US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel welcomes Italy's Defense Minister Mario Mauro to the Pentagon on Jan. 13. Mauro said the influx of North Africans into Italy isn't only an issue of security but also of terrorism. (Paul J. Richards/ / AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON AND ROME — Italy’s defense minister has warned that criminal groups with potential links to terrorism are profiting from running migrant vessels across the Mediterranean to European shores and is calling on the US to keep focused on resurgent Islamic terrorism in the region.
Mario Mauro told a small group of reporters that Italy is using drones and submarines to counter the profitable trafficking of migrants from North Africa, which was potentially bankrolling terrorism.
“European governments and public opinion see this as a problem of illegal immigration — this is not my vision,” Mauro said during a trip to Washington last week to see US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“My thinking is that the situation is linked to the problem of international security and the security of the Mediterranean,” he said.
Mauro and Hagel — who also discussed Afghanistan and the Joint Strike Fighter program — agreed to raise the Mediterranean refugee issue at the upcoming NATO Military Committee meeting in Brussels this month.
The traditional flow of migrants from Africa to Italy, usually on ramshackle boats that head for the Italian island of Lampedusa, has stepped up in recent years, initially boosted by an outpouring of migrants from Tunisia, and more recently from Syria. Migrants also make the arduous desert crossing from Sub-Saharan Africa through Libya, where they have often been jailed and tortured before being allowed to board boats.
After hundreds of migrants drowned last year when their boats sank, the Italian Navy mounted regular patrols to pull people off unseaworthy, overcrowded vessels.
Mauro said the normal flow of boats from Libya is being augmented by sailings from Egypt organized by “criminal multinational organizations,” which had handled 25,000 paying passengers in the past year, the majority fleeing the war in Syria.
Traffickers are using mother ships, he said, which would tow smaller and less seaworthy vessels to within about 200 kilometers of the Italian coast, at which point about 1,000 passengers would be loaded onto the smaller vessels and released.
On one occasion, an Italian submarine surfaced 100 meters from a mother ship, allowing Italian special operations forces to board it and arrest the traffickers, he said.
With each passenger paying around $3,000, each sailing was netting about $3 million, he said, with proceeds heading to international criminal organizations, not excluding some possible links with terrorist groups in Syria and Somalia.
“The problem is not just illegal migration but international security,” Mauro said. “It’s important that the US understands better what is going on in the Mediterranean.”
In Libya, he added, it is hard to tell the difference between criminal and terrorist groups involved in trafficking.
“There are 28 brigades that call themselves jihadists, but they are often criminals,” he said. South of the Libyan border, he added, “chaos” reigns, with thousands of terrorists at large.
Mauro said he believes the ships could also have been used to ferry terrorists into Europe.
“I was in Kosovo where I learned that about 500 Kosovars who had been involved in the Syrian war were coming home. How can we discover if they are in these boats?” he said.
Right now, he added, the Italian Navy is receiving assistance in its patrols from the Navy of Slovenia.
“Lampedusa is the border of Europe, not just Italy,” he said. “We are convinced that Europe has to do more to guarantee security in the Mediterranean.”
Robert Fox, an independent UK defense analyst, said “Libya left a conduit open which will be a channel for al-Qaida into Europe, and this means Afghan veterans, not just a loose alliance of African groups. If the US is still interested in security, it needs to stay focused on the Mediterranean.”
Mauro also warned of the potential of the Syrian war to spill over into Lebanon, stating, “Hezbollah is now fighting an offensive war for the first time, which is very dangerous,” while in Syria, “there are Chechen and Yemeni brigades as well as Saudi fighters, as well as Sunni rebels fighting each other due to different backers and different visions of Islam. And with the jihadists losing, there is the problem of a spill over into Iraq.”
During their meeting, Hagel and Mauro discussed the Middle East and Italy’s offer of the Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro for the switching of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile from Danish and Norwegian vessels to a US ship configured to neutralize the weapons at sea.
Tension and violence in the Middle East will not vanish, Mauro said.
“The results of the last 10 years suggest we will live with this situation for a long time,” he said. “I am determined to convince our allies to share a long-term common vision, and we probably need a new strategy for the area and one crucial element is the role of the US.”
That, he said, requires a stronger relationship between the US and Europe, “an Atlantic perspective, not just a European or an American perspective.”
And that, in turn, requires a stronger Europe, he said. “We need more Europe, and that means we can guarantee the US it will be less alone facing an international crisis. A more united Europe is a good opportunity for the US,” he said.
But that requires more coordination of fractured defense spending — Europe’s apparently unresolvable problem.
“This was discussed at the EU summit in December for the first time in five years,” Mauro said. “Without a common strategy of defense, there is no guarantee for the political project which is the European Union.” ■