Italy: The latest ISI outpost

 

On a frigid winter morning as rain poured in Milan, around 200 men, most of them Pakistanis, gathered outside the Indian mission at the Piazza Castello to protest New Delhi’s “illegal occupation” of Kashmir. The demonstration on 5 February, 2017 might not have made news but it did announce to the world another outpost that Pakistan’s jihadists, backed by its all-powerful spy agency the Inter-Services Intelligence, had successfully created.

The Milan protesters were bussed from the industrial hub of Brescia, 106 km away, that has a thriving Pakistani community and an expanding jihadist network that has bled India more than once.

A rich and picturesque city, Brescia flashed on the radars of the Indian intelligence community for the first time in 2008 when a group of Pakistani terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba hit Mumbai, killing at least 174 people.

Within days of the carnage, the Italian police arrested the two owners of Madina Trading, a money transfer agency, in Brescia. Pakistani citizens Mohammad Yaqub Janjua and Amir Yaqub had transferred large sums of money ahead of the strike but also arranged for internet calls that allowed the handlers to talk to the terrorists through the three-day siege. The voice over internet protocol, better known as VOIP, makes it difficult to intercept or trace a call, or establish the whereabouts of the callers.

Italy: The latest ISI outpost

Representational image. Reuters

The two men were freed by a court immediately. It was only later that links of Javed Iqbal, to whom the money was transferred, to the Mumbai attack were established. The owners, however, remained free though “monitored”.

Madina Trading shut down but the father-son set up a one-room call centre, Help Services, in the old town of Bresica.

In September 2016, Indian agencies alerted Italian police about Help Services after an Enforcement Directorate probe found that funds for the separatist Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir were being routed through the call centre.

The ED, responsible for preventing money laundering and monitoring foreign funds, got six international arrest warrants issued against Pakistani citizens in Italy. Indian agencies said the money was used in the 18 September, 2016 Uri attack. The worst strike against the Indian Army in Kashmir in recent years left 18 soldiers dead.

Help Services is still in business, so is the ISI whose footprint is growing in Italy, where jihadist groups have it easy right now with the focus on Islamic State and its foot soldiers, many of whom are heading home after the fall of the “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

Italy is also the first port of call for migrants fleeing troubled West Asia and parts of Africa, raising fears of Islamic extremists finding their way into the country.

ISI in industrial hub

Metallurgy, machine tools and firearms are among the businesses that have made Brescia “Europe’s industrial centre” and a magnet for immigrants.

For years, the second-largest city in the northern region of Lombardy, and its neighbouring towns have been favoured by Pakistanis. So much so that in 2013, Nawaz Sharif, seeking a third term as prime minister, visited Brescia and got a rousing reception.

Records show there are 110,000 Pakistanis in Italy. But add those who are living illegally, the figure zooms to between 130,000 and 150,000. Most of them are economic migrants, well integrated in their adopted communities.

But things are changing.

In 2017, of the 80,000 asylum seekers, more than 11,000 were Pakistanis requesting refugee status. Most of them are Punjabi boys from middle-class families with a decent education and who, on paper, have no reason to seek asylum – they are not a persecuted minority or an ethic group like the Balochs or Ahmadis.

The Pakistani Punjab is the hunting ground of terror outfits and for long harboured anti-India groups. The Lashkar is well-networked and several of its recruits are from the province. Muridke, a busy commercial centre, is believed to be the outfit’s headquarters.

A network of madrasas, charities and educational institutions and impoverished southern parts provide a ready pipeline of recruits.

In Italy, immigrants are supported by their countrymen as well as the “social or Pakistani charities” created or bankrolled by the ISI such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a front for the Lashkar, or the Kashmir Centers based in many European cities.

Little surprise then that last year Italy, too, joined the “network” of countries where anti-India "Martyr's Day" protests are organised by Pakistan.

Though it was in support of “occupied Kashmir”, there were only a handful of Kashmiris among the protesters. Most were Pakistanis and the event was organised by Tehrik-i-Kashmir, an outfit based in various European capitals with links to the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Kashmir centres.

Among the protesters were also Sikhs who gathered under the banner of the Khalistan Khalsa, giving credence to New Delhi’s claims that the ISI was trying to revive Sikh separatism and was meshing it with the Kashmiri separatism.

Muscle-flexing

But it is not just India that should worry about Pakistani jihadists in Italy.

The Pakistani army and ISI have for decades infiltrated agents, created pressure groups and lobbied at both institutional and academic levels in Europe and the rest of the world.

Such outfits claim to stand for human rights and highlight India’s “atrocities” but choose silence on violations in Pakistan.

The official line is always the same: Islamabad has suffered the most because of terrorism, rights violations are an aberration and the work of extremists. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being thrown around to burnish the country’s business credentials.

The Pakistani line has found takers in Europe and across the Atlantic in the US.

It was an example of Pakistan’s clout when “Free Balochistan” posters were recently removed in Bern and London, with China backing Islamabad. Days later, in Zurich, Mehran Marri and his family were expelled from Switzerland. The UN representative for the rights of the Balochs, Marri was accused of terrorism on the basis of a document apparently provided by the ISI. The hotel reservations of other Baloch representatives were cancelled.

Media reports have often expressed concern over northern parts of the country emerging as a hub of terror funding. In 2016, some Pakistanis were arrested and repatriated for links with terrorist organisations. A year earlier, some owing allegiance to the Lashkar were arrested for subversive activities.

Between 2009 and 2012, an Anglo-Pakistani criminal network stole one billion lire from the Italian tax office. The money was traced by American and British services to the Taliban-held areas along Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

So deeply entrenched is the ISI that the few Balochs who live in Italy keep their distance from “boys”, as their countrymen in the pay of ISI are known.

The Pakistani outfits, unlike the Islamic State, have chosen the shadows over limelight. They know as long as they keep a low-profile and don’t target the West, they can go on undisturbed in Italy.

For instance, the Laskhar, like Islamic State, talks of jihad. Kashmir has been its focus but it is part of a larger global struggle. But, the Lashkar lies low that sits well with its handlers who have no intention to end up in the crosshairs of the Western intelligence.

Working in the shadows for the "good" terrorists is much cheaper and guarantees a prosperous future.

(The author is a journalist and South Asia expert who has written Apocalypse Pakistan with B Natale)

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Updated Date: Feb 01, 2019 22:31:59 IST

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