Tuesday 16 July 2019

Ireland flights to be screened for jihadi suspects by powerful new State agency

First-of-its-kind security unit will monitor confidential customer information

Information gleaned from airline companies will be used to track the movements of terror suspects plotting massacres. Photo: Sean Dwyer/Bloomberg News
Information gleaned from airline companies will be used to track the movements of terror suspects plotting massacres. Photo: Sean Dwyer/Bloomberg News
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

The Government intends to establish a powerful new State agency which will, for the first time, be able to monitor airline passenger records for suspected jihadi terrorists, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

The first-of-its-kind multi-agency security unit will monitor confidential customer information collected by airline companies to identify potential suspects plotting terror attacks across Europe.

It will also have unprecedented access to the US government's terror watch list which tracks some of the world's most dangerous terrorists.

The State body will be styled on the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) and harness the power of the gardai, custom officials and the Revenue Commissioners office.

Information gleaned from airline companies will be used to track the movements of terror suspects plotting massacres in the name of jihadi groups such as the so-called Islamic State.

Europe has been convulsed by more than a year of barbaric terror attacks by radicalised Islamic terrorists which was compounded last week by the vicious murder of French Catholic priest Fr Jacques Hamel on the alter of his own church.

Read more: Garda and Army on alert for lone wolf attack

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At a State security meeting on Friday, Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan told Taoiseach Enda Kenny, "it is possible but not likely" that jihadi terrorists will target Ireland.

However, gardai remain on high alert for an attack in the wake of the rise of international terrorism.

When asked what were the two most important issues facing the EU at the moment, Irish and EU respondents to a new Eurobarometer poll published last week, were most likely to say immigration and terrorism.

In April, Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald signed off on a deal with her EU counterparts to allow security forces in member states to access airline passenger records when investigating terrorist offences and organised crime.

Under the agreement, each member state is required to establish a Passenger Information Unit which will screen personal airline passenger records which are then exchanged with other EU countries. The information on anyone flying in or out of an EU country can be stored initially for six months.

After this period, certain personal details are removed and the information is then stored securely for another four-and-a-half years.

A senior Department of Justice source said access to airline records was a "proven tool" in the fight against international crimes and was an "invaluable support in combating international terrorism".

"The ability to prevent attacks is as important as an ability to deal with such an eventuality. The gathering of intelligence both domestically and from international sources plays a priority role in ensuring An Garda Siochana can perform this task," the source added.

The source insisted there will be "strong safeguards" on protection of private and personal information.

Separately, Ms Fitzgerald recently received Cabinet approval to sign off on a deal with US authorities which will give Irish officials access to state-of-the-art passenger screening software.

Implementing the hi-tech US computer system in Ireland is part of an agreement which guarantees the future of the visa waiver programme which allows Irish citizens to travel to America without a visa. The new software will also allow Irish security forces to access profiling information collected on terrorist suspects by US state agencies.

Ms Fitzgerald has also held high-level meetings with the director of Europol Rob Wainright about Ireland's participation in an EU-wide IT system which allows security authorities to exchange customs and border control information.

Ireland is one of only three member states yet to sign up to the Schengen Information System (SIS).

Funding has been set aside to introduce the system in Ireland and it his hoped the project will be completed in six months.

Government plans for establishing the Passenger Information Unit are still at an early stage but it is hoped the agency will also target international crime gangs smuggling drugs and weapons into Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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