Former Libyan finance minister Ali Tarhouni used the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to warn that Islamic State militants are controlling migrant crossings from Libya and may be infiltrating Europe-bound migrant vessels.
Quoted in the Malta Independent, Tarhouni said: “Europe is seriously underestimating the possibility that militants will infiltrate Lampedusa, Sicily or Malta. The risks are increasing at a dramatic rate.”
His remarks initially echoed those of Italy’s foreign affairs minister, Paolo Gentiloni, who, according to Italian paper La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, told a ministerial meeting in London last week, “There are considerable risks of terrorists infiltrating immigration [flows]”, although Gentiloni later revised his stance.
Nevertheless, the head of the Italian parliament’s human rights committee, Mario Marazziti, claimed: “There is proof that [migrant] smuggling is one of the sources of funding for international terrorism.”
Mattia Toaldo, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told German news agency DPA that some al-Qaeda-linked militias are involved in people-smuggling. Italy’s chief of defence staff, Luigi Binelli Mantelli, takes a similar view. “There are indicators which confirm contacts between traffickers and terrorists,” he told La Stampa in July 2014.
Last month, Palermo’s anti-terrorist squad began investigating whether terrorists were among migrants who had landed in Sicily last year, although Toaldo doubts that terrorists would risk the perilous North Africa Europe crossing in small boats.
“Terrorists use planes, because using migrant boats is too dangerous and expensive,” he maintained. However, smugglers operating on the eastern route from Syria through Turkish ports such as Mersin and Iskenderun employ much larger vessels, generally end-of-life cargo ships, which are inherently less hazardous than the small fishing boats and dinghies that depart from Libya.
Mantelli is confident that Italian police have the ability to identify potential terrorists and migrant traffickers.
A more pessimistic picture of Mediterranean maritime security was painted by Tarhouni, who said that IS is embedding itself all along the Libyan coast. “This area has descended into anarchy, a perfect breeding ground for smugglers, human traffickers, and Islamic militants,” he said.
Tarhouni’s analysis is likely to add to ship operators’ and masters’ concerns about the potential risks they may run in picking up migrants in difficulty at sea.
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