NATO says extremists may be crossing the Mediterranean Sea in migrant-smuggling boats to reach European Union countries.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels Thursday, NATO's military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said the alliance suspects members of organized crime groups and "elements of extremists" may be among the "legitimate refugees" trying to escape fighting and poverty in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
“We do not know what is in these migrations coming across the Mediterranean from Northern Africa into our European nations in the south, and so we are concerned about all manners of movements," he said.
"Some of these people are legitimate refugees from ungoverned spaces; others we believe are organized crime, and yes we believe there could be elements of extremists in them, and so this is a problem that we need to address," said Breedlove.
The European Union approved a naval mission Monday to target gangs smuggling migrants from Libya.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, whose country is receiving the largest number of migrants, suggested that NATO could contribute to the EU operation by modifying its existing naval counter-terrorist mission in the Mediterranean.
The United Nations refugee agency has said that this year alone, more than 50,000 migrants have entered Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, over 30,000 of them via Italy. More than 1,700 people have drowned while attempting to make the crossing.