Radical youths from Europe and the Arab world are training at insurgent camps in Iraq, Europe's anti-terror chief said Tuesday, warning that instability there and elsewhere in the world is making "it easier for terrorists to hide and train."
Al Qaeda also has become more difficult to contain since the Sept. 11 attacks because after Osama bin Laden lost his training base in Afghanistan he began inspiring smaller militant groups to do his bidding, EU counterterrorism coordinator Gijs de Vries told The Associated Press.
De Vries said terrorist violence in Iraq could spread to the whole region if the U.S.-led coalition fails to put down the insurgency that's attracting Islamic radicals from outside Iraq.
"There have been individuals from Europe who went to Afghanistan in the past," de Vries said. "There are some who have gone to Iraq, as indeed there have been youngsters from outside Europe, from Arab countries, who have gone there to receive military training."
De Vries refused to elaborate on numbers or countries of origin, saying the information was classified. Although the Iraqi insurgency is believed to be homegrown, several hundred foreign fighters are thought to have traveled to Iraq to battle the U.S. occupation, with al-Qaeda-linked Jordanian militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the most well known.
In the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a former insurgent stronghold, U.S. troops last month found bomb-making workshops and a makeshift classroom for training militants that included flight plans and instructions on how to shoot down aircraft. Several dozen foreign fighters are known to have joined several thousand Iraqi insurgents fighting for Fallujah.
"It is extremely important to help Iraq develop into a stable country at peace with its neighbors," de Vries said in the AP interview. "That will help stability not just inside the country but also peace and the maintenance of security outside Iraq."
De Vries also urged action to stop instability from breeding terror in other places, too.
"This is incidentally not just the case just in Iraq," he said. "Instability elsewhere in the world — in Africa for example — always makes it more difficult for the law to be upheld, for democracy to function and therefore makes it easier for terrorists to hide and train."
The anti-terror chief said it's difficult to assess the immediate threat from Iraq-trained militants who might cause trouble after they leave. "Not everyone who goes to such training camps returns to take up arms — fortunately. What is more important is the trend," he said.
As for the makeover of al Qaeda, de Vries found reason to worry.
"Al Qaeda has in a sense revamped itself so that it is no longer only an organization but it has simultaneously become a kind of movement inspiring individuals and loose small networks," he said. "So there has been, as is sometimes being said, a kind of franchising of the message of al Qaeda which makes it a more complex phenomenon" and more difficult to handle.
De Vries, appointed to his post last March, is responsible for shepherding anti-terrorist legislation through the parliaments of the European Union's 25 countries, and for coordinating the region's disparate law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
There has been a lull in terror attacks in Europe since the March 11 Madrid commuter train bomb attacks that killed 191 people, but De Vries said the threat remained high.
In October, 30 people were detained on suspicion of planning to drive an explosives-packed truck into Madrid's National Court, for example. And British police said last week they had prevented an attack in London on the scale of the Madrid bombings.
"There have been other instances," De Vries said, but refused to give details of interrupted plots. "I'm afraid the risk remains high, not only in the two countries that I mentioned but in other member states of the union as well," he added, referring to Spain and Britain.
Terrorism needs to be tackled at a political level as well, he said.
Finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to combating terror, he said, because it is being used by militants to recruit young Muslims.
"It is important that these propagandist activities be made much more difficult by re-igniting the peace process," De Vries said, highlighting a frequent European demand.