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Mali mission could up risk of anti-EU terrorism

  • French soldier in Mali. The EU mission is due in late February (Photo: defense.gouv.fr)

A top counter-terrorism official has said the EU military training mission in Mali will increase the risk of revenge attacks in Europe.

Asked by EUobserver on Tuesday (22 January) if France's intervention in Mali could expose French citizens to greater danger, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, said: "We do indeed have concerns ... But I would not just link this to the French. As we become more engaged with the EUTM [EU training mission], EU visibility will increase. France is leading the process. But soon we'll have troops from other countries on the ground and greater visibility and, possibly, retaliation elsewhere."

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  • De Kerchove: 'As we become more engaged with the EUTM, EU visibility will increase' (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU countries are to send about 500 soldiers to Mali in February, with the EUTM's French commander, Francois Lecointre, visiting Bamako this week to make plans.

De Kerchove is currently drafting a Mali terrorism threat assessment for a meeting of EU interior ministers on 7 March.

"We've started looking at the impact in Bamako and in the direct neighbourhood - Niger, Mauritania, Senegal. We have to look at ways to be better prepared, including on the internal security of the EU," he noted.

"I don't exclude that at some point in the future they [jihadist groups in Mali] may want to find a place in Europe where some retaliation may happen," he added.

He said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the "most dangerous" of the groups.

It has no track record of operations in the EU and De Kerchove indicated that a "sophisticated attack, such as 9/11" is unlikely.

But he warned the Mali conflict could "inspire" loner radicals inside the Union or jihadists in other regions, such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to take action.

He noted that some EU residents have already gone to Mali to fight alongside AQIM and that they will pose a danger if they return to Europe.

In terms of outsourcing operations, he added that AQIM has "personal links" with Islamic radical groups Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

But he said the recent Algeria hostage crisis, in which several EU citizens died, was not a revenge attack.

"It was something which was prepared much earlier [than the French intervention]," he explained.

"It was an attempt by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was kicked out of AQIM because he was too heavily involved in drug smuggling and cigarette smuggling, to get back in the game and to show that he's a big player. He had just 100 or so fighters, but he was ready to sacrifice nearly 40 of them to get back in the power game between himself and the leaders of AQIM, Mujao and Ansar Dine," he noted, referring to other militant groups in the conflict.

Zooming in on the fighters, De Kerchove said AQIM, Mujao and parts of Ansar Eddine support a "global jihad" and the creation of an Islamic caliphate in west Africa.

AQIM and Mujao originated in Algeria and are led by Algerians, but have "recruited people from all over the region."

They got "dozens of millions of euros" from ransom payments for EU hostages over the past 10 years and they have looted weapons from Libya.

AQIM does not smuggle drugs because it considers it un-Islamic, but it charges protection money from convoys of drugs traffickers. For its part, Mujao is "less pure" and split from AQIM in order to get into the drugs trade.

Ansar Dine originated among Touareg tribes who want to create an independent state in north Mali.

It is also an Islamic group. Some of its chiefs are willing to make peace with Bamako in return for autonomy, but it contains a "core group of real jihadists." Meanwhile, a former Ansar Dine commander has created his own extremist splinter organisation - Ansar el Charia - with AQIM-type beliefs.

De Kerchove, a Belgian jurist, has been advising EU countries on counter-terrorism strategy for five years.

Some of his information comes from IntCen, the member states' intelligence-sharing office in the EU External Action Service.

"I ask IntCen: 'What do we know about the supply of these terrorist groups [in Mali]? Where do the arms, the food, the gasoline, the spare parts come from?'," he noted.

He attends meetings of the Counter-Terrorism Group, an informal body of the heads of EU countries' intelligence services, which convenes at least twice a year.

He also meets with security chiefs in north African and Middle East capitals.

But he indicated that some of his best sources are "friends" in the administrations of big EU countries and in the US.

"I get a lot of information from my American friends. I know John Brennan [President Barack Obama's nominee for CIA chief] and the head of the NCTC [the US' National Counter-Terrorism Centre, Matthew Olsen]. I go to the US regularly," he told this website.

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