Sofia, June 3, 2016/Independent Balkan News Agency
By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
An annual report by the US state department on counter-terrorism has noted a number of positive aspects of Bulgaria’s efforts but identified some shortcomings too.
The US state department report on counter-terrorism for 2015 said that the government of Bulgaria had continued to deport people it considered national security risks, and had increased extradition of suspected foreign terrorist fighters from Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian government has worked to enhance its terrorism prevention and enforcement tools by criminalising foreign terrorist fighters, developing a new counterterrorism strategy, enhancing operations of its National Counterterrorism Centre, and announcing plans to draft a comprehensive law on measures against terrorism, the report said.
The US and Bulgaria had launched a new Bilateral Counterterrorism Working Group to bolster bilateral cooperation. The group members represented different agencies in the Bulgarian government and include the Deputy Minister of Interior, who co-chairs the group, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Counterterrorism Coordinator and representatives of the information services.
The report noted that Bulgaria is a member of the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and has repeatedly responded to requests for assistance, including in March, when the Ministry of Defence provided weapons and munitions to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga.
Bulgaria prosecutes terrorism under several general provisions of the Penal Code, which has been amended multiple times since it was first enacted in 1968, the report said.
In 2015, the National Assembly adopted amendments to the Penal Code that provide for the prosecution of individuals, including foreign terrorist fighters, who support, plan, and facilitate the commission of terrorist acts in Bulgaria and abroad.
The report noted that the Interior Ministry has operational units responsible for deterring, detecting, and responding to terrorist incidents, including the Specialized Unit for Combating Terrorism, Security Police, and Special Police Forces.
The State Agency for National Security (SANS) has intelligence-gathering units responsible for counterterrorism. SANS also houses the National Counterterrorism Centre, an interagency coordination body responsible for building a common operating picture of terrorist threats.
“Specialized law enforcement units are generally well-equipped and supported with relevant training, but the focus has been primarily in Sofia, and they lack resources in other regional centres,” the report said.
As of July, the special court for organised crime and its prosecutors’ office received jurisdiction to prosecute and try all terrorist cases in the country.
“The court personnel do not have expertise in handling these types of cases, however,” the US state department report said.
The report noted that after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, Bulgaria had tightened its border control rules and screened all travellers at the border crossings.
Within the EU, Bulgaria shares Advanced Passenger Information appearing on the biographical data page of passports.
Based on bilateral police cooperation agreements, Bulgaria also shares this type of information with non-EU countries for law enforcement purposes on an as-needed basis.
Bulgaria was in the process of establishing a Passenger Information Unit (PIU) that will collect and share the data an airline receives from a traveler to book and manage travel.
The report said that at the end of 2015, legislation was pending in the National Assembly that would require air carriers to provide data to the PIU.
The state department said that Antiterrorism Assistance programme had supported Bulgarian participation in a series of border security-related courses aimed at addressing foreign terrorist fighter travel.
Law enforcement cooperation between US agencies and their Bulgarian counterparts has been historically strong, the report said.
“However, consecutive structural changes and reorganization of key police units, and the resulting reassignment of personnel and imposition of new rules, slowed joint casework and harmed law enforcement morale.”
The report said that US government agencies continued to work closely with Bulgarian counterparts through a variety of counterterrorism programs aimed at enhancing Bulgaria’s capacity and capabilities.
The state department had partnered with Bulgaria to implement key programmes in the areas of border security, aviation security, and interagency co-operation.
In October and December, Bulgarian legal and investigative experts had participated in workshops on countering Hezbollah’s terrorist and criminal activities.
In comments on Bulgarian action to counter the financing of terrorism, the report said that the Bulgarian government had not frozen, seized or subjected to forfeit any any terrorism-related assets in 2015.
“However, it did identify some funds as potentially terrorism-related and further investigation is underway,” the report said.
The state department report said that Bulgaria criminalises terrorism financing in accordance with international standards.
“Since there is no publicly available information on terrorist-related assets frozen or seized, it is hard to assess the effectiveness of Bulgaria’s process,” the report said.
Thirty-one reporting entities, including banks, real estate brokers, and financial and exchange houses, are required to file regularly with FID currency transaction reports for all transactions valued at more than $17 000. There are penalties for non-compliance (administrative sanctions), and enforcement is generally good, the report said.
The report noted that on December 30, a new government strategy and action plan on countering radicalisation to violence and terrorism was approved by the Bulgarian Cabinet.
The strategy aims to strengthen existing government counterterrorism efforts by involving all possible agencies and by optimising interagency coordination. The strategy spells out mechanisms for improved cooperation with civil society, business organizations, local communities, and religious leaders.
The report said that the Chief Mufti, the spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Muslims, had issued a statement with the National Council of Religious Communities in Bulgaria condemning the Paris attacks in January and November.
“The Grand Mufti has been a voice of tolerance and moderation, and has stressed that government efforts must complement community CVE (combating violent extremism) efforts,” the report said.
According to Bulgaria’s draft action plan on the strategy on countering radicalisation and terrorism, the government will have a national programme by 2020 for members of violent extremist groups to disengage, de-radicalise, and be rehabilitated, the state department report said.