Kidnapping, Drug and Refugee Trafficking Behind the Financing of ISIS (3/3)

Journalist Loretta Napoleoni says European heads of state still refuse to see their foreign policy as the root of the crisis

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Story Transcript

SHARMANI PERIES: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmani Peries coming to you from Baltimore. One point eight million refugees crossed into Europe in 2015. The number is expected to rise in 2016. This is the largest movement of people since World War II. When I was in Lesbos, Greece, last summer I was told by so many refugees the amount of money that they paid to smugglers to get across to Europe.

And today we’re lucky to have one expert who’s been looking into this. And so, let me introduce her. Loretta Napoleoni, the author of Merchants of Men: How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugee Trafficking into a Multi-Billion Dollar Business. Of course much of that is being used by ISIS to fight their wars in Syria, Iraq and other places. Thank you so much for joining us.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Thank you for inviting me.

SHARMANI PERIES: So, Loretta, give us a sense of when the refugee smuggling business started, and in segment one and segment two we were talk about how the drug trafficking took hold, of course, in the Middle East and also in Europe. And then we were talking about the kidnapping business, as well, in earlier segments. But now let’s focus on the refugees. How did this start?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: It started, really, from West Africa when there was always people who wanted to come to Europe, in the 1990s also. But I would say that, from 2005 onwards, the number of people wanted to come to Europe across the Sahel and mostly crossing into Italy from Libya — or crossing into Spain, of course, from Morocco — started to rise. It was a proper exodus to a certain extent because of destabilization taking place in West Africa. Destabilization due to, of course, regime falling, but also due to the presence of the cocaine cartel, which increased this process present already.

So we see the beginning of these jihadist becoming traffickers in West Africa around this time — so 2005 onwards. But the real success, I would say, of this model to become a jihadist then to be a criminal involved in drug smuggling and then to become a kidnapper and eventually it had developed into a trafficker. I think we can see it more than anywhere else in Syria because we’ve seen 1.8 million people who in 2015 actually reached Europe and about 90% of these people did it through traffickers. So, imagine the volume of this business — it’s enormous.

SHARMANI PERIES: Are the traffickers jihadist?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: No, the traffickers are not jihadists, but in one way or another the jihadist makes money, either in the case of the Islamic State because people cross in that territory or either because the jihadists, in order to make some money, they will bring the people from the area where they are, for example Syria, into Turkey and make money. But the actual smugglers, once you get to Turkey or once you get to Italy, for example, or Greece, are not jihadists. These are a mix of former refugees, migrants and very small, very small minority of local people.

SHARMANI PERIES: And right now the economies of these countries have totally deteriorated and people don’t have much business and there’s no sense of economy and so this kind of business, like smuggling refugees, has become rather lucrative. And how much are people dependent on that and what do the local economies look like in these places?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, countries like Somalia where, of course, it’s a failed state so you have — especially in the north, not so much in the south because the situation in the south is a bit better — but I would say in the north, you have an entire population that survives either through the smuggling or, you know, through piracy, which is down very, very much or through trafficking. So it’s a big business.

I would say the same thing is for certain parts of Syria. Think about Mosul now — there’s 1.2 million people that are on the move, maybe not all immediately, but they will be. Where are these people going to go? There’s already four million displaced people inside Iraq in the various refugees camps. Whoever has some money will try to get to Europe — and this will sustain the local economy because they will go from one smuggler to another. Because this is also an economy that is quite localized. So people will take you from one village to the border. Then from the border to Istanbul, for example, you will need another group of people. Then from Istanbul to the shores of Greece, another group of people. So it’s quite localized — and each time, people pay.

SHARMANI PERIES: And, in places like Syria, where normally in these kind of war zones — especially the groups that are local fighting against air and naval forces — want people to remain in these cities because they are somewhat a shelter for the jihadists who are fighting this war. But in this case, they’re dependent on refugees flowing out, and the money that that makes for them. Why is it in the interest to support that? Because even if they take control of these territories you would think they want the people to be there that support them.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Yes, of course they want the people to be there, but if you think about they are Salafist, so they only want the Sunnis, they only want the people that they like — so they want to create a sort of very highly homogeneous society. So they’re perfectly happy seeing this.

SHARMANI PERIES: So they’re ethnic cleansing.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Exactly, it’s ethnic cleansing — the fact is it’s ethnic cleansing. But now the same ethnic cleansing is taking place in the reverse, so we see that the territories which have been reconquered by the Shia, or even by the Kurds, in this territory, they do not want to rebuild the houses of the Sunni, for example. They want the Sunnis to go. So there is not the same kind of ethnic cleansing of the Islamic State. So, brutal, in reality they’re very happy if these people go because then these places can become a 100% Shia and 100% Kurdish. So, and this is a good business for anybody that is involved in this business. Any country that is collapsing, where there is no economy, where there is very little to live on, if you have a car or if you have a motorcycle and you can take a couple of people across the border and make good money, why not?

SHARMANI PERIES: Now, Loretta, you’ve been somewhat instrumental, not only just investigating and writing about these things, but you actually brought together heads of state around the table to discuss this problem and how to stop it, in terms of the economy of it. So what were the conversations around the table like?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, the conversations were various. I mean, all of this happened actually after 9/11. After the bombing of … so we’re talking about quite a long time ago, a decade ago. And at that time there was no clear understanding of what was really happening. Today, I would say that we are more or less at the same level. There is no understanding because there is no willingness to accept that what is happening is not a phenomenon that is not linked to our history — it is not linked to our foreign policy.

I mean, this is one of the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is one of the consequences end of the Cold War. It’s not an isolated phenomenon. So most politicians would like to believe that this is an isolated phenomenon — 2005 that was the view that was unchallenged. Unchallenged because, of course, 9/11 was so exceptional. But, today, it’s still the view even if it’s challenged.

SHARMANI PERIES: So, is there any end in sight to this kind of political crisis that we are facing throughout the world — not just the Middle East but really Europe is involved, the United States is involved, Russia’s involved, this is really a geopolitical issue now. Is there any end in sight?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: I think the only end is in the Middle East’s negotiations. So forget about exporting democracy. Forget about changing the regime in the Middle East, but try to bring about a sort of peace agreement, even if it’s not with the governments that we would like to be in that position. So start with peace. Once we get the peace in the Middle East, I think it is time for us to revise our democracy.

SHARMANI NAPOLEONI: And do you think there are players on the other side — in this case if you’re talking about Syria — that negotiating with Assad is the answer and they will come to the table and negotiating with whom, is the question?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, I think everybody should come to the table. And everybody means also the jihadists. I think it would be very, very difficult for many governments to accept that, at the moment, but that’s the only way forward. I think the real difficulties will be also to get the Gulf States to accept that we want peace and that, if peace means to sit down with everybody, then we’ll sit down with everybody.

SHARMANI PERIES: But it’s not like the jihadists are going to come to the table to negotiate peace.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Oh, I think the jihadists will come to the table if their sponsor tells them to come to the table.

SHARMAN PERIES: And their sponsors being Saudis.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: They’re all sponsored. I mean, the Turks are also involved. Palmyra was re-conquered by the Islamic State and, apparently, was re-conquered because of the help they got from Turkey. I know this is shocking but the truth is that these are Sunni groups who are fighting and they’re fighting under the banner of the Islamic State and they get help wherever they can. And it has always happened because the situation is so complex. So I would say instead of killing each other, I think we should try to shout at each other. That would be a better resolution.

SHARMANI PERIES: Obviously, the liberals who want peace, for them, this would be the route to go. But we’re talking about now dismantling a multi-billion dollar business and various people are invested in it. So, just like the ransom, that window may have closed on us, in terms of negotiating and coming to some peaceful understanding. It looks like there’s too many interests involved in order for this war to go away.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Oh, I think this will go away in the Middle East more easily than, of course, in Europe. Because in Europe is a large network. I think we will still get people coming.

SHARMANI PERIES: You also talk about the political economy of all of this and the benefits in terms of Europe itself. I mean, Europe is an aging population. It needs workers, it needs young workers, it needs people that will come and work for a low wage and all these interests are also being served by the refugee flow.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Yes, but, it’s now becoming a burden. Meaning the numbers are too high. We cannot absorb 1.8 million every year. It is true that Europe needs, by 2060, 17 million migrants. But, not all in one go. And so we have to space them — and we cannot control the way they’re coming in. So the best way would be to pacify certain key areas from where they’re coming. And then yes, of course, we will have to deal with that. Because we cannot resolve the problem of West Africa, East Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh — we can contain the situation in the Middle East through negotiation, but we still have to have a foreign policy towards the migrants.

There are many proposals on the table, but the problem is that Europe does not have a vision because Europe, although it is united, at the same time each government, when it comes down to foreign policy or acceptance of migrants, the needs of Germany are different from the needs of Italy. So how do you reconcile that? So that is the key issue. How you actually find an harmonious way to proceed about absorbing these people?

SHARMANI PERIES: All right, Loretta. Thank you so much for joining us.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Thank you.

SHARMANI PERIES: And I’ve been speaking with Loretta Napoleoni and she’s the author of Merchants of Men: How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugee Trafficking Into a Multi-Billion Dollar Business. I thank you so much for joining us on The Real News Network.

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