Top secret service chiefs gather in Russia to talk terrorism

Some of the world's top spies are in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals. They are taking part in a two-day conference attempting to work out how to stop terrorists across the globe.

It’s not every day you can see top secret service undercover officers uncovered and sitting at the same table with those who might perhaps be considered at times their adversaries.

But Russia has managed to gather secret agents from more than 60 countries under one roof in a demonstration of readiness to rise above differences in the face of a common threat.

The head of the United Nations’ Counter-Terrorism Committee – set up after the 9/11 attacks – says not only have terrorists' tactics changed, but so too have those of the security services.

“This whole issue has changed the mentality of a lot of us. There was a principle that we operated by – and that all intelligence organizations and governments worked by – which is to say the principle of ‘need to know’. You don’t give anyone information unless they need to know it. That has now been overturned,” said Mike Smith, UN Counter-terrorism Committee Executive Director. “And what we talk about now domestically and internationally is need to share.”

But “sharing” appears to be not so easy at times. Loopholes in national legislation can stand in the way of cross-border counter-terrorist operations.

“There are huge differences in legislation in different countries, so we're aiming at that terrorism and the threat it poses are understood equally everywhere,” said Joerg Ziercke, President of Germany’s Federal Criminal Police. “Many countries overprotect the exchange of information. Some countries have death penalties – others not. The same applies to the torture of terrorists. These differences create many problems in our work.”

Terrorist attacks continue to take place across the world. But behind the scenes, what successes do the security services enjoy in foiling plots?

“If we talk about figures, last year we prevented 86 terrorist attacks in Russia. In one operation we tapped 15 kilos of TNT which was headed to Moscow, and we arrested a man who was supposed to carry out 12 attacks with these explosives. And just days ago, we carried out a successful operation in Dagestan against the masterminds of the Moscow Metro bombings,” said Chief of Russian Federal Security Service, Aleksandr Bortnikov.

Compared to Russia, some countries have had much less experience in fighting terrorism, but they have also made it to the summit, well aware that the threat is international.

Even if a country has not been a victim of terrorists directly, it could at some point be their indirect target – as a safe haven for channeling funds or training new recruits.

Judging by the number of participants who were willing to take part in the summit in Yekaterinburg, it seems the understanding is there.