European police networking in the twilight

The Police Working Group on Terrorism (PWGT) consists of the political departments of police authorities in all Schengen states. The informal group was established in 1979 as a response to left-wing armed movements. After their disappearance, the purpose of the PWGT was expanded to include „political violent activities“.

Together with police authorities from the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain, the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) started the European „Informal Terrorism Working Group“ in 1979. The founding date was 25 and 26 April, prompted by attacks by armed left-wing groups in various European countries. One month earlier, the British ambassador Richard Sykes was killed in The Hague. The Irish IRA claimed responsibility, initially, however, the police also considered the involvement of Palestinian groups or the German RAF possible.

Before Margaret Thatcher was elected British Prime Minister in May 1979, the Irish National Liberation Army killed her future Northern Ireland Minister with a car bomb. In Germany at that time, IRA commandos carried out attacks on British soldiers, in Belgium the RAF tried to blow up the NATO supreme commander in Europe. This was reason enough for the BKA’s „Terrorism“ department, like the left-wing movements, to do better in international networking.

Expansion of investigations against RAF to Western Europe

Günther Scheicher, then department president at the BKA, explained in a lecture at the BKA autumn conference in 2011 the context in which the „Informal Terrorism Working Group“ was founded. The BKA’s „Terrorism“ department at the time had almost 400 employees, 44 people were wanted on arrest warrants in connection with the RAF, and the investigators counted 1,100 people among their close circle. 1979 was also the year in which an arrest was made for the first time on the basis of the computer-aided „dragnet“ investigation in a flat rented by the RAF.

One of the new measures was the expansion of German BKA manhunts  to Western Europe. Police cooperation at that time took place through channels of the Foreign Office, from 1985 through the TREVI network and with the help of Interpol. Most important, however, according to Schleicher, was „the relationship between police and police“. This international cooperation was fruitful; of the 35 arrests made between 1977 and 1980, 23 took place abroad.

Politically motivated crime „including extremist offences“

By the turn of the millennium, the RAF and almost all armed groups active in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s had disbanded. However, the „Informal Terrorism Working Group“ has not renounced its structure to date. Today, the network operates under the name „Police Working Group on Terrorism“ (PWGT). Participants are all EU member states as well as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

Whereas in 1979 the focus was still on „current questions concerning the search for terrorists“, the group now serves the entire area of politically motivated crime „including extremist offences“. The PWGT has thus undergone a transformation similar to that of the BKA, whose „Terrorism“ department was renamed „Police State Protection“ (ST) in 1994 and increasingly shifted its work from law enforcement to „danger prevention“.

Conferences in May and November

In 2000, the parties involved agreed on a new political course in a Memorandum of Understanding. The PWGT was to prevent not only terrorist but also „political violent activities“ in future. Twice a year (always in May and November), the PWGT meets for a conference, where „current events and phenomena related to politically motivated crime“ are dealt with.

Unlike the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG), in which European domestic secret services have been networking since 2001, the PWGT does not have a rotating chair. According to the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, the decision on where the next conference will take place is made „on the basis of volunteer applications“. This „host country“ sets the agenda, individual PWGT members can contribute with talks about „topics from the phenomenon area of international terrorism/extremism“.

Information system on „operational cooperation“

Usually, at the conferences, presentations are made on particular incidents. In 2004 in Warsaw, the Spanish police gave a report on the attacks in Madrid, and in 2013, the BKA held a talk on the right-wing „National Socialist Underground“ in Vienna. The agenda there also included „Travel movements of potential terrorists to Syria“. However, the meetings also deal with organisational issues. In Warsaw, for example, three EU member states that wanted to participate in the PWGT at the time were initially elevated to the rank of observers.

The initially rather strategic networking has for 20 years at the latest also served „for operational cooperation“. The participating authorities set up a decentralised system in 1999 to „exchange information on incidents quickly and accurately“. Again, the initiative came from Germany; according to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the BKA acted as the „technical organiser“. The system uses the Europol channel SIENA and has been cleared up to the classification level „Secret“. Further details are not known, but in addition to a „crypto device“, the system requires its own „software and hardware“. Currently, says the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the PWGT is working on the „renewal/procurement of the crypto communication system“. It is to be set up in addition to the SIENA channel; the ministry does not explain the aim and purpose of the new network.

Alert in national databases

If the State Protection Department in the BKA receives information on suspicious persons via the PWGT channel, these can be inserted in German police files. This practice became known in Germany exclusively in the context of left-wing, cross-border protests such as the No Border Camp in Brussels in 2010 or the G20 summit in Hamburg in 2017. There, the BKA, in its function as a central office, received personal data on „police-known“ internationally active left-wing activists via the PWGT channel. In addition to numerous Schengen states, authorities from the United States were involved in this exchange. This information canalso be used to issue an alert under Article 36 of the SIS II Council Decision for „discreet check“ or „targeted check“.

At the 2018 PWGT meeting in Slovenia, the EU border agency Frontex had made a presentation. However, only Europol is regularly invited to the PWGT. The EU police agency has „observer/guest“ status there. Europol does not have a connection to the PWGT’s information system, but the agency could still receive data from there. This, at least, is suggested by an answer of the EU Commission to a parliamentary question, according to which Europol only makes use of the information „when these data are sent to it according the official procedures“.

„Shaping influence“ on Europol

According to the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, the PWGT could be „strengthened in the future by integration into the structures of Europol cooperation“. Thus, the informal group would „no longer be reduced to an exchange of information and experience“. Accordingly, the PWGT could „exert a formative influence on the execution of tasks [at Europol]“. To this end, the agency is to set up an „advisory/programme body“ within its Counter-Terrorism Centre (ECTC), which the PWGT could join. This body could operate „in parallel with an operationally oriented“ team of liaison officers.

From its initial backroom character, the PWGT has developed into a permanent structure of operational police cooperation in Europe and beyond. Its raison d’être is completely unclear, especially since with the police agency Europol and its databases, the Heads of Europol National Units (HENUs), the Conference of European Police Chiefs or the Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation in the Field of Internal Security (COSI), several formally decided EU structures have been established. With the Schengen Information System, the soon to be expanded Prüm network and the planned QROC, there are also sufficient communication networks in the EU framework.

According to the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, however, it is precisely the twilight that continues to make networking in the PWGT attractive. According to the ministry, „establishing and maintaining personal contacts“ within the framework of the biannual conferences is „the basis of trustful police cooperation“.

Image: Simon Teune (CC-BY-NC).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.