ROME (Reuters) - Italian anti-terrorism police on Thursday dismantled a suspected international network that smuggled migrants across Europe and then funnelled some of the proceeds to Islamist militants in Syria.
A judge in northern Italy issued 14 arrest warrants for charges including money laundering, association with terrorist groups, and conspiracy to finance terrorism. One of the men sought for arrest remains at large, police said.
Eleven of the men were born in Syria and were living in Italy, Sweden, and Hungary, the arrest warrant says. Three of the men were Moroccan.
Police tracked the laundering of about two million euros ($2.4 million), some of which had been sent to the former Nusra Front, which cut ties with al Qaeda and rebranded in 2016, and now spearheads an alliance of Islamist groups.
“The money came in large part from people smuggling,” Italy’s top anti-terror judge, Federico Cafiero de Raho, told reporters. For a fee, the group spirited migrants through the Balkans to Italy and on to other European countries, he said.
More than 600,000 migrants reached Italian shores over four years, and many have since moved on to other destinations.
Groups close to the former Nusra Front and Islamic State used the cash “to buy weapons, pick-up trucks” and other battle supplies, said Claudio Galzerano, a senior anti-terrorism police official.
“All of the men under investigation are legal immigrants,” Galzerano added.
There was no evidence that the group was seeking to prepare any attacks in Italy or Europe, Cafiero de Raho said.
The man considered the head of the organisation was a Syrian, Anwar Daadoue, who is a resident on the Italian island of Sardinia, where he owns several construction companies. Daadoue often worked in Sweden, where he is already in state custody, the arrest warrant said.
Swedish authorities collaborated with Italians during the investigation. An Italian undercover agent was also involved in the probe.
During early morning operations, police also searched 20 homes in three northern Italian regions and on Sardinia.
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Additional reporting by Philip Pullella, writing by Steve Scherer, Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean