The plane ticket to Lisbon was hardly going to raise suspicions. Whether at London's Heathrow or Gatwick airports, they mingled in with the dozens of British youths flying off to the Portuguese capital on direct, low cost flights. They travelled alone and with just a bag of clothes with them. However, on arrival, rather than checking into some hostel, they were taken off to apartments in the city's less salubrious suburbs, in Massamá, Monte Abraão and Mem-Martins, three locations in the Greater Lisbon region. There, they remained hidden away throughout various days and even for weeks.
Inside, they had everything that they needed - food and clean clothing - in order to cut to a minimum the number of trips made outdoors. The ideal would be to leave but once, with another plane ticket in their hands, setting off for Lisbon's Portela airport to catch the morning flight to Turkey. Destination: Istanbul. From there, a road trip south covering the several thousand kilometres to its southern border where somebody from the Jihadist army would be awaiting them to whisk them over and guarantee their integration in Syria, the country where they would become warriors in the name of Allah.
Throughout at least several months, between the end of 2012 and mid-2013, this was the route used by at least ten British jihadists to avoid secret service surveillance in the United Kingdom and to thus secretly enlist themselves in the pro-Al-Qaeda factions, which formed the precursor to Islamic State (IS), that were then fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime. In command of this jihadist cell was a group of five Portuguese emigrants living in Leyton, an East London neighbourhood: Celso and Edgar Costa, Fábio Poças, Nero Saraiva and Sandro Monteiro. Before they themselves set off on Jihad, they first managed the recruitment, transport, accommodation, supply and financing of this terrorist route to Syria.
Firstly, in the suburbs of London, they sought out potential mujahedin in the Islamic circles in which they moved and preferably converts such as themselves and followers of more radical versions of Islam. Afterwards, they set off for Lisbon where they would host the future jihadists while in transit. "They would go and fetch them, one at a time, from the airport and take them off to the safe houses. They constantly accompanied their visitors and they, days or weeks later, would be taken to Portela to get the direct flight to Turkey. They only ever left the airport after the plane had taken off", revealed a source at the European information services.
DCIAP vs. Islamic State
The Attorney General's Office of the Republic did confirm to Expresso the "existence of inquiries" taking place within the scope of DCIAP - the Portuguese CID and the competent national entity for terrorism related investigations - ,"with the objective of investigating the facts related with that known as Islamic State". All other details fall under the secrecy of justice norm with SIRP - the Portuguese Republic's Secret Service refusing to provide any comments on the matter.
Portugal, or rather Lisbon served as the strategic platform, as a cloak of invisibility for the recruitment network for British Jihadists. "They took advantage of a period in which the police forces in the two countries were not as attentive to this route", the aforementioned same source revealed. At that time, suspicions focused only on single travellers flying on direct flights between London and Turkey. However, the collaboration between the Portuguese and the British authorities, described as "efficient and without bureaucratic impediments on terrorism related issues", enabled the detection of the movements of these would-be jihadists. Some have since been detained while still in London and about to embark en route to Lisbon.
The Portuguese authorities have identified at least three such safe houses. And their locations reflect the neighbourhoods in which some of the recruiters grew up: Celso and Edgar are from Massamá, Fábio from Mem-Martins and Sandro from Monte Abraão. At least one of the apartments thus identified remains today the permanent address of one of their parents.
On the search for Jihadi John
In the British capital, the small Portuguese group came to the attention of the counter-terrorism services of the United Kingdom at the time of detecting close connections between them and the team that produced the IS execution videos. The authorities are striving to map the networks of friendship established by the five youths in the years when living in Leyton and identify any possible meeting with the hooded IS executioner, the British citizen known as Jihadi John, who has beheaded various western hostages.
In Portugal, the London quintet gets perceived by the security services as a group separate to the 'lot' of 15 to 20 Portuguese citizens that have enlisted in the Jihadist ranks, in the majority the descendants of immigrants from the former Portuguese colonies. And they also do not fit in with the profile of jihadist returnees. "They do not match the profile of those who seek to return to Europe with the objective of carrying out attacks", said an investigation source.
The explanation stems from the posts they hold: almost all have risen through the IS hierarchy. Some are members of groups responsible for new recruitment, others for the propaganda machinery, still others for managing the financial activities of the extremist group. "They are not cannon-fodder as are the thousands of other foreign fighters enlisted with Islamic State", advances the same source.
Since the end of 2014, the Portuguese authorities have begun detecting new cases of nationals wishing to join the army of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in Syria and in Iraq. The majority come from the Portuguese emigrant community and were born and raised in the French suburbs. However, there are also cases in Portugal itself such as the Azorean who, aged 48 and only recently a convert to Islam, was detained and charged by DCIAP within the scope of a criminal investigation into the online social media sharing of "sensitive information" (such as maps and photographs) of the Lajes military base to which he had privileged access.
Recently, the intelligence services began for the first time monitoring Portuguese citizens - between three and five - interested in fighting in Syria but motivated by money rather than by faith. They do not embrace Islam or any other religious belief. "The Islamic State pays its soldiers very well", several of the sources contacted all highlighted. These people fight for whoever is paying the most. They are mercenaries but prefer to be called Jihadist freelancers.