BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe should strengthen the fight against terrorism by cracking down on militant Web sites and compiling U.S.-style profiles of air passengers, the European Union executive said on Tuesday.
The proposals coincided with 17 arrests across Europe in an operation led by Italy against suspected “Salafist jihadi” cells, the latest in a series of major European anti-terrorism investigations this year.
“Terrorists will strike whenever, wherever and with whatever means to make the most impact ... We cannot be complacent,” EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said.
“A large percent of the terrorist attacks and plots are related to extremist groups using Islam to commit crimes,” he told a news conference, while adding it would be a “tremendous mistake” to conclude that any religion supports terrorism.
The European Commission wants the EU’s 27 member states to collect 19 pieces of personal data on travelers flying to or from the bloc, including their phone numbers, e-mail addresses, payment details and travel agent.
The plan mirrors a U.S. scheme put in place after the September 11 attacks and has been criticized by lawmakers and rights groups who say it breaches privacy rights.
“We see the great danger that in a few years, the security agencies’ databases will determine the freedom of travel of the individual,” said Silke Stokar, a member of parliament for Germany’s Greens.
“Already today, the reality in the United States is that political activities like opposing the Iraq war lead to people getting on ‘no-fly’ lists and being excluded from flights.”
The data, provided by airlines at least 24 hours before departure, would be kept for 13 years. Frattini said once the plan is agreed by EU states, airlines would not be allowed to fly to and from the bloc if they did not send the information.
In another proposal he urged EU states to treat as criminal offences all public incitement to terrorism and posting of recruiting and training information, especially on the Internet.
“The Internet serves ... as one of the principal boosters of the processes of radicalization and recruitment and also serves as a source of information on terrorist means and methods, thus functioning as a virtual training camp,” the proposal said.
In a bid to assuage civil liberties campaigners, it said this new measure may not be used to restrict the spread of information for scientific, academic or reporting purposes. But the plan still ran into criticism.
“We are weakening the position of the individual citizen vis-a-vis the authorities,” EU lawmaker Sophia in’t Veld, a Dutch liberal, told Reuters. “That is very worrying.”
“As it stands, the Commission’s proposal raises serious doubts about the EU’s respect for the freedom of expression,” civil liberties group Statewatch said.
The security proposals, which also include a pan-European database to warn on lost or stolen explosives, must be adopted unanimously by EU states to become law.
The EU police office Europol has said that there were 498 terrorist acts in the EU in 2006, while 706 suspects were arrested. The only fatal attack was the bombing of Madrid airport by Basque separatist group ETA, which killed two.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan