Catherine De Bolle has served as Europol’s Executive Director since May 2018. She previously served as Commissioner General of the Belgian Federal Police between March 2012 and April 2018. Between June 2015 and April 2018, she also served as the President of Belgium’s Coordination Committee for Intelligence and Security. Between 2001 and 2012, De Bolle served as the chief of the local police of the Belgian city of Ninove. Since November 2015, she has been a member of the Executive Committee of Interpol. In October 2017, De Bolle was the recipient of France’s highest civilian honor—Officier de l’ Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur.

CTC: Between 2012 and 2018, you were the Commissioner General of the Belgian Federal Police. During this time, Belgium faced one of the biggest terrorist threats faced by any country because of the presence of jihadi networks on Belgian soil and the significant numbers of jihadi extremists traveling from the country to fight in Syria and Iraq. What were the lessons learned in confronting those challenges?

De Bolle: For us, the period of intense operations started in the [Belgian town of] Verviers, where in early 2015 we disrupted a terrorist cell. Due to that investigative file, we had more insight into what was going on. And then we had the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March 2016. The lessons learned for us after that terrorist attack was that cooperation is key. You have to cooperate with all the services involved in your own country but also on the European and the international level. Terrorism is a transnational challenge. Jihadi terrorists have traveled across borders, and they’ve created transnational links as evidenced, for example, by the French- and English-speaking communities of IS [Islamic State] fighters in Syria. Information exchange is therefore key. You have to be prepared for the unpredictable because nobody predicted what we saw play out in Belgium nor the huge impact it would have. Another lesson learned was that in law enforcement it’s very important to have a clear view on what is going on with regard to extremists’ use of social media, and there needs to be investment in creating capability in this regard.

Our experiences in Belgium made it clear the importance of efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism. We were able to establish a bottom-up, cascading approach from the local communities to the national level to detect and deal with radicalization. All this involved important debates about the most effective way of going about this. What could be done on the local level by Belgium’s mayors? What was the responsibility of schools and social services. How could the efforts of local bodies, national bodies, and the intelligence services be coordinated?

In Belgium, we now have the local task forces and the national task forces where all the security services, intelligence services, political-level social services come together to discuss the way forward and the best approach.

And for all involved, the key priority is preventing terrorist attacks. At the national level, after some time, we were able to get a good overview of the threat landscape. Carrying out risk assessments of those posing the greatest threat and then following up was vital.

A very big game changer and lesson learned in police practice and police habits in Belgium during this period was our deployment of special units in cases of terrorism. Organized crime groups were afraid of our special units because they were well trained and equipped and performed very well. What we saw with the jihadi terrorists is that they were not afraid of losing their lives. So when you called the special units to enter a building, they blew themselves up. We saw that in the Saint-Denis raid shortly after the November 2015 Paris attacks when police officers were injured in the shootout between French special units and jihadist terrorists, and we saw it during the manhunt for Salah Abdeslam in Belgium. This was a new threat we had not faced before, and it created quite a lot of shock. Our people got injured. So you have to change the tactics. You have to change the police training program. And for the special units, it was also a big game changer.

CTC: Given the scale of the counterterrorism challenge faced by Belgium, particularly in the period before and after the March 2016 Brussels attacks, and given the fact that Belgium is only a small country with limited resources compared to larger countries, there were very significant strains placed on Belgian police with long hours and a great deal of stress. What did you come to learn was essential to motivate and get the best out your organization?

De Bolle: We found it was important for our police force to be able to speak about their experiences. So you really have to invest in psychologists to support them. You have to get rid of the attitude of “I am a police officer. I am strong. I hide my feelings.” You have to talk about it. When you have people who are injured in your own organization, you have to do everything for them so they are supported.

What was a big game changer for us, too, was that as a police force, we were used to being an open house. You didn’t have to call or make an appointment to come to see us. But we then had to close our buildings because we were under threat, too. This meant that not only did we have to work to prevent more attacks and arrest those involved in terrorism and make sure we had strong cases to bring to court to secure convictions, but we also had to be sure that our own people were protected and felt safe in the police environment because without them, we wouldn’t have had the resources anymore to tackle and to disrupt further attacks. When we had the [March 2016 Brussels] attacks, it was a blow to the morale of the people working in the counterterrorist unit. They felt that they failed. And that made it even more important to talk to them and to motivate them to continue.

So every morning, I was there for the general briefing. Every morning, we went over all the suspects we had to deal with that day. The full spectrum of our people working on counterterrorism needed to be very involved in those discussions. We also had the support of our Ministers of Justice and Interior, our Prime Minister, who often came by to visit. We even had the King stopping by. These were very small things which helped the morale of people working as hard as they could to protect the public. You have to recognize you work with people, and when you work with people, you also have to take care of their emotions. And I think every individual reacts in a different way to the stresses and challenges. Motivating them so they can continue providing their all to protect society is very important. There have been a lot of terrorism convictions in Belgium, which is a testament to important work undertaken by the Belgian police.

CTC: In the period after the November 2015 Paris attacks and the March 2016 Brussels attacks, what steps were taken to strengthen the counterterrorism capabilities of the Belgian federal police?

De Bolle: We were in a crisis situation in that period, which meant that on the ministerial level, more resources were available allowing us to invest a lot more in the tools we needed at that moment—for instance, with regard to open-source intelligence, for bridging the gaps between information exchange systems, and for technological systems to integrate information-sharing between the different services. And we also we had a possibility to hire much more people at that moment. For the special units, we were also able to obtain more and better equipment, and it helped. Sometimes, unfortunately, only a crisis creates the political will for more investments in some areas. There is a reverse side to that equation, and that’s why I stressed during parliamentary discussions in Belgium that cost-cutting in the law enforcement and security sector can have a long-term negative impact on public safety.

CTC: You began work as the executive director of Europol a year ago. How do you see Europol fitting into European counterterrorism efforts?

De Bolle: Our involvement changed after the attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016 because the national police organizations and intelligence services recognized the fact that we had to collaborate more on a European level. For Europol, this meant that we received more data, and the more data we received, the more we were able to put information together and to provide the strategic analysis and the operational analysis for the investigations into the two attacks. After those attacks, Europol was identified as the central point for counterterrorism cooperation at the E.U. level and for supporting member states in their counterterrorism efforts in the European Union.

Europol’s counterterrorism efforts are coordinated by the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC), which began operations in January 2016. The ECTC has not only won the trust of member states, who have recognized its utility, but it has also helped create trust between E.U. member states in their cooperation on counterterrorism. That’s been reflected in the numbers. We see that in 2018, the support on the operational level delivered by ECTC toward the CT community increased five times compared to 2016.

We continue to give support to counterterrorism investigations. This comes in the form of operations analysis in which we put together information we get from all the different member states and give this back to the member state or states conducting an investigation. For instance, in January, Europol provided operational support to the BKA [Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office] in their dismantling of a terrorist cell. Three suspects were arrested in Schleswig-Holstein in the north of Germany for planning a terror attack.a Specialists from Europol’s Counter Terrorism Centre were on the spot.b

As a platform for criminal intelligence and information exchange, we have the biggest law enforcement liaison officers network in our headquarters, based here in The Hague, and we also have specialized people in CT. They meet every week in the operational center for counterterrorism and share information on ongoing investigations. Europol then puts the different information together and connects the dots to see the full information picture. Furthermore, during an operation, the ECTC supports the member states on the spot and can cross-check live operational data against the data Europol already has, quickly bringing financial leads to light, and analyze all available investigative details to assist in compiling a structured picture of the terrorist network.

A key step for Europol was the establishment in 2015 of the EU Internet Referral Unit [EU IRU]. It is based within the ECTC and involves monitoring social media and then together with member states identifying online hate speech and working to convince service providers to take down illegal content. Member states do not always have the resources to deal with the challenges posed by social media, and some member states have used our tools in their own countries. The creation of the IRU was a game-changer for the European law enforcement community.

Executive Director of Europol Catherine De Bolle (Europol)

CTC: Europol’s Executive Deputy Director Wil van Gemert told CTC Sentinel two years ago that Europol had been moving “from not only collecting information but to [also] connecting information.”1 Can you speak to how this emphasis on connecting information—connecting the dots—has since evolved.

De Bolle: In the past, the way the information exchange worked was that a member state had information which they gave to Europol and we cross-checked the information. This cross-checking of information remains a core task for Europol, but we have long moved beyond it.

Europol connects information from E.U. member states and partner countries like the U.S., enriches it with all kinds of open-source information, social media, financial, and travel intelligence, and provides new intelligence back to member states and partner counties for their investigations. We also connect people by organizing operational meetings of CT investigators to discuss cases and detect connections between terrorist actors in different countries.

Let me give you an example. At the time of the March 2016 Brussels attacks, I was Commissioner General of the Belgian Federal Police. When the attacks occurred, operational analysis made by Europol enabled us to detect links from the terrorists that were active in Belgium and Sweden. They detected links we could not see because we only have the national situation picture.

Beyond collecting and connecting, Europol is also creating new technological tools and solutions to support E.U. member states’ law enforcement authorities. Providing national law enforcement with highly specialized, state-of-the-art decryption services, forensic services, facial recognition tools based on artificial intelligence, to give just a few examples, creates real added value for investigations.

CTC: The link to Sweden you just referenced related to Osama Krayem, the Swedish national charged in relation to the Brussels attacks?c

De Bolle: Yes.

CTC: The Islamic State no longer exists as a territorial caliphate, but there is still a lot of concern about the jihadi terror threat facing Europe, given thousands of Europeans went to fight in Syria and Iraq. What is your assessment of the jihadi threat landscape in Europe?

De Bolle: In 2018, we saw a much lower number of terrorist attacks. In 2017, we recorded an overall of 205 foiled, failed, or completed terrorist attacks and in 2018, only 129.2 While ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist attacks continue to outnumber all other types of attacks, jihadist incidents remain the most lethal. All 13 people killed in terrorist incident in the E.U. in 2018 were victims of the seven completed jihadist attacks.3 These numbers sound low compared to previous years, but the significant number of disrupted plots and of arrests show that the threat from jihadi terrorism has not diminished.

And we see that there are still three patterns: violent jihadi extremists attack the symbols of Western life; they attack the symbols of authority; and there are also indiscriminate killings. We also see that jihadi attacks are committed mainly by homegrown terrorists. Radicalized in their European country of origin, they live there and they didn’t even travel to join terrorist groups abroad.

The profiles of these homegrown terrorists are diverse, but we see many individuals with a criminal past. Most have [been] born in the E.U. They have lived here all their lives. They are radicalized very, very quickly. And in most cases, there are no direct links to IS or another jihadist operation. They use unsophisticated weapons. And when they carry out an attack, it is very quickly organized. It’s not so sophisticated anymore.

A point of comparison is the [Easter 2019] Sri Lanka attacks, which were well planned and involved sophisticated weapons. This is not something we see in the E.U. anymore. We think that the measures taken by the European Union in the last years and the fact that tackling terrorism really became a priority may have contributed to the decrease in attacks. We really organized ourselves in terms of information exchange and changed our methods and our prevention approach. The fact that we disrupt a lot of attacks is also a good sign. But the threat is still there, and we have to stay vigilant all the time.

CTC: Thousands of Europeans traveled to Syria and Iraq to join jihadi groups, many of them joining the Islamic State. What is your assessment about the threat that these fighters pose in the future?

De Bolle: Approximately 5,000 individuals emanating from the E.U. are believed to have traveled to conflict areas in Syria and Iraq.4 But it is always difficult to give an exact figure because we have to rely on the figures given to us by the member states, and even the member states find it difficult to get exact figures. We think that the threat posed by European foreign terrorist fighters is still a real danger because they are well trained, they have a lot of operational expertise and experience, because of their mindset, and because they have their contacts in the conflict zone. The picture for the returnees is diverse, we think. It cannot be excluded that some of the returnees were dispatched from Syria, have a real connection to IS, and are committed to come back and carry out terrorist attacks in the E.U. You will have others who go back to their families and try to live in peace with their families, still convinced of the idea of IS but not committed anymore to commit terrorist attacks.

CTC: For those who have come back, as you note there are different possible outcomes. Some will completely abandon their commitment to jihad. Others will still have that commitment. Some will spend time in prison, but for some there may never be enough evidence to prosecute them and so they will remain at large. And I guess that means European security services as well as Europol need to continue to be very vigilant about these individuals because some may emerge as the officer class of future terror networks.

De Bolle: Yes, that is correct. We consider returning foreign fighters a real danger, for the reasons I just outlined. You will have people who are still attached to the idea of IS and motivated to commit attacks in the European Union.

And then we have to be aware that there were a lot of women, and they are returning, too. When it comes to IS, the role of women cannot be underestimated. Of course, IS needed women to build a state, and we saw women traveling from Europe to Syria for this purpose. Although IS states that offensive jihad is not obligatory for women and that a woman’s honor lies in being a producer of jihadis rather than a warrior herself, the organization nevertheless encouraged women to carry out attacks against the enemy. As of late 2017, IS explicitly called on women to become actively engaged in battles and legitimized combative jihad for women. Examples of women who either carried out terrorist attacks or were arrested preventively prove that women are willing to use violence if the ideology allows them to do so. For now, it is not yet their role, but this balance may easily shift depending on the organization’s strategic needs and developments.5

CTC: How many European foreign fighters have returned from Syria and Iraq?

De Bolle: It’s difficult to confirm the exact number. In our latest European Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, we analyzed that in 2018, the number of foreign terrorist fighters returning from the Iraq and Syria conflict zone remained very low. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, countries such as Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, and Italy have seen a return rate of between approximately 20 percent and 30 percent. The Netherlands and Spain have noted roughly 18 percent have returned, and Germany and the U.K. appear to have experienced the highest proportions of their FTFs returning—around 33 percent and 45 percent, respectively. Of course, combat training, experience, and international contacts of returnees remain a matter of concern. The terrorist use of the migrant flow has been observed, but it is not deemed systematic.6

CTC: There is significant concern about the impending release of significant numbers of individuals convicted of crimes related to terrorism in Europe because of the relatively short prison sentences in Europe for certain terrorism-related offenses.7 According to a recent United Nations report, “in France, 500 detainees convicted of terrorism charges are in prison. A further 1,200 are reported to have been radicalized. Approximately 90 per cent of those 1,700 people will be released by 2025.”8 What is your assessment of this challenge?

De Bolle: It is indeed a big concern for the E.U. members states and for Europol. There are a large number of convicts who are expected to be released in the coming years. It’s something we have to be prepared for and develop policies for. A lot of countries have invested in deradicalization programs in prisons.

But we cannot fall for the idea that everybody who will leave prison will commit attacks in the European Union. One reason is those very significant efforts to counter radicalization in prisons. And there is follow up in certain countries after these individuals are released from prison. When there are still indications that they are not completely deradicalized upon release from prison, there are possible administrative measures that can be taken on a national level. What Europol is doing is gathering best practices and providing member states with the platform to exchange and discuss them. It’s up to the member states themselves to make risk assessments and decide how to tackle this challenge.

One overall European policy in this area doesn’t exist. It is the responsibility of member states, and I see that there is good cooperation between member states. There is also information exchange about who is going to be released when. Not in all the cases, but in some cases, we see that this information exchange exists and what we do is facilitate this.

CTC: Given the gravity of the potential security risks, do you think there needs to be a unified European approach on this and other areas related to counterterrorism rather than having different member states take different approaches?

De Bolle: The choice of the European Union is very clear on this. The Lisbon Treatyd states that national security is the responsibility of the national member states. Europol’s core task in this setting is to support the cross-border law enforcement cooperation of the member states in the area of counterterrorism. And until now, there is no discussion about changing these fundamentals. This is the agreement between the different E.U. member states, and they stick to it. At the operational level, we see that not only law enforcement but also the intelligence services exchange more and more information than before. So it’s working, there is a real information exchange, but decisions on issues such as the appropriate measures after releasing former attackers from prisons remain a competence of the member state.

CTC: What is your assessment of the extreme right-wing terror threat to Europe?

De Bolle: It’s increasing across the whole of Europe. That’s our assessment. We experienced a revival of militant right-wing extremist groups and networks and incidents in the region here. The violent right-wing extremist scene is very heterogeneous across E.U. member states.

CTC: Is this a small increase or is this a dramatic increase that you’re seeing?

De Bolle: There was only one attack reported to us in 2018, but the number of arrests linked to right-wing terrorism increased for the third year in a row and is now at 44 arrests. Also, the number of convictions for right-wing terrorist offenses increased significantly in 2018 to the previous year from four to 22.9

CTC: Let’s turn to cooperation between Europol and U.S. counterterrorism agencies. Two years ago, Europol Deputy Director Wil van Gemert and Peter Edge, then Executive Associate Director of Homeland Security Investigations, spoke at length to this publication about the ways in which Europol and the Department of Homeland Security were cooperating.10 How important is such cooperation?

De Bolle: The cooperation with the United States is extremely good. It’s a clear success story and is now part of the daily life of our operations. In our headquarters here in Europol, we have liaison officers from all over the world. We have liaison officers from the 28 E.U. member states, and from many so-called third countries like the U.S. The U.S. community is one of the biggest communities represented at Europol. We have 13 U.S. federal or municipal agencies in our headquarters. And we really have a close cooperation day-by-day. The cooperation with the United States is of utmost importance to us, not only in the area of counterterrorism but also in the area of cyber crime and serious and organized crime.

In the CT field, we also exchange information with very specialized institutions such as the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center.e We have very good cooperation with the U.S. Treasury in the framework of the E.U.–U.S. Terrorist Financing Tracking Program (TFTP) Agreement from 2010, which allow for the exchange of financial messaging information. Facilitated by Europol, the program provides U.S. and E.U. law enforcement with thousands of leads for their counterterrorism investigations each year. It helps them to map out terrorist networks, to track terrorist money flow to identify and locate operatives and their financiers, and assists in broader efforts to uncover terrorist cells.

In short, I think Europol is now recognized as an important gateway for the United States to the member states. We have established a lot of trust between Europol, European law enforcement agencies, and U.S. agencies, and we have to make sure that we keep this cooperation at the level that it is today. To a significant degree, this cooperation is now future proofed.

CTC: On the issue of Brexit, what steps are being put into place to sustain police cooperation between the United Kingdom and its European partners given the uncertainty over what shape Brexit will take or whether it will happen at all? This must make it very difficult to plan for.

De Bolle: The United Kingdom is very important to us because they’ve played a significant role in safeguarding the security of European citizens and as an E.U. member state have contributed significantly in cooperation with Europol on counterterrorism. We are in a difficult period now, and we are preparing all the different scenarios—a hard Brexit, Brexit with a withdrawal agreement, no Brexit. We are looking at the potential consequences for information exchange, and internally, we are preparing for different scenarios so that at the moment when a political decision will be taken from our side, we will have done our homework and we will have the possibility to give this information to the European Commission.

CTC: If there is some form of Brexit, what would be, from your perspective, the ideal contours of a future arrangement with the United Kingdom?

De Bolle: It’s difficult to say now because it depends on the withdrawal agreement—what will be in, what won’t be in—and this will be a political discussion that will have to be managed in Brussels.

CTC: We’ve spoken a lot about the challenges facing counterterrorism agencies in Europe. What are the things that give you encouragement about their ability to rise to these challenges?

De Bolle: What gives me encouragement and what I see as very important is the trust that has been built up between the different investigators in the different member states and that there is really an awareness of the fact that they have to exchange information. Only by working together can we tackle the threat and identify terrorist networks and dismantle them. Because the threat we face is still very significant, there is a very strong conviction in the European Union and in the law enforcement community that it’s necessary work together and to exchange information. Counterterrorism is now a top priority. This commitment is key to us rising to the counterterrorism challenge in the future. There are 1,400 competent authorities connected to Europol’s secure communication system for law enforcement information exchange, over 68 million entitiese in Europol’s databases, and we see every day that cooperation is increasing. We have to remain vigilant, even if we see that the number of attacks is going down. We also see that the number of disrupted plots is going up and that makes me confident about the future.     CTC

[1] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Peter Edge, ICE Acting Deputy Director, and Wil van Gemert, Europol Deputy Director,” CTC Sentinel 10:1 (2017).

[2] “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend (TESAT) Report 2019,” Europol, June 2019, p. 13.

[3] Ibid., p. 30.

[4] Ibid., p. 40.

[5] “Women in Islamic State propaganda,” Europol Specialist Report Europol, June 2019.

[6] “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend (TESAT) Report 2019,” p. 42.

[7] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Michèle Coninsx, Executive Director of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED),” CTC Sentinel 11:9 (2018).

[8] “Twenty-Third report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations, December 27, 2018.

[9] “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend (TESAT) Report 2019,” pp. 16 and 72.

[10] Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Peter Edge, ICE Acting Deputy Director, and Wil van Gemert, Europol Deputy Director.”

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: For media reporting on this case, see, for example, Chase Winter, “German police arrest 3 Iraqi refugees suspected of planning terror attack,” DW, January 30, 2019.

[b] Europol was present in the city of Dithmarschen in the German federal state Schleswig Holstein, when the BKA arrested three Iraqi individuals who were suspected of planning to carry out a jihadi terror attack in Germany. Europol’s specialists were present during the day of the arrests and were providing operational support to Germany in the investigations, cross-checking live operational data against the data Europol already had, and analyzing all available investigative details to assist in compiling a structured picture of the alleged terrorist network. Information provided to this publication by Europol, July 12, 2019.

[c] Editor’s note: Osama Krayem, a Swedish national of Syrian descent, is set to go on trial for his alleged role in the March 2016 Brussels attacks. For more, see “Attentats à Paris: Osama Krayem, inculpé pour les attaques à Bruxelles, va être remis à la France,” RTBF, June 8, 2018; “Attentats à Paris: Osama Krayem inculpé par la justice française,” RTBF, June 11, 2018; and “Le procès des attentats de Bruxelles est attendu pour 2020 et pourrait se tenir dans les anciens bâtiments de l’Otan,” Soir, March 22, 2019.

[d] Editor’s note: The Treaty of Lisbon, which amended the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community, entered into force on December 1, 2009. “The Treaty of Lisbon,” Fact Sheets on the European Union, European Parliament Website.

[e] Editor’s note: This refers to pieces of information such as names, phone numbers, license plates, etc.

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