27 Jul 2007
Italy arrests terror suspects
A series of raids and arrests in Perugia put Italy's new anti-terror laws to the test. From ISA.
By ISA staff for ISA Consulting
Italian security forces last weekend arrested three Moroccan nationals - a Muslim cleric and his two aides – on charges that they were operating a terrorism training school and plotting terrorist attacks. Italian authorities also issued a warrant for a fourth man who authorities believe left the country days before the raid, according to local media reports.
On Saturday, 21 July, police in the central Italian city of Perugia arrested the imam of the Ponte Felcino mosque, Korchi el Mustapha, Mohamed el Jari and Driss Safika after two years of surveillance of the mosque, run by el Mustapha. During the raid, Italy's anti-terror forces searched 23 buildings in the area.
Police officials said the three arrested men were training others in the use of weapons and preparing for possible attacks. El Mustapha's two assistants who worked in the mosque had used it as a training camp for international terrorism by recruiting militants for operations abroad, police claimed.
During a raid on the imam's home, police found dozens of bottles of highly toxic chemicals in the basement, including acids and cyanide, which could be used in bomb-making experiments. Equipment for the remote detonation of explosives was also discovered, reports said.
Security forces also discovered Internet instructions on using chemical weapons, instructions on flying an airplane and photos of Rome's Fiumicino airport and some other Italian monuments.
According to police quoted in local media, the recruits in the mosque used documents downloaded from the Internet – including instructions on weapons training, preparing poisons and explosives, reaching combat zones safely and how to send encrypted messages.
"We have discovered and neutralized a real 'terror school,' which was part of a widespread terrorism system made up of small cells that act on their own," anti-terror police head Carlo De Stefano told Italian media.
So far, the three arrested stand accused of involvement in terrorism training activities, as investigators have no evidence that they were planning to carry out specific attacks. The whereabouts of the fourth suspect, also Moroccan, remains unknown.
Some 20 foreign students who frequented the mosque were also arrested in the raid, but were released shortly afterwards.
Perugia, a multicultural city with a 10,000-strong Muslim community, is home to Italy's University for Foreigners, which houses numerous students from the Middle East and elsewhere.
The arrests have greatly disturbed Italy, which, unlike Spain and the UK, has not experienced recent terrorist attacks, though some Islamic extremists warned two years ago that the country could be the next target due to its support for the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some members of opposition parties and anti-immigration activists are using the opportunity to further their rightist agendas, calling for all of Italy's mosques to be closed down and reopened only after a thorough investigation into their activities. The proposal has been categorically rejected by Italian authorities and human rights groups who warn about using the incident to spread fear for political gain.
In recent years, Italian authorities have tightened the country's anti-terrorism laws and significantly stepped up surveillance at mosques and Islamic centers, conducting dozens of arrests and trials and bringing indictments against alleged Islamic militants for planning to attack Italy's transportation system, the US embassy and naval bases.
In July 2005, when authorities speculated that Italy could be the next target, police launched massive preemptive operations, raiding more than 200 sites and arresting 174 people suspected of having connections to Islamic extremism.
In November last year, an Italian court sentenced Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, also known as "Mohamed the Egyptian" - accused of being one of the masterminds of the 2004 Madrid train bombings - to 10 years in prison for membership in an international terrorist network.
Earlier this year, Abdelmajid Zergout, a former imam in the northern town of Varese, and two other Moroccans, were cleared of charges that they were raising funds and recruits for the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (GICM) – a militant group that pledged its allegiance to Osama Bin Laden last September.
Police said el Mustapha, el Jari and Safika had links to GICM, which was allegedly involved in the 2004 Madrid bombings and the 2003 attacks in Casablanca. An anti-terror investigation in Italy revealed that money was sent from Italy to the militants involved in the Casablanca attacks.
Police alleged that the three arrested in Perugia also had contacts with two members of the GICM arrested and sentenced for terrorism charges two years ago in Belgium.
Local media speculates that there are some 500 Muslims in Italy who are under surveillance due to their purported links to militant groups. Most of them are in northern Italy, in Milan, and are allegedly connected in some way to the city's Islamic Cultural Institute.
Italian authorities believe that there are at least two more terrorist networks operating in Italy - the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and Ansar al-Islam – as well as an unknown number of independent terror cells.
According to Italian media reports, at least 10 Muslims recruited in northern Italy - of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan origin – have carried out suicide attacks in Iraq targeting the US military.
However, while it was suspected, at first, that these militants recruited in Italy were focusing on attacks elsewhere, authorities now fear that attacks may be planned for local targets. In 2005, Italian authorities made a list and put under surveillance some 13,000 sites, considered to be possible targets.
In late 2006, Italian authorities said they had thwarted planned terrorist attacks against a Bologna church and Milan's underground metro system. One of the alleged targets was the church of San Petronio, which has a painting of the Prophet Muhammad in hell that is often criticized by Italian Muslims. The operation took place only a couple of months before Italy's national elections.
On the shortlist of potential targets are tourist sites, monuments and transportation hubs as well as government buildings, water and electricity systems and US military bases.
In August 2005, Italy passed a new anti-terrorism bill, which includes a string of anti-terrorist measures in response to the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London's public transport services.
If his case goes to trial, el Mustapha, would be the first to be tried under the new law.
The law empowers police to arrest individuals without any evidence of involvement with terrorist groups or in the planning of terrorist attacks. And after two years of surveillance, police still lack enough concrete evidence against el Mustapha.
Under the new measures, training others to commit an attack and the possession of dangerous materials is enough for conviction.