The European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, laughingly says to his interlocutors that he has been away from home since the emergence of the foreign fighters file in Syria. De Kerchove has become one of the European officials who visits airports the most. He met with senior officials and security leaders in the countries involved in the case, or in other words, he roamed half the world.
As-Safir interviewed de Kerchove as he was finalizing an extensive report to be submitted to European countries. The report included his assessment on the implementation by Europe of the strategy he had recommended a year ago to face the Western jihadist phenomenon, in addition to a set of new proposals. Among multiple files, he talked in this interview about al-Qaeda in Syria and revealed his doubts regarding the moderation of some armed opposition groups.
As-Safir: The jihadist file gained more importance following the attack carried out by Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels. The young French man had fought [in Syria] alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is listed as a terrorist organization, before killing four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. This indicated that the jihadist risk has turned into reality. Did the attack change the methods of confrontation?
De Kerchove: No, it did not. It is just a sad reminder and confirmation that what we were talking about is a very serious threat. It is real and not a story about threats being spread around by officials because they want more money for their budgets or because they want to apply strict security measures. It is a serious problem, especially when jihadists include more than 2,000 European citizens, more than 5,000 from North Africa, to my knowledge, and 500 people from the Balkans and thousands of people from the Arabian Gulf. Moreover, 20 to 30 al-Qaeda leaders were relocated from Pakistan to Syria.
There are thousands of people affiliated with groups that are clearly terrorist organizations. Jabhat al-Nusra is an official splinter of al-Qaeda. ISIS is not an official splinter, but it still is a terrorist group that seeks to establish a world caliphate, starting with the establishment of a local caliphate. We have people fighting with these groups, they learned to use weapons and explosives and this is extremely dangerous.
As-Safir: In this context, was Nemmouche’s attack an appropriate trigger to increase and accelerate your work?
De Kerchove: We have been mobilizing our powers for 18 months now. I myself have submitted six or seven political papers. Ministers have adopted several practical measures, and we are in the process of implementing these measures. All this in addition to the usual daily work in European security agencies, the European Police Office (Europol) and agencies for border control and exchange of information and others. What happened [Brussels’s attack] is sad and must not be repeated. We accomplished a significant achievement that led to some results. Some people were banned from going to Syria. There are people who were recently arrested in Spain and Morocco. An arrest campaign was also held on the same day with the coordination of Spain, Belgium and Morocco. There are people who are being arrested in France almost every week. The issue is not that we are passive people and that the Brussels attack caught us off guard. The issue is that security cannot be provided at 100%. What happened is sad, and we will try to prevent it from happening again.
As-Safir: Do you think Nemmouche was working alone? We heard that you do not think he is a lone wolf, according to recent rumors. What do you think?
De Kerchove: We do not know for sure, and we have to wait to see what the investigation reveals. He was most probably in contact with other people, because France had subsequently arrested four people. We have to wait. But the true lone wolf is someone who has no connections. For example, Anders Breivik, the right-wing Norwegian terrorist who had drawn his own plan and killed 77 people in 2011, is a lone wolf. There is also a French national who came to Belgium and killed a police officer with a knife. That was a clear case of what is called a lone wolf. What I mean by that is that the group that Nemmouche is likely affiliated with is probably not a large organization, but then again, jihadists are people who have connections with others and established friendships in Syria. They may also have places where they can hide, and they are not necessarily affiliated with complex organizations. But a lone wolf such as Nemmouche is a very rare case.
The lone wolf becomes extreme at home and decides to act on his own without discussing it with anyone else. I'd be surprised if Nemmouche did all of this without talking to anyone in Syria.
The jurist de Kerchove served more than a decade as director of justice and home affairs in the European Union before he was appointed in 2007 to occupy his current position. According to him, the “jihadist” threat facing Europe is unprecedented in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or any other place. De Kerchove believes that “jihadist” Westerners will have a “network of relationships across the Muslim world,” and this will exacerbate the problem.
As-Safir: Do you mean that the EU is facing a long-term threat that could last for years, or even decades?
De Kerchove: Yes. It is a long-term threat. We do not know when the fighting in Syria will end. It may last for months or years, and this is sad, of course. The fighting will attract new jihadists, who will return to their home countries at some point. Hundreds of them will return to Morocco, Tunisia, Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Pakistan, Australia, Canada or the United States. It is a phenomenon that will last for a long time. I am not saying that they are all killers, but the vast majority will need psychosocial and social support. There might be small numbers of them leading radical movements in their own countries, because the veterans who fought with terrorist groups may inspire other people. It's a risk on a personal level. But some of them probably use the tools and knowledge that they acquire and tend to carry out small-scale attacks — as happened in Brussels — or are probably following orders of groups in Syria to attack the West, because this is the goal of al-Qaeda.
As part of the efforts aimed at confronting the phenomenon, de Kerchove specifically refers to the need to continue to cooperate with the Arab Gulf states in order to besiege the funding of extremist groups. He talks about the zakat funds and private donations, which can be exploited to support extremists in Syria, especially with the ease of making remittances today. He also focuses on the issue of “propaganda for jihad” carried out by Gulf TV channels and emphasizes the need to work to stop this kind of promotion.
As-Safir: What is the type of relationship with the Gulf states?
De Kerchove: The relationship with Gulf countries is based on cooperation and dialogue, and this is how it should continue to be. We know that some of them have to make efforts.
De Kerchove visited Qatar. He landed in Saudi Arabia twice this year, and he confirms that UK authorities had a positive response. He pointed out that “Saudi Arabia took very strong action this year. And the mufti issued very clear fatwas” about the prohibition of fighting in Syria.
However, facing all of these measures, the war on the ground continues to be complex. De Kerchove gave a realistic example about the classification of armed groups and the challenges of differentiating radical from moderate groups.
As-Safir: How do you distinguish between armed groups in Syria?
De Kerchove: The situation in Syria is difficult and very volatile. There are groups with different forms of extremism. Take Jabhat al-Nusra for example; it is composed of different groups, including Ahrar ash-Sham. This faction, as far as I know, is not listed as a terrorist group. But one of the founders of the Ahrar ash-Sham was a representative of [al-Qaeda leader Ayman] al-Zawahri in Syria. I mean the Syrian [Abu Khalid]. Yes, he was killed, but this means that there may be links between Ahrar ash-Sham and al-Qaeda. Therefore, if there are people who want to support groups because they want to support the opposition, sometimes we do not know where the money or weapons go because the situation is very volatile. Foreign fighters are part of that, some join a faction of an organization of ISIS, then move to al-Nusra and then to other groups. This situation is not easy at all.
Last February, de Kerchove held a meeting for the Mediterranean countries in Brussels, and security officers and experts from the countries involved in the “jihadist” dossier were in attendance. De Kerchove believes that these meetings are necessary, and he is currently preparing for a second meeting that is likely to be hosted by Morocco this current month.
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