MURDER MYSTERY

Did Italy Just Assassinate Libya's Migrant Smuggling Kingpin?

Salah Al-Maskhout was the mastermind behind one of the largest migrant smuggling rings in the Mediterranean. On Friday, he and his guards were all shot and killed.

09.26.15 4:21 PM ET

ROME – For months, humanitarian aid workers and Europe’s leaders have been wringing their hands about how to stop the human traffickers who are responsible for the deluge of migrants and refugees making the dangerous crossing from Libyan ports to European shores.  There has been talk of everything from destroying smugglers ships to infiltrating the traffickers’ networks, but apparently a more basic plan was also in the works. 

On Saturday morning Salah Al-Maskhout, a former henchman for Muammar Gaddafi thought to be the mastermind behind the main Mediterranean trafficking ring operating in the seas between North Africa and Europe, was killed in Tripoli during an ambush along with eight of his body guards.  

Nuri Abu Sahmainsay, head of Libya’s General National Congress, which runs a parallel government in opposition to the officially recognized government in Libya, said on Libyan television that he believes the attackers were special forces with the Italian military.  A spokesman for Italy’s joint forces told The Daily Beast that he could not comment on the accusation.   

Al-Maskhout, who is wanted in Italy on human trafficking charges, was reportedly swiftly killed along with his men, even though local media reported that they were armed with Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifles while the attackers used smaller handguns. The incident took place as Al-Maskhout, who is said to run the trafficking ring from Zuwara, left a family property near the Tripoli Medical Centre.  

On Friday, Federica Mogherini, an Italian who is the European Union’s foreign policy chief, announced that tactical operations against the smugglers were set to start October 7.  Those maneuvers will involve Italian and British warships who are in training missions now who will focus on diverting smugglers ships at sea.  There has been concern by humanitarian aid workers that such aggressive attacks could put refugees’ lives at risk, but Mogherini says instead that the traffickers need to be stopped “at all costs.”

Mogherini also said the joint forces will be able to board, search and seize vessels in international waters as well as transferring suspected smugglers and traffickers to the Italian judicial authorities. “The political decision has been taken, the assets are ready," she said Friday in Rome from the command post of the joint military operations.  “We have now a complete picture of how, when and where the smugglers' organizations and networks are operating so that we are ready to actively dismantle them.”  Mogherini’s office could not be reached for comment on Al-Maskhout’s death.

Nearly 130,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year and although attention has largely shifted to those coming by land from Turkey to Greece and into Hungary and Austria, boats continue to be rescued by Italian authorities on a nearly daily basis.  More than 3,000 people are known to have lost their lives during the crossing this year alone, though that figure is impossible to confirm since bodies are rarely brought up and ships that sink with no distress call disappear without a trace.  Last week, more than 2,000 migrants and refugees were rescued in multiple operations off the coast of Libya. 

Since the beginning of the year, Italian authorities say they have arrested more than 950 human traffickers, including one who was commandeering a boat that went down with as many as 800 people on board last April. 

Many of the smugglers go on trial in Italy and are given harsh jail sentences. Others are let go due to lack of evidence. Almost all apply for political asylum once they are rescued.