Al-Qaeda, ISIS competition will bring violence to West - EU counter-terror official

With ISIS the №1 terrorist threat in the world, it seemed Al-Qaeda has been pushed out of the picture. But rivalry between the jihadist groups is sparking further escalation of violence - and fears in the Europe that it would become the arena of a struggle for leadership between the two. How can the EU protect itself? Is it military operation the right answer? We ask these questions to the European Union counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove on Sophie&Co today

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Gilles de Kerchove, EU counter-terrorism coordinator, welcome to the progam, great to see you. Now, a French tourist has been beheaded in Algeria by a new Al-Qaeda breakaway group that’s pledged its allegiance to ISIS. Is Western North Africa in danger now?

Gilles de Kerchove:I think we have to ask ourselves more generally, if the developments in Syria and Iraq will have an impact on the terrorism landscape and to what extent other Al-Qaeda franchises of affiliates will want to move from Al-Qaeda to ISIL. That would have a significant impact and that could even increase the terrorist threat in the region concerned. In this case - I must confess, that was a surprise, we knew that there was debate inside AQIM - al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - as to whether it pledged allegiance to ISIL. We know that some sort of copy-cat did happen with Boko Haram, when they themselves proclaimed caliphate in Northeast Nigeria. So this is, indeed, a question that we have to ask ourselves - it’s probably one of the consequences of the recent developments.

SS:So we are worried of spreading of ISIS in Western-North Africa.

GK: Yes.

SS:Also, ISIS has called on its supporters to execute attacks across the globe. Is this killing a start of a new pattern?

GK: Of course, it’s difficult to know. They issued a statement, announcing retaliation against all the members of coalition. They explicitly mentioned the Americans and the French, but there are many more states that are part of this coalition, and they will have to access, really, the impact of their commitment and their engagement within the coalition; but they announced this after the kidnapping took place and after this French,Herve Gourdel,was beheaded. So, we haveto take that seriously, yes.

SS:The UNSC has approved a resolution making travelling to fighting wars abroad to be illegal. Then, you have hundreds of thousands of Europeans who travel to Turkey, for example, every day. And then, some of them just go to Syria, because of the very loosely protected border. They can just go back and forth,get some medical care, get well and go back to Syria - is there any way to control this?

GK: We work with Turkey. They are making a lot of efforts themselves to police the border. They’ve built new fences, thermal cameras, but a lot is about the information sharing, and we are working actively with Turkey in order to improve this, that we inform them better and timely and in reverse, that they share more with all of us.

SS:But then there are also countries like Afghanistan or Libya who couldn’t care less about UNSC resolutions. How can a resolution from the UNSC prevent foreign fighters from those countries to go into Syria?

GK: Very good question. Probably, better in Afghanistan, because there is still NATO and allies, building the capability and capacity of the police in Afghanistan. In Libya it’s indeed very problematic, and we are very worried, because Libya is a country where we have extremist groups in different parts of the country. It’s a hub where many would-be jihadists from North Africa are transiting before going to Istanbul and then to Syria; and the southern part of Libya is a safe haven for AQIM, Al-Mohhabitum and other assailant groups. So, you asked the right question. I just know that the international committee has not been able so far to solve the problem in Libya, but there is an urgency.

SS: Ok, but just to sum it up - in your opinion, will this actually have the desired effect, because the U.S. ambassador to the UN, she dubbed the resolution as historic.

GK: I’m very much in favor of this, and I must say making it an offense - goingabroad for fighting and training - is something that I’m pushing in Europe as well. We’ve asked our agency of police cooperation to look into this and see whether we should not amend all definition of terrorism and I’m waiting for the report by the end of this year. The UNSC resolution makes it an obligation, as based on Chapter VII of the Charter, so it will be a significant improvement. I fully support this.

SS:Why do you think the countries that were actually pushing for the resolution are so worried about the non-state actors fighting wars now? They sure didn’t seem worried back when the Arab Spring was taking place and there were arming groups in Libya and Syria for example.

GK: I think the countries pushing for resolution have been worried for some time. In Europe we’ve been working on this subject since early 2013, we tried to improve the different mechanisms for information sharing, for border-management - so it’s not a new issue, it’s just one further step in the series of other measures. On what you said, on countries where Arab Spring did happen, this is indeed a challenge. This countries had to reorganise and are in the process of reorganising their security sector, because in many of these countries the intelligence services were the arm of repression and for good reason they had to reorganise them, and Europe stands really behind, we try to help them, we’re very much engaged in Tunisia to help them to reorganise the security sector, we have close relationship with Algeria, with Morocco and of course, Libya remains a big question mark. We’re engaged in Libya as well on border management, but in the current context we had to withdraw our mission which has been moved to Tunisia.

SS:Here’s another interesting moment in all of this. ISIS aside, you’ve warned of a growing Al-Qaeda threat in Europe stemming from the competition between the two terror groups. Are the terror groups trying to outdo each other?

GK: There is indeed a competition for terrorism leadership. It would not be a surprise, if Al-Qaeda would want to mount an attack somewhere to show that it is in the game, it is still a relevant organisation, so something will happen in the terrorism landscape for sure.

SS:You must have an approximate number in your head, how many volunteers from Europe are fighting alongside the jihadists, and why do they choose to go inside with them?

GK: First, the number: I’m not very accurate, my personal estimation is around 3000, but I’m not that much interested in the last digit, because I’m not an appraiser, what is important for me is to know the size and whether it’s still growing. Why are Europeans going there? I usually mentioned four factors, but there may be many more. The first, I think, is that many muslims may feel that it’s a duty for them to fight, because they may have the feeling that the international community has not helped enough the Syrian opposition. The second reason is linked to the classical rhetoric of Al-Qaeda: the Jihad, the so-called Jihad, and it’s probably even more attractive in this part of the world that it was in Afghanistan or in Somalia or in Yemen, or in Northern Mali, because Al-Sham, the Great Syria, has specific meaning. In some edits of the Prophet it seems that where they believe that the last battle will take place against the infidels, and where the Mahdi will come back on Earth and so forth - I’m not an expert, but it may resonate to some people. And, the third reason, I think, is the growing tension between the Sunni and the Shia, and maybe, some Sunni may want to fight, because they feel themselves under pressure by the Shia, by Iran, by Hezbollah, and if you look at the number of Saudi citizens who went to Syria - I was told by the Saudi colleagues that the number boomed after the speech of Nasrallah in may 2013, which could be, therefore, one of the explanations. The last one is a bit disappointing. It was well described in the recent book by a french journalist David Thompson, who spend a year talking to these wannabe jihadists, and the conclusion is not much about religion. You may remember that one guy even bought a book “Islam for the Dummies” before going to Syria, which shows that he had no knowledge whatsoever of Islam, but it’s more about people who are looking for the thrill of the war, they look for the adventure, they look for the bondship, be part of a group, they feel, may be, marginalised or isolated and that’s what they are looking for. So these are this four explanations, but I’m sure there are many more. Why so many - I would say it’s easy and cheap to fly to Turkey and in a way the suburbs of Aleppo are pretty similar to the suburbs in Europe, while the biotope in northern Mali, 40 degrees plus, or the hostile environment of some part of Afghanistan are probably less attractive for young people.

SS:So what’s the EU is doing wrong that leads to ISIS flags being raised in its cities?

GK: The question you ask is more related to why are people getting radicalised. I think, it’s not necessary because these people are jobless or poor - it could be a mix of many elements, it could be sense of sort of marginalisation or problem of integration in society and, at the same time, personal experience. So, that’s why we have started to work intensively on what we call “Prevent”, trying to develop policies to address to root causes, the driving factors. In the 4 explanations I provided earlier, there’s another one - ideology may play a role. That’s why we have to work on it. If you see this case, it’s the first Twitter war: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube play a huge role and we know how much it may contribute to this process of radicalisation. That’s why we have to work with the Internet platforms in order to remove from Internet the illegal websites, illegal accounts and so forth. We have to try to develop counter-narrative, to challenge the ISIL narrative, which is pretty powerful. It’s amazing to see how media-savvy, how professional this organisation is.

SS:Now, ISIS is the richest terror organisation in history. It’s oil revenue amounts around $3mn every day, and the EU ambassador to Iraq has criticised some EU members among others for buying that oil:

Jana Hybášková: whatever we can and you can as part of this alliance is to come with smart, legal solutions on sanctions for whoever is trading this illicit oil, it’s of utmost importance. Unfortunately, we have European member states buying this oil.

SS:Mr. Kerchove, how is this happening?

GK: I’m not aware of any member states buying oil, sold by ISIL. What we know, is, indeed, that because they have access to oil, it is smuggled to a large scale and that provides them with a lot of money, and that’s why we not only need to take sanctions - and that was decided the UNSC in August, it’s, again, based on the Chapter VII of the Charter, but we have to take military action and I’m happy to see that there has been some strikes against oil wells and I think we should do that against the trucks and the tankers, because that’s the only way to stop that traffic. There is also an obligation for all the neighbors to make sure that all this oil does not cross the border.

SS:So, are you saying that the ambassador was lying when she said that some of the EU members among others are buying the oil from the terrorist organisation?

GK: I don’t suggest anything, I just say that I don’t have the information. So, if she has evidence of this, she should share that with us, but I haven’t seen evidence or any elements to reach the same conclusions.

SS: But it was the EU who lifted the oil embargo against moderate Syrian rebels back in April 2013. Now, in the ensuing fight for oil fields, the jihadists came on top, they came out on top, stronger than ever, with a new source of income. May be it so that the Western policy involuntarily contributed to the rise of extremist groups in the region?

GK: No, I wouldn’t say that… But, in the current context, I think that all member states have decided to provide more arms and train the democratic opposition as well as the Peshmerga and help the Iraqi army. So, I wouldn’t draw the same conclusions, I wouldn’t say that the policy contributed to reinforce the ISIL. There are many other factors, for instance, the behaviour of the president Assad, the support that they’ve received from other countries - and I wouldn’t say that it was neither deliberate or indirect consequence of the EU policy.

SS:But is there really a way to determine which rebels are moderate, and which aren’t? Like, for instance, the family of Steven Sotloff, one of the hostages executed by ISIS, they say that he was captured by the so-called moderate rebels and then sold to jihadists…

GK: It’s a challenge. It requires a lot of work on the ground, but it’s doable and that’s what some of the states are doing. But I’m not involved in this, so I cannot go further than that.

SS:Now, the U.S.-backed coalition refuses to coordinate actions with president Assad in Syria, obviously. Is that an effective stance at this point?

GK: This is the decision of the member states and I will be the last one to challenge this decision. This person should be prosecuted for the war crimes and crimes against humanity he is responsible of, and so, I think, talking to him wouldn’t solve the problem at this stage. Nevertheless it is important to supplement the military operation with diplomatic one and humanitarian, of course, because it’s a tragedy what is happening there. Plus, the economic sanctions are on, so… But it’s not that just starting discussions with Assad that would solve this.

SS:All I’m asking is that wouldn’t it be more productive to negotiate? At least with Assad there’s an actual person that you can talk to, no?

GK: There was an attempt by Brahimi months ago, in Geneva, to enter into process of negotiation but that was refused by the people working for president Assad. But we’ll see what the new UN representative, Staffan de Mistura, will come with. We still support diplomatic talks, and if it’s feasible to stop this barbarian behaviour and open political process, we will support this, yes.

SS:All the military incursions in the region over the last 10 years have failed to bring about any prolonged period of peace. I mean, that’s a fact - look at Iraq, look at Libya, look at Syria, Mali, Afghanistan. They are still burning. Is it a coincidence, that these very states are becoming hotbeds for Islamist militants?

GK: I think it’s not necessary the military operation which creates that. We should not look at this in this way. It’s not the military intervention which prompts the jihadism, it’s the reverse - and that’s because we have jihadism, at this stage we have to mobilise military response. We’ve tried, as I’ve said, diplomatic solution, we’ve tried other means, and at this stage, because of the way this organization and others are treating minorities, killing, in an ugly way - killing is always ugly, but it’s really totalitarian, that it is really time to stop this butchery.

SS:What about this time, is there a determination in Brussels to make this military operation decisive?

GK: I’m not in a position to answer that question. I’m really dealing with terrorism and not directly in charge of foreign policy or the military aspect of it. I think it would be better to ask this to Kathy Ashton who is the High Representative for Foreign policy.

SS:An Italian aid worker, kidnapped at the same time as the british hostage who was killed, was freed in May after Rome authorised a ransom payment to the Islamic State. Now, the UK, like the US, insists it does not pay ransoms. I understand that this is a very tough question to discuss, becausethere’s a lot of speculation and we’re talking about people’s lives - but, since you’re dealing with how to defeat terrorism and terrorist strategies, do you agree with the policy “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”?

GK: We have adopted a clear statement - I think, in June - the 28 member states have adopted a clear statement stating that they do not support the payment of ransom whatsoever. Not only because we have that idea in the UN framework, we have worked on the subject in the context of the global counterterrorism forum, but among 28 member states, this is a clear policy, this is not just not US and UK, it is shared between the 28 members states - ransoms should not be paid.

SS: But this brutal execution videos the world can see on the Internet, that attracts unprecedented public attention, which then translates into support for action, which we see now happening. Isn’t making videos that lead to bombing campaigns a bad strategy for terrorists?

GK: There has been very effective action from YouTube and Twitter, I think, recently, which forced the organisation to use - I don’t have the name in my mind - to use Russian network to post all these videos and there were extremely upset, and as I understand there has been a lot of threats against the people working for Twitter, because the need to use social networks and that sort of tools, which shows that the social media is critical in their modus operandi in order to radicalize, recruit, convince - so we have to work more actively on that front too. It seems that you may that a bit odd, but videos of beheadings do not seem to play against the organisation on the contrary.

SS:Mr. Kerchove, thank you very much for this very interesting insight. We were talking to Gilles de Kerchove, the EU counter-terrorism coordinator, we were talking about how should the ISIS be routed and also how to prevent the spread of extremism in Europe and in other regions of the world. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.