When Italian police arrested 28 illegal Pakistani immigrants in Naples four years ago, authorities claimed they'd broken up a Qaeda cell plotting to attack nearby NATO installations. After all, the raid had turned up a Pakistani newspaper with a picture of a visiting British officer. The cops also found explosives, detonators, maps, false identity papers and dozens of mobile phones. But less than two weeks later, all the suspects had been freed for lack of solid-enough evidence. Prosecutors, who'd had little experience with such new immigrants, just couldn't make the charges stick.
"They were all innocent," says Ejaz Ahmad, the editor of an Urdu-language monthly in Rome who acted as translator at the court hearing. Most of the Pakistanis were street vendors. The explosives were more like fireworks, he says. "And now," he adds, "all 28 are working in Italy."
The case may have been a failure for the local cops, but it did establish one thing: just how nervous European authorities are becoming about burgeoning Pakistani populations in places—such as Italy, Spain and France—where there were few or none at all just a few years ago. Now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, many of these Pakistanis have sneaked onto the Continent via Iran, Turkey and the Balkans. They've also begun taking a circuitous route across Africa and then by ship to Spain's Canary Islands or the Mediterranean coasts of Europe. Almost overnight, Pakistani neighborhoods have sprung up in Barcelona and Bologna.
What worries European counterterrorism officials is the potential that some of these migrants may be linked to terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. Authorities took the London subway attacks in 2005—which were carried out by Britons of Pakistani origin—as a clear sign of danger. And Britain, remember, is a country where the large Pakistani community is well established and supposedly well known to authorities.
In continental Europe, on the other hand, there are no historical ties to South Asia, and the languages and culture are unfamiliar. And there is the clandestine factor: illegal immigrants create support networks, virtually invisible to the government, which may seem benign but could be exploited by terrorists. Thus penetrating the new immigrant communities is proving extremely difficult. "We know almost nothing," a concerned French cop admitted privately last month.
Yet Roland Jacquard, a leading French security expert, says that current government assessments rank Pakistani networks second only to Al Qaeda's branches in North Africa as a terrorist threat. He says that there's particular concern about itinerant Pakistani imams who preach a radical line. Because they often work in homes rather than mosques, they're also harder to watch.
Europeans are also finding it hard to prosecute Pakistani suspects, even when they catch them. In Spain last week the trial of 11 Pakistanis charged in an alleged 2004 bomb plot came to a close. Eight were acquitted. Only three were convicted—and on lesser charges, of funneling €800,000 to radical organizations in Pakistan. The same kind of evidence used in this trial (surveillance, phone records, etc.) had led to convictions in many others, says a top Spanish law-enforcement official. But with the Pakistanis, because so little is known about their communities, the Spanish prosecutors (like their Italian counterparts) couldn't connect enough dots to convince the court.
Or maybe the connections don't exist. Some experts who've studied Pakistani immigration believe the threat is overstated because the cops don't understand the new communities. "That really bugs them," says Mariam Abou Zahab, a French scholar who specializes in Pakistani and Afghan Islamist networks. "They don't know how to get an informer, and so they fantasize things that aren't there."
What's unquestionably real are the numbers: Pakistanis and other South Asian Muslims are entering Europe at record levels. The reasons are many, and cumulative. Driven by poverty at home and sometimes by political oppression, they are drawn to the Continent by the prospect of jobs and freedom and the safe harbor offered by established Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. As one smuggling route is shut down, others appear. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, increasing numbers of Pakistanis now use Africa as their stepping stone. The Pakistanis, who must travel longer distances, pay traffickers almost 10 times as much as Africans do—from $11,000 to $20,000—to get them in. In some cases they are also guaranteed help for two or three attempts to make it across the frontier. Some fly first to East Africa or the Sahara. According to UNODC officials, some get visas to enter Mali, Guinea or Burkina Faso by air, and then go overland to the coast, where they are loaded onto ships. It's now common for African and European patrols to intercept boats carrying scores of South Asians bound for Europe. A ship called Happy Day was caught off the coast of Senegal in March with 300 Pakistanis and Indians aboard.
Along the way, new connections are forged between some of the would-be immigrants and African gangs, including those with strong Islamist tendencies. Amado de Andrés of the UNODC office in Dakar, Senegal, says he has no evidence of a link between migrant-smuggling networks and terrorists. But a UNODC report last year noted that their common religion helped Pakistanis establish "strong ties" withnorthern Malians, through which Touareg and Arab criminal groups facilitate the Pakistanis' smuggling to Europe.
Those who make it to Europe are finding some of its neighborhoods newly hospitable. In historic Florence, Italy, for instance, the Via della Scala now has nine phone centers catering to South Asians. Next to one of the city's most famous perfume shops on that same street stands the Pak Halal Kebab restaurant. And in the nearby Piazza Santa Maria Novella, just a few minutes' walk from the Duomo and the Uffizi, dozens of South Asian workers gather each morning to be bussed to the textile factories.
In Spain, a Pakistani like Usman Yasar, a 29-year-old construction worker, can settle comfortably into a regional capital like Logroño in La Rioja. He plays cricket and eats curries served from shop windows. He gets help if there's a problem with his documents at the Asociación Pakistaní de la Rioja. In a region of 300,000 people, Yasar's countrymen now number more than 6,000. Official statistics place the total number of Pakistanis in Spain at more than 40,000, where 15 years ago their numbers were negligible. And the real count could be much higher. "We may have the biggest population of Pakistanis in Europe after Great Britain," says a top law-enforcement official in Madrid."
Why the sudden crush of immigrants from the Subcontinent? According to the French scholar Abou Zahab, Pakistani immigration to continental Europe started very slowly when Britain began to close its doors to South Asians in 1968. Barred from the U.K., many migrants found their way to Scandinavia instead; Norway, a nation of only 4.6 million people, now hosts at least 30,000 first- and second-generation Pakistanis. In the early 1970s, the first Pakistanis began arriving in France. The numbers bumped up earlier this decade when authorities made it harder for migrants to slip through the Channel Tunnel into England. Many Pakistanis, and others, decided to stay and try their luck on the Continent. Now Pakistanis in France number some 50,000 to 70,000, according to Abou Zahab.
Abou Zahab suggests that, for all the concerns of the authorities, these new immigrants are probably less inclined to radicalism than those long settled in Britain. The Pakistanis in Europe tend to come from the Punjab region rather than Kashmir, a hotbed of extremism where many in the U.K. originated. The new Pakistani immigrants are also less educated and less likely to go to university—where some of those in Britain were radicalized.
Journalist Ejaz Ahmad in Rome says that Italy's Pakistanis have known that they were under suspicion at least since September 11, 2001. "Sometimes after that, being a Pakistani, being a Muslim, is very difficult for us," he says. For precisely that reason, many Pakistanis in Italy have taken pains to show they are basically law abiding, even if their immigration status is questionable, and to distance themselves from radicals. "Our mosques are separate now from the North Africans," he said, since some Tunisians and Moroccans have been convicted on terrorist charges.
Despite such suspicions, the immigrants keep coming. According to Ahmad, there are now some 50,000 in Italy, most of whom arrived after 1990. "Before that time, they always used Italy as a gateway to go to Germany, France and England," he says. But as those countries tightened their immigration policies, Italy became a destination in itself. "Now we have 'chain immigration': first one Pakistani comes, then he sends money to [bring] his cousin or friend or brother or son." There's a snowball effect—some critics would call it an avalanche—as increasing numbers manage to regularize their immigration status and bring their families.
Different groups seek out different kinds of work. While many Filipinos find employment as domestics, the Pakistanis prefer factories. When they can, many then set up small shops or phone centers, which now employ 4,000 Pakistanis in Italy, according to Ahmad. "Phone centers are not just a shop, but also a place to meet with other immigrants." But as police and prosecutors point out, such facilities are also perfect for the clan-destine communications of terrorist groups. In Spain, for instance, most of the alleged connections between Pakistani individuals and terrorist organizations have been made via the hawallah system for money transfers, which is impossible to monitor since it uses few or no written records and its connections are verbal (and often coded). You pay your guy in Barcelona and his contact in Pakistan gives the money to the person or group you've designated—whether it's a cousin or Al Qaeda.
Over time, the new Pakistani immigration to Europe could also become a concern for Washington. There are already controversial moves afoot in Congress to curtail rules that allow all U.K. citizens, including those with Pakistani backgrounds, to enter the United States without visas. Even for many of those Pakistanis now living in Italy, the English-speaking world remains the destination of choice. "They speak always about immigrating to America and England," says Ahmad. "Sometimes if they are able to get Italian nationality, then they go live in London or Manchester, because they like those Pakistani ghettos."
In the meantime, the European communities are growing, bolstered by the expanding network of self-help groups. Yasar in Logroño says the idea of such associations is to keep the new immigrant out of trouble, not to help him cause it. "We don't want him to dirty himself or the reputation of our people and our organizations," he says. But until some way is found either to stop the flow of illegal migrants—or bring them openly into the system—European counterterror officials will be worried and, as best they can, watching closely.
With Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Eric Pape in Barcelona and Barbie Nadeau in Florence