Accession to the EU entails major reforms to be performed with regard to counter -terrorism, not only in terms of harmonizing legislation but also when it comes to upgrading the institutional structure and operational capabilities of the Serbian Police.

By Andrej Stefanović (BCSP) / Photo: European Parliament

According to the European Agenda on Security from 2015, terrorism is regarded as one of the greatest cross-border threats in Europe. The EU has pledged to combat terrorism in every shape and form, especially through increased cooperation between national services in charge of fighting terrorism, such as police and intelligence agencies, and through extensive information and intelligence exchange between these bodies. The perception of the threat of terrorism has exponentially grown in the last couple of years with a multitude of terrorist attacks being carried out in various places in Europe. The threat of terrorism is well understood in Serbia as well – terrorism has been identified as one of the key threats and challenges to Serbia’s national security, as stated in its National Security Strategy.

Serbia has already gone a long way when it comes to complying with EU standards in combating terrorism. It has aligned its definition of the crime of terrorism and related acts (Article 391 of the Criminal Code) with those stipulated in relevant Union decisions. Likewise, in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2178, it has criminalized foreign fighters, i.e. those who travel from their place of residence to other states for the purpose of perpetrating, planning, preparing or participating in terrorist acts. Likewise, as a first concrete step in fulfilling obligations from the negotiations with the EU, Serbian authorities have drafted their first Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

However, this document is yet to officially enter into force.

On the other hand, Serbia is still obliged to conduct other improvements that would equip it in fighting terrorism. Accession to the EU does not only entail harmonization of legislation but requires also updating the institutional structure within the Police, better coordination, numerous training, as well as more investment in this field of policing. This all should make the Serbian Police more prepared for cooperating with their partners from the region and the EU, and for participating in information and intelligence exchange.

The Action Plan for Chapter 24 envisages what institutional changes are to be passed. Even though some legislative amending has been carried out when it comes to the Law on the Organization and Jurisdiction of Government Authorities in Suppression of Organized Crime, Corruption, and Terrorism (hereinafter: the Law), problems still exist.

This piece of legislation should have been harmonised with the Council Decision 2005/671/JHA on the exchange of information and cooperation concerning terrorism, which obliges member states to designate a specialised service within its police forces, or other law enforcement authorities, which will access, collect and send to EUROPOL all relevant information stemming from criminal investigations concerning terrorist offences. However, the Serbian Law only mentions a special place and role of the Department for combating Organized Crime in detecting and suppressing the above-mentioned offenses (which includes terrorism). At the same time, within the Criminal Police Directorate, there is another Department charged with combating terrorism and extremism, but it has completely been omitted from the Law, for reasons not fully understood.

The Department for combating Terrorism and Extremism, as an organizational unit within the Criminal Police Directorate, ought to be correspondingly singled out as a specialized unit of the Police in charge of dealing with the crime of terrorism and related offenses. The Department should be designated as a Police unit in charge of gathering and distributing data on investigations led against suspects of terrorism. In this sense, it would hold its rightful place in the network of information and criminal intelligence exchange in the Union.

In this vein, it is necessary to step up with the cooperation with Europol. It has been noted by the European Commission that the cooperation between the Department for combating terrorism and Europol has intensified in the field of preventing and combating terrorist crimes, as well as in exchanging information on the movement of terrorists. During the past three years, there has been a ten times increase in the total number of data transmitted through the SIENA (the Secure Information Exchange Network Application). There is still room for more work through a full application of the Operational Agreement Serbia concluded with Europol, especially when it comes to anti-radicalization and preventive activities.

Building on criminal intelligence exchange, the capacities of the Department also need to be improved when it comes to establishing joint investigation teams (JIT). Serbia already possesses potential when it comes to police cooperation: it is a signatory of the Police Cooperation Convention for South East Europe; it participates within the SELEC (Southeast European Law Enforcement Center) and has concluded bilateral agreements on police cooperation with a number of EU member states. However, the full attainment of the JIT potential is still not achieved in practice. It needs to be taken into account that JIT is a valuable tool in combating various security threats that are cross-border in nature: not only terrorism but also organized crime, trafficking, irregular migration, etc.

As means of attaining these goals, the capacities of the Department need to be substantially upgraded.  Firstly, as the Department is currently understaffed, more needs to be invested in its human resources. Also, the expertise of the employees ought to be advanced through training on detecting various forms of terrorism and related crimes, as well as to prepare them on how to approach and interview persons who have been radicalized. Technical capabilities should also be extended through procuring modern IT equipment so that the Department would be able to conduct communication and information exchange with its partners throughout Europe and the World on an everyday basis.

In the light of the latest terrorist attacks in the EU, it has become obvious that intelligence exchange and cooperation between law enforcement holds a crucial place in preventing terrorist attacks and apprehending suspects as soon as possible. A special dimension for such threats comes with ‘returnees’- foreign fighters who return to their countries of origin and represent a particular source of the threat. Their detection is necessary even before they arrive at the border, and information exchange between services of different countries is decisive. In this sense, modern-day terrorism can be suppressed only if the competent national bodies possess the fullest and most up-to-date information which covers all stages of criminal investigation and proceedings.

Likewise, intelligence remains essential for detecting those who have not yet been involved in plotting to commit a terrorist attack, but who have been radicalized to a point of supporting terrorism. In this sense, it is necessary to have a specialized unit which would act not only repressively, through arresting and detaining suspects, but also preventively, through distributing, receiving and analyzing terrorism-related information.

As terrorism remains a cross-border threat, and as terrorists have transnational goals and objectives, the consequences of their activities usually affect more than one country. In such a situation, cooperation between all competent agencies, within a single country and between countries, becomes indispensable for fighting modern-day terrorist groups. Open borders throughout the continent mean that even more needs to be done for enhancing police cooperation, particularly through the formation of JIT.

Through the process of European integration and reforms planned in Chapter 24, Serbia is handed with an opportunity to adapt its counter-terrorism mechanism in line with the highest standards in this regard. At the moment, it remains to be seen whether this chance is going to be used.

TAGS: CommentaryEuropean AccessionManagementPolice CooperationSerbiaTerrorism