Authorities in the European Union use biometric data and crime scene evidence from Iraq and Syria to process war crimes, secretly track suspects and control migration. Now the procedure is to be extended to African countries.
After a meeting of EU interior and defence ministers in 2017, authorities in member states have been using so-called “battlefield information” to fight terrorism. In this way, the authorities want to identify and detect “foreign fighters” when they cross an external EU border. The procedure is to be expanded, the EU anti-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove is therefore calling on governments to engage in a “regular dialogue with their military forces and relevant intelligence and security services”. This is according to two documents posted online by the British civil liberties organisation Statewatch.
“Battlefield information” comes from countries such as Syria or Iraq, where the “Global Coalition against Daesh” has been operating militarily since 2014. The intelligence is usually collected there by military secret services. Their dissemination and use goes back to “Operation Gallant Phoenix”, an initiative of the US government. It has a secretariat in Jordan and involves military and intelligence services from 27 Western and Arab states as well as their police authorities.
Facial recognition and decryption at the United Nations
In addition to information, possible “battlefield evidence” is also exchanged. This can be fingerprints and facial images or electronic data on found or seized computers, phones and storage media. In most cases, the information or evidence is classified as military or intelligence; before it can be used by civilian authorities, this classification must be scaled down.
Papers, notebooks, YouTube videos or photos showing humiliating and degrading treatment are also collected and processed, as are documents such as marriage contracts drawn up by an Islamic DAESH judge. As evidence, they are to be used, for example, to prove the involvement of “foreign fighters” and their wives in crimes against humanity before the courts of the EU member states.
The United Nations has established the “Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL” (UNITAD) to assist in such investigations. It is said to now have a database of 175,000 facial profiles. Further images are now being extracted from 34,000 video files, which UNITAD is analysing using facial recognition, ‘decryption’ capabilities, machine translation and machine learning.
Europol to use satellite images
At the EU level, the exchange and use of “battlefield information” was strengthened in 2019 at the initiative of the US government in a “high-level” workshop. This benefits, for example, the EU’s judicial cooperation agency Eurojust, which runs the secretariat of the EU’s network of international law enforcement agencies. A year later, Eurojust published a memorandum stating that the information could also be used for asylum procedures.
In the European Union, battlefield information usually leads to a “discreet checks” in the Schengen Information System (SIS II), this can be done in a voluntary procedure by a Member State.
However, the data is also processed by Europol. The police agency has set up its own task force (TITF) for this purpose in its Counter-Terrorism Centre, which is to become the sole point of contact for such data supplies in the future. In the case of the USA, this data comes from the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Centre (TSC). The information is then checked against Europol databases and relevant databases such as the Schengen Information System (SIS II) or the EU Passenger Name Record (EU-PNR).
Europol supports the member states in criminal investigations; with regard to foreign terrorism, the agency runs the analysis projects “Core International Crimes” and “Travellers”. In order to also use satellite images of crime scenes in the future, Europol is now to enter into a partnership with the European Satellite Centre (EU SatCen). In 2018, the first test runs were carried out, which, according to the anti-terrorism coordinator, “generating positive results”.
Closer cooperation with Turkey
According to a proposal for a new regulation currently under discussion, Europol could exchange personal data with private entities or with international organisations in the future. So far, this has been an obstacle to the use of “battlefield information”. For example, Europol is currently not allowed to provide personal data to the International Criminal Court. This is done via a member state not named in the documents of the Anti-Terrorism Coordinator, which is also said to have concluded a corresponding agreement with UNITAD.
Kerchove now wants to extend the exchange ring “to Africa” and refers to the “Global Coalition against Daesh”, naming the countries of Côte d’Ivoire and Togo as well as northern Nigeria for this purpose. With Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, Interpol is already active in some African countries. In the “South Sharaka” project, supported by the EU Commission, the police organisation collects information there to fight terrorism, organised crime and “human smuggling”. Following the example of Iraq, members of the interior and defence ministries in Libya were also to be trained in the collection of battlefield information, but the project was suspended due to the civil war situation.
Finally, the EU police agency could also work more closely with Turkey on “foreign fighters”. After the Turkish invasion of north-eastern Syria two years ago, Europol already received fingerprints and photographs of some 2,700 suspects identified there. However, these informations were delivered from the USA. This route could be shortened after the EU Commission negotiated a working agreement for Europol with Turkey as planned.
Image: Italian training for Iraqi authorities to obtain information at a crime scene (Interpol).