By Alvise Armellini –
BRUSSELS — The serial-killer suspect who died after a 32-hour stand-off with French police was one of about 400 al-Qaida trained extremists in the European Union, the bloc’s top anti-terrorism expert estimated on Thursday.
Twenty-three-year old Mohamed Merah, a French national of Algerian origin, claimed he had made contact with al-Qaida on trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan before embarking upon a deadly shooting spree around Toulouse.
“It is a phenomenon of ‘lone wolves,’ as we call them,” EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told the German news agency dpa. “We can estimate that they are in the 400s all across Europe.”
Like Merah — who also had a criminal record — all such individuals “are obviously monitored” by European intelligence services, de Kerchove said.
Most are in “Germany, France, Britain, maybe also Belgium, and in all other EU countries to a much lesser extent,” he indicated.
So-called lone wolves have become “more and more frequent” as “core” al-Qaida structures in Europe “have been weakened over the past three-four years,” the Belgian official added.
Commenting on appropriate countermeasures, de Kerchove suggested extending across the EU legislation already enforced in Germany and Austria that criminalizes anyone who travels abroad to attend terrorist indoctrination camps.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already jumped on the idea.
Concluding ongoing negotiations on an EU-wide system to collect air passenger name records, or PNR, would also help, de Kerchove argued.
“EU PNR would help, in our view, and that is why we are pressing on that,” he said. Talks on the matter between EU governments are “advancing well.”
Finally, EU governments should think about prevention — through better community policing, programs to counter radicalizing influences on prison inmates, more monitoring of Islamist websites and “developing counternarratives” against terrorism.
“We have to give a voice to the victims, their voices have to be heard more, because you always hear about the attackers, and never so much about the victims and the consequences for their families,” de Kerchove said.