PARIS (AP) — The longer that France's military intervention goes on in Mali, the greater the risk that homegrown Islamic militants will organize to plot attacks back in France, a top French counterterrorism investigator told The Associated Press.
Investigating Judge Marc Trevidic said young radicals in France see the Paris government as enemy No. 1 in the "new jihad" and consider France's intervention in Mali, which started last month to help the Malian government fight al-Qaida-linked militants, as an aggression against Islam. Small groups of France-based militants have already headed to Mali.
"The longer it goes on, things rot, the groups get organized, and the more networks constitute themselves. The longer it goes on, the more dangerous it grows," Trevidic said in an interview late Thursday. "The groups will need time to catch their breath, set up networks and possibly take action."
The investigating judge, who has been involved in some of France's biggest terrorism cases in recent years, spoke after diplomats and other French officials acknowledged to the AP this week that French forces are likely to remain in Mali at least through July.
President Francois Hollande and his major ministers have talked about a gradual pullout of the 4,000 troops now in Mali starting this month. But the combat in rugged Sahara Desert mountains is growing harder, and the threat is rising that the militants will turn to suicide attacks, hostage-takings and other guerrilla tactics.
Meanwhile, it's proving tougher to mobilize African troops to eventually take over the security lead from the French and to get European trainers on the ground to help better professionalize Mali's bedraggled soldiers.
Authorities in France for years have monitored radical Islamists — many whose families hail from former French colonies in northern Africa — who travel abroad to wage jihad, or holy war, and could return home with battle skills and know-how to carry out terrorist attacks.
But unlike Iraq, or the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which continue to draw some French militants, Mali and much of West Africa were once French colonies. Thousands of French and dual nationals reside there, do business and maintain family ties. And that makes it especially tricky to monitor suspect travelers.
Mali "is the fashionable jihad at the moment. ... In this new jihad, the enemy is clearly France," Trevidic said.
The 7-week-old French campaign, backed by Malian and other troops notably from Chad, has driven al-Qaida's affiliates out of the cities in northeast Mali that they controlled for 10 months. Now, French officials say, the hardest fighting is taking place where many insurgents have holed up in the Adrar des Ifoghas range along the extensive Algerian border.