ISTANBUL — Extremist fighters have been brought into mainland Europe, hidden amid boatloads of Syrian refugees, according to a veteran smuggler who claims to have done so himself.
The smuggler, who has been given the pseudonym Hassan here, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News that since the summer he has sent more than 10 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters into Europe.
Hassan's claim was impossible to verify — and Western officials said they'd seen no evidence that such a scenario was taking place. His testimony, plus that of a second human trafficker who offered a similar account, marked the first time someone claiming direct involvement has said publicly that such a plan is underway.
Hassan has worked in the trade for more than three years. He charges $2,500 for each refugee he sends to Europe from Turkey, shipping them by boat to Greece. He said he views it as "humanitarian work," on top of the profit he makes. But he said he had grown uncomfortable with the dark turn this work has taken since he began allowing ISIS fighters to mix with the refugees on his crowded speedboats.
Hassan said the fighters were all Syrian or Iraqis posing as refugees. He believed they remained loyal to ISIS and were prepared to launch terrorist attacks in Europe. "They are waiting for their orders," Hassan said. "Just wait. You will see."
Fears of an ISIS attack in Europe have centered on the danger posed by the continent's own citizens. Around 3,000 Europeans have joined ISIS, according to the European Union's counter-terrorism chief, and there are longstanding concerns that some may return to sow terror at home. Recently, there have also been rumblings of an ISIS threat among the unending torrent of Syrian refugees. Some Western officials reportedly believe that ISIS has considered the same plot that Hassan described.
One official with the British government stressed that any potential threat from ISIS should be kept "in perspective."
"We're talking about millions of people that need help," the official said. "We should not get to the stage where we start to fear Syrian refugees as a terrorist threat in Europe."
Hassan is a former white-collar professional in his 30s with a young family. Fearing for his safety, he met for an interview on the condition that his real name not be used. His nationality and the city where he works are also being withheld, as are details of his story that might identify him to the ISIS members allegedly involved.
Hassan began working as a smuggler before Syria erupted in revolt in March 2011. In addition to Syria, Turkey shares borders with Iraq and Iran, and refugees have long used it as a gateway to Europe, mainly traveling overland into Greece and Bulgaria or by boat to Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. These smuggling attempts spiked with the onset of Syria's civil war, which has flooded Turkey with more than 1 million refugees. According to Frontex, the EU's border agency, more than 20,000 refugees, many of them Syrians, were smuggled from Turkey into Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus in the first eight months of this year.
Hassan said that one day this summer, he met a clean-shaven client who looked "like a simple refugee." The two struck up a friendship, and Hassan learned that the man was a mid-level official with ISIS. The man was blunt about his reason for heading to Europe, Hassan said — he wanted to be ready to stage attacks there. "The Western world thinks there is no ISIS in their countries — that all the jihadis have gone to fight and die in Syria," Hassan said. "But this man said, 'No. We are sending our fighters to take their places.'"
When the man landed in Greece, he called Hassan with a message: "We want you to bring our brothers too."
Hassan said that in the months that followed, the ISIS man sent him more than 10 additional clients. Hassan didn't speak much to these men — but he believed that they were ISIS fighters too. Each paid about $1,000 more than the other passengers for the boat journeys he organized, blending in with the Syrian refugees. "It's easy for them to go to Europe," Hassan said. "They can come to any smuggler and say they are refugees."
The murky nature of Hassan's business means that his account can't be verified without putting his life at risk. He keeps no records of his illegal trade, and contacting the alleged ISIS fighters involved would let them know he had taken their story to the press.
A second major refugee-smuggler, this one based in Istanbul, said the idea that ISIS fighters were sneaking into Europe as refugees was "impossible," and that they would eventually be detected by authorities, especially if they tried to make their status legal by applying for asylum.
An official with the U.S. State Department said in an email that "the intelligence community has seen no evidence of this," referring to the possibility of ISIS fighters being smuggled to Europe as refugees. And an EU official said much the same. "We don't have any information about this happening," he said. "I'm not saying that this isn't happening at all. I'm saying this is not something we have detected."
He added: "Our focus now is on European citizens traveling [to Syria]. They have European passports and they can enter Europe from the legal channels. They don't need to use irregular channels."
But a third veteran smuggler, who like Hassan asked not to be named, said that he believed he had sent "tens" of Syrian or Iraqi ISIS fighters to Europe disguised as refugees. "I just care about money," he said. "This is my business, and I don't care if I'm smuggling ISIS fighters or refugees."
This smuggler said none of these men had admitted to being with ISIS. They called themselves "brothers," he said, and were intensely secretive, refusing to speak with other refugees and insisting that he meet them alone and in the privacy of their hotels to organize the trips by sea. They paid more than the standard smuggling rate. "They are paying so much money that I prefer to smuggle them before I smuggle any of the poor refugees," he said. "For sure they are not going for tourism. They have a doctrine and they want to die for that doctrine. They love death more than you love life."
This smuggler said that sending refugees to Europe had grown more difficult of late thanks to crackdowns by Turkish authorities. But while Turkey has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the flow of foreign extremists across its borders into Syria, rooting out Syrian ISIS fighters coming in the other direction would be extremely difficult amid the masses of refugees it has absorbed. An official with the Turkish government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkey had been strained by the influx of Syrian refugees. But it continued to keep an "open policy" toward them "because we cannot turn a blind eye to this suffering," he said.
While Turkey had cracked down on the flow of illegal refugees to Europe, the official said, with so many desperate Syrians pouring into the country "it has been difficult to for Turkey to maintain this."
"We do whatever we can to stop [human trafficking]," he said. "But it's impossible to control every inch of the Turkish border."
The official added: "If we know that there are ISIS men [among the refugees] they will be detained, because ISIS is a terrorist organization. But it's not easy to know their background."
Hassan, the smuggler, described himself as an ISIS supporter, sympathetic to the militants' campaign against the West and admiring of their professed piety. That was why he initially agreed to send the ISIS fighters to Europe, he said. "In the Qur'an it is written that if they come to fight you, then you must fight them," he said. "And [Western nations] are bombing in their country."
But eventually Hassan reconsidered. While he had no problem with the idea of ISIS fighters attacking government targets in Europe, he worried about civilian casualties. "I fear I am sending them to fight in Europe," he said. "This is not what my work is supposed to be."