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French militant case shows need for travel tracking: EU

22 March 2012, 21:24 CET
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(BRUSSELS) - The chaos caused by a self-styled Al-Qaeda militant in France highlights the need for a US-type system to track suspicious travel patterns, the EU counterterrorism coordinator said Thursday.

A few hundred men in Europe are known by intelligence services to have traveled to war zones abroad before coming back home, said the European Union official, Gilles de Kerchove.

European authorities have also sought to counter the threat of the 'Lone Wolf', especially in the wake of the Norway bombings and island massacre by a right-wing extremist last year that killed 77 people.

Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who died in a shootout with police Thursday after a 32-hour siege, is probably a mix of the 'Lone Wolf' and the former combatant returning home, de Kerchove said.

"From what we know at the moment, he has been in Afghanistan, received some training, but does not seem to have worked within the (Al-Qaeda) network back in France," he told journalists.

Merah, who admitted shooting dead three soldiers and three children and a teacher at a Jewish school, had bragged to negotiators of having been trained by Al-Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

"Him having been abroad and coming back shows the importance of trans-European cooperation and that not only financial flows should be checked," de Kerchove said.

The EU is debating whether to force airlines to systematically transfer the personal information of passengers flying to and from Europe, a controversial system the United States has used for years.

"These discussions are ongoing and advancing well. It shows that the movement of suspicious people is a crucial thing," de Kerchove said.

The United States has credited the Passenger Name Record (PNR) as a valuable tool in terror investigations, including on suspects in the 2010 Times Square bomb and the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

"An EU PNR would be there to monitor suspicious movements of people that are either known or unknown to the police," de Kerchove said, adding it would allow tracking of "unusual patterns."

Europe, he said, has also launched programmes to prevent radicalisation by countering websites that inspire extremism, working in prisons to stop them from becoming militant breeding grounds and emphasising community policing.

While French intelligence services were accused of failing to keep track of the petty-criminal-turned-jihadist, the EU official said too little was known about the case to criticise them.

"We also know the French intelligence services do a very good job," he said, adding that they have thwarted several plots. "They are among the top of the top."

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