A hidden alliance between terror networks and organized crime gangs that control heavily used smuggling routes in the Balkans is making it easier for terrorists to infiltrate Western Europe, according to law enforcement officials and intelligence experts.
In addition, prosecutors in Serbia believe that in some cases the money earned by people traffickers is used to support terrorist activities in Europe, which has been hit by several major terrorist attacks in the last two years, with many others prevented by police raids.
A key problem is lax border controls throughout the region. Many borders, such as the one between Romania and Serbia, are wide open to gangs that smuggle people, heroin and goods.
Europe’s battle to contain the spread of international terrorism has been hobbled by such porous borders, which each year allow tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants to enter. So many people are sneaking into Europe that authorities admit they do not know exactly who resides in their countries, complicating the effort to prevent more terrorist attacks.
“This is a paradise for al-Qaida,” said Marko Nicovic, former police chief in the Serbian capital Belgrade and a director of the International Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association. “For Europe, it can be a disaster at any time because the authorities don’t know who is there and they don’t know who is who. The attacks in Madrid and London showed that.”
Once illegal migrants reach Serbia overland from Eastern Europe, police say they can easily cross into Bosnia and then Slovenia, thus entering the European Union. At that point, they can take advantage of weak or nonexistent border controls to travel freely to France, Spain, Germany and other countries on the continent.
Police officials believe that most of the migrants are law-abiding people looking for work, but they caution that the migration gives terrorist gangs a way to move sleeper cells into the West while also fueling tensions between Western Europe’s Muslims, the fastest growing minority on the continent, and the rest of society.
These tensions surface in a number of ways: the deadly attacks on transit systems in Madrid and London, intense rioting in France, death threats against secular politicians in the Netherlands, and legal battles over the right to wear Muslim scarves and headgear to public schools.
While smuggling gangs are using Serbia as a transit point, some Muslim militants seems to have established a base in neighboring Bosnia.
Officials warn that several hundred militants who came to Bosnia to fight on behalf of Muslims there during the war in the 1990s have remained in the country to attack the West.
In October, police in Bosnia uncovered an apparent plot to blow up the British Embassy and found a large cache of weapons and explosives along with propaganda vowing to retaliate for the U.S.-and-British-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
A Swede and a Dane were also arrested in that raid, and there were follow-up arrests in Sweden that suggested the Bosnian extremists had operational ties to Western Europe, investigators said.
Magnus Ranstorp, a specialist at the Swedish National Defense College who testified before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, said the presence of Islamic militants inside Bosnia makes it an attractive gateway into Europe for terrorists.
“They came in ten years ago, that was the first warning signal, it was the embryo of what became al-Qaida in Europe,” he said. “The Iranians are supporting activity there, and the Balkans have become the crossroads where we see the merger of Islamic extremist groups who reach out to organized crime groups.”
Ranstorp said well-established organized crime networks in the region provide the terrorist gangs with routes for people smuggling and with phony identification documents.
“People being smuggled in add to the security threat,” he said. “Most are economic migrants but hand-in-hand with that are people in organized crime who allow terrorism to be possible. They move in the same circles and need the same things. If you want to tackle terrorists, you have to tackle the supporting environment, the organized crime rings and the human trafficking rings.”
The migrants enter Europe in many ways. Some travel on land through Serbia and the other countries of the former Yugoslavia.
Others take trawlers or dilapidated fishing boats across the Mediterranean bound for southern Spain or Italy. Still others simply fly into the continent’s many hub airports.
‘New generation of jihadis’
A large number of immigrants formally apply for political asylum in their new countries, giving them the right to a legal review that can take years. Others destroy their identity documents, making it difficult for authorities to determine their nationality.
Many come from predominantly Muslim countries like Morocco, Pakistan and Afghanistan where jihadis committed to waging holy war against the West are active. This sentiment has grown in ferocity since the United States and Britain invaded Iraq two years ago, according to analysts and enforcement agents.
“There is clear, unmistakable evidence that the level of terrorist activity that has killed and injured people has soared to unprecedented levels since we invaded Iraq,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent and State Department counter-terrorism specialist now working in the private sector.
“Iraq is creating a new generation of jihadis looking for places to live in Europe,” Johnson said, “and they have this festering resentment that is usually at the core of terrorism. They will take up residence with existing communities or form new ones in Europe.
“It doesn’t augur for a great future.”
Serbian investigators maintain they have uncovered a prime example of the cozy relationship between terrorism and people smugglers. It involves a Bangladeshi suspect believed by prosecutors to be making more than $150,000 per week bringing people into Western Europe through clandestine routes.
Training camps in Bosnia
Mioljub Vitorovic, the Serbian special prosecutor for organized crime cases, said he believes, but cannot prove, that some of this money was being paid to support the families of suicide bombers who have carried out attacks in Europe. He also believes a number of jihadis from Bangladesh have gathered at training camps inside Bosnia.
The prosecutor complained that the suspect, whom he declined to name, appears to have some high-level protection because he has been able to flee whenever police are closing in.
Prosecutors in several countries are gathering evidence about the gang, he said.
“This is a huge case involving Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and the whole region is looking for the leader of the operation, who is this Bangladeshi,” Vitorovic said. “He was involved during the Bosnian war and he’s using his connections to bring people across the borders. We have information about the money he is making. This is from listening to his mobile phone conversations.”
He said he had warned intelligence officials in Western Europe about the threat posed by this people-smuggling operation but was ignored.
That changed, he said, after the July 7 suicide attacks on London’s transit system, carried out by British Muslims linked to overseas groups, revealed how dangerous the situation had become.
“Now they are paying much more attention to the situation here,” he said.
‘Using all channels’
Serbian Border Police concede they are outmanned and outgunned in the losing battle against well-organized smugglers.
“It’s very easy for them to cross the Danube,” said Col. Dusan Zlokas, chief of the Serbian Border Police. “We need more boats, we need radar, we need thermal imaging, we need binoculars with night vision, we need everything. We don’t have the technical capacity to provide border security.”
He cited the arrest in Serbia in March of a Moroccan accused of taking part in the deadly 2004 attacks on the Madrid train system that killed nearly 200 people as proof that international terrorists are using Serbia as a transit point.
“The biggest number of recruited terrorists is coming from this illegal immigrants community,” he said. “It is a very vulnerable society and easy to recruit in. For sure, this jeopardizes Western Europe and the U.S.
“This is the crossroads of the trade in illegal immigrants, weapons and drugs and no one can say terrorists cannot pass. They are using all channels.”