Airports and border stations across the world have beefed up security of late to stem the flow of aspiring jihadists to the Middle East — but some Islamic fighters have begun using an alternate route to reach their destinations that helps minimize travel by air or land.
They are increasingly booking cruises to reach the region, the international police agency Interpol revealed at its general assembly this week in Monaco. The trend was noticed over the past three months.
Outgoing Interpol boss Ronald Noble identified Turkey as a common destination for extremists who hit the high seas, but wouldn't comment on other destinations. Noble also didn't say how many suspected terrorist fighters have traveled via cruise ships, but advised that countries should increase screenings in "airports and, more and more, cruise lines."
Turkey has long been a popular destination for Islamic fighters looking to enter the Middle East, as the country has a largely unprotected border with Syria. Turkish officials have ramped up efforts to apprehend jihadists in airports and bus stations, but it's not clear how they are handling the maritime threat.
"Because they know the airports are monitored more closely now, there's a use of cruise ships to travel to those areas," Pierre St. Hilaire, Interpol's director of counterterrorism, said on Thursday. "There is evidence that the individuals, especially in Europe, are traveling mostly to Izmit and other places to engage in this type of activity."
Izmit is a Turkish coastal town that often serves as a port of call for cruises. While Interpol did not specify particular cruise lines, a quick Internet search turned up a handful of cruises in both the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea for which Turkey is a port of call.
Besides relatively lax security, cruise routes are attractive to would-be fighters because the ability to disembark at numerous ports make it difficult for authorities to track their movements.
Interpol is preparing to expand a pilot program called I-Checkit, which airlines can use to compare passenger information with Interpol records. The agency wants I-Checkit to be used more widely by service entities like hotels, banks, and cruise-line operators.
"Originally, our concern about people on cruise ships — dangerous people on cruise ships — really focused on the classic sort of rapist, burglar, or violent criminal," Noble said. "But as we've gathered data, we've realized that there are more and more reports that people are using cruise ships in order to get to launch pads, if you will — sort of closer to the conflict zones — of Syria and Iraq."
The Cruise Lines International Association said passengers already were screened and systems were in place to confirm passengers' identities, BBC reported.
"Cruise lines employ full-time security professionals, many of whom are former law enforcement officers, who are in regular contact with local and international authorities," said the CLIA in a statement.
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