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Financing terrorism: 'The refugee crisis is the perfect storm'

In her book "Merchants of Men", Italian terrorist financing expert Loretta Napoleoni investigates the multi-billion dollar human trafficking industry. She tells FRANCE 24 how this criminal underworld is connected to jihadist groups.

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Wars, daily violence and political oppression have forced more people to leave their homes now than at any other time since the Second World War – 65 million across the world, according to the UNHCR.

Half of these migrants are from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Their perilous journey to Europe is usually facilitated by a dangerous new breed of human traffickers.

In her new book “Merchants of Men”, terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni investigates how this deadly business has become a multi-billion dollar industry bankrolling jihadism inside and outside Western borders.

“The migrant and refugee crisis is the perfect storm for criminal activity,” Napoleoni says.

FRANCE 24 - How did human trafficking become a multi-billion-dollar global industry?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we have seen a steady destabilisation of many parts of the world. Then came 9/11 and the Patriot Act, adding fuel to the fire. Colombian cartels could not ship its cocaine from the US to Europe any more. They needed to find another route. This is when they came up with the idea to reach Europe through West Africa. The cartels discovered a whole network of petty criminals smuggling cigarettes. Many of them were former GIA (Armed Islamic group of Algeria) members. They started to do business with the cartels and suddenly became richer. With that money, jihadist groups like AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) got bigger and they started to “diversify”, first into kidnapping foreigners then into human trafficking with migrants.

FRANCE 24: How did jihadist groups become involved?

L.N: Because jihadist groups are made up of petty criminals! Kidnapping was a short term business for them as foreigners soon started to avoid those regions. But the migrants…It’s a long-term business unfortunately. The migrant and refugee crisis is the perfect storm for criminality. They represent a huge “opportunity” for criminals. If you take migrants to Libya, it's 100 percent good business for you. You don’t owe anything to the cartels. The traffickers need to make money and they are ready to do so by any means necessary. To them, religious belief is just a veneer, an umbrella that unifies them on the surface. They may be in touch with each other and pledge alliances, but everything is localised. They are not organised like the mafia is. To exist, criminal organisations actually need a stable government. That’s how in the last decade we’ve seen the rise of the “criminal jihadist” in highly destabilised parts of the world like the Sahel region and the Middle East.

FRANCE 24: How does the Islamic State (IS) group exploit migrants?

L.N: First, the Islamic State in Libya and in Syria are different. Everything again is localised. They call themselves the Islamic State in Libya but it’s not at all the same group. They want to be part of it and they apply the same principles - to make sure they control a territory and that they are perceived as a political authority. Their business model is to demand taxes to cross their borders. But [Syrian IS group leader] Al Baghdadi had nothing to do with that.

In Syria, it’s the same tax system. Traffickers are not permitted to charge migrants more than of the rates set by the IS group. At about $1,600 per person, crossing via IS group-controlled territory is more expensive than crossing from the eastern shores of Libya, but the journey is safer. However, the situation changes continually because they are not in control as much.

FRANCE 24: According to the director of Europol, 90% of migrants arriving in Europe have had their journey facilitated by a criminal organisation. Who are the organisations, and how much do they charge migrants?

L.N.: These people are not members of an organised crime organisation. The majority of them are former migrants. They know the system and it’s all localised. For example, in Austria, you will have people to take you to the borders of Germany, and that’s about it. Then from Germany to let’s say Denmark, it’s another group. They are petty criminals who jump at the opportunity to drive migrants to the borders. Regarding the cost, it’s different if you get there by plane, by boat and/or by truck. But I would say that you need at least €7,000 to travel from Greece to Western Europe now. From Syrte to Italy, prices have gone up lately because of the restrictions. It used to be about €1,600 five years ago; now it costs about €2,000. If they have used an overland route, sometimes even by foot, it’s difficult to know the price.

FRANCE 24: What do you think of Angela Merkel’s deal with Turkey regarding the migrant crisis?

L.N.: I think it’s terrible. Turkey is on the brink of destabilisation. It’s keeping refugees in horrible camps. We are breeding the next generation of jihadists! Look at what happened with the deal between Gaddafi and Berlusconi. Italy wanted to contain the situation in Libya. Migrants ended up being tortured, enslaved or even killed. You can’t pay another country to keep refugees at the borders. The Turkish economy cannot take this flow of people. Why Turkey? Why not Germany? I think this whole scheme is disgusting. We need to solve this problem in Europe, not in Turkey, not in Libya.

FRANCE 24: Political leaders are addressing the migrant and refugee crisis at the UN. Is this a first step towards a real solution?

L.N.: No, the solution won’t be found at the UN. The US and Europe need to sit down with Putin because Russia knows those regions very well. They need to find an agreement. What we need to do is to pacify the Middle East by working on a common and more sensible foreign policy. Why are we pushing NATO to the borders of Russia? Why did Brussels invite Ukraine to join the EU? Ukraine should be neutral! These are crazy policies. Everything is falling apart in Europe and Brexit is just the tip of the iceberg. Western countries need to act now before it’s too late.

I also believe that the US elections will have a decisive impact. If Trump is elected, then we have a chance to reach a deal with Moscow. It will probably not be very democratic. But I'm convinced that if Hillary Clinton is elected,  she won’t reach an agreement with Russia and the situation will only get worse.

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