Counter-terror investigators from Italy have broken up a suspected transnational people smuggling network that trafficked migrants across Europe and sent profits to an al-Qa’ida-linked extremist group in Syria.
Italian prosecutors yesterday said a police operation targeting the group resulted in the arrest of 14 people on the island of Sardinia and parts of northern Italy.
Four of the suspects arrested in Sardinia were described as being Islamist militants with links to al-Nusra Front, a group that used to be al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria, but is now part of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jihadi alliance after it broke ties with the Osama bin Laden-founded group.
It is thought the trafficking network provided extremists in Syria with €2 million ($2.38 million) in funding as well as a number of fighters.
Speaking with reporters, Italian chief terrorism prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho said an investigation into the activities of the network uncovered evidence of terrorist financing and the facilitating of illegal immigration, and that some of the funds raised by the group had been used to purchase weapons.
Telling journalists the success of the operation highlighted the professionalism of Italian law enforcement authorities, De Raho said the arrest of the suspects proved there is a link between illegal migration and terrorism.
He added that investigators found no evidence that members of the gang had brought jihadi fighters into Italy.
“We don’t have evidence that this network brought foreign fighters into Italy as migrants, but it is true that part of the funds this network managed came from clandestine immigration and they were used to support terrorism,” China’s Xinhua news agency quoted De Raho as saying.
Eleven of the suspects were Syrian nationals. The other three were said to be Moroccan. All of those arrested held Italian residency.
The network was disrupted as a result of a joint operation conducted by counter-terror and anti-mafia police.
Twenty properties were raided in Sardinia and the northern city of Brescia as part of the operation.
The funds the gang raised were laundered and transferred to jihadi fighters through the hawala system, an informal remittance channel that exists outside of traditional banking systems commonly used in Arab countries and South Asia.
Money raised by the network is said to have been collected by Syrian nationals in Hungary, Sweden and Turkey, before being channelled through Austria, Denmark, Germany and Holland, as well as the Middle East.
The hawala money transfer system has long been notorious as a conduit for terrorist financing, and has been widely used by extremist fundraisers to funnel cash to jihadi groups in the Middle East such as Daesh and al-Nusra.
‘Golden Triangle’ countries must work together to stamp out growing meth production, UN urges
The United Nations has warned that organised criminal networks operating in Asia’s Mekong region have boosted their production and trafficking of methamphetamine to “alarming levels”.
Senior drug policy officials from Cambodia, China, Lao, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam yesterday attended a UN-backed regional conference on the issue, where delegates heard how the groups are extending their illegal trade into countries including Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
At the conference, which opened in Burmese capital Nay Pyi Taw on Monday, officials were told that while production of heroin and opium in the region had fallen recently, organised crime gangs have hiked their production and distribution of both low grade yaba methamphetamine, and high-purity crystal methamphetamine.
The UN told officials from “Golden Triangle” countries they must work closely together to crack down on the record amounts of both drugs that are being produced in and exported out of the region, and take action against the crooked law enforcement agents and customs officers who allow the illicit trade to thrive.
UN officials said the region’s heroin and methamphetamine market is worth an estimated $40 billion a year, and noted that a number of Mekong countries have already surpassed the total number of drug seizures they made during the whole of last year, despite being less than hallway through 2018.
Organised crime groups in the region are thought to have boosted drug production in illicit laboratories in locations such as Burma’s conflict-ridden Shan State, with a view to shipping their product to new markets with the help of corrupt officials.
Addressing the conference, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas said: “Responding to the situation requires acknowledging some difficult realities, and agreeing to new approaches at a strategic regional level.
“Here in Myanmar it means focusing on peace and security in the Golden Triangle and places where conflict and the drug economy are connected.
“Ensuring governance and the rule of law will be crucial to any long-term reduction in drug production and trafficking.
“To be candid, it also means addressing the corruption, conditions and vulnerabilities that allow organised crime to keep expanding operations and exploiting the region.”
In April, a Vietnamese national who attempted to smuggle methamphetamine worth an estimated NZ$11.6 million ($8.53 million) into New Zealand concealed inside a home drinking water system was jailed for 10 years.
Than Qui Phan, 25, was told he must serve a minimum of four years after he admitted smuggling multiple packages of methamphetamine into the country.
Back in October of last year, Australian law enforcement agents seized nearly four tonnes of a precursor ingredient used to make methamphetamine which had been concealed in green tea bottles imported into the country from Thailand.
Social media firms must ban ‘drill’ rap videos to prevent gun and knife crime in London, police chief warns
Speaking with Nick Ferrari on his show on Britain’s LBC radio station yesterday morning, London’s most-senior police officer called on social media companies to remove drill music rap videos from their networks to help reduce gang crime across the British capital.
Discussing a huge rise in gang-related firearm and knife crime in the UK that earlier this year saw London’s murder rate surpass New York’s, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said there is a legal and ethical obligation on firms such as YouTube and Twitter to remove videos that glamorise violence and include death threats.
“I am working closely with social media companies to get them to think about what they can do about this,” she said.
“For us, if it’s against the law, it’s against the law and should be taken down. If it is inciting or glamorising violence, then we think they have a social responsibility to work with us to take those videos down.”
Dick also warned middle class recreational drug users they cannot escape the fact that their consumption of illegal substances is inextricably linked to a surge in violence that has seen dozens of young men lose their lives across London this year.
The Commissioner was speaking after two young men who had appeared on popular rap DJ Tim Westwood’s YouTube channel were jailed for murdering a filmmaker.
The Old Bailey heard how Devone Pusey, 20, and Kai Stewart, 18, knifed Dean Pascal-Modeste, 22, to death after making threats on drill rap videos.
Remanding both men in custody earlier this month ahead of sentencing, Judge Nicholas Cooke, QC, said :”This is yet another dreadful example of London’s knife crime, gangs interested in using violence solely because someone comes from a different district or post code.
“Such violence is often fuelled by musical taunts online, posted on YouTube or other social media outlets.”
Drill music videos typically feature gangs of young men lurking around inner-city estates, boasting about selling drugs and their easy access to – and regular use of – lethal weapons, including guns and knives.
The videos routinely feature gang members firing off violent threats to their rivals while making shooting and stabbing gestures with their hands.
Earlier this month, another drill rapper who had appeared on Westwood’s YouTube channel was shot dead on the streets of the UK capital.
Seventeen-year-old Rhyiem Ainsworth Barton became the 15th teenager to be killed in London since Christmas.
People smugglers identified during Interpol operation in South Asia
An Interpol-led operation has resulted in the identification of a number of suspected human traffickers in South Asia.
The coordinated effort, dubbed Operation Mandala, involved officials carrying out checks on travellers at five international airports and one land border point in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Close to 500,000 people had their personal details checked against Interpol’s nominal and Stolen Lost Travel Document (SLTD) databases during the initiative, resulting in multiple positive “hits”.
A number of individuals subject to Interpol Red and Blue Notices were identified during the checks, as were several travel documents registered on the SLTD database.
Two suspected people smugglers thought to have been operational in the region were identified, as was a Sri Lankan national who had been made the subject of a Red Notice from the United Arab Emirates for misappropriation of funds.
Mahbubur Rahman, Deputy Inspector General for Operations and Head of the National Central Bureau in Dhaka, said in a statement: “The operation has helped enhance the efficiency of immigration officers in Bangladesh in screening travel documents and following up on potential hits.
“We appreciate the support of Interpol in securing our country’s borders and will be extending this application to additional border points in the future.”
The effort formed part of Interpol’s Project Relay, a Canadian-funded crackdown on people smugglers active in South Asia that includes the provision of training for local law enforcement agents, and aims to improve systems and offer technical equipment and support.
Earlier this week, Interpol announced that its global databases, including the SLTD bank, are playing an increasingly key role in helping European law enforcement authorities enhance security and safety.
Since 2014, European use of SLTD data has increased by more than 200% – with a 600% growth in the Schengen zone alone, attendees at the 46th Interpol European Regional Conference in Dublin were told.
Charles Flanagan, Ireland’s Minister for Justice and Equality, commented: “The work of Interpol over the past almost 100 years epitomizes the value of police services across the world working together.
“Thanks to the excellent cooperation fostered by Interpol, police officers here in Ireland and across the world are provided with invaluable support in their efforts to protect citizens from terrorism and crime in all its many forms.
“The global network of Interpol National Bureaus that operate around the clock handling enquiries plays a vital role in this and I’d like to pay tribute to the Irish Interpol National Central Bureau based in Garda Headquarters for its contribution to this network, and also to the members of An Garda Síochána who have served in INTERPOL’s General Secretariat Headquarters in Lyon over the years.”
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