International crime-fighting agencies Interpol and Europol reported on Tuesday that people smugglers have made over US $5 billion from the wave of migration into southern Europe last year.
A report released by the two agencies disclosed that nine out of ten migrants and refugees who entered the European Union (EU) in 2015 relied on “facilitation services,” which comprised of mainly loose networks of criminals along the routes, noting that the proportion was likely to be even higher this year. The report further indicated that about 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015, adding that most paid between 3,000 – 6,000 euros (US $3,400 – $6,800), so the average turnover was likely to be between US $5 billion and US $6 billion. According to the report, to launcher the money and integrate it into the legitimate economy, couriers carried large amounts of cash over borders while smugglers ran their proceeds through car dealerships, grocery stores, restaurants or transport companies. Furthermore, while the main organizers came from the same countries as the migrants, they often had EU residence permits or passports. The report states that “the basic structure of migrant smuggling networks includes leaders who coordinate activities along a given route, organizers who manage activities locally through personal contacts, and opportunistic low-level facilitators who mostly assist organizers and may assist in recruitment activities.” The report added that corrupt officials may let vehicles through border checks or release ships for bribes, as there was so much money in the trafficking trade. About 250 smuggling “hotspots,” often at railway stations, airports or coach stations, have been identified along the routes, in which of these 170 were inside the EU while 80 were located outside. The reports authors however found no evidence of fighting between criminal groups, noting however that larger criminal networks slowly took over smaller opportunistic ones, effectively leading to an oligopoly. Last year, the vast majority of migrants opted to take risky boat trips across the Mediterranean from Turkey or Libya, and then travelling on by road. The report states that around 800,000 were still in Libya waiting to travel to the EU, noting however that increasing border controls effectively mean that air travel is likely to become more attractive, with fraudulent documents rented out to migrants and then taken back by an accompanying facilitator. The report also indicates that migrant smuggling routes could be used to smuggle drugs or guns, adding that there is a growing concern that radicalized foreign fighters could also use these routes in order to enter the EU. The report however adds that there currently is no concrete data yet to suggest that militant groups consistently relied on or cooperated with organized crime groups.
Interpol has issued a global security alert linked to a suspected al-Qaeda involvement in a string of recent prison outbreaks that have taken place in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The alert comes just days after the United States State Department issued a global travel alert and closed a number of Embassies because of fears of an unspecified al-Qaeda attack.
Citing prison breaks in three countries, Interpol has requested that its members examine whether or not al-Qaeda militants were behind the prison breaks. The police agency is also asking that member countries “swiftly process any information linked to these events.” In a statement that was released on Saturday, the French-based agency stated that “with suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the Interpol alert requests the organizations 190 member countries‘ assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events re coordinated or linked.” It also calls for Interpol to be informed “if any escaped terrorist is located or intelligence developed which could help prevent another terrorist attack.” The most recent escape occurred in north-west Pakistan, in which 248 prisoners escaped from a jail. On 30 July, Taliban militants used automatic weapons and bombs in order to break down the walls of the jail in Dera Ismail Khan. At least thirteen people, including six police officers, were killed during the attack. Authorities have since indicated that thirty of those who fled were “hardened militants” who were jailed for their involvement in a number of suicide bombings and other serious attacks. Meanwhile on 22 July, hundreds of inmates escaped from two jails in Iraq: Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad; and Taji, located to the north. Bombs and mortar fire were used to break into those two prisons in which al-Qaeda members were amongst those being housed in the facility.
US Extends Embassy Closure
Meanwhile the United States has announced that it will keep a number of embassies in northern Africa and in the Middle East closed until Saturday, due to a possible militant threat. After an announcement on Friday pertaining to a possible threat, twenty-one US embassies were closed on Sunday. On Monday, the State Department in Washington indicated that the extension of closures were “out of abundance of caution,” and not in reaction to a new threat. With the State Department announcing that the potential for an al-Qaeda-inspired attack being particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa, the global travel alert will be in force until the end of August. Although US diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad remained open on Monday, its diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday. African missions including Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis are also on the list of closures. The US embassy in Tel Aviv, along with two consulates in Jerusalem and Haifa, were also closed on Sunday.
It is evident that security at US diplomatic facilities remains a concern following last year’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador, along with three other Americans, were killed. Officials in the United Kingdom also announced over the weekend that its embassy in Yemen would remain closed until the Muslim festival of Eid which will occur on Thursday. The UK Foreign Office is also advising against all travel to Yemen and is strongly urging British nationals in the country to leave. Several other European countries have also temporarily closed their missions in Yemen.
The embassy closures and US global travel alert came after the US reportedly intercepted al-Qaeda messages suggesting that they were between senior figures within the militant group who were plotting an attack against an embassy. While the details of the threat have remained unspecified, it is evident that those members of Congress who have been briefed on the intelligence, seem to agree that it amounts to one of the most serious in recent years, effectively pointing to the possibility of a major attack which may coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.
In recent years, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has attempted to carry out several high profile attacks, including one on Christmas Day in 2009 in which a man attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit, using explosives that were sewn into his underwear. Months earlier, the militant group had also attempted to assassinate the Saudi intelligence chief by using a bomb that was attached to the attacker’s body.