, 1,800 identified as part of networks, 500 in the area, that is to say in the Middle East, notably in Syria, 133 French who have already died, including 9 in suicide-bombings. There have been 3,000 reports to a prevention centre from families worried about the radicalisation of their children. 200 judicial proceedings are underway, with 35% of persons in custody and 35% under judicial supervision. Prison intelligence personnel have been tripled in three years, with 180 specialist officers working anonymously in 2016. A multidisciplinary branch has been created to attempt to understand the phenomenon. An IT unit carries out observation in the prisons sector, equipped with Arabic-speaking translators for better responsiveness. Software that allows real-time control, phone jammers are active. The anti-terrorist unit of the Ministry of the Interior identified 344 prisoners who are being monitored after having been identified as having committed or having been suspected of committing terrorist acts. Among them are 240 Islamists. The potential for radicalisation of those already in prison has remained stable for two and a half years, and it is estimated at 15%. In short, "the hotbeds of radicalisation are largely located outside prisons".

But the detection in society of prisoners and former prisoners who are radicalised poses problems, Christiane Taubira further explained. The traditional criteria – behaviour, religiosity, relationship with authority - are "no longer apply", because the radicalised prisoner leans on dissimulation, avoids markers of identification, does not massively indoctrinate, and takes care of only two to three inmates.New means of detection must therefore be found.

The French Minister believes it essential to punish, but above all prevent and starve the recruiting ground in France by highlighting living together on the basis of secularism which does not impose a ban on religions, but can "make society a whole" while preserving civil liberties. Above all, she concluded, cooperation in the EU "helps profoundly".

"There is no typical profile among new terrorists"

Koen Geens, the Belgian Minister for Justice, alluded to the recent major incidents that marked his country. Returning foreign fighters involved in attacks are a "new aspect". Surveillance in the country has been increased. Investigations must become more efficient. Terrorism must be punished firmly, but to say that suppression and imprisonment would be the only answer seems too simplistic to him. "De-radicalisation programmes" are about to be launched in Belgium. He believes it is important to be able to rely on the expertise of Internet specialists, and for Europeans to combine their resources and exchange best practices.

Gilles de Kerchove, the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, meanwhile explained that the number of foreign fighters who return would increase more than expected due to the Russian intervention. On the other hand, the same intervention is encouraging Chechen refugees in the EU, notably in Austria, to go to Syria to fight the Russians for reasons that are strictly political, explained the Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter.In this context, most States do not have rehabilitation programmes which are, among other things, also intended for foreign fighters who cannot be proven to have blood on their hands. Gilles de Kerchove also finds it difficult to blame Member States for reacting too slowly because there is one new challenge after another, the latest being the number of women, often very young women, who are becoming radicalised.

Among the other steps that the ministers from different Member States have advocated, there has also been talk of criminal law reforms at national level, harmonisation of definitions of criminal offences and penalties at European level, as well as corporate accountability for the owners of social networks that are important vectors of hate speech and radicalisation. The ministers also discussed the implementation of the European PNR, cooperation with third countries, the exchange of information, the role of Eurojust and Europol in coordinating police and judicial work, and training, especially through CEPOL. They also talked about exploring the link between terrorism and organised crime, particularly when it concerns human trafficking in the transit countries of the current major migration flows. They also discussed Commission action to allow Member States to increase the budgetary resources of the authorities in charge of issues related to terrorism and foreign fighters, or financing projects of tolerance and conviviality between religions involving young people.

But all the representatives of the Member States who have more experience agree that there is no typical profile among new terrorists, that religion is not always the only reason, that they may hide criminal or antisocial motives, that they may come from Muslim religious circles, but that they may also be from Catholic or atheist families, be marginal or have had a brilliant career path. Hence the importance in understanding what in these cases is transversal and in involving academic research and training.

  • Updated 19-10-2015