With the rise of anti-system/anti-government violent extremism, growing distrust in governments and an increase in violent protests in recent years, the police and other law enforcement agencies are now on the frontline in responding to violent extremist activity. While they have always played a role in the detection, monitoring and pursuit of violent extremists, they now, more than ever, play a critical role in ensuring that violent extremist activities are not infiltrating non-extremist communities and that they do not become a mainstream phenomenon in our streets.
Increasingly, the police have a role in prevention work. In some Member States across Europe, the police have both the authority and trust among communities to reach out, engage, support and intervene where there is risk of radicalisation. Meanwhile, society’s increasing reliance on digital technologies means young people are spending more and more time in internet chat rooms, gaming platforms and gaming-adjacent platforms, and other relatively ungoverned digital spaces.
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Reflecting on the role of the police in P/CVE, it is important to note that, as with the concept of ‘violent extremism’, there has not yet been a consensus on what exactly ‘preventing’ or ‘countering violent extremism’ (PVE/CVE) means, nor what universal forms should they take. However, by studying the literature and listening to practitioners, key elements of CVE tend to involve the use of non-coercive measures to discourage individuals or groups from mobilising violence and to mitigate the recruitment, support, facilitation or involvement in ideologically motivated terrorism by non-state actors in carrying out political goals. In addition, the scope of CVE and related activities is 'potentially limitless' and can include extensive action by governments and other actors to prevent radicalisation in the broad sense.
Another layer was added to the complexity of defining this work by the emergence of the term “prevention of violent extremism” (PVE). This expression and concept quickly became a priority for the global community (Frank and Reva, 2016, p. 2). Already in 2015, the United Nations General Assembly underlined the importance of PVE, noting, among other things, the promotion of “the practice of non-violence, moderation, dialogue and cooperation” (resolution 70/109). The Action Plan for the Prevention of Violent Extremism launched soon after and indicated that there was a need for a more comprehensive approach that includes not only ongoing, security-based core counter-terrorism measures, but also systematic preventive measures that directly address the root causes of acts of extremist violence (General Assembly Report A/70/674, para. 6). Since 2015, the European Union also has adopted various measures to stop violent extremism leading to terrorism based on the EU leader’s joint statement to guide the work of the EU and its Member States focusing on ensuring the security of citizens, as well as preventing radicalisation and safeguarding values.
There is now consensus among researchers and practitioners, based on a definition first proposed by American sociologist Egon Bittner, that a common feature of agencies involved in policing is the legal competence to enforce coercive, non-negotiable measures to resolve problematic situations. This situation is characterised by two features, i.e. potential harmfulness and the need to address it urgently before this potential develops. Thus, the actual or threatened use of coercion allows the police to bring a quick, non-negotiable and definitive end to these problematic situations. While the role of the police in combating violent extremism is undisputed, over the years there has been, and sometimes continues to be, debate in both the police and non-police community as to whether the police really have a role to play in purely preventive field.
This is because European countries have different concepts of policing styles, police responsibilities and how the police should be organised (Jaschke et al., 2007). For example, police forces in Northern and Western Europe have a longer tradition of placing greater emphasis on co-creating security through inter-agency cooperation and involving civil society in crime prevention. In turn, police forces in Southern and Eastern Europe have placed greater emphasis on law enforcement and repressive measures over the years, and the structuring of forms of partnership is still developing. Moreover, no matter what part of Europe the traditional view of policing is, many believe that the police are still primarily responsible for intervening when a crime has been committed or is about to be committed.
Although police in Europe have different roles, depending on the local context and regulations, there is no doubt that police forces have a key role to play in facilitating a preventive multi/inter-agency approach at local or regional level. They often know the community very well, which encourages the involvement of local communities in optimising preventive activities.
Violent extremism and terrorist attacks are serious forms of crime that cause physical harm to the population, as well as spreading fear among citizens. The prevention of violent extremism is therefore aimed at reducing crimes motivated by extremist ideologies and group hatred, as well as their harmful effects. On the other hand, a broad understanding of crime prevention includes actions aimed at reducing both future crime and the harmful effects of crime on victims and society. In this context, the prevention of violent extremism and terrorism is part of crime prevention making the general principles and mechanisms of crime prevention largely applicable to PVE (Bjørgo, 2017). A ‘soft’ approach to crime through prevention should therefore serve as an inspiring approach to PVE with a natural role of community policing. Polarisation and evaluation are topics that the police responsible for PVE will increasingly have to deal with in the coming years (Lenos and Wouterse, 2018), so the role of the police in preventing radicalisation and violent extremism is beyond doubt.
This role is also reflected in the mandate of the RAN POL Working Group, which aims to define a more effective policing approach to P/CVE. An approach based on trust and optimising cooperation between specialised units, local police and the local community that is flexible enough to be used by many police forces in EU Member States.
Marzena Kordaczuk-Was is a co-chair of the RAN POL Working Group and a Senior Training Officer at the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL).
In 2022, the number of digital police officers in Estonia who help and advise people on social media, has grown from three to 13. The activities have been expanded to provide a better quality, more accessible and more personalised service.
The first web police officer was Andero Sepp, who began his online work in 2011. The role was created as a pilot project to enable young people to ask about cyberbullying and other Internet offences. However, as interest increased among adults, so the service has expanded.
To make the service more personalised, new positions have been created in police stations. Previously, people could address their questions and concerns to three web police officers – Jana Frolova-Alferjev, Andero Sepp and Karmen Raud. With increasingly more people using social media, there was also a need to increase the number of uniformed officers in the digital world. People can now get in touch with a web constable in their own region who not only has a good knowledge of what is happening on the web but also of what is going on in the region.
The main role of web police officers is to be active in community groups, share information, prevent and spot threats and monitor what is happening online. If a web constable notices inappropriate online behaviour, for example, if someone is being threatened, he or she will contact the offender. In the case of a criminal offence, for example, when a video of someone being beaten is shared online, the web police officer will forward the information to the police station where the case is dealt with.
Web police officers also train people in their region on internet safety, so that young and old alike are aware of the dangers on the web.
Moreover, web constables support the structural units of the Police and Border Guard Board by gathering information, searching for and exchanging contacts and assisting in the provision of operational information.
A citizen can also contact web constables for any other questions and concerns not related to the Internet, for instance, if you have been the victim of a fraud or bullying or sexual abuse. It is important to stress that if the incident requires urgent police intervention, it is essential to call 112.
The aim of the police is to be where people are. Today, Facebook is the channel of communication for web police officers, but we are also monitoring what is happening on other platforms and we are thinking of making ourselves available on other social media channels in the future.
As stated in the Europol European Counterterrorism Centre (ECTC) Blueprint, the EU Internet Referral Unity (EU IRU) – which is located in The Hague in The Netherlands – acts as a service for all EU Member States, to help reduce terrorist propaganda content on the Internet and support internet investigations, while building partnerships with the public and private sectors. Originally focusing on jihadism, the unit has widened its scope to also cover Violent Right Wing Extremism (VRWE) and terrorism since October 2021.
The EU IRU flagship capabilities include the Check the Web (CtW) collection and the Referral Action Days (RADs):
The Check the Web (CtW) portal is an electronic reference library of jihadist and Violent Right Wing Extremist online propaganda. It contains original statements, publications, videos and audios produced by terrorist groups or their supporters. EU Member States can access this content, and analysis of it, via Europol’s secure network.
CtW helps EU Member States to identify new media, content, groups, threats, trends and patterns. Its goal is to improve the EU intelligence picture on the Modus Operandi of online terrorist propagandists and online counter terrorism (CT) challenges in EU Member States and beyond.
In order to ensure the effectiveness of the collection, analysis and disruption of online propaganda, the EU IRU has built dedicated databases (DBs) for different online platforms and designed an analytical capability that can:
- assess the propaganda dissemination flow;
- collect the identifiers linked to terrorist content creation and dissemination;
- analyse the network(s) linked to these identifiers;
- secure the identified selectors for further judicial purposes;
- provide a strategic assessment of content dissemination processes.
In parallel, the EU IRU has developed a referral capability able to adapt to a constantly changing landscape and fast technological developments. EU IRU experts coordinate referral activities and knowledge sharing, by flagging terrorist and violent extremist content online to Online Services Providers (OSPs) for voluntary assessment against their terms of services.
Referrals to Online Services Providers are made following requests received from EU Member States and as a result of Open Source Scanning by the EU IRU. A referral activity does not constitute an enforceable act. Thus, the decision and removal of the referred terrorist and extremist online content is taken by the concerned OSP under their own responsibility and accountability.
Apart from daily referral, the unit organises Referral Action Days (RADs) with EU Member States, Third Parties and tech companies. These are intensive referral campaigns, focusing on a theme, a specific content on a specific platform or high profile content relayed by high profile accounts (i.e. terrorist attacks or resilient networks abusing platform specific features).
Since the establishment of the unit in July 2015 content has been located in more than 430 online platforms. As well as sending referrals, the EU IRU also offers support to OSPs to build their capacity against terrorist exploitation. On a regular basis, EU IRU experts share key trends and indicators for OSPs to reinforce their detection and moderation systems.
The EU IRU is also in charge of the EU’s coordinated response to crisis situations suspectedly related to violent extremist and terrorist incidents. The EU Crisis Protocol, endorsed by the EU Internet Forum in October 2019, applies to extraordinary situations where normal operating procedures are insufficient. This voluntary protocol establishes the roles for national Law Enforcement Agencies, OSPs that are members of the EU Internet Forum, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and other forum members. If activated the EU IRU sets up a 24/7 Coordination Team to support national law enforcement, operational partners and OSPs in content containment, de-confliction and investigation.
In this context, the EU IRU has also developed unique expertise in facilitating cross-border access to electronic evidence (e-evidence) and deploying technical support. As e-evidence is at the cornerstone of any counter terrorism (CT) case, the EU IRU has also specialised in the access and analysis of e-evidence from foreign-based OSPs, in the context of criminal investigations. At the end of 2018, the team launched SIRIUS (Shaping Internet Research Investigations Unified System) a platform that, beyond providing investigative capabilities, caters for the need of investigators for comprehensive open-source intelligence (OSINT) best practices and tools.
In 2022, the EU Regulation on addressing the dissemination of terrorist content online (TCO Regulation) entered into application. The EU IRU is a key actor in the implementation of the Regulation and has developed an EU Platform on addressing illegal content online (PERCI) to support the implementation of the Regulation. This way, Europol ensures that Hosting Service Providers will receive removal orders from Member States through a common secure channel and detect overlap in case of an ongoing investigation into the same content in other Member States.
Since the establishment of the EU Internet Forum, and even more with the implementation of the Regulation, there is no doubt that the EU IRU has become a key instrument of the EU to counter the promotion and impact of online terrorist activities.