For the past year European intelligence has been monitoring the risk that terrorist organizations could take advantage of the human tsunami of refugees and migrants flooding into Europe from Muslim countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The issue of what a European intelligence official described as a “partnership of convenience between smugglers and terrorists” gained higher priority when it became known that two of the jihadis who attacked Paris on November 13th, entered Europe pretending to be refugees.
European intelligence is now considering the danger “clear and present” as hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have been entering Europe through a registration process that is not much more than a brief formality, insufficient to assess possible connections to militant groups.
For national security agencies in Europe this huge flow of people is also seen as a potential threat because of the revenues it is generating.
“We know that the migrants' smuggling business has attracted the interest of terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State, as an easy channel to infiltrate Europe and as a way for self-financing,” a senior intelligence officer of a European country confirms.
In the last two years, the collapse of Libya and Syria has turned the flow of migration from relatively tolerable levels to epic proportions. Over 300,000 migrants arrived in Italy through Libya from the Western sub-Saharan region and the Horn of Africa. A second more recent route opened the doors of Northern Europe to hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds, Afghans and Pakistanis from Turkey through Greece and the Balkans.
With these unprecedented numbers, huge amounts of money are involved. Experts consulted by Il Sole 24 Ore-Italy24 estimated that the relocation of the over 650,000 migrants who have so far reached Europe from Libya and Turkey generated profits ranging between about $450 and $900 million this year alone. Total volume is thought to have already exceeded $3 billion.
According to European intelligence sources, the revenues made by criminal organizations that smuggle migrants are re-invested in further illegal activities and laundered into legitimate ones, on site and abroad. But in the case of extremist or terrorist groups such as those operating in Libya, these resources could also be used to support terrorist activities abroad.
For this reason, last year not just the police but also national security authorities in Europe began mapping out the transnational networks that dominate the business of human smuggling.
“On each leg of the trip from the country of origin to the final destination, the smuggling business is very fragmented, crowded with non-professionals who have opportunistically joined it or groups of local criminals who diversified their operations. However, there are a few criminal organizations that have carved out some dominant spaces,” says Renato Cortese, director of the Servizio Centrale Operativo (or SCO), the central investigative unit of the Italian Police.
These major players have a particularly dominant position in Libya where, according to intelligence sources, they have also been dealing with groups such as the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Libya Province.
According to European intelligence sources, one of the biggest smugglers in Libya is Musaab Abu Ghreen, nicknamed “the doctor,” a Libyan citizen who resides in Sabratah, a small coastal town West of Tripoli but is active also in Gasr Garabulli, another coastal town to the East of the capital.
His “customers” are mainly from Eritrea and Somalia, his “suppliers” are Eritreans and a significant portion of the proceeds of the smuggling is being laundered in the United Arab Emirates. There Ghreen can count on an associate, a Syrian known to the intelligence simply as Ismail, who manages investments not only in the Emirates but also in Egypt.
Another major smuggler, operating in Libya, is Adaam Sudani, known as “the Sudanese” because of his country of origin. About forty years old, short and of very dark complexion, Adaam operates in an area of Tripoli under the control of a militia, or katiba, called “al Nawasi” but has the support of a senior Somali diplomat who helps him smuggle the illegal migrants from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.
Through a network of small businesses that he controls in the same Tripoli neighborhood, “the Sudanese” is able to launder a large part of the proceeds and transfer money to countries around the world. In France, he relies on a Sudanese associate based in Paris.
Both “the doctor” and “the Sudanese” enjoy the protection provided by their own armed men and local militias that offer them complete immunity.
Their modus operandi is basically the same.
“The boats used to transport illegal immigrants are found and selected by members of the criminal networks whose role is to canvass the surrounding port and coastal areas,” says our intelligence source.
“When they find a boat, they look for information on its owner and the state of preservation of the vessel. Then they approach the prospective seller. Usually the first contact is at sea. Members of the criminal gang often move around on jet skis or small motorboats. The price offered varies from 40,000 to 85,000 Libyan dinars, approximately $25-$40,000 depending on the capacity and condition of the vessel. Once they settle on the price, the agreed amount is paid in cash. The seller then agrees to remove any marking or identifying elements from the vessel and, two days after the departure of the migrant-filled vessel, to report to the Libyan authorities that the boat has sunk. Once this agreement is made, the boat is delivered to a prearranged location at sea, usually away from the ports,” our intelligence source continued.
“Inflatables are mostly bought in Tunisia. When they arrive in Libya they are inflated in order to have them ready for the night of departure. If the wait is expected to be long, they burying the inflatables in the sand in order not to be detected.”
Zuwarah, closer to the border with Tunisia, is the home base of an organization led by Umar, a Libyan national who mostly uses Tunisian nationals for the maritime journey to Italy. According to our intelligence source, Umar can count on a number of local Coast Guard officials who belong to his own clan and provide protection in the port area and Libyan territorial waters.
According to our intelligence source, the fee charged by Umar for the leg between Zuwarah and Sicily is a thousand euro per migrant, while the prices of the previous legs depend on the country of origin. The journey from Turkey to Zuwarah costs an average of $3,500. From Egypt, it is just a little more than $1,000, while from Sudan the fee jumps to $4,500.
The most popular route is from the Horn of Africa through Sudan, in particular Omdurman, the large city on the west bank of the White Nile in front of the capital Khartoum. Migrants are usually taken by SUVs to the large Omdurman souk where they can remain for days, weeks or even months before being sent to Libya in groups of 50 or 60.
One of the main transit stops on the way to the Libyan coast is Awaynat, a small town close to the Sudanese-Libyan border where an informal collection center has been established by a Libyan, named Magherieff, who has important connections in Somalia. According to our source, “Magherieff has a sort of recruiting office for migrants in Mogadishu, Somalia, managed by an associate of his, Ahmed. For $4,500, Ahmed offers a flight from the Somali capital to Khartoum with an entry visa procured by the organization, and then a trip by car or truck to Tripoli through the Awaynat camp.”
Despite pressure from the Egyptian government of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to stop the flow of migrants, Sudan remains a key transit route. There, the collusion with smugglers goes far beyond the police, the border and military officials who allow smugglers to slip through, or the business community of Omdurman, whose economy depends in large part on the revenues generated by these activities.
In a letter sent on July 18, 2011 to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group on Eritrea and Somalia described Mabrouk Mubarak Salim as one the most important “smugglers' counterparts on the Sudanese side.”
In the letter, Salim is identified as “the current Minister of State for Transport of the Sudan (…) and an ethnic Rashaida, who works closely with other well-established Rashaida smugglers, who operate with the full knowledge of Government officials on both sides of the border.”
Salim is also described in the UN document as closely tied to General Teklai Kifle “Manjus,” a former Commander of the Eritrean border forces.
“On the Eritrean side of the border, smuggling activity is principally coordinated by General ‘Manjus,'” says the letter. “An Eritrean source (…) claims to have long been engaged in people smuggling activities on behalf of General ‘Manjus.'”
Another Eritrean national closely linked to the authoritarian regime of President Isaias Afwerki, and directly involved in the smuggling of migrants, is Efrem Misgna, also known as “Goge.”
Misgna is one of 25 people against whom arrest warrants were issued last February in Italy by the Prosecutor of the city of Monza near Milan.
Tall and powerfully built, Misgna has served as a bodyguard for Yamane Gebriab, and a close political adviser to President Afwerki during trips abroad. He also has a close personal relationship with Eritrean diplomats both in Sweden and Italy.
The Milan Police “Flying Squad” are now accusing him of having personally participated in the illegal transfer of migrants from Italy to Switzerland.
Months ago, an investigation conducted by the SCO revealed that Ghermay Ermias, an Ethiopian national, was one of the main smugglers operating out of Libya. Since then Ermias has been forced to take a step back and the void has been filled by a number of his associates and competitors.
Yehdego Mered Medhanie, a thirty-four-year-old Eritrean national who recently moved from Tripoli to Khartum, is one of the associates. An arrest warrant issued by Palermo prosecutors Calogero Ferrara, Claudio Camilleri and Maurizio Scalia describes him as “the leader and promoter (...) of a criminal network with cells operating in different countries (…) and a clear chain of command.”
In one of the many phone calls the Italian police wire-tapped, Medhanie explained that his organization is able “to receive payment in any country.” His arrest warrant says that “payments are paid in advance, one leg at a time. Money is often paid in cash or sent by relatives who live abroad. (…) Both abroad and in Italy most of the money moves through illegal channels. In particular, smugglers make express reference to the hawala.”
All of the investigations in Italy indicate that the hawala, a method known to have been been used by al-Qaeda, is by far the most popular way to arrange payments. The Italian authorities describe it as “the transfer of funds through a network of informal traders, the so-called hawaladar, who manage a compensatory exchange system based on trust that enables every party to avoid the banking system or any other official channels that are used, such as Western Union or MoneyGram”.
“Our investigation leads us to believe that another main player is Ismail Abdelrazak,” says Palermo prosecutor Calogero Ferrara. “He operates on the route Sudan-Libya-Europe, with an extensive network of associates who provide logistical support and financial, money laundering services.”
Born and raised in Massawa, Eritrea, Abdelrazak is the son of a Christian mother and a Muslim father. While his operational base is in Tripoli, he has commercial and financial interests in Dubai, where intelligence sources believe he launders the proceeds of his smuggling activities.
Since 2005 Abdelrazak has resided in Tripoli, where he opened a restaurant that became popular among Libyan smugglers. With those contacts, according to the Italian police’s SCO, he has built “a complex and well-structured transnational criminal organization devoted to illegal immigration.”
Another major smuggler of Eritrean nationality is Jamal al-Saoudi who, after living in Sudan for a long time, moved to Libya about two years ago.
A SCO report says that, “Saoudi collects migrants near the town of Zuwarah, in facilities he controls, including a large farm.”
The report accuses Saoudi not only of “buying ‘bundles' of migrants” from other sub-Saharan African smugglers, but also of being involved in the kidnapping of migrants along the route.
“These people are sometimes captured by the same individuals they rely on to cross the desert. Then ransom payments are paid by their relatives,” the SCO says.
Based on evidence gathered at the Lampedusa Reception Center, the Italian police were able to reconstruct a specific incident where, “a group of about 130 Eritrean migrants was intercepted in the desert by an armed group in a pickup truck with a machine gun on the roof. The group was led to the village of Shebaa, in Libya, where the migrants were locked in a large building and kept there until their families paid $3,300 each in ransom. The witnesses described in great detail the violence and torture they suffered while detained, which ranged from being hit on the bottom of their feet with batons to being given electric shocks or suffocated. They also recounted the repeated acts of rape to which the twenty women traveling with them were subjected. These young women were raped not only by the members of the criminal group who kidnapped them, but also by other subjects, mostly Libyans, to whom they had been ‘bestowed'.”
The other major access road to Europe is the so-called “Balkan route” out of Turkey. Refugees or migrants who want to follow this route can rely on what an intelligence source describes as “small retailers” of human smuggling, merchants who sell rubber boats or truck drivers.
Alongside these people are a number of wholesalers who, with the backing of transnational networks, provide either a single-leg passage from Turkey to Greece or the whole package to the final destination, usually Sweden, Norway or Germany.
“In Turkey the very profitable business of smuggling migrants is dominated by Syrian nationals. Through our ongoing investigations we identified a criminal network that specialized in providing ‘assistance' to migrants, including accommodations, vessels, trucks and counterfeit documents,” says Renato Cortese, director of the SCO.
The organization in question is headed by a Syrian smuggler that sources told il Sole 24 Ore-Italy24 has so far been identified simply by his first name, Abu. With the help of a Syrian migrant who was aboard the merchant ship Blue Sky M that was intercepted by an Italian Navy patrol boat off the coast of Puglia on December 30th last year, the Italian authorities learned more about Abu's activities.
On that trip, the Blue Sky M brought 796 migrants, mostly Syrians, to Italy. The ship had set out from the port of Mersin, on the Southern coast of Turkey, close to the border with Syria.
The investigation conducted by the Italian police showed that the individual fee for the voyage ranged between $4,500 and $7,000. Therefore, the smugglers who arranged the trip made over $ 4.5 million. Italian investigators were able to calculate their net gain by subtracting the costs they incurred.
The ship, described as “a wreck riddled with holes in which 796 people were packed like sheep”, was purchased for $450,000 while, according to the Italian police report, “the ship's captain, Sarkas Ahmad Rani, was promised $50,000,” to be shared with his crew.
Therefore, 796 Syrian migrants yielded over $4 million in profit.
Through the testimony of al-Dabbagh Yasir Qasim Hatim, the Syrian on board the Blue Sky M, the Italian authorities also learned what went on before the migrant landed in Puglia: “I traveled by car from Syria to Turkey. In Istanbul I went to stay with my sister Fates. I immediately started looking for someone who would help me get to Italy. Through contacts of mine, I met a smuggler called Abu (…) on December 23rd, at about 3:00 pm, I went to his office in Mersin. He was not there but another Syrian, whose name I do not know, was registering those who wanted to leave and collecting the money. In my case, the agreed amount to go to Italy was $7,000 in cash. After I paid, I was taken with my wife to a seaside village about ten to fifteen minutes away. Early in the morning on December 24th, I boarded a fishing boat along with 150 other people. About two hours and forty minutes later we approached the Blue Sky M and were trans-shipped with a rope ladder. All this happened at night. When I got on board I realized that some of the other people had been on the Blue Sky M for three, four or even five days. My group was the last one to climb on board.”
As a result of the increased effort by Italian and European military patrols to prevent long-distance maritime crossings by merchant ships, sources told il Sole 24 Ore-Italy24 that this past spring, Abu's organization started to use inflatable rafts for the short trip to the Greek islands near the Turkish coast. In the summer they then began to also offer vehicles to travel by land via Istanbul and the Balkans, often providing their clients with forged identity papers.
The attacks in Paris now made it even more urgent for European intelligence to monitor these smuggling organizations for any possible connection with terrorist groups, either financial cooperation or repositioning of people.
In addition to the question of national security, some see this also as a threat to democracy.
“If not governed by common policies, the continuous flow of migrants could destabilize democracy in Europe as it could move a significant part of the electorate toward extreme positions,” the Italian Under Secretary for National Security, Marco Minniti, said.
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