Counter-terrorism services in Greece, the United Kingdom and Europe will further investigate whether a recently dismantled transnational people smuggling ring may have been used by ISIS or other jihadist groups to infiltrate Europe, Greek and UK authorities said on Monday.
The transnational organized crime group operated by supplying and producing fake documents, including passports, visas and IDs, to transport migrants from Iran to the UK, via Greece and other transit countries. At least one individual, a 28-year-old Algerian with a key role in the organisation, is facing terrorism-related charges in Spain. Permanently based in Barcelona, the Algerian was the main supplier of stolen or lost passports, IDs and other documents that were sent to Greece to be forged and illegal transport migrants via Greek airports.
A total of 33 individuals have been arrested in Greece and the UK so far, while authorities have located three document-forging workshops in the Athens districts of Petroupoli, Gyzi and Kato Patissia.
In order to discover whether the ring has also helped jihadists enter Europe, Europol is now gathering all the evidence and information found by Greek and British police in simultaneous operations in order to convene a meeting of European security services. The meeting will discuss the coordination of an investigation at a higher level, under the supervision and coordination of the European Police, to arrest all individuals involved.
In announcements regarding the case at Hellenic Police (ELAS) headquarters on Monday, Police Lieutenant General Christos Papazafiris of the Hellenic Police Security Division of Attica said that the Attica Security Police cracked the case following an investigation launched last July, based on a tip-off from British authorities about an Iranian in Athens. The man was identified as the head of the trafficking ring, coordinating the document forging and trafficking operations.
The 28-year-old Iranian was finally tracked down by the Greek police in collaboration with the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), along with evidence regarding the group’s activities in countries throughout Europe.
Papazafiris said that 24 of the 33 arrested were detained in Greece. The arrests were made as part of a joint investigation by the UK’s Organised Immigration Crime Taskforce, Project Invigor, and the Organised Crime Unit of the Hellenic Police with support from Europol.
The men, aged between 26 and 45, were held after a series of raids in Athens last Thursday and were remanded in custody.
All 24 were arrested for their suspected role in the transnational organised crime group (OCG) believed to be facilitating the smuggling of Iranian illegal migrants from Iran via Turkey, Greece, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, into the UK.
Investigators believe the OCG would charge between 3,000 and 15,000 euros per person to supply migrants with fraudulently obtained or altered identity documents and arrange for their onward journey to the UK.
Four forgery factories, where it is alleged the group produced the counterfeited documents, were dismantled in the operation. Forging equipment, 50,000 Euros in cash and hundreds of documents were also seized.
In a linked operation, Home Office Immigration Enforcement officers arrested nine individuals suspected of being part of a UK-based arm of the organised crime group in a series of raids in Glasgow, Manchester and Northampton last Monday and Tuesday. The investigation was supported by the NCA, the French Police Aux Frontières, Europol, and Eurojust.
Chris Hogben, from the NCA’s Border Policing Command and Deputy Head of Project Invigor said the arrests were a result of close collaboration and intelligence sharing with the Greek authorities. “This operation has led to the arrests of those we believe are key members of a criminal network responsible for smuggling hundreds of Iranian migrants from Iran to the UK,” he added.
Outlining what the investigation had revealed about the OCG’s operation, Papazafiris said the counter-terrorism squad is now starting its investigation into a 39-year-old Algerian, who acted as a contact for the Algerian based in Barcelona. The 39-year-old entered Greece illegally and has no documents to justify entry, he said.
According to police sources, Spanish authorities have charged the 28-year-old Algerian with terrorism based on evidence that he supplied jihadists with fake passports.
The 28-year-old Iranian in Greece is alleged to be the group’s leader in the country and has applied for asylum, receiving an asylum card, the sources said. Most of the other group members arrested in Athens are also asylum applicants, while the rest are in the country illegally.
The 24 suspects arrested in Greece include 17 Iranians, two Iraqis, two Pakistanis, one Algerian, one Azerbaijani and one Tunisian. Another 12 people face charges of participating in the group’s activities but have not been arrested.
Hogben and Papazafiris said that any possible connection between the group and terrorism will be investigated by the counter-terrorism services.