BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda, wary of being upstaged by even more ruthless Islamic State fighters, may try to show its relevance by carrying out attacks in Europe, the United States or Israel, the European Union’s counter-terrorism coordinator said on Wednesday.
With the world’s focus firmly on Islamic State’s advances in Syria and Iraq, the EU’s Gilles de Kerchove warned of the risk of competition between Islamic State and al Qaeda, which has renounced its offshoot as too brutal.
“It is possible that al Qaeda may want to mount attacks to show that the organisation is still relevant, they are still in the game,” De Kerchove told a European Parliament committee.
He said some militants had moved from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria where they formed part of the Al Qaeda-linked Khorasan Group.
He added that it appeared they planned to recruit Europeans who had travelled to Syria to fight and persuade them to use their passports to return and mount attacks in Europe, Israel and the United States.
While Islamic State was the main target of a U.S.-led air assault in Syria this week, American officials said they also targeted the Khorasan Group, with the aim of disrupting a plot against U.S. or European targets that the Pentagon said was “nearing the execution phase”.
De Kerchove estimated that more than 3,000 Europeans were in Syria, had been there or planned to go there to fight, and that there was a real risk some of them could return and bring violence back to Europe.
“We have seen that in Brussels with the killing of four persons at the Jewish Museum. It raises their level of tolerance of violence to such a level that there is a risk when they come back that killing is something normal,” he said.
Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old Frenchman believed to have returned recently from fighting with Islamist militant rebels in Syria, was arrested in May over the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
De Kerchove also raised the possibility that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group which waged a three-decade campaign against the Turkish state for greater Kurdish rights, could be removed from the EU’s list of terrorist organisations once the Turkish peace process was “complete”.
Turkey has been slow to join calls for a coalition to fight Islamic State in Syria, worried in part about links between Syrian Kurds, who have been fighting Islamic State, and the PKK.
Referring to the EU’s terror list, de Kerchove said: “The message we receive from Turkey is to keep it as it stands for the time being because they want to send to PKK the message that there is no alternative than engaging in the peace process.
“Therefore it’s clear, but is for (EU) member states to decide, that as soon as they reach a complete result, we will remove the PKK from the list.”
Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Andrew Heavens