Global Independent Analytics
Ioannis Mantzikos
Ioannis Mantzikos

Location: Greece

Specialization: Jihadist Groups, Islamic Terrorism, Global Security

How did an arms smugglers’ caravan caught in Greece manage to evade EU security checks along its way from western Europe?

Several questions come up to the surface after this incident that should be carefully examined.

One week after Mirsad Bektasevic, a suspected militant of Bosnian origin, was charged with “terrorist” activities along with an accomplice believed to hail from Yemen, in Evros Greece - the same wider area where the arrest was made, Greek Authorities arrested on Saturday, February 13 three heavily armed Britons near the Turkish border, police said. It did not indicate if the trio was seeking to cross into Turkey.

One of the three said to be of Kurdish Iraqi origin, was found to have four firearms and 200,000 rounds in his possession when he was picked up at the Kipi border post on the Evros River which borders the two nations. Police arrested the other two men were in the port of Alexandroupolis, the main town in the Evros region, and a key commercial center in northeastern Greece. They were found to be in possession of 18 firearms and 20,000 bullets, allegedly from Germany and Austria, that were stowed in a trailer. Despite the fact that two of them seem to be fanatical Islamists, the latest reports are that they were not registered in any official Intelligence database as jihadists.  Greek authorities’ most likely scenario is that they are not jihadi fighters but arm smugglers or middlemen traders aiming to provide their equipment for jihadists in Northern Iraq.

Several questions come up to the surface after this incident that should be carefully examined.

Firstly, the arms smugglers probably traveled through Germany, Austria and finally with a boat from Italy. This means that they passed numerous border checks. How it is possible a loaded trailer full of arms has not been noticed or searched by the security guards? Secondly, is this a case of terrorism or of an organized crime nexus?

The truth of matter is that Varmiter guns possessed by the Britons can be brought in Austria with a legal license if they are to be destined for mammal hunting.  Moreover, usually, these guns are not for use in war fronts but only for special operations.  These are weapons that are mainly used in confined areas for training of Kurdish fighters.[i] Nevertheless, it is impossible that such a heavy arsenal did not arise suspicions, which perhaps brings up the surface an organized crime-jihadist nexus. 

A recent study released by the Flemish Peace Institute, based in Brussels, concluded that the majority of firearms used for violent attacks, including in the Paris shootings, make their way to Europe via the Western Balkans and Greece by groups that capitalize on existing routes originating in, or transiting, the region utilized for drug trafficking and other illegal activities.[ii] Many of the armed rebel battalions in Syria have such links. For example, Liwa Allah Akbar has had a checkered criminal history as an arms and drugs trafficker and had been astute in nurturing and playing off ties with both Syrian and Turkish and perhaps even Greek intelligence when it served his purposes.[iii]

While terrorists and criminal syndicates have different motivations, they both seek financial gain – only terrorists see it as a source of funding for their ideological pursuits. As a result, terrorist networks in cooperation with organized crime syndicates generate significant sums of money. Both parties profit from the cooperation. They also provide safe havens for organized crime syndicates, because they often control large territories where there is no rule of law. On the other hand, the terrorists can use smuggling routes and illicit trade goods. Both groups gather and exchange intelligence on corrupt state officials in all branches of government.

The bottom line is, however, that it is becoming increasingly clear that the authorities have relatively limited capacities to carry out investigations that involve acts of terrorism, and that the region’s security continues to rely heavily on international intelligence. As threats levels remain high in the midst of the Islamic State’s strong support-base in the Balkans, very few believe that the region’s political elite has the will to confront violent extremism and organized crime since it is in a  midst of hard economic distress and mass refugee waves. At worse, this was an act of intentional negligence for other reasons. Either way, the question how a caravan filled with guns and ammunition managed to make its way from Germany until Greece is looming large.

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