LESBOS, Greece, Nov 21, (AFP): As the hunt for jihadists widens after last week’s Paris attacks, authorities in Greece warn it was virtually impossible to pick out dangerous extremists among arriving migrants, without prior intelligence.
“If they are not already registered in the database, it’s nearly impossible,” says Dimitris Amountzias, police captain in charge of Moria, Greece’s main registration camp on the island of Lesbos.
At the camp, dozens of migrants and refugees queue to give their fingerprints, have a photo taken and be quizzed by agents from European border agency Frontex.
It’s a seemingly detailed security check, but jihadists have already proven they can bypass it with ease.
The suspected architect of the Paris attacks that killed 130 people, 28-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, escaped from Europe to Syria and returned without being detected.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve this week suggested Abaaoud, who was killed in a police raid in Paris on Wednesday, had passed through Greece.
Athens denied this on Friday. “Until today, no source has provided any evidence to confirm this claim,” the Greek citizen’s protection ministry said in a statement.
Greek police were looking for Abaaoud in Athens in January, after a Belgian police raid in the eastern town of Verviers broke up a cell planning attacks.
At the time, a cellphone was found to have made calls to the Verviers group from Greece.
Greece extradited to Belgium a 33-year-old Algerian man arrested in a raid in the Athens district of Pangrati, but Abaaoud was never found.
“The unchecked flow poses an unequalled challenge for European security,” said a European security expert speaking on condition of anonymity.
Still, it was thanks to Greece’s fingerprints database – and a passport found near the scene of the attack – that French and Greek authorities were able to determine that one of the men who blew himself up outside the Stade de France on Nov 13 had registered himself as Syrian refugee Ahmad al-Mohammad on the island of Leros on Oct 3.
On Friday, French prosecutor Francois Molins said a second Stade de France bomber had passed through Greece posing as a migrant.
The Greek police did not immediately react to the announcement.
Amountzias insists his officers are doing their best under the current guidelines.
“There isn’t a single officer here who would let a migrant through without first taking their fingerprints,” he insists.
Junior interior minister Nikos Toskas took a similar stance on Friday during an emergency ministerial meeting in Brussels.
“External borders are checked… the refugees are checked and identified under European rules,” Toskas said.
One fail-safe is that migrants cannot buy ferry tickets off the island without undergoing police registration, Amountzias said.
But those looking to give the police the slip can also obtain fake Greek documents, with criminal syndicates doing a brisk business in supplying migrants with fake papers and police registration documents.
A gang of suspected forgers, most of them Pakistanis, were arrested on Lesbos on Wednesday.
“We don’t really know who is coming through,” admits another police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even if Syrians generally carry passports it’s not always possible to match the document to its bearer, and people of other nationalities “are registered on the basis of who they claim to be,” the officer adds.
Syrians with falsified Greek passports have even ended up in South America.
Five Syrian men were caught in Honduras this week, while a woman was arrested in Costa Rica with a suspicious Greek passport.
Ideally, Europe should coordinate its crime suspect database, says Amontzias, because without prior knowledge, officials spend time chasing down false leads.
France has asked the European Union to ensure better information-sharing among intelligence agencies.
“Contrary to what is thought, it is quite easy to enter and exit the European Union without being caught,” says French criminologist Christophe Naudin.
On the island of Kos this week, two Syrians were held for two days after photos of Islamic State flags were found on their cellphones.
On Lesbos, another man was taken aside for wearing a T-shirt that read: “Don’t panic, I’m Muslim”.
Greece’s junior interior minister for migration Yiannis Mouzalas last week insisted heightened security concerns should not jeopardise the rights of refugees to safety in Europe.
“There could be more (jihadists)… are we supposed to toss 100,000 people in the sea?” he asked.
More than 650,000 migrants and refugees have reached the Greek islands so far in 2015 using the eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said earlier this month.
Of those, over 500 have died, including many children.
Meanwhile, the European Union agreed Friday to rush through reforms to the passport-free Schengen zone by the end of the year amid growing concerns about border security in the wake of the Paris attacks.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced the plan as he and his EU counterparts agreed in crisis talks to “immediately” tighten checks on Schengen’s external borders while they wait for deeper changes.
“It’s a crucial change,” Cazeneuve told a press conference.
“The European Commission has agreed to present, by the end of the year, a plan to reform the Schengen border code to allow systematic and obligatory checks at all external borders for all travellers, including those who benefit from free movement.”
The 26-nation Schengen area is a passport-free zone, and normally only non-EU nationals have their details checked against a database for terrorism and crime when they enter, but those checks will now be extended to EU citizens.
But the Paris attacks in which 129people died have raised troubling questions about Schengen following the revelations that two of the attackers including ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud may have avoided checks while returning from Syria.
Pending new changes to the Schengen code, a statement by the ministers said that “member states undertake to implement immediately the necessary systematic and coordinated checks at external borders.”
The planned changes are a further blow to Schengen as a pillar of European unity and freedom after an unprecedented influx of migrants has caused Germany and other member states to temporarily reintroduce internal border controls.
Created in 1995, the Schengen area – named after a border town in Luxembourg – now comprises 22 of the EU’s 28 countries plus non-EU Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Lichtenstein.
Britain, Ireland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus are not Schengen members.
French Justice Minister Christine Taubira, who was at the crisis meeting, called for greater joint efforts to fight recruitment by the Islamic State group, calling it a “monstrosity which has huge resources.”
The commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation EU, also called for the establishment of an EU-wide intelligence agency amid concerns over how the Paris gunmen and suicide bombers slipped under the radar despite some showing signs of radicalism.
“I believe it is a moment to make one more step forward and put the basis for the creation of a European intelligence agency,” commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, although he later said it was only “ideal idea” after Germany criticised the plan.
The interior ministers also agreed to crack down on the illegal trade in firearms, such as the Kalashnikov assault rifles used by the Paris attackers.
They invited Europol and the EU borders agency Frontex to help member states bordering the western Balkans to detect smuggling of firearms. France also also pushed for the EU to agree on a US-style Passenger Name Record (PNR) system, which involves collecting EU passenger data, by the end of the year.
The plan is controversial in Europe due to concerns over how to protect personal information while fighting terrorism and serious crime.
Cazeneuve meanwhile said France would keep the border controls it established last Friday “as long as the terrorist threat makes it necessary.”