ROME — Salah Abdeslam, the most wanted man in Europe right now after his role in the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, traveled freely through Italy and Greece last August because he was not on a watchlist that prohibited him from doing so, according to the Italian press.
The revelation that Abdeslam moved through Italy came to light as part of an investigation launched by prosecutors in the port city of Bari. The new investigation seeks to determine whether Islamic militants use what is effectively a reverse refugee route to get back to Syria, according to Reuters. Investigators are combing ferry records to Turkey and Greece to try to match names of suspected jihadi fighters.
Italy’s main newspapers on Monday quoted a criminal dossier delivered to French police, reporting that Abdeslam boarded a tourist ferry in Bari with Belgian citizen Ahmed Dahmani, 26, on Aug. 1 and traveled to Petras, Greece. (Dahmani was arrested last week in Turkey, suspected of scouting locations in Paris ahead of the attacks. Italian press reports that he flew from Amsterdam to Istanbul on Nov. 14.)
Abdeslam returned alone to Bari on Aug. 5 on a return ferry. The ferry ticket costs about €200 during the summer months and the journey takes more than 16 hours. International ferry passengers must buy tickets with an identity document in Italy and Greece, and Abdeslam apparently traveled using his own documents, which did not cause alarm since he was not wanted or suspected for any crime, said Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, on Italian television Monday.
Corriere della Sera also reported that he used a pre-paid Italian debit card during his travel, but not to pay for his ferry tickets. Instead he used it on the ferryline, according to the paper. He did not use the card in Greece, which makes it impossible to trace his movements there. The card was used the card again on Aug. 5 at a tollbooth in central Italian city of Padova, from where Abdeslam presumably flew to Belgium. The card was used again in Belgium a few days later. According to the paper, which quoted unnamed sources close to the investigation, the charges on the card never exceeded €60. The prepaid card was last used on Nov. 13, the day of the attacks.
Whether Abdeslam spent more time in Italy is being investigated. He was reportedly known to counter-terrorism police in Europe, but he was not flagged in Italy primarily because there is no pan-European counter-terrorism database that is accessible to ferry terminal operators, meaning even if he was on a watch list, no one would have likely noticed unless there was an Interpol international arrest warrant out for him hanging in the ferry booth where he purchased his ticket. It is rare for Italian ferry companies to thoroughly check documents to ticket names during the boarding process during the busy summer months unless the passengers are boarding with a car, which requires a license plate check. Abdeslam was apparently a foot passenger.
Even then, ferry records are sketchy. Last winter when a Greek ferry caught fire in the Adriatic Sea en route to Italy, it proved impossible to identify just who was on the vessel because the passenger manifesto had many duplicate and misspelled names. When the scorched ferry was finally pulled to harbor, the remains of a number of charred castaways were found in the hull, presumably migrants or refugees or other passengers whose names were not logged.
Italy is actively searching for Abdeslam and five other potential accomplices in the Paris attacks after names were supplied by the FBI.