Europe’s border agency is to launch a new naval operation in the Mediterranean on Thursday to combat the threat of Islamist terrorists trying to reach the continent from North Africa.
There are fears that after the defeat of the Islamic State in its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, extremists could try to infiltrate Europe to carry out revenge attacks.
Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, announced on Wednesday that its new operation would include “the collection of intelligence and other steps aimed at detecting foreign fighters and other terrorist threats.”
The new initiative, called Operation Themis, will involve rescuing migrants at sea but is also aimed at preventing potential terrorists from reaching Italy.
“The new operation will have an enhanced law enforcement focus,” Frontex said.
Its operational area will cover much of the Mediterranean, including waters off Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Albania.
“We need to be better equipped to prevent criminal groups that try to enter the EU undetected. This is crucial for the internal security of the European Union,” said Fabrice Leggeri, the director of Frontex.
More than 600,000 migrants and refugees have reached Italy by sea in the last four years.
A minority have been expelled after being suspected of terrorist activities or jihadist sympathies.
Since the start of 2015, the Italian authorities have kicked out 243 people suspected of religious extremism, including imams, sending them back to their countries of origin. Six people have been expelled so far this year.
The most recent expulsion was this week, when a 41-year-old Tunisian convicted drug dealer who had been radicalised in prison in Palermo, Sicily, was sent back home.
He was accused by the authorities of “proselytising” and of convincing a Muslim cell-mate to no longer work in the jail “in the service of the infidels” but to “make himself available to jihadism” once he was released.
The new naval operation in the Mediterranean was announced as it was claimed that up to 50 Islamic State fighters crossed the Mediterranean by boat from Tunisia and landed in Italy last year with the intention of carrying out terrorist attacks in Europe.
The Guardian reported that Interpol drew up a list of suspected ISIL extremists who are believed to have arrived on the coast of Sicily between July and October last year.
The list was reportedly sent by Interpol to the Italian interior ministry in November.
Italian authorities and security experts were skeptical about the report, however.
“There’s no evidence to support the claim that 50 foreign fighters from ISIL arrived on the coasts of Italy, ready to carry out attacks,” an official from the Department of Public Security, part of the Italian interior ministry, said.
Close cooperation between Italy and Tunisia had enabled the Italian authorities to identify a “small number” of Tunisians with extremist sympathies but they had all been repatriated, the official said.
Interpol would not comment directly on The Guardian’s claims.
“When member countries share information via Interpol, it remains under their ownership and we cannot comment without their approval,” the agency said.
“Interpol regularly sends alerts and updates to its 192 member countries on wanted terrorists and criminals via our secure global police communications network.”
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Some Italian security analysts were doubtful about the story.
“Terrorists never arrive in migrant boats – no serious terrorist organisation would take the risk of putting their trained people on board an unsafe boat which risks capsizing when hit by the first big wave,” Andrea Margelletti, president of the Centre for International Studies, told the Italian news agency Adnkronos.
“ISIS could use reliable, privately-owned vessels in order to ensure a safe crossing over to Italy,” said Mr Margelletti, a strategic adviser to the Italian defence ministry.
“But then there is another question – how do these terrorists, who don’t speak any Italian, find places to stay, how do they eat, without a very strong logistical support network, which our police and intelligence agencies have not found. Those agencies are among the best in the world and they are very capable when it comes to counter-terrorism.”
In the last six months there has been an increase in the number of Tunisians crossing to Italy by boat, but they are mostly economic migrants who are fleeing unemployment and poverty at home.
There has, however, been at least one case of a terrorist arriving by boat.
Anis Amri, the Tunisian who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016, arrived by boat on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011.
Italy tried to deport him back to Tunisia but without success.
Days after the Berlin attack, Amri was shot dead by Italian police in Milan.
His attack on the Christmas market left 12 people dead and 49 injured.