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Prof. Robinson discusses the impact of the Paris attacks on security policy in Europe

November 19, 2015

In the wake of the attacks in Paris on November 13, Penn Law spoke with Professor Paul H. Robinson, one of the world’s leading criminal law scholars. Robinson leads the Criminal Law Research Group at Penn Law, and the work that he and his students in the CLRG conducted last year on interdicting foreign terrorist fighters was honored by the U.S. military.

Robinson spoke about the legal structures necessary to interdict foreign terrorist fighters, the impact of the Paris attacks on security policy in Europe, and the balance between security and civil liberties.

Penn Law: How does your recent research with the CLRG and the Pentagon inform your perception of what’s happening? What, if anything, can be done to address these issues?

Paul H. Robinson: When I hear about these kinds of events, the first thing I think of is how critical it is for the fight against terror to be an international fight. It’s simply not feasible for any one country to effectively counter Islamic State. They have people who have come from all over the world — traveling all sorts of routes.

In our work, a source of our strength was to see that their global reach can be their vulnerability, as well. Yes, they’re all over the globe, and that means every country is vulnerable, but that also creates opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Our project was trying to figure out ways that we could use the domestic law of the sending countries and the transit countries to have fighters arrested and detained before they could get to the battlefield, or before they could return home with their terrorist training. Sometimes detention could be for terrorism offenses, but sometimes on other offenses. A flexible approach, and a multi-national approach, is going to be the only thing that’s going to effectively counter the Islamic State threat.

PL: One of the suspects in the Paris attacks left Belgium, went to Syria, and came back to Belgium. How could that have been addressed in the E.U.?

PHR: There are three limitations to using our legal-interdiction approach. One is that you have to have the intelligence to know who the folks are, where they are, and how they’re traveling. As far as I can tell, in this case, they probably had that intelligence information on at least one of the terrorists. They had identified him; to some extent they followed his travel. They didn’t follow his as closely as they should have, but after the fact that’s always easy to say.

Second, you also have to have the cooperation of the sending or transit states — they have to take terrorism seriously and be willing to do something about it. Obviously, Syria’s not in a position to do that effectively, but you’d think Belgium would be — it’s hard to know exactly what the story is.

The third is that even if you have a country that is willing, they need to have the laws in place to permit detention. Europeans have shown a great concern for privacy issues and free travel. They have surveillance concerns, and Mr. [Edward] Snowden certainly made them more sensitive to that. So, even if they knew of a potential terrorist they might not have had the legal means available to learn what he intends or to detain him even if they have strong suspicions. A country needs to develop the necessary legal tools.

PL: What do you think will be the lasting effects of the attacks in Paris?

PHR: My guess is that the Paris attacks will be a game-changer. I think it’s a French 9/11. We already have some indication of that in their initial reactions. People now see the real extent of the threat in a way that touches them. It’s easy to be sympathetic to interests of privacy and government overreaching. It’s easy to be committed to civil liberties. But let’s not be stupid about it. Let’s understand — with clear eyes — just what the trade-offs are, and let’s make good decisions about what we’re willing to trade off.

Do the Europeans really want to wait until another 3,000 people get killed in a full 9/11 before they do something about it? I think not. Here is where the U.S. experience may help. With our 9/11 as background, their Paris attacks make clear just how bad things could get.

At the same time, I wonder whether the Paris attacks will help remind some Americans of how real the danger is. Perhaps Paris will save us from having to have another tragedy in order for us to keep the pressure on.

Finding the right balance is important, and I think that’s what Europe is doing now. They’re going to reevaluate their security interests against their privacy and liberty interests.

I believe the Paris attacks are a major turning point for Europe. It will be their 9/11. It may change their security culture and could save some lives down the road.