French Police Monitoring Militants Seeking to Join Mali Rebels

French police are stepping up their surveillance of young radicals tempted to join militants in West Africa, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said.

The heightened surveillance is among the measures taken by authorities since France Jan. 11 began air attacks against rebels in Northern Mali. While keeping the terror alert level unchanged, French police have stepped up patrols at train stations, airports, religious sites and tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower.

“We are surveilling individuals trying to reach Syria, Afghanistan, and the obviously the Sahel,” Valls said today on RMC Radio, using the term for the arid strip running along the Southern rim of the Sahara desert. “We must be prudent, but what I want to assure the French is that the greatest vigilance should allow us to avoid attacks on our soil.”

Leaders of jihadist groups in northern Mali have threatened to hit France itself after the French air force and army intervened on the side of Malian government forces to repel a rebel offensive. France’s intervention opened “the gates of hell,” Oumar Hamaha, a militant leader known as the “Red Beard” for his hennaed facial hair, told French radio station Europe 1 yesterday.

European and U.S. policy makers have expressed concern that northern Mali may become an Islamist militant base and destabilize regional states from Nigeria to Algeria.

“Allowing a terrorist state to establish itself in Mali was simply unacceptable,” Valls said today.

For the moment, any revenge attacks are more likely in Africa, said Louis Caprioli, the former head of DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQMI, is holding four Frenchmen kidnapped in 2010 from a mine operated by state-controlled nuclear company Areva SA in neighboring Niger.

Regional Risk

“I don’t see AQMI themselves launching attacks in France,” said Caprioli, who now advises Paris-based security company Geos. “They run around in their four-by-fours in the desert and they haven’t set up training camps like we saw in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen. The real risk is in the region. One can certainly see a risk for French interests throughout West Africa.”

Valls said there hadn’t been any recent arrests linked to the situation in Mali, but that police were surveilling known militants and websites.

Marc Trevidic, an investigative magistrate specialized in terrorism, said in an interview with Le Parisien that two French AQMI members in Timbuktu, Mali, had issued a call for their “brothers” in France to join them, and that four people are under investigation for trying to go.

Caprioli said there’s also the risk of an attack by individuals acting on their own, having found a new cause.

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