Former intelligence chief: We have known for a long time that terrorists use this country as a safe haven or transit state

Photo: Filip Jandourek

Ever since the terrorist attacks in Paris, security issues have been at the forefront of public and media attention in the Czech Republic. Although the country’s intelligence says it has no indication of an imminent threat, security has been tightened around key institutions and will remain so at least until the end of the year. The need to consider security is affecting things like the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree on Old Town Square as well as people’s travel plans for the holidays. For this edition of Panorama I spoke to former military intelligence chief Andor Šandor about the security threat to this country, its emergency forces and the effectiveness of its public warning system.

Andor Šandor,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“The sirens that we hear every first Wednesday in the month are just to tell the people that there is a system that would warn them. But I am not at all sure that people would know what to do. They are used to hearing the sirens every month and there is no reaction, no panic. The only ones who are uncomfortable are the foreigners because they walk along the street and suddenly they hear sirens. And they do not know what it means. Nobody knows what it means. It is just a warning system. We have a supplement to it if something really occurs and that is a warning via amplifiers - fixed amplifiers (in the smaller villages) or amplifiers on cars which the authorities use to tell people there is a problem. But I can tell you from experience that it is not very effective. In the summer there was a water contamination problem in a part of Prague where I live and cars with amplifiers went round and round telling people they should not drink the tap water. But the warning was not heard in flats or inside people’s houses. So the system is far from perfect and something should really be done about that.”

The prime minister has now asked for the introduction of a security threat scale – will that help?

“It may help if the system knows what to do. If you have a threat scale –three, four, five points – it depends on how you determine the danger, what you want to do and how you want to call it, but it requires that the integrated emergency system knows what to do when a given threat level is declared. So creating a scale is fine, but what really matters is that the system knows how to react when a threat occurs. So it remains to be seen what will come of that. Our military has a four-point security scale based on the NATO system Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta but that has no relation to the civilian population.”

“Creating a security threat scale is fine, but what really matters is that the system knows how to react when a threat occurs.”

We know that the police, firefighters and soldiers cooperated very well during the floods but are the Czech emergency forces ready to respond to terrorist attacks such as those in Paris?

“That’s a good question. We have never experienced anything like that and we hope that we will not ever experience anything like it. Even France had a problem coping with the scale of the attacks. The system that we have tries to cope with threats, but whether it would be able to cope well with something like the attacks in Paris I really do not know. I do not want to say that the system is bad and I do not want to tell people they can be 100 percent sure that the system would cope in the event of attacks such as we saw in Paris.”

Does the present legislation give our special forces enough powers to fight terrorism and to prevent such attacks?

“I think our legislation responds to what we need. Recently we made improvements in the police capability of tracking email addresses, IT addresses and so on, but preventing terrorism is a very difficult thing. Recently the chief of NSA said that from the enormous amount of information collected they were only able to prevent one terrorist attack that nearly happened in Los Angeles –so prevention is a very difficult thing. We collect a certain amount of information but it is difficult to put the pieces together in a way that will tell us what is going to happen.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Recent statements from France suggest that the Czech Republic has repeatedly been used as a transit state by terrorists. The interior minister says intelligence knew about it and was not sleeping on the job - but if that is the case why is the country serving as a transit state?

“Well, I would say – surprise, surprise! We have known for a long time that terrorists transit our country. It is nothing new to the intelligence services. We are a pretty safe country, there are not many police checks on the roads and on the highways and since we entered Schengen there have not been border controls anywhere. So we know about somebody coming here when we are informed by our partners in neighbouring countries. As far as this case is concerned I have no information about it at all because I am out of the service, but as I said in the beginning it is nothing new to us, we have known for a long time that terrorists use this country as a safe haven or transit state. But we do not know for sure what the terrorist who planned the crimes in Paris advised his accomplices – whether he said use Prague, or use Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava – we do not know.”

Would you say that the peaceful lives we led in this part of the world are over –or is that too dramatic? Could we end up having tight security such as we see in Israel?

“If we do not start solving the causes of Islamic terrorism then we will end up in a situation when terrorist attacks occur much more often than they have so far.”

“At the end of the day we may end up having a situation similar to that in Israel – that means we could be witnessing terrorist attacks quite often. If we do not start solving the causes of Islamic terrorism, if we do not ask ourselves the question why these people hate us so wholeheartedly, why we have problems in our capitals and so many people living on the margin of society and why we maintain our political and military operations in the Middle East and Northern Africa then we will end up in a situation when terrorist attacks occur much more often than they have so far.”

General Šedivy (former army chief of staff) says that a terrorist attack in this country is a question of when, not if, do you agree with that view?

“Yes, I have been saying so from 2003. Despite the fact that we are one of the safest countries in the world, we may experience a terrorist attack. We may have a terrorist attack from inside the country. If we keep arguing against Islam, against the Koran, if we keep alienating our Muslim community –which is not large, but it is here – we may end up in a situation that some of the Muslims will feel offended and do something. Or, the right wing extremists who are bored with “solving the gypsy [Romany] problem” in this country may find the Muslim community a suitable new target – and all this could bring about a situation where terrorist attacks could occur in this country without being imported from abroad.”

Do you see the Muslim community in this country as a threat right now?

Photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová
“No, definitely not. We have about 20,000 Muslims, five hundred of them Czech converts, they are not radicalized, but they are not without problems. Frankly though, we cannot see into the head of every Muslim so it may be that there is someone who is radicalized, but I have no information about that at all and our intelligence services say the same thing. They have no information of a direct threat in this country. But that is the situation now – in ten years’ time it may be different, or in ten months it may be different – who knows? If we keep alienating Muslims in our country it may be that terrorist attacks could happen on our territory.”