by Staff Writers
Luxembourg (AFP) Oct 09, 2014
France and Germany on Thursday pressed for urgent reforms to the European Union's visa-free Schengen travel zone to counter the increasing number of Europeans leaving to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve led the impassioned plea to EU counterparts at a meeting in Luxembourg, calling for "a European PNR (Passenger Name Record) ... and a more efficient system of checks at airports.
"This is urgent," he said.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere echoed Cazeneuve, saying "three thousand fighters have left Europe to wage jihad and we don't want Europe to become an exporter of terror".
"We above all do not want battle-hardened fighters to return to Europe and plan attacks," he said. "We need measures both at the national and European levels."
Cazeneuve said a new category of "foreign fighters" should be added to the list of suspect individuals for police at European borders.
The current categories include offenders, criminals and fugitives.
The Schengen zone comprises 26 European countries, 22 EU members as well as Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland.
France has Europe's biggest Muslim population and is thought to have provided the largest contingent of Western jihadists to the conflict in Syria.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls told MPs last month that around 1,000 French citizens are involved in jihadist networks, with an estimated 580 having travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq.
A new counter-terrorism law was passed last month banning the departure of those suspected of leaving to join jihadist movements.
The ban would see suspects have their passports and ID cards confiscated for six months, renewable for up to two years.
Europe enlists Internet giants in fight against online extremism
EU interior ministers and officials met representatives from the technology firms in Luxembourg on Wednesday amid growing alarm that Islamist material is encouraging young Muslims to fight in Syria and Iraq.
EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft had explained what they do to prevent showing the videos, "which according to their internal policies are totally against their principles".
But the Swede insisted that outright blocking of websites "is not the question".
She added: "There is urgency, but we should not rush into making laws or taking decisions without thinking."
In a later joint statement, Malmstroem and Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said the two sides "agreed to organise joint training and awareness-raising workshops for the representatives of the law enforcement authorities, Internet industry and civil society".
- Jihadists using web to recruit -
Social media has become a powerful recruiting tool for jihadists, with the Islamic State group posting several videos online showing the grisly beheadings of Western hostages.
US Internet firms have sometimes been uneasy about blocking extremist material, seeing themselves as platforms rather than publications, and worrying about the implications for free speech, which is strongly protected under US law.
EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, who was also at the dinner, said the US firms were "very eager to do their part" in what he called a joint public-private effort to combat extremism.
They discussed "how can we remove from the Internet illegal content, how can we use it proactively in order to counter their narrative," he said.
"Twitter has made the life of ISIL (Islamic State) quite difficult. That's the reason why they moved from Twitter to another social network," he added.
Around 3,000 Europeans have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq, de Kerchove told AFP in September.
Officials worry some will return battle-hardened and ready to launch attacks in their home countries.
Many European parents have learned that their sons or daughters have left to fight or support jihad in Syria through messages posted on Facebook or Twitter.
Police officers who are worried that they might return to launch attacks in their home countries need such messages to determine where they are, a European official said.
The aim of cooperating with the social networks is to block the broadcast of messages and images of jihadist groups, something that must be done rapidly as the documents are duplicated quickly.
Facebook, the world's biggest social network with 1.3 billion user accounts, said it has barred "terrorist" groups from its site.
The firm intervenes when it becomes aware of accounts or content that violate user conditions, particularly in cases of calls to violence, according to Monika Bickert, Facebook head of global policy management.
The ministers were also looking into how to reinforce border checks to prevent jihadists leaving for the Middle East, and monitoring the return of those who might be preparing attacks.
However, the Schengen border-free zone, which applies to most EU countries, bars systematic checks, and the European parliament has blocked plans for a European Passenger Name Record system, a database that holds the itinerary of airline passengers.
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