LONDON (Reuters) - The risk that groups like Islamic State could smuggle militants into Europe under cover of a huge wave of migrants is much smaller than some politicians suggest, according to security specialists with close ties to governments and intelligence agencies.
By the end of July, more than a third of a million migrants and refugees had entered the European Union, mainly via Italy, Greece and Hungary, according to EU border agency Frontex. The flow has continued unabated through August.
Once inside the bloc’s borderless Schengen zone, the new arrivals -- many from countries like Syria and Iraq where Islamic State holds sway over vast areas -- are free to travel through 26 countries without restrictions or checks.
That has prompted anti-immigration parties such as Italy’s Northern League and Britain’s UKIP to issue dire warnings about the threat of infiltration.
Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in May: “Of course, one of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters. There might be terrorists also trying to hide... to blend in among the migrants.”
But such warnings meet with scepticism from security experts who point out that the flow of fighters has mainly been in the opposite direction, from Europe toward the Middle East.
“Islamic State has no need to export fighters to Europe because it imports fighters from Europe,” said Claude Moniquet, a former French intelligence agent who heads the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center in Brussels.
“There are five to six thousand Europeans who are, or have been, in Syria, and others are leaving all the time. So it’s hard to see the advantage for Islamic State to export Syrians or Iraqis -- people who speak Arabic, who know Iraq and Syria, and who they need over there.”
For European volunteers who have trained and fought in Iraq or Syria and want to return home undetected, the idea of hiding among large groups of migrants might seem to have some appeal.
But the risks are huge.
Nearly 3,600 people have died attempting to reach Italy, Greece and Spain by sea in the past 12 months, according to the International Organization for Migration -- even before news on Thursday of another ship sinking off Libya and the discovery of 71 refugee corpses in a truck in Austria.
Even those who survive the journey to Europe face appalling conditions en route and the prospect of detention and screening on arrival.
“It is a very cumbersome way for terrorists to come into the European Union. There’s a lot of easier ways to slip in”, such as by using forged papers or stolen passports, said Magnus Ranstorp, research director with the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College.
That said, there has been at least one reported case of a migrant being arrested on suspicion of terrorism.
In May, Italian police arrested a 22-year-old Moroccan man, Abdelmajid Touil, suspected by Tunisia of being part of a cell of Islamist militants behind an attack that killed 22 people at the Bardo museum in Tunis on March 18.
Italian authorities say he arrived in Sicily a month before that, among a group of migrants who set off on a boat from Libya and were rescued by the Italian navy. Touil says he is innocent and is fighting extradition to Tunisia.
There is another reason, security specialists say, why Islamic State needn’t fret too hard about smuggling people into Europe: there is no shortage of ‘lone wolf’ militants already in place. From Brussels and Paris to Copenhagen, deadly attacks have been committed since May last year by people living in Europe and able to travel freely across the continent.
A man accused by French prosecutors of “attempted murder with terrorist intent” aboard a high-speed train on Aug. 21 was a Moroccan who had lived in at least five European countries, according to investigators, though they also suspect he may have traveled to Syria via Turkey this year.
“The volume of people in contact with Islamic State -- not only the ones who’ve gone (to Iraq and Syria), but sympathizers who decide to act (in Europe) -- that’s what’s keeping security services awake in Europe,” Ranstorp said.
According to Shiraz Maher, an expert on radicalization at Kings College London, the idea of Islamic State exploiting the migrant crisis to spirit operatives into Europe is “not inconceivable”, but “there is an element of this being seized on in a populist fashion by politicians on the right”.
“There’s not an overriding need for them to send people right now,” he said. “That may well change over time.”
Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome Editing by Jeremy Gaunt