Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
A huge number of Muslims, that comprise jihadists and members of various Islamic militancy groups are entering Britain every month by crossing the English Channel. According to official data, 1,890 illegal migrants had successfully entered Britain in 2019 after crossing the English Channel. However, just 125 migrants were returned to European nations. Although UK’s National Crime Agency claims that a majority of the migrants illegally crossing the Channel are Iranian nationals, most of whom are deemed to have a “strong” case for asylum due to the repressive nature of the Islamist regime in Tehran – according to various sources, members of Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Pakistan-based jihadist groups also are entering Britain by illegally crossing the English Channel.
The frequency of illegal crossing has greatly increased during the coronavirus lockdown in the United Kingdom. A number of transnational human trafficking networks are active in transporting these illegal migrants into Britain as well as other European countries. The most important factor behind the increase in the number of illegal migrants crossing the English Channel is Britain’s policy of not deporting them. Entering the United Kingdom illegally by boat or other means does not disqualify a migrant from being granted asylum status, and therefore groups like Iranians are incentivized to reach British soil by any means necessary in order to be given the status.
It is believed that the reason for a large proportion of illegal boat migrants being comprised of Iranians is due to their comparative wealth to other asylum seekers, with a boat crossing having a higher chance of success than other methods but also being more expensive.
In the year between September of 2018 and 2019, 4,749 Iranians applied for asylum in the UK, surging by 79 percent over the previous year. Of the total number of Iranian asylum seekers, 2,406 or 63 percent were granted asylum in their first attempt, with more being granted the status on appeal.
On their arrival in Britain, these illegal migrants immediately contact the local Muslim communities. In the case of the Sunni Muslims, they get the allocation of food and logistics from the mosques or Islamic Centers, while the Iranians are also provided similar facilities by the Shiite mosques and community centers. Members of Islamic State, Al Qaeda or other Islamist terror outfits are provided food and lodging facilities by those who had earlier arrived and even had got asylum.
Wave of Illegal migrants towards the European Union
Malta has been a popular transit for thousands of illegal migrants who were traveling from Libya, mostly with the aim of entering Italy. For the past two decades, thousands of illegal migrants from various countries in Asia and Africa have successfully landed in Italy through the ocean. Most importantly, the majority of these illegal migrants, who had later succeeded in getting immigration in Italy or have subsequently moved to any of the EU nations are radical Muslims.
Last week, illegal migrants were intercepted by the Maltese authorities as they were attempting to enter Malta and then to Italy by small dinghies. For the EU nations, such waves of illegal migrants have already caused social issues, while in the near future, they would pose a grave threat to national security, as most of them are inclined towards radical Islam.
Threats posed by the terrorism-migration continuum
With the increase in the number of jihadist attacks in the European cities, together with the rise in illegal migrant and refugee crisis, there is debate on whether there is an association between the two issues. We have to remember, in Europe, terrorist organizations have worked with and sometimes emulated organized crime syndicates through involvement in the trafficking of drugs, people, weapons, and antiquities. In Southeast Asia, conflict areas provide the backdrop for cross-border drug trafficking and kidnap-for-ransom activities, while extremist groups both commit crimes for profit and target criminals for recruitment.
To understand how crime, terror, or jihadist groups are expending networks in various countries in the world, we have to remember, Lebanese Hezbollah has been active in Latin America since the 1980s, when it began working with drug cartels to raise funds for operations and the purchase of arms.
The organized-crime-plagued Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este near the border with Brazil and Argentina has long played host to Islamist groups such as the Egyptian al-Jama’at al-Islamiyya, Hamas and al-Qaeda, which have colluded with gangs to smuggle contraband, drugs, and weapons, launder money and forge documents.
According to Brazilian intelligence, Osama bin Laden himself visited the notorious South American crime hub in 1995.
The so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ straddling the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand is considered the second-largest opium-producing area in the world, sustaining insurgency and jihadist groups. Myanmar is also known for producing Yaba and later trafficking it to a number of countries in the world.
In maritime Southeast Asia, the Mindanao-based Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) gained notoriety through its kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) activities, receiving multi-million-dollar payoffs.
Extremist organizations are continuing this crime-terror trend, both in terms of connections with the criminal underworld and independent illicit activities to raise capital for their own operations.
An added dynamic is the increased movement of migrants in recent years, particularly into Europe. The perilous journeys undertaken by refugees fleeing war zones and asylum seekers escaping repressive regimes have largely been dominated by criminal groups, which exploit human desperation for financial profit. When hundreds of thousands of people began pouring into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa in 2014, observers speculated that jihadist and terrorist organizations may be working with human traffickers to smuggle operatives into the West. Commentators on the political right have embraced such claims.
In his seminal 1998 book, Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman stated that it was “useful to distinguish terrorists from ordinary criminals”, who are driven purely by selfish motivation, usually seek material gain, and never intend to provoke a psychological reaction, send a political message, or influence public opinion through the criminal act. In contrast, Phil Williams points out that terrorists have fundamentally religious or ideological goals, aiming to disrupt the status quo, manipulate political decision making, or overhaul existing governance structures. Brian Phillips has also noted a “great chasm” between terrorists and criminals generally, owing to divergent motivations, though he identifies a fluidity which may blur conceptual lines with certain examples.
The crime-terror continuum places organized crime on the left extreme with terrorism on the opposite. Moving towards the center from either end there are strategic alliances between each type of group.
An ideological group shifting further along the continuum will begin to employ criminal activities for operational purposes, such as bank robbery and kidnap for ransom in order to fund its activities. Conversely, an organized crime group may begin to converge by using terrorism for operational purposes; for example, the Italian Mafia has employed terror tactics in order to coerce the government into reducing pressure on its activities. Criminal groups also tend to prosper in chaotic environments and stand to gain from political violence and the subsequent strains on a state’s security apparatus. Though the opposite can also be true, as criminal organizations may seek to uphold the status quo rather than subverting political institutions if the existing climate is conducive to their activities.
At the center of the continuum is complete convergence, involving either the evolution of a criminal group to prioritizing political motivations, or that of an ideological organization to deploy its political rhetoric simply as a front for criminal enterprise.
The benefits of operating in corrupt states for jihadist or terrorist organizations are two-fold. Militant Islamist groups highlight government corruption to seize the moral high ground in recruitment drives, portraying themselves as purer and more just than the ‘taghut’ [false idol], state establishment.
Yet at the same time, such organizations often profit from the smuggling routes and opportunities for monetary gain that backhanded transactions with venal authorities provide. It may be no coincidence that Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia – all countries which have endured sustained campaigns of terrorism in recent years – comprise five of the eight most corrupt nations in the world, according to Transparency International.
We are aware of the cases of Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, ARSA etc., making money through drug arms and human trafficking as well as transnational money laundering.
Jihadist groups are making money by joining hands with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. Let us not forget, profit accrued from such illegal activities are spent on buying weapons and explosives for the jihadist or terrorist activities.
The most frequent linkage in the EU is the formation of alliances, either in the short-term as a “marriage of convenience” or for more sustained periods.
The 2004 Madrid train bombings which killed almost 200 people were largely funded by a “small, yet effective drug trafficking network” which imported hashish from Morocco and ecstasy from the Netherlands to be sold in Spain.
Drugs reportedly fund terror groups in other parts of the continent as well. Italy’s counter-terrorism and organized crime Head Franco Roberti said in 2016 that ISIS and the Italian Mafia were working together to smuggle Moroccan-origin hashish from the Libyan coast into Southern Europe.
Contraband has also traveled in the opposite direction: in May 2017, an Italian couple with alleged ties to the infamous Camorra crime clan in Naples was arrested and charged with attempting to traffic Soviet-era weapons, including anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles to the Islamic State in Libya, as well as arms from a large arms cache to Iran.
Links have been established for the trafficking of antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe. An investigation by the Turin-based newspaper La Stampa in 2016 found the Italian Mafia had been purchasing weapons from Moldova and the Ukraine, with help from the Russian Mafia, and transporting these from the southern Italian city of Calabria to the then ISIS-controlled Libyan city of Sirte. In exchange for the weapons, ISIS would ship back artifacts seized from historic sites and tombs in Libya.
The undercover journalist researching the story was offered to buy a Roman-era marble bust for €60,000. Citing an unnamed French security official, the Wall Street Journal reported in August 2017 that ISIS makes roughly $100 million per year from selling artifacts pilfered from Iraq and Syria.
The second predominant crossover between terrorist groups and organized crime in Europe is the appropriation of tactics, which is considered to be an evolution of the alliance stage. Whether to avoid differences in strategy and the possibility of betrayal by criminal groups or simply to secure more of the profits, terrorist organizations have increasingly been directing criminal operations themselves.
According to the British newspaper the Mirror, ISIS was running an extensive series of lucrative cannabis farms in southern Albania in early 2016, which the group had commandeered after authorities pushed the local Mafia from the area in 2014. The jihadist outfit then began recruiting in the area – often from the ranks of organized crime as these men come equipped with desirable skill-sets.
An intercepted operation suggested the Islamic State may also profit both from the commercial value of drugs and their stimulant effects. In November 2017, Italian police seized a large shipment of a synthetic opiate known as Tramadol in the port of Gioia Tauro, which would have commanded a street value of nearly €50 million. Italian authorities stated the 24 million tablets, which had reportedly originated in India, were on their way to Libya where the Islamic State planned to sell them to its militants for €2 a pill, then use the profits to fund terrorist attacks. Tramadol has come to be known as the “fighter’s drug” and is widely used by militants in Libya and Egypt for recreation; it numbs the effects of physical exertion in battle. Boko Haram fighters in the greater Lake Chad Basin region purportedly also favor this opioid-like painkiller. Another drug popular among militant extremists is an amphetamine-based substance known as Captagon, which Islamic State defectors have claimed is given to ISIS fighters to keep them awake and alert.
According to a 2016 report jointly authored by Interpol and Europol, over 90% of migrants entering the EU are assisted by criminal organizations, however loosely constituted, and the migrant smuggling ‘industry’ into Europe was estimated to be worth $ 5-6 billion in 2015. A telling example is one outfit in Turkey which was charging $1,200 per person for a perilous 25-kilometer journey from the Turkish city of Bodrum to the Greek Island of Kos in an inflatable dinghy crammed with 40 passengers. Each boat would net $48,000, regardless of whether the voyagers survived.
Jihadists under the disguise of migrants
While Britain and the EU nations are showing sympathy towards the illegal migrants, it is important for everyone to know – the majority of these migrants are directly linked to jihadist groups.
Jihadist and terrorist organizations are known to have profited from the human trafficking. In May 2015, ISIS was reported to have made up to $320 million through the exploitation of migrant movements from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe.
Within its so-called caliphate, the jihadist outfit was intent on keeping people from leaving either by force or through subtle strategies such as highlighting the dangers of refugee routes and the uncertainty of potential destinations. Yet outside the territory it directly controlled, fleeing refugees have been seen as a source of revenue.
Islamic State had exacerbated migrant flows by conducting attacks on civilians and refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which force people to escape and allow the terrorist organization to profit from taxing the passage of vehicles or facilitating logistics.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has similarly prospered on the plight of the desperate, demanding levies on migrant flows through North Africa. The connection between terrorist organizations and migration receiving the most attention, however, is the possibility that militant extremists have infiltrated refugee routes to smuggle themselves (back) into Europe. In late 2014, a widely cited BuzzFeed report quoted a Turkish human trafficker, who claimed to have sent at least ten Islamic State fighters to Greece over the preceding few months. Fears grew when two of the suicide bombers in the November 2015 Paris attack were found to have traveled into Europe among refugees through Greece and one was carrying a stolen Syrian passport when he died.
The former head of French intelligence Bernard Squarcini said at the time: “It is obvious now, amongst the migrants there are some terrorists.”
Six months later, INTERPOL and Europol warned of “an increased risk that foreign terrorist fighters may use the migratory flows to (re-)enter the EU.”
Now the wave of illegal migrants has been continuing, thus pushing the West towards an unimaginable consequence.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-jihadist journalist, counter-terrorism specialist and editor of Blitz