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Cover Story, Investigation

The Italian Mafia and ISIS: An Unlikely Alliance

A joint investigation by Majalla and Italian newspaper “il Fatto Quotidiano” uncovers the criminal-terrorism nexus

TRIPOLI-SICILY: Abdelsattar Heitita and Guiseppe Pipitone

This is a dark story. Dark like the cloaks of the Libyan militia who have sworn allegiance to ISIS. Or like the dark glasses of the men arriving from Sicily to North Africa to discuss prices, routes, profits. Dark like the petroleum stolen from Zawija, the most important oil refinery in Libya, with a production capacity of 120,000 barrels a day. Or dark like the colour of the winter sea in the port of Abu Karnasch, 40 kilometers to the North, protected and shielded from controls and prying eyes. It is here where for at least two years hundreds of litres of crude oil have arrived, stolen from the Libyan government and smuggled onto fishing boats and other small vessels modified for the occasion. Tiny oil tankers sail off into the night and after a few hours they enter Maltese territorial waters. In high sea the black gold ends up in the bellies of big oil tankers. The process of discharging the fuel from one vessel to another while having turned off the tracking system is called “ship to ship.” The barrels are passed from these little DIY tankers into the holds of industrial oil tankers that carry them to the ports of Augusta, Civitavecchia, Port Marghera Venice.

In this way, more than 82 million kilos of diesel fuel were stolen from Libya and smuggled into Europe, ending up in the fuel tanks of thousands of European citizens. A 27 million euro business for a quantity of fuel oil with a market value of at least double that amount. The oil bears two signatures: that of the Libyan militia who have sworn allegiance to ISIS and the Sicilian mafia. “We can’t exclude that part of the proceeds of this illicit trafficking has gone to ISIS, but we have no evidence of this,” said Catania’s district attorney Carmelo Zuccaro, who coordinated investigations into the disparate criminal association. Six custody remand orders created a two headed octopus: on one side the suspicious businessmen in Malta, and on the other, individuals indicated as being close to the Sicilian Mafia and guerrilla warriors who wield power in post-Gadhafi Libya.

THE BLACK GOLD TRADE

This is a business that moves between two continents and involves black gold “stolen” by the militias from the Libyan refineries and smuggled into Europe by individuals in the shadow of the mafia. A business that sees an outflow of capital from Africa and finds shelter in the tiny island of Malta – a haven for criminal associations from half the world over. In fact, it is in Malta where ADJ Trading’s head office can be found, registered at 22 Mensija Road, a well-to-do area of San Gwann. An address that is somehow the paradigm of this story. ADJ Trading was created to handle and administrate certain cargoes. It belongs to Fahmi MBK, known as the “Ma’alem,” or the “boss”. Fahmi was born in Zuwarah, Libya. He was imprisoned during Moammar Gadhafi’s regime for drug dealing and liberated in time for the Arab Spring. Since 2011, Fahmi took control of an armed militia that dictates law in the coastal area between Zuwarah, Abu Karnash and the Tunisian border. He has a close relationship to Ahmed Ibrahim Hassan Ahmed Arafa, an Egyptian considered in a United Nations Security Council report published in 2016 to be at the centre of illicit fuel oil smuggling in the Mediterranean.

The Libyan Intelligence Service consider Fahmi the “king of fuel smuggling.” At least, up until his arrest last August 24. The turnover of his little offshore empire exploded when he managed to connect with officials of the National Oil Company (NOC), the public company monopoly holder on production, commercialisation and export of crude-oil and petrol products in Libya. It is in this way that Fahmi’s men access the Zawiya refinery where they manage to extract hundreds of barrels of fuel to ship to Europe. All thanks to relations between “Ma’alem” and NOC, the same company which slightly further to the west manages the Mellitah plant in a joint venture with Eni, an Italian multinational oil and gas company headquartered in Rome.

“It is with illegal crude-oil smuggling that ISIS and other terrorist groups fund their offensive in Libya”, wrote the analysts of the Israeli company Windward, a maritime data and analytics company. Indeed, crude oil is a business for Fahmi. The job of his militias who smuggle fuel and organise shipments is paid handsomely by European buyers.

At this point the role of another Libyan is fundamental, the Berber Tarek Debabb Dardar. Dardar holds the purse strings thanks to some current accounts “in transit” in Tunisia, which are then depleted to supplement subsequent banking relationships started in Libya, exclusively available to Fahmi.

So, who are the buyers of crude oil smuggled from North Africa? The first name to be noted by Italian investigators is that of Marco Porta, a 48 year old Italian businessman and CEO of Maxcom Bunker S.p.A., a company based in Rome with a branch in Genoa that operates in the wholesale commerce of petroleum products. For the investigators, Maxcom is the destination of Libyan petroleum.

“Completely aware of the Libyan origin of the product [the Zawija refinery] and of the consequent necessity to hide its criminal provenance by promoting a system aimed at acquiring the availability of a continuous flow of petroleum products of illicit origin at a discounted price compared to that of official quotations, Porta aimed at guaranteeing to Maxcom Bunker a higher profit margin and determined an alteration in normal competitor dynamics,” investigators reported. In short: business is business. Hindered by no one. Not the work of the Libyan militia, nor that of certain dubious middle men.

It would be impossible for Porta to carry out his business without the collaboration of three above-board businessmen with some skeletons in their closets: the Maltese Darren and Gordon Debono and the Italian Orazio Nicola Romeo. The first two own several companies in Malta in the fishing industry. These individuals are already known to Valletta and were mentioned in the investigation of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist killed by a car bomb on October 16, 2016. The bomb used to kill her is a special type of plastic explosive, much like those used in the Libyan civil war. A trace that connects the journalist’s murder to a much more complex story far away from the little Mediterranean island.

What is certain is that it was Caruana Galizia who told how Darren Debono – an ex-Malta football player –was the owner of the Scoglitti in Valletta, a fish restaurant strategically positioned among ministry offices to attract a clientele of politicians and some of the islands prominent public figures. After all, Debono’s step-daughter had been involved in a political publicity campaign video for the labour party which governs Malta with Prime minister Joseph Muscat since last June.

“The labour party has demonstrated a lack of scruples in being close to these individuals with a criminal background and behave dubiously,” wrote the journalist before she died. Already prosecuted for illegal fishing, it was Debono who created fake certificates attesting to a legal origin of the fuel stolen from Libya and purchased by Maxcom Bunker. “They come for us when we reach the border. So, how do you say, we are safer, understand me?,” Darren Debono explains to Maxcom’s owner. This interception for the investigators confirmed that there must have been some real summit meetings somewhere in the desert between Tunisia and Libya. Meetings between Fahmi, the former footballer Debono and the businessman Orazio Romeo.

He is the last character in this dark story: A Sicilian from Catania, he is thought to be close to the Santapaola Ercolani, the old mafia family from Eastern Sicily. His name was mentioned by an informant, Giuseppe Scollo. “He is trusted by the Ercolani, especially by Mario Ercolani.” The informant explained how Romeo himself had asked for a face to face encounter with Antonino Santapaola, the brother of the big boss Nitto, to discuss an extortion in a bar at Misterbianco. Already under investigation for conspiracy to murder, none of the accusations against Romeo were ever proven. For this reason the magistrates excluded him from association with Cosa nostra. For the prosecutors however, it is significant that a man indicated as being close to mafia families has had contact with Libyan militia. “There is no certainty at an investigative level that Cosa nostra holds talks with Libyan militia. There are however certain individual ties among single members or presumed members of the respective organisations – we are investigating this,” reports an investigator. A sign that this dark story of petroleum, money and murder is nowhere near over.

THE MAFIA-LIBYAN MILITA CONNECTION

According to an official in the military intelligence service in west Tripoli, whoever wants to achieve a strong relationship between the Mafia operating in the Mediterranean and drug smugglers, human traffickers and extremists such as ISIS should learn a lesson from the story of a 35 year old African national, Medhanie Yehdego Mered.

Eretria-born Medhanie works in everything, said the official. “You only have to pay him and his group the required funds, and leave the rest up to him to deal with as necessary.”

“When the intelligence service in Tripoli, which was led by Colonel Mustafa Noah, tried to track down Medhanie and his suspicious activities in the Mediterranean, Noah was brutally punished and his headquarters in the capital were raided by a militia loyal to Chairman of the Presidential Council Fayez al-Sarraj,” the military official explains.

It also seems that those who are protecting the Mafia activity, along with both smugglers and extremists, have taken advantage of the security problems and political differences in Libya since early 2016. Or, as Ragab Ben Ghazi, who dealt for some time with the Islamists, said before attacking them in his program on the ‘Libya 24’ TV station: “The human and drug trafficking mafias and Islamists don’t have a problem in dealing with each other in the western region of Tripoli where security is fragile. However, I think that they don’t necessarily cooperate directly and in public.”

“The story in Sabratha began with the Eritrean man, Medhanie, who stayed away from the lights, and it ended with the scandal of Ahmad al-Dabbashi, from Sabratha, who was appointed by Sarraj as head of the Western Coast Protection Authority for Tripoli, and was supported by Italy,” a tribal official who has ties with the intelligence services western Tripoli said.

The investigations in Dabbashi’s case have reached the Italian government after the Dabbashi brigade was accused of being a mafia linked to extremists. Majalla has seen documents by Libyan intelligence about Medhanie’s journey from Sabratha, the city in which the Dabbashi brigade belongs to and where large-scale suspicious operations including ISIS attacks take place. The area has also been hit by US raids.

On July 12, 2016, Colonel Noah and Sarraj argued over the involvement of some Mafia leaders from the Mediterranean in illegal activities in western Libya. The suspicion was that, in some way, Italian parties were involved in Medhanie’s presence in Sabratha.

According to Noah’s testimony before the head of the presidential council, Medhanie is a mafia leader, and the activities of illegal immigration from Libyan shores to Italy and all kinds of organized crimes can only take place in his presence.

In July 2016, the intelligence services discovered his presence in Ahmad al-Dabbashi’s house in Sabrath and noticed that he had resumed his activities from this city. This incident was shocking to the security services in Tripoli. Why? Because June 2016 was the last time the Eritrean man was seen in a prison in Rome after the Sudanese authorities arrested him in May of that year on their territories and handed him over to the Italian authorities the following month.

According to what the Libyan intelligence services have said in this regard, Colonel Noah asked Rome to stop the Libyan security delegation from travelling to Italy to participate in the investigation into Medhanie because he was accused in Libya of running a mafia network that has links to extremist groups and gangs involved in illegal immigration.

A Libyan security delegation consisting of two Libyan officers traveled from Tripoli to Rome in the middle of June 2016, said an official in the intelligence services who worked with Colonel Noah. He added that they entered the investigations room in Reebbia prison in Rome with Italian investigators where Medhanie was brought in.

The defendant provided information on dangerous international gangs who he cooperates with across the Mediterranean, working in human and drug trafficking, oil smuggling and facilitating the movement of extremists across Tunisia, Europe and southern Libya, in addition to other tragic details.

After less than a month of investigations in the Reebbia prison with Medhanie, Colonel Noah received notices in mid-July about the appearance of the Eritrean man in Sabratha, according to the same source.

The sources of these notices were the Chamber of the Interior Ministry in Sabbath, the Libyan intelligence branch in the city, the Sabartha High Security Committee and the Coast Guard, which also operates on the shores of Sabratha.

Medhanie was tracked down until he was seen entering Ahmad Dabbashi’s house, where he was invited.

Faced with a torrent of questionable information about the release of Medhanie from the Italian prison, his arrival in Sabratha and his return to carrying out dangerous activities, Sarraj and Colonel Noah agreed that Noah should prepare a report containing all the information to present to the Italian government.

Another security official who was familiar with the case in Tripoli said that Colonel Noah realized that since the spring of 2016, Italians have had suspicions of strong ties between the Mafia gangs in the Mediterranean and ISIS. It was therefore surprising to him that Medhanie was out to resume his activities between the shores of Libya and Italy.

On this basis, Noah prepared the report after reviewing what was reported by the Western media on what the Italian National Anti-Mafia and Anti-Terrorism Chief Franco Roberti had to say in this regard.

No one knows what happened to Noah’s report, who received it in Rome and whether the information it contained was investigated or not. Days passed quickly until August 14, 2016, when pro-Sarraj militia swept through Noah’s headquarters in Tripoli, looting his documents and the computers of the intelligence services.

An officer who was working with Colonel Noah said, “On that day, we were preparing the morning tea at the intelligence office in Tripoli. Suddenly, elements of the Haitham Tagouri militia stormed our headquarters. They expelled all the workers in the office, there was five of us. They seized documents, papers, recordings, computers, seals and other stuff.”

The intelligence service was then busy investigating Medhanie’s case, the mafia, oil smugglers and ISIS on the coasts western Tripoli, the officer explained, adding that what happened was suspicious.

An official working for Sarraj said that Sarraj was not pleased about what happened, and therefore it cannot be known whether he knew something like that was going to take place and that the intelligence service was targeted at the time or whether he linked this incident to Medhanie’s case.

In the evening of that day, Noah was expelled from his office and Tagouri elements took over the place.

With the disappearance of Colonel Noah and his staff from the scene, Medhanie’s activities were not questioned any more. But on September 5, 2016, during the war between the Fortified Structure forces and ISIS in the town of Sirte, human traffickers and drug smugglers from the south of Libya were able to smuggle many extremists into the country, according to a record of investigations in the military intelligence office in Misrata, which is the backbone of the Fortified Structure forces.

According to the investigation, the forces arrested a Malian man who confessed in French through an interpreter and said that along with his group, consisting of about 100 fighters from Boko Haram, he entered Libya through Kufra and headed to Sabha. There they were divided into small groups and about 60 of them were sent to an area near Sabratha, where Medhanie was present. Dabbashi received the head of the group in his residence, and the rest moved from Sabha to Sirte to support ISIS.

Security services in Misrata also observed in 2016 a strong link and coordination between the Dabbashi brigade in Sabratha, and Medhanie, former ISIS leader in Tripoli Mohammed al-Madhouni and Shaaban al-Zawi from al-Qaeda in Zawiya city.

In the meantime, Dabbashi was appointed by the presidential council in September as head of the Western Coast Protection Authority for Tripoli. This decision led to dozens of questions among the extremists themselves, and its repercussions led to a political storm in Italy after Rome figured out that Dabbashi himself had been involved in illegal immigration activities with the mafia associated with extremists, including ISIS.

No one knows how Sarraj dared to take such a decision given the chaos Dabbashi was involved in in west of Tripoli, a chaos that did not exclude any illegal activity.

Meanwhile, Medhanie was no longer in the spotlight since of the disappearance of the officers who were watching his movements and the security services shifted their attention to Dabbashi.

Prior to his appointment, two bulldozers (the Libyan term for smuggling boats) arrived at the west coast of Sabratha resort and were protected by Dabbashi’s relatives. They blocked the roads to unload the two bulldozers and deliver the weapons to their owners in the city’s market.

After two days, three other bulldozers arrived, carrying about 120 Tunisian and Algerian extremists. They rested for several days in two areas in Sabratha, the first was Sanya Sharaf al-Din, which was protected by groups connected to local leader Al-Dawadi, and the second area was Ahmad al-Dabbashi’s resort, which was protected by his forces. It also had ISIS elements who came from Sirte.

This chaos and the intermingling of extremists, smugglers and mafia elements continued until leaks emerged in Italy last August that Italian police were investigating reports that mafia gangs partnered with ISIS to obtain smuggled oil from Libya.

“What I know is that every path to the mafia, every path for human traffickers and drug smugglers, every path of this kind bears the footprints of extremists and ISIS militants,” Ben Ghazi said.

Moving to the west of Sabratha, in Zuwara, towards the Tunisian borders, a remarkable operation was carried out in August by forces loyal to Sarraj and led to the arrest of Fahmi.

A year earlier, no one could have thought of approaching Fahmi, who justified the smuggling of oil into Europe for his armed group as the right of the Amazigh minority compared to the smuggling operations carried out by Arabs in cities such as Sabratha, Misrata and others.

In a chaotic Libya, Fahmi and other Amazigh partners, including a smuggler called Zalmatt and a local security official called al-Garnazi, have managed to export several oil tankers to Mediterranean buyers at prices well below market prices.

The difference between Fahmi and the groups in Sabratha is that Fahmi operates primarily based on ethnic orientations and the protection of extremist groups active on the Libyan-Tunisian borders comes in return for money. They then go their separate ways, according to a security official in Zuwara. On the other hand, the Sabratha groups use extremists to gain control of the city by force and intimidate the opponents.

During Ahmed Dabbashi’s tenure as head of the Western Coast Protection Authority for Tripoli, he had a good number of Egyptians and Africans who wanted to emigrate illegally. They are considered the most vulnerable people. After being held in camps in Sabratha for long periods of time and spending all their savings, operations begin to sell them to extremist groups.

According to a report issued by the Libyan intelligence service, members of the presidential council discovered in mid-September that ISIS members were working in the Coast Protection Authority led by Dabbashi. They also discovered that their applications stated that they are Libyan nationals although they were of different nationalities, including Malian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Tunisian and Egyptian.

When Sarraj was asked who Dabbashi appointed the head of the Western Coast Protection Authority for Tripoli, he mentioned the name of one of the military commanders in Zintan and it was later revealed that the leader belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sarraj then added, according to the report, that when he met Dabbashi following his appointment, he did not feel comfortable and later found out that he was an ISIS leader which caused him embarrassment with his Italian friends. Members of the Italian government blamed Sarraj for asking Rome to provide support for Dabbashi.

When the scandal of appointing Dabbashi arose, the Italians were irritated and Sarraj was disturbed by comments made by the Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti where he suggested that members of the presidential council may have cooperated to profit from the activity of the mafia and extremists on the west coast of the capital.

When the first attempts were made to get rid of Ahmad al-Dabbashi and his associated groups through Sarraj’s military forces in Sabratha, these groups, including a group affiliated with the extremist Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, broke into the nearby Sorman prison in coordination with a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in Zawiya, according to a security source in the General Intelligence Service in Tripoli.

“They wanted to free the detainees and use them in the fight against Sarraj. They wanted revenge,” the source said.

On October 3, 2017, the war in Sabratha was ignited and Dabbashi groups were fighting to their death after receiving fighters and weapons from extremist groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Amid this war, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces General Abdulrahman al-Tawil, whose forces follow the orders of Sarraj, were unable to reach a ceasefire to protect people’s lives.

The story of Ahmad al-Dabbashi ended in Sabratha when the army under the command of Brigadier General Omar Abdul Jalil entered the city in early October. But where did Dabbashi go with his groups, weapons and money?

According to Libyan intelligence reports, Dabbashi was able to transfer his military equipment and his fighters in boats belonging to the management of the Western Coast Protection Authority in Tripoli, and they all landed on the beaches east of the capital between Khums and Misalata and in the Naqaza district, where ISIS launches its operations in Libya.

Meanwhile, Ahmad al-Dabbashi was seen in Zawiya city, west Tripoli, last month.

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