Illegal arms plaguing Europe, easy for wannabe terrorists to buy gun – Italian Carabinieri veteran

Europe, along with the rest of the world, is suffering from a growing threat from terrorism. Citizens are forced to sacrifice their own liberties as governments invest millions in reinforcing security. But the peril of Jihadism is being exploited by organized crime groups, that can’t miss the chance to increase their own power and profits through collaboration with terrorists. Can mafia groups and extremists form a dangerous alliance? How do you fight against this vicious partnership? We ask a member of the Italian Carabinieri who is an expert on mafia-type organizations, organized crime and terrorism, as well as the president of the Geocrime Education Association – Antonio de Bonis is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: According to Time magazine, The Sicilian Mafia transports people from the Middle East into Italy, then charges a fee - which the refugees pay out of the benefits provided by the Italian state. Does it mean that the Italian government ends up funding the mafia?

Antonio de Bonis: In some cases, on a local level, migrants are indeed being exploited – they were used to harvest the crops in the region of Apulia and for other work. Measures were taken to stop this practice. Similar cases took place on the Isle of Ischia. As for the classic Italian mafia, we don’t have any evidence that they exploit migrants for profit.

But in the case of the international mafia, and its role in using migrant flows, then I would definitely agree. This is taking place in other countries, and as a specialist in criminology, I can say that sooner or later we will have to face this issue.

SS: The investigation into the November terror attacks in Paris revealed that the mafia, in Naples in particular, helped terrorists to move around Europe, forge IDs and buy weapons. What do they get in return – it’s unlikely that the mafia would do anything for free?

ADB: I personally studied this issue... As for the Paris attacks, indeed the masterminds were able to get fake IDs through their contacts within the mafia, but it was a unique case...

SS: But in this particular case in Naples, what was in it for the mafia? Money?

ADB: The Italian mafia, in this case it’s the Neapolitan Camorra, didn’t play a big role here. The terrorists who staged the Paris attacks got fake IDs to freely travel around the Schengen area, but this is regular practice in the criminal world. This is the only case where there is solid proof, anyhow.

What could the Italian mafia gain from its dealings with terrorists? It’s a separate, although important topic. As for Italy, I believe that very soon we will be able to block any opportunity for cooperation between terrorists and the Italian mafia; be it the Sicilian mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra or the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta. But what happens in other countries...

SS: Why are you so certain about it? You seem to be ruling out any ties between the Italian mafia and terrorists? Why is it impossible?

ADB: Europe, at least until recently, has been the victim of individual terrorist attacks. There is no evidence that the interests of terrorists and mafia have been aligned. True, it’s easy to get fake IDs from organised crime groups but it’s a separate issue. It would be a completely different story if the interests of terrorists and the mafia were the same.

Presently, the Italian mafia does not seek any cooperation with foreign terrorist groups. But it’s a different story right near our borders – mafia groups in Sahel countries or in Libya are interested in direct and regular interaction with rebels and terrorists.

SS: Islamic terrorism, as represented by ISIS today, claims a monopoly on violence and justice and is supposed to have a zero tolerance on crime. Can terrorists and the mafia work together to their mutual benefit, despite their ethical incompatibility?

ADB: It’s not a matter of ethics. The Mafia’s sole interest has always been to make a profit. Why does it work with rebels and terrorists? Both seek control over territory. So the local organised crime in countries like Libya, Iraq and Syria are interested in that. In this regard, the example of Islamic State is particularly illustrative - they want to work together with local crime groups. Organised crime groups seek political protection from forces that control their territory. And the terrorists that are in control are ready to work with criminals because they need money. So in this particular case, the interests of criminals and terrorists coincide but it’s only about money. Italy, and I dare say, Europe as a whole, does not have anything like this at the moment.

SS: In the past, the mafia took part in the terrorist struggle, usually siding with the ultra-right groups against ultra-leftists. It was the case in Italy, it was the case in South America. Since the mafia is ready to cooperate with terrorists today, does it no longer cares for sides, or for ideology? Such organisations, as Hezbollah, launder their money with the help of South American cartels. I understand why Hezbollah or other terrorist groups need it -  but why do drug cartels risk the extra attention by dealing with such groups?

ADB: Attention is something Colombian, Peruvian or Mexican drug dealers couldn't care less about. Again, the mafia is always looking for money. Matters of ethics have no role whatsoever. Drug lords, just like the mafia, have one goal – they are looking for ways to make money, and to do that, they would strike deals with anyone. Take Colombia and its FARC movement. It emerged in the 1960s as a pseudo-Marxist group, at least, they positioned themselves as an ideology-based group. But at some point ideology lost its importance and FARC turned into a purely criminal organisation, which controls territories and deals drugs. The bottom line is that the economy is the cornerstone of any crime group’s strategy.

SS: I thought that the terrorists’ methods – killing for the sake of killing, killing civilians to instil fear – run counter to the mafia's code of honour… Or is there no such a thing as a mafia code of honour, and it’s just a fantasy based on the Godfather?

ADB: Moral principles of a crime group are purely functional, designed to maintain the unity of its members. Contemporary organized crime groups have no ideology.

Any ideology is just something that binds, it gives an organisation some kind of force that attracts people. The Italian mafia did have its own rituals but they were purely utilitarian. They were designed to ensure unity among the mafia's ranks, although that has lost its relevance today. When a person broke the rules of the mafia's ethics code, they were punished physically, not morally.

Today, criminal organisations do not claim to have any ideology and do not wish in any way to identify themselves ideologically. Even Islamic State is increasingly turning into a classic mafia structure - judging by the way it acts on the territories it controls, it’s not the other way around. This is because it needs money to control the territory, and it is ideologically at odds with Islam - even with its Sunni wing. Therefore, I believe that all that ideological orientation is aimed at achieving its own economic goals and to ensure control over the territories.

SS: There have been reports in the world media that the son of a famous New York’s mafia clan's head, Giovanni Gambino, promised to protect New York from terrorism. He said that mafia can fight terrorism better than police. How can the mafia counter terrorism?

ADB: Theoretically, the mafia can oppose any form of terrorism, but only if it starts to threaten its economic interests. Gambino is a boss of the twentieth century. It's well known that during the Second World War the American Cosa Nostra, in particular its New York clans, helped the government to prevent terrorist attacks from Nazi Germany. The mafia has the capacity to counter terrorism, but it will not do it on its own, it's not interested in this. What took place in the twentieth century is absolutely impossible today.

SS: Three refugees were recently arrested in Italy - in Bari and Milan. They were supposedly preparing terrorist attacks in Rome and other Italian cities. They had weapons, as well as video footage with locations of supposed targets for future terror strikes, such as the Colosseum. Whose job is it to identify terrorists among refugees? Is it done by the police, border guards or security services?

ADB: Talking of professional terrorists, a terrorist who plans an attack will not try to hide in the crowds of refugees. These people travel first class.

At the same time the operations against potential terrorists – both in Bari and Milan – were undertaken by the Italian police and the Italian government. Because of the experience the Italian security services have fighting the mafia, countering domestic terrorism, they were able to stop the attack at the stage, so to speak, of its theoretical development.

If a person gets in the sights of law enforcement, if there's information or even the slightest indication that someone has embarked on the path of radicalisation and could become a terrorist, legislation enables us to detain such a person and to deport him from the country.

What does this give to us? It lets us stop the process at the stage of indoctrination. Of course, in this case I am talking about the so-called "on the ground" terrorists, those who are already in the country.

A terrorist who travels from one country to another to commit a terrorist attack is a totally different phenomenon. It's clear that the flow of migrants needs to be monitored, but that's a separate problem. Frankly, I can hardly imagine a terrorist travelling in an inflatable boat. He simply doesn't need to do that.

SS: What particular methods do the Italian special services and police forces use to stop these terrorists?

ADB: The Bari and Milan cases, which you mentioned, are examples of monitoring by the security forces, not only in Italy but throughout Europe as well. They all use the same techniques, they use technology to identify suspicious persons, and after that the respective forces can almost immediately determine whether this or that person already is or is becoming a bearer of radical ideas.

SS: Europe today faces a new kind of terrorist threat – single terrorists, who act on the behalf of a terrorist group personally. They are harder to track; and it’s harder to prevent their actions – how do law enforcement agencies counter this kind of threat?

ADB: To fight terrorists, the Italian police use the same methods as it uses to combat other criminal offences. The main problem that we face today is ensuring closer coordination between the security services on an international level. From this perspective, the system should be improved.

SS: The terrorists who attacked Europe – in Paris, in Brussels – had criminal pasts; they had been dealing in drugs, weapons and committing theft. Do you distinguish between a terrorist and a common criminal, for example a murderer, in your work? Do they have to be apprehended in different ways?

ADB: The terrorist attackers in Paris and Brussels were known to the police, as they had committed a series of petty crimes before that. They turned into radicals later – and this process can be very fast. There may be hundreds of these people out there, so the police forces were not able to stop them in time. Once again, I emphasise that a criminal turned radical, as it happened in France, is one thing, and a professional terrorist is quite another. As for the Italian police, and I’m basing this on my own analytical work, I can say that in dozens of cases, including the cases you mentioned, they were able to prevent terrorist attacks in the country. I do not want to say that the Italian police are better than the police in other countries, it’s just that they probably have a special feel of the problem and have tons of relevant experience, because they historically had to fight both left and right-wing terrorism and extremism - and because of the rich experience of countering organised crime as well.

SS: Where do European terrorists get the money to buy weapons, bombs, to set up terrorist attacks? Does the money come from centralised terrorist groups, or from somewhere else?

ADB: If we take a specific example – the terrorist attacks in Paris – the investigation showed that the terrorists who committed the attacks in France financed themselves. The weapons were acquired through personal relationships that they had established in prison while serving sentences for previous offenses. They came into contact with other criminals, who were able to buy the weapons in Belgium and sell to them; they were then used in terrorist acts.

SS: How can terrorists buy Kalashnikov automatic rifles so easily? Where can you buy this type of weapon in Europe? Where do they come from that they end up in the very heart of Europe?

ADB: A Kalashnikov rifle can be purchased in any country. Illegal arms trafficking is a real problem, which hasn’t been a plague only in Europe, and is closely connected with crime in general. In Italy, for example, crime groups purchase weapons in order to be able to control their domains, and they can only do so illegally. For them it is an absolute necessity to be armed. International arms trafficking is on such an enormous scale, because criminal groups need these weapons so badly. What do they need weapons for? They need weapons to control and dominate other crime groups and organisations. The problem is that you don’t have to go the extra mile to purchase a weapon. When Gaddafi was killed in Libya, the Libyan armed militants were asked to surrender their weapons and they got 200 US dollars for each rifle. On the black market this money can buy you two Kalashnikov rifles. I’d like to stress once again that the black market is enormous and you can buy arms quite easily.

SS: You mentioned Libya, and it is true that the black market replenished its illegal weapons supplies after the Libyan war. If weapons flow from Libya to Europe, it is most commonly through Italy that they finally reach their destination. Am I right in thinking that the Italian security services have to tackle this challenge entirely on their own, or is there any cooperation with the security services of other countries?

ADB: As for Libyan weapons, I can tell you they did not reach Europe. After Gaddafi’s regime collapsed, these weapons were used to arm Tuareg insurgents fighting in Sahel countries such as Mali and Chad. So these weapons made their way back to the Sub-Saharan African countries, but today a substantial part of them are back with Libyan rebel groups again.These weapons are actively traded and the main problem here, as I see it, is that they contribute to further destabilise the African continent, in particular the Maghreb Northwest and Sahel countries - by which I mean the belt crossing Africa from West to East and pointing at Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the dire consequences of illegal arms trafficking is that it has brought a significant increase in the number of insurgents…

SS: So you disagree that Libyan weapons ended up in Europe, among all other places?

ADB: I don’t have any information to confirm this, nor have any open sources ever mentioned weapons trafficking from Libya to Italy. I cannot, of course, rule out the possibility of a certain number of these weapons ending up in Italy or other European countries, but I am not in a position to talk of any regular channels used to supply arms or of a massive arms flow. I think such statements would be totally ungrounded.

SS: After the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris it turned out that the names of the terrorists who staged them had been known to the intelligence agencies for quite some time. Why had they not made use of this information to prevent the attacks? You mentioned that coordination between the police forces and security agencies across Europe was very poor – why?

ADB: Yes, I said that all the police forces operating throughout Europe need to interact more closely with one another. As for the intelligence and security services, I can't tell you what they believe is best for them, it’s just beyond my scope of knowledge.

SS: Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has repeatedly come up with the suggestion that a coordinated European security service be created. [...] Gilles de Kerchove promotes the concept of a unified European intelligence database. Why do you think these ideas have not become reality yet? If the projects had been implemented, a lot of terrorist attacks in Europe could have been prevented.

ADB: No doubt much more could have been done. The problem we are facing is of a different nature. At the present stage of historical development many states, particularly in Europe, and to be more precise, the wealthiest European states, have tended to become more closed and focused on their domestic issues and national interests. This process has been evolving in the United States of America and in the richest European countries like Italy, France, Russia and Turkey. Why? Because everyone is eager to protect their national interests first and foremost. As an analyst I can tell you that protection of national interests means protection of certain state secrets. In all countries intelligence officers are trained to defend the national interests of their country. Therefore, it is very unlikely that the exchange of intelligence data can ever take place. When countries perceive a threat coming from abroad, they tend to grow ever more protective of their state secrets and security services. However, police cooperation is a completely different story. In this case everyone supports close cooperation and information exchange. Take Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency. Its development has been progressing in huge leaps, and this process goes on. The system needs to be improved, of course, and real-time information exchange needs to be established, but the process has already started. It’s important that the exchange of information should be automated and  ever more efficient, for the information to be able to actually reach police officers of different countries. The process has already been launched and it has started to yield palpable results. But again, police and intelligence services are not to be confused.

SS: Drug cartels in Mexico and other Latin American countries, like in Colombia, the mafia in Italy, gangs in American ghettos  - they all eventually assume certain functions of the state. They declare themselves to be defenders of the poor, they provide social care, maintain order in the areas they control. If such groups are left unchecked, can they  turn into a real counterbalance to government authorities?

ADB: This is a very important issue that goes beyond the South American region. To understand crime as a phenomenon we need to specify one thing. What is an organised crime group? It’s a group of people that band together for a certain time period in order to perpetrate crimes, such as drug or human trafficking or something of that sort. A mafia-type organisation is an entirely different thing. The mafia uses its members and its power to bring society under its control. That means that is uses intimidation and coercion, which results in what we in Italy historically call “omertà” – a code of silence – when people can’t report the crimes committed. The mafia is not an exclusively Italian phenomenon, and it didn’t originate in Italy but due to a number of reasons, it was in Italy that it started playing a special role. The mafia is made up of people, it exists in and is inherent to any human society, but unlike a common organised crime group, in the mafia’s case the interests of the criminal world, businessmen and politicians are intertwined. When the interests of all three groups meet, that’s when you have a serious problem. The mafia doesn’t seek to take the state’s place – it needs the state, because it needs rules to conduct its business. The mafia worms its way into all the pores of the state, abusing the state’s weaknesses through corruption. If we take Mexico, organised crime in Mexico has changed significantly over the last 15-20 years. Some organisations, for example the most famous Mexican cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, turned into a mafia-type structure. They control territory, pay officials who help them launder money and invest their profits. Simple organised crime groups don’t do that, they operate, so to speak, on a lower level. The danger here is that mafia has an impact on the country’s development. If state officials are corrupt and are bribed to sign certain contracts, give out licenses and permits for economic projects, the country cannot develop normally, since the system is clearly skewed. That’s the unique danger that the mafia poses. But I’ll say it again – this phenomenon appears in many countries, in many different forms and under different names.

SS: My last question -  after the earthquake in Japan and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s biggest mafia group - the Yakuza - played a big role in  the post-disaster relief efforts, at least at first, when the officials were at a loss. The Yakuza took care of the injured, patrolled the streets and even lead the clean-up at the Fukushima nuclear power plant...Was this an isolated case, or does the mafia sometimes help people?

ADB: Japanese organised crime syndicates – the Yakuza – are a special case. The Yakuza have their own offices, representatives - their activities are carried out in the open a lot of the time. Of course, under certain circumstances organised crime can act the way the Yakuza did after Fukushima, but only with their own economic interests in mind. Any organised crime group is sure to demand payment for their activities, so when a society decides to deal with any kind of mafia it commits an original sin. You can’t simply strike a compromise with the mafia, the price of a partnership like that is too high.