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Italy: al Qaeda will exploit North African migrant flood

By Tim Lister, CNN
Immigrants who arrived on Lampedusa in the last few days hang their clothes to dry outside their temporary accommodation.
Immigrants who arrived on Lampedusa in the last few days hang their clothes to dry outside their temporary accommodation.
  • Asylum seekers crossing Mediterranean from small Tunisian ports like Zarzis
  • Thousands have arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in past week
  • Italy calls for urgent measures by the European Union to stem the exodus
  • Interior minister says al Qaeda will exploit this by sneaking operatives into Europe

(CNN) -- It is now estimated that more than 5,000 would-be migrants have arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in the past week -- most of them crossing from Tunisia to escape the political turmoil there or seek work in Europe.

The Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has warned that al Qaeda may try to exploit "the explosion in the Maghreb" by sneaking operatives into Europe.

The asylum seekers have been crossing the Mediterranean from small Tunisian ports like Zarzis. From there Lampedusa is less than 100 miles nearer North Africa than it is the Italian mainland.

Politically, the current Italian government, led by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, wants to keep the issue of illegal immigration in the public eye.

One EU-wide poll in 2009 found illegal immigration was twice as important to Italians as the rest of Europe, with 69% of Italians rating it top priority compared to an EU average of 31%. While many illegal migrants move on from Italy, many stay, often settling in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Italian cities.

Concern over proposed Greek border fence

Three years ago, the government launched a campaign to expel tens of thousands of Roma (sometimes called "gypsies") back to Romania, accusing them of being responsible for higher crime rates. It was a policy drawn up by Maroni, a senior member of the anti-immigration Northern League, that drew fierce criticism from the European Commission but went down well with Italian voters.

Tunisia struggles to move forward
  • Italy
  • Tunisia
  • Al Qaeda

Maroni has called for urgent measures by the European Union to stem the exodus, which "could have a devastating impact on the whole of Europe through Italy."

The European Union's external borders agency, Frontex, has agreed to help patrol Mediterranean waters close to the North African coast to stem the exodus. In what's known as the Sicilian Channel, more than a dozen Italian vessels are already on patrol, along with several aircraft. Maroni even suggested sending Italian police to Tunisia to help prevent migrants from leaving, an idea quickly shot down by the Tunisians.

The current influx to Italy -- nearly 10,000 since the start of the year -- is much higher than in previous years. But the Italian coastline has long been vulnerable to waves of the oppressed and the wretchedly poor -- Kurds, Tamils, Afghans and many others -- seeking a better life.

Smuggling gangs charge each refugee anywhere between $200 and $500 for the privilege of a dangerous journey on a decrepit vessel, with every chance of being stopped by Italian navy patrols.

Even so, terrorism analysts say that it seems unlikely that Lampedusa would become a useful conduit for al Qaeda or its affiliates.

First, there are plenty of alternatives. Despite its current problems, Italy sees far fewer would-be migrants than Greece, whose land and maritime borders with Turkey saw as much as 80% of the illegal refugee traffic into the EU last year.

Second, Tunisia is not, and never has been, a hotbed of jihadist activity, and therefore there is little infrastructure to aid would-be terrorists (unlike Pakistan or Yemen, for example). Notably, the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb only offered his support for the Tunisian protests three weeks after they began.

There is a greater al Qaeda presence in Algeria and Mauritania than in Tunisia: anecdotal evidence suggests jihadist groups have preferred using the Algeria-to-Spain route in recent years. Several suspected al Qaeda operatives, some of Algerian nationality, have been arrested in Spain in the past two years, especially in the Barcelona area. The cell that attacked Madrid commuter trains in 2004 was largely Moroccan by origin.

In addition, al Qaeda's tactics seem to be changing. In the last few years, it and other groups like the Pakistani Taliban and Ilyas Kashmiri's 313 Brigade have focused on finding and training recruits from Europe and North America, on the grounds that they are less likely to be apprehended. They can return to their country of origin.

Falling into this category: Bryant Neal Vinas, the young American who admitted to being trained by al Qaeda in the Pakistan-Afghan border area; Najibullah Zazi, a resident of Denver who came close to carrying out a suicide bomb attack on the New York subway after being trained in Pakistan; and Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen who admitted trying to blow up his vehicle in New York's Times Square last year, who had also visited Pakistan.

Italy has apprehended some alleged al Qaeda suspects in recent years, but not as would-be refugees. One case involves two men who have French passports. Bassam Ayachi and Raphael Gendron have been in detention since November 2008, when they were arrested at the port of Bari for trying to smuggle people from the Middle East into Italy. They were subsequently charged with being leaders of a logistical support team for al Qaeda: they have denied the charges but their case has still not come to court.