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Internal security after 9/11: a perspective from the EU and the US

Alicia Sorroza
Researcher, Elcano Royal Institute
Alicia Sorroza

Alicia Sorroza

Based on the hindsight afforded to us by a decade that has gone by, we can draw certain conclusions about some of the consequences that the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda have had for the internal security of the European Union (EU) and the United States, despite the comparative difficulties between them. However, it can be said that they are both benchmarks in the fight against international terrorism, and in their efforts to protect their territory from terrorist and other threats that endanger the welfare of their inhabitants.

Although opinions on the impact of terrorist attacks vary, it is difficult to deny that the mass terrorism attacks of 9/11 marked a turning point in the need to quickly assimilate the new risks that were emerging in the twenty-first century. In the light of terrorist threats, the decision was taken to take action in two directions. First, to protect the homeland, from a defensive perspective, by improving police responses, protection of critical infrastructure, preventing radicalisation, etc. Second, in more external and offensive terms, to fight Al-Qaeda terrorist groups or those linked to it and based in other countries, for which military force was used, as well as -albeit to a lesser extent- tools of cooperation and public diplomacy to try and limit some of what were considered to be the structural causes of terrorism.

However, the United States and Europe saw terrorist threats in different terms and they both responded according to their circumstances and historical, political and social factors, as well as the emotional and subjective impact of the attacks.

The European reaction was mainly judicial and focusing on policing, less consistent and effective than would have been desired, and involving a heavy dose of institutional and regulatory dispersal. It involved the implementation of complementary tools and measures and coordination with those of its Member States.

By contrast, the American reaction was directed mainly at offensive actions as a means of protecting the North American homeland, although there was also a major reorganisation of its capabilities and the creation of new structures to safeguard internal security. The United States declared a global war on terrorism, and the metaphor of "war" was both the diagnosis and the prescription.1 Any more structured responses gradually took shape in various official documents.2 The major impact and visibility of the most offensive and military aspect does not detract from the decisions and measures adopted in the domestic security field, which led to the largest government reorganisation undertaken in the last fifty years.

Shortly after 9/11, President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security and the post of Secretary of Homeland Security. This Office became the Homeland Security Council, a White House agency responsible for assessing the objectives, commitments and risks of the United States, and making the appropriate recommendations to the president. In 2009, the Obama Administration merged the staff of the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council, to create the National Security Staff.

Another change was the creation of a new department (equivalent to a ministry) of the United States Federal Government. This department is accountable to the Secretary of Homeland Security, who is responsible for leading the combined efforts to secure America, preventing and deterring terrorist attacks and protecting and responding to the various threats that may arise. The Secretary is also responsible for protecting the national borders.3

A new National Security Strategy was announced in May 2010 and in late June 2011 President Obama's National Anti-Terrorism Strategy made some conceptual changes compared to previous documents.

By contrast, the European efforts in this area, led by a group of countries that included Spain, were very important in strengthening the internal security of the EU Member States despite being limited and dispersed. The fight against global terrorism poses major challenges to a conventional state, and even greater ones to a heterogeneous body such as the EU, which has to take the sensitivities of its 27 Member States into consideration, as well as the underlying conflict between their efforts to retain control over their policies and the instruments inherent at the heart of state sovereignty.

The 9/11 attacks, and particularly the Madrid and London bombings, marked a turning point in the attention paid to terrorism within the EU. The traditional reluctance of the European partners was overcome by the seriousness of the events, which led to progress in this area.4

Despite its constraints, the EU has promoted major initiatives and has developed very important instruments, such as the European arrest warrant, Eurojust, Europol, joint investigation teams, the list of individuals and groups involved in terrorism, and the common definition of terrorism. The European Security Strategy (ESS) was approved in December 2003. This significant document was criticised from the perspective of internal security. Following the attacks in Madrid and London, a coordinator of the fight against terrorism in the EU was appointed, and in November 2004 the Hague Programme was adopted in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ) which continued with the Stockholm Programme in late 2009. A European strategy to combat terrorism was adopted in December 2005.

The Lisbon Treaty also reinforced the AFSJ in the area of internal security,5 although it says for the first time that "in particular, national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State" (Art. 4.2 TEU)6. It provides for the creation of a Standing Committee on Internal Security (COSI). The Internal Security Strategy was approved in February 20107 and in November 2010, the Commission presented the Internal Security Strategy action plan.8

To conclude, it can be said that in the last ten years, both the EU and the United States have made significant progress in their efforts to strengthen internal security, although the Americans have undeniably made more substantial progress in this area.

1. Crenshaw,  M., "The War on Terrorism: Is the US Winning?", in Powell y Reinares (eds.),  Las democracias occidentales frente al terrorismo global, Ariel and Elcano Royal Institute, 2008. (Back)
2.These include: the National Security Strategy of the United States of September 2002, the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism of February 2003 and September 2006, the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terror of February 2006, and the renewal of the Homeland Security Strategy in 2006. (Back)
3. For more information, see (Back)
4. Powell, C., y Sorroza, A. (2008), La UE y la lucha contra el terrorismo global en las democracias occidentales frente al terrorismo global, Ariel and Elcano Royal Institute, p. 289. (Back)
5. Bacquias, J. (2008), Freedom, Security and Justice: the new Lisbon (treaty) agenda, European Policy Centre policy brief, online. Available at:,%20security%20and%20justice.pdf (Back)
6. House of Lords (2008): The Treaty of Lisbon: an impact assessment, online. Available at: (Back)
7. Available at: (Back)
8. The EU Internal Security Strategy in Action: Five steps towards a more secure Europe (COM(2010)673 final). (Back)