DAKAR Dutch troops have joined a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali to meet a growing security threat from the region to the Netherlands, and Europe as a whole that "softer" approaches can no longer contain, the Dutch foreign minister said.
The Netherlands has deployed some 450 Special Forces troops, intelligence operatives and attack helicopters to a U.N. force rolling out across northern Mali, where al Qaeda-linked Islamists occupied swathes of the country before being driven back last year by French troops.
Although Dutch forces do not have an offensive mandate, the deployment marks a shift towards security issues in Africa for the Netherlands and their task - gathering intelligence - is new to U.N. peacekeeping missions that have traditionally avoided the art of spying.
Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said there was a growing sense of urgency that radical groups operating from the Atlantic through to the Persian Gulf were not just posing a threat to weak governments in the region but also targeting Europe.
"Sooner or later, that will be a direct threat to our security," he told Reuters late on Tuesday in Dakar after visiting troops based in the northern Malian town of Gao.
"Being active in Mali in the security field is also serving your own security interests very directly," he added.
About 8,000 of the 12,000 strong UN force has been deployed and so far the main contributors are African nations. U.N. peacekeepers operate separately from French troops focusing on counter-terrorism missions in Mali.
Dutch involvement in U.N. peacekeeping missions has been a sensitive issue since the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, when Dutch troops failed to halt the killing of thousands of Bosnian men and boys.
Timmermans said that no Dutch citizens had been identified in rebel ranks in the Mali conflict, but at least 130 have traveled to fight in Iraq and Syria. Conflicts in the region, he said, were "all interconnected in some way or form".
He said a few dozen fighters had since returned home. "It is a development we follow with a lot of concern."
France dispatched thousands of troops to Mali to halt an advance by Islamists last year. Faced with this firepower, the fighters scattered across the Sahara's mountains and sand dunes.
However, Islamists have carried out a string of attacks on U.N. troops in the north this year and Mali's army suffered a major defeat in May when it tried to attack the separatist rebels Bamako is meant to be holding peace talks with.
Timmermans said over 40 years of Dutch development work in the region, especially Mali, laid the foundations for a healthy relationship with local governments. But he said Europe needed to look at the region "with different eyes".
"It is no longer just about development, containment or whatever you want to call it. This is about the struggle to convince people that our way of life is better than the fundamentalist way of life," he said.
"This is not something we are going to solve in a few years," he added.
U.N. forces have traditionally not been given the mandate by member states to gather intelligence so the Dutch are breaking new ground by providing human and electronic intelligence alongside air surveillance to blue helmets stationed across the vast desert that is awash with fighters drifting between groups.
"This level of intelligence gathering and analysis is something the U.N. has never done before," Timmermans said.
Mali's implosion was prompted by a number of factors ranging from the flow of fighters and weapons out of Libya during the uprising in 2011 to corruption in Mali's political class and Bamako's de facto ceding of the north to a local elite heavily involved in smuggling and kidnapping foreigners for ransoms.
However, analysts say West Africa's moderate form of Islam has increasingly come under threat from a more fundamentalist version exported by groups from cash-rich Gulf states.
"This is a subject we need to debate intensively with our friends in the Gulf," Timmermans said.
Timmermans said Dutch soldiers used to the NATO environment were finding operating in a U.N. mission "not particularly easy" and bureaucracy was slowing decision making.
(Reporting by David Lewis)