Eurojust’s contribution to the fight against terrorism

Ilkka Salmi
Ilkka Salmi EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator [1]

Ilkka Salmi

EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator [1]


The judicial dimension plays a key role in countering terrorism, and Eurojust is instrumental in facilitating cooperation in this context.

My first meeting in office on 1 October 2021 was with the President of Eurojust, Ladislav Hamran. Since then I have visited Eurojust and participated in its annual counter-terrorism meeting. This has reinforced my belief in the added value of Eurojust. I commend the Eurojust’s solid response to evolving terrorist phenomena based on the rule of law and its commitment to protecting citizens in the European Union and beyond.

As the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, I look ahead most of the time. Today I am looking back at how Eurojust has improved the judicial dimension of the fight against terrorism over the years. In paying tribute to those who have striven to achieve significant progress, one can only feel optimistic about future endeavours.

My legal and judicial background make me well aware of the impact of the criminal chain on both the repression and prevention of serious forms of criminality. I know how important it is for practitioners to be well-equipped for investigations, prosecutions, convictions, the enforcement of sentences and the reintegration of former convicts.

Given the international nature of terrorism and the opportunities provided by the internet and terrorist travel, there is a clear need for international judicial cooperation. Terrorist networks operate transnationally. Incitement to terror, preparatory acts and attacks often take place on the territory of more than one state. Perpetrators and victims often have different nationalities. As a result, many, if not most, terrorism cases require the competent authorities of different states to collaborate.

Tackling terrorist phenomena in an effective way would not have been possible without a radical departure from traditional mutual legal assistance. The system of judicial cooperation in criminal matters established within the European Union over the past 25 years is unique in the world. At its heart lies the principle of mutual recognition of judicial decisions. Eurojust, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is one of its most effective tools; it offers Member States and partner countries a modern platform for judicial cooperation.

I will first outline the development of Eurojust and the contribution it has made in terrorism cases. I will then turn to the future by highlighting priorities for Eurojust related to counter-terrorism. I will conclude by stressing Eurojust’s role in implementing the priorities I set out at the beginning of my current mandate.   

The development of Eurojust and its contribution to countering terrorism

The Tampere European Council of October 1999 set out the vision of a judicial cooperation instrument that could provide operational support in cases of serious cross-border organised crime. The shock of the attacks on 11 September 2001 contributed to the creation of Eurojust on 28 February 2002[2], followed four months later by the Framework Decision on the European arrest warrant[3] (allowing the surrender of Salah Abdeslam[4] from Belgium to France in two months whereas it had taken ten years for Rachid Ramda[5] to be surrendered from the United Kingdom to France).

Over the years, the cooperation of national judicial authorities via Eurojust has contributed to building mutual trust, and the EU judicial cooperation toolbox has expanded to include other mutual recognition instruments, including the Directive on the European Investigation Order[6], which was due to be transposed in 2017.

Eurojust’s legal framework has been strengthened[7], and so have its capacities. The Agency has become a key player in facilitating cooperation between the national judicial authorities of the Member States, but also with third countries and other partners. It has supported bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

With regard to counter-terrorism, Eurojust’s role has undergone a sea change since 2015. The assistance Eurojust provided to the investigation of the Paris terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015 was pivotal, with 15 Member States involved, as well as the United States; 17 coordination meetings were held in multiple formats and a joint investigation team (JIT) set up including France, Belgium, Eurojust, Europol and later the Netherlands. The experience reinforced the credibility of the Agency as a unique platform for facilitating operational cooperation when many States are involved.

While Eurojust’s assistance was requested for a total of only 51 terrorism cases in 2014, this number has progressively increased over the years: Eurojust supported a total of 74 terrorism cases in 2015, 124 in 2016, 178 in 2017, 191 in 2018, 223 in 2019, 217 in 2020 and 221 in 2021[8]

These figures include investigations into major terrorist attacks in EU Member States (such as the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks, the attacks in Brussels in March 2016, and the attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin in December 2016) or in third countries (such as the attacks against the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015, and in Ouagadougou in January 2016), but also cases of financing of terrorism, recruitment and training with a view to committing terrorist acts, participation in or support for terrorist groups, production and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, as well as travel to or return from a conflict zone. The cases involved both networks and individuals including high-profile targets.

The transmission of requests for mutual legal assistance and for mutual recognition instruments and their execution through Eurojust has proven to be beneficial, particularly in urgent cases. The Agency has supported national judicial authorities facing various challenges relating to, inter alia, the gathering and admissibility of evidence, e-evidence and financial investigations. Eurojust’s assistance and coordination mechanisms have played an essential role, allowing for seizures, confiscations, arrests and convictions in complex cross-border investigations and prosecutions. They have also facilitated the protection and support of victims of terrorism, requests for assistance to third countries as well as the settlement of jurisdictional issues.

In 2014, only four coordination meetings were organised in terrorism-related investigations. This number has expanded since then with 15 coordination meetings being held in 2015, 18 in 2016, 14 in 2017, 20 in 2018, 24 in 2019, 12 in 2020 and 9 in 2021. These coordination meetings have provided incomparable added value. In adapting their formats to operational needs, they have brought together magistrates and investigators, allowing them to share in real time and in their own language all useful information with their colleagues, and to define investigation strategies collectively while avoiding duplication or jeopardising parallel initiatives. Additionally, the creation of two operational coordination centres has made it possible to hold successful joint action days: one in 2015 and one in 2017. Eurojust also gave organisational and financial support to a total of 2 JITs in terrorism cases in 2014, 5 in 2015, 6 in 2016, 13 in 2017, 12 in 2018, 8 in 2019, 7 in 2020 and 9 in 2021[9]. JITs, such as the one set up in January 2022 by Sweden and France with the support of Eurojust for proceedings involving core international crimes committed by foreign terrorist fighters against the Yezidi population in Syria and Iraq, are key tools for Member States, but also increasingly for third countries, allowing them to share information and exchange evidence in an efficient manner without the need for a European Investigation Order or mutual legal assistance request, as well as to coordinate investigative measures and prosecution strategies.

Information exchange is crucial in terrorism cases, and has been stepped up considerably in recent years regarding both ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions and proceedings that have already been concluded. The Counter-Terrorism Register, launched in September 2019 on the initiative of the Ministers of Justice of France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and based on Council Decision 2005/671/JHA on the exchange of information and cooperation concerning terrorist offences[10], has contributed to this in a significant manner. The Register has allowed for the identification of links between prosecutions, and for the detection of the need for multilateral coordination in a number of cases, even when operational cooperation was not facilitated by Eurojust. Eurojust’s efforts aimed at consolidating the uniform and consistent transmission of information, the timely processing thereof, efficient follow-up and regular updates are to be commended.

Eurojust has also fostered its collaboration with Europol, in particular with the European Counter Terrorism Centre created in January 2016.

The feedback provided by Eurojust to national authorities through, inter alia, the Terrorism Convictions Monitor and ad hoc analyses of landmark court decisions in terrorism cases has also facilitated prosecutions by putting forward comparative legislation, comparative case law and lessons learnt. Additionally, Eurojust has provided strategic input to the Council and its preparatory bodies, on topics such as foreign terrorist fighters, e-evidence and encryption. With contributions to Europol’s TE-SAT report, for example, Eurojust has made it possible to map and analyse trends.

Challenges in the gathering of, timely access to and admissibility of battlefield evidence have limited the number of convictions for terrorist offences and international crimes. These challenges have oriented prosecution strategies towards indictments for participation in terrorist organisations, even in cases where this qualification does not guarantee the full accountability of perpetrators and adequate justice for victims. The work of the Eurojust Genocide Network has been crucial in enhancing the use of battlefield information in prosecutions and in encouraging cumulative prosecutions for international crimes and terrorism offences. The cooperation among Member States’ and Eurojust’s affiliated prosecutors on war crimes, as well as the close relations with international partners and NGOs, is internationally referenced as exemplary, inter alia in the context of the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum or within the United Nations. The 2020 Eurojust Memorandum on Battlefield Evidence showed a recent increase in the number of cases based on battlefield evidence and cumulative charges. This is a positive development in the fight against impunity. The Eurojust Memorandum was highly successful in flagging difficulties and disseminating best practices.

An additional contribution by Eurojust to strengthening investigations into and prosecutions of terrorism cases is its cooperation with third countries, such as the United States, Norway, Switzerland, Western Balkan states, Turkey and Ukraine. International cooperation has been reinforced through international agreements, Liaison Prosecutors and Contact Points. Around one quarter of the terrorism investigations and prosecutions assisted by Eurojust in 2019 involved non-Member States.

Way ahead: counter-terrorism priorities for Eurojust

Information sharing is key in countering terrorism. I very much welcome the progress Eurojust has achieved in that area with the Counter-Terrorism Register. It is crucial that Member States share in a systematic and timely manner information on all terrorism-related investigations and convictions, with regular updates to facilitate the establishment of links in proceedings with potential cross-border implications. The Counter-Terrorism Register has already demonstrated in practice that it can strengthen coordination and speed up actions against suspects. Optimising its efficiency depends on the systematic entry and updating of information by the national judicial authorities of all Member States. Further progress is needed. I therefore fully support the proposal made by the Commission in its ‘Security and justice in the digital world’ package[11], published in December 2021, to strengthen digital information exchange on cross-border terrorism cases. It would be beneficial to modernise the Eurojust Case Management System while integrating the Counter-Terrorism Register and its functionalities (especially the link identification), and to set up secure digital communication channels between the competent authorities and Eurojust.

Eurojust’s contribution to the digitalisation of justice, in a more general sense, is to be commended. I believe for instance that the creation of a Joint Investigation Teams Collaboration Platform, as proposed by the Commission in the same digital package of December 2021, would bring added value in terrorism cases, by inter alia facilitating the daily management of teams, as well as the collaboration with third countriesand other partners. It would also ensure the secure exchange of information and evidence, the traceability of which would be reinforced.

New technologies are key for investigations and prosecutions. I hope that Eurojust will actively participate in the EU innovation hub for internal security at Europol to identify security threats related to new technologies, assess the impact of new technologies on prosecutions and develop innovative tools in joint projects to maximise the use of new technologies in the judicial dimension. The input from magistrates on legal and practical challenges is very important in guiding policymakers.

It is also important that Eurojust continues to develop its collaboration with partners such as the European Counter Terrorism Centre at Europol and third countries. The fact that the Council authorised the Commission to negotiate cooperation agreements with 13 more states is also an encouraging sign. Furthermore, Eurojust’s participation in the EuroMed Justice Programme on promoting criminal justice cooperation between the EU Member States and Southern Mediterranean countries is very positive.   

The full implementation of Directive (EU) 2017/541 on combating terrorism is fundamental. In that context, enhancing judicial authorities’ timely access to information from conflict zones is critical. Eurojust and the Genocide Network should continue their excellent and unique work with the national correspondents for terrorism and international crimes on battlefield evidence and cumulative prosecutions. We are on the right track and I encourage the national competent authorities to build on this to make further progress.

Eurojust’s role in implementing the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator’s priorities

On taking up my duties in October 2021, I set out four priorities for my office, which will evolve over time depending on developments.

My first priority is the implementation of the Afghanistan CT Action Plan[12], designed with the Member States, the European Commission, the European External Action Service, the relevant Justice and Home Affairs agencies and international partners, and welcomed by the Council in October 2021. The terrorist threat to the EU is not likely to increase immediately but may grow in the medium term. We need to be prepared and mobilise the existing instruments. There is a role for Eurojust to play as far as the prosecution of foreign terrorist fighters, battlefield evidence and tackling organised crime are concerned, including in cooperation with partner countries such as those in the Western Balkans. 

My second priority is enhanced assistance to camps and prisons in north-east Syria, where former Da’esh fighters and their families are held. The EU does not intervene in repatriation, to which the Member States take different approaches. Aid and the prevention of further radicalisation in the camps and prisons must be ensured for international and EU security, with a particular focus on minors. The work on battlefield information is important in this context too: building the capacities of national authorities to fight against impunity by obtaining and using battlefield information in court would expand Member States’ options for tackling the challenging legacy of Da’esh. Since the EU is also working towards decongesting the camps by supporting reintegration in local communities in Syria and Iraq, capacity building of national authorities in the region is also critical. The comparative experiences, lessons learnt and best practices issued by Eurojust provide valuable material in this context.

Prevention of radicalisation is my third priority. Our work includes projects with a special focus on young people. Investing in education, culture, sports and international exchanges as elements of social cohesion is extremely important. Addressing the ideologies behind violent movements is also necessary: we must look into the roots of Islamist, right-wing and left-wing terrorism and violent extremism from all angles. Terrorism motivated by Islamist extremism remains the main threat we are facing in the EU, but the threat of right-wing violent extremism and terrorism is on the rise. Violent right-wing extremists are increasingly interconnected in the international online space, which exacerbates the threat they pose. I therefore attach great value to the work carried out by Eurojust on this phenomenon.

The online spread of terrorist speech, hate speech and disinformation is particularly concerning. The Regulation on addressing the dissemination of terrorist content online[13] and the proposed Digital Services Act[14] are major steps towards addressing this. Major digital companies can and should do much more to curb this phenomenon. Not only should they invest more resources in removing illegal content and moderating harmful content, but they should also refrain from increasing the visibility of divisive and polarising content. I am particularly concerned about the algorithms used by companies such as Facebook and Google to amplify extreme or sensationalist content at the expense of moderate, nuanced and mainstream voices. Commercial gain should not come at the price of creating societal vulnerability and jeopardising security. The EU has the opportunity to set an ambitious standard to protect its citizens and I hope that it will build up the necessary means to achieve its ambitions.

In the fight against radicalisation online, cooperation between Eurojust and Europol in the framework of the Scientific Information Retrieval Integrated Utilisation System (SIRIUS) project is very important. The SIRIUS project guides prosecutors to the relevant point of contact for online platforms in the course of their investigations, and sensitises online platforms to the need to build up resources and streamline processes to better respond to judicial requests. Sharing information and best practices on mutual legal assistance procedures and internet-based investigations is beneficial for the national judicial authorities’ capacity building and for online service providers’ outreach.

My fourth priority relates to new and disruptive technologies. It is twofold. On the one hand, we should restrict the malicious use of such technologies. While recent terrorist attacks in Europe have so far been low-tech, there is a risk that terrorists will attempt to use new technologies, such as drones, 3D printing and large-scale cyber operations, in future attacks. On the other hand, we should make sure that our law enforcement and security services are equipped with advanced technologies to fight terrorism in full respect of our fundamental freedoms. Eurojust’s contribution in mapping the evolution of criminal practices and the impact of technological changes on prosecution, for instance through its collaboration with Europol in the Observatory Function on Encryption, is important. It makes it possible to have foresight. Further initiatives of this nature should be undertaken.

Like my predecessor Gilles de Kerchove, I believe that security and judicial practitioners in Brussels do not have a strong enough voice. There is a risk that technical and legal capabilities to collect information and use evidence in terrorism cases will be severely affected by restrictions on data retention and the use of artificial intelligence, by the increase in end-to-end encryption of electronic communications, further expanded by the roll-out of 5G, and by challenges related to e-evidence. I am keen to contribute to the debate to make sure that we strike the right balance between privacy and security. Here again, Eurojust’s engagement is important, as it echoes legal and practical challenges related to the judicial dimension of the fight against terrorism.


Eurojust plays a crucial role in supporting the major prosecutions of terrorism in the EU. It provides a strong and modern platform for bilateral and multilateral judicial cooperation, and for information-sharing in counter-terrorism.

Like my predecessor, I look forward to working closely with Eurojust. I will strongly support the Agency and I am committed to ensuring that it has the necessary legal framework and adequate resources to provide optimal support to national judicial authorities.

Ilkka Salmi
Ilkka Salmi EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator [1]

[1] The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Council of the European Union or the European Council.

[2] Council Decision 2002/187/JHA of 28 February 2002 setting up Eurojust with a view to reinforcing the fight against serious crime.

[3] Council Framework Decision 2002/584/JHA of 13 June 2002 on the European arrest warrant and the surrender procedures between Member States.

[4] Facing trial in France for his alleged participation in the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015.

[5] Convicted in France for the terrorist attacks on public transport in Paris in the summer of 1995.

[6] Directive 2014/41/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 3 April 2014 regarding the European Investigation Order in criminal matters.

[7] The Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, replacing and repealing Council Decision 2002/187/JHA was adopted on 6 November 2018 and became applicable on 12 December 2019.

[8] Number of new terrorism cases supported by Eurojust per year: 14 in 2014, 41 in 2015, 71 in 2016, 92 in 2017, 84 in 2018, 95 in 2019, 69 in 2020 and 80 in 2021.

[9] Number of new JITs supported by Eurojust in terrorism cases per year: 1 in 2014, 3 in 2015, 2 in 2016, 9 in 2017, 2 in 2019, 2 in 2020 and 4 in 2021.

[10] Council Decision 2005/671/JHA of 20 September 2005 on the exchange of information and cooperation concerning terrorist offences.

[11] Modernising judicial cooperation (09/03/2022) (available on the European Commission’s website).

[12] ST 11556/1/21 REV 1, 29 September 2021.

[13] Regulation (EU) 2021/784 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2021 on addressing the dissemination of terrorist content online.

[14] Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on a Single Market For Digital Services (Digital Services Act) and amending Directive 2000/31/EC.