Italy has evolved from a logistics base for Islamic militants to a de facto base of operations for Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) targeting Italy, other European countries and the United States. While the GSPC continues to engage in and support terrorist operations in Algeria, the group’s emphasis on “out-of-Algeria” terrorist operations has made it the largest, most cohesive and dangerous terrorist organization in the al-Qaeda orbit.
GSPC cells in Italy employ a dual-track approach to planning terrorist attacks and provide support infrastructure—safe houses, communications, weapons procurement and documentation—to GSPC networks in other European countries.
Historical Timeline and Profile of the GSPC Network in Italy
Italian security services’ detention of and investigations into the activities of Salafist Islamists recently culminated in the exposure of a deep and wide network of GSPC cells throughout Italy. In November and December 2005, Italian counter-terrorist operatives arrested five Algerian nationals on suspicion of planning terrorist operations in Italy and the United States, and of providing financial/weapons/logistical assistance to other jihadi cells in Europe (La Repubblica, November 17, 2005). The November arrests involved Yamine Bouhrama, Achour Rabah and Tartaq Sami. Italian security services believed Bouhrama was the head of the Salerno cell, and had contact with other GSPC cells in Milan, Brescia and Naples (La Repubblica, December 23, 2005).
Bouhrama’s contact with other GSPC cell members in Italy enabled SISMI (the Italian military intelligence service) to identify two other GSPC members residing in Naples and Brescia: Khaled Serai and Mohamed Larbi. According to an intercepted conversation prior to his November arrest, Bouhrama discussed with Serai and Larbi an “attack against the infidel,” and specifically discussed attacking a company somewhere in Italy (Corriere della Sera, November 17, 2005). According to Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, Bouhrama, Serai and Larbi were planning a new series of attacks in the United States and considered targeting ships, stadiums or railway stations in an attempt to surpass the September 11, 2001 strikes by al-Qaeda. Similarly, the Italian police noted that these individuals were “primed” to strike targets in Italy (El Mundo, November 17, 2005).
Based on the communication patterns of GSPC cell members, Italian security services now believe that Bouhrama, Serai and Larbi were members of GSPC cells in Naples, Brescia, and possibly Venice that were headed by Lounici Dhamel, whom the Italian security services suspected as a senior GSPC member (Corriere della Sera, November 11, 2005). In 2004, the Italian police arrested Dhamel and at least two other Algerians after they were convicted of providing logistical support to the GSPC: Dhamel was one of approximately 12 Algerians convicted of supplying arms and false documents to the extremist group in 2002.
Connections between Italian GSPC and European Jihadi Cells
An interesting discovery arising out of the November and December 2005 Italian arrests is the connections between the Algerian jihadis in Italy and other Salafist Islamists in Europe. The relationship is based on logistical support, weapons procurement, communications venues, and propaganda mechanisms that enable GSPC and Salafist Islamists cells in Europe to plan terrorist activities in the countries in which they reside. Although the cells in Italy appear to be composed exclusively of Algerian Salafi-Jihadists, their interaction with mixed Moroccan and Algerian cells in Spain, Norway and other countries demonstrates that the desire for global jihad has overcome the historical animosity between these two national groups.
An additional finding of the Italian counter-terrorism investigations is the extent of communications between the GSPC cells in Italy and the Maghrebi-dominated networks in Spain and other European countries. Italian police have been investigating contacts between GSPC members in Italy and Algerian jihadis in Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland (Corriere della Sera, November 17, 2005). Bouhrama, Serai, and Larbi, for instance, used false documentation to travel together through France, Norway and other northern European countries. They are alleged to have procured false papers and funds to finance GSPC terrorist activities. For example, the computer of one of the Algerians, code named 007, registers contact with mujahideen in Bosnia and with Islamic militants in Norway, France, and the United Kingdom, as well as communication with elements of the Takfir wal Hijra organization (Corriere della Sera, November 11, 2005).
GSPC Cells in Italy
Special intelligence investigations into the activities of Algerian Salafi-Jihadists reveal that GSPC members established inter-connected cells throughout Italy. The Viale Jenner mosque in Milan and its cultural center stand out as the epicenter of jihadi-related activities.
2002: 13 Algerians and a Moroccan believed to be members of GSPC were arrested for illegally acquiring explosives and weapons. They operated out of the Milan mosque.
2003: Italian police arrested five Tunisians and a Moroccan imam, Mohamed El Mahfoudi, in raids at the mosque and at 40 sites associated with the GSPC. The six suspects were associated with the GSPC.
2004: Hassine Ben Moahmed Snoussi—forced to leave Italy for Tunisia—was associated with Arman Ahmed El Hissiny Helmy, an Egyptian imam of the Milan mosque.
Rabei Osman El Sayed Ahmed (a.k.a., Mohamed the Egyptian)—suspected head of al-Qaeda’s networks in Europe—had many contacts in Milan, including the influential Yahia Payumi, who frequented the mosque.
September 2005: Italian police detained five of 11 Algerians suspected of membership in the GSPC, and investigated their involvement in planning a failed terrorist attack against the Spanish National Court in Madrid. Jamel Launici, alleged head of the Italian cell in charge of recruiting terrorists and obtaining explosives for the Madrid attack, was one of the detained.
Salerno GSPC Cell: Yamine Bouhrama, Achour Rabah, Tartaq Sami and Lounici Dhamel.
Possible Venice GSPC cell: Lounici Dhamel
Naples and Brescia GSPC Cells: Khaled Serai and Mohamed Larbi, who were in contact with Yamine Bouhrama of the Salerno cell, and Lounici Dhamel. There are likely other members that have not yet been identified.
Ben Khemais GSPC network: suspected by Italian and Spanish security services as leading al-Qaeda’s regional network and one of the senior leaders of the jihadi networks in Italy. Khemais was arrested in 2001 in Italy and was involved in planning an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
Profile of Algerian Jihadis in Italy
According to available information, the GSPC network operating throughout Italy is almost exclusively composed of Algerian nationals who immigrated to the country during the past decade. Italian GSPC members have the following characteristics:
– They are first generation immigrants born in Algeria who immigrated to Italy probably for the purpose of setting up cells in support of the ongoing Islamist insurgency in Algeria and the GSPC in particular.
– They are young, male and usually poorly educated. It is unclear if these individuals were employed in Italy and, if so, where they worked and with whom.
– It is unclear if any of the men have family members in Italy.
– The level and intensity of association with Italian Muslims remains unknown.
Al-Qaeda’s Second Front in Italy: Observations and Gaps
While Iraq is the new center of gravity for jihad, Europe has become an important logistical center critical to ensuring the constancy of jihad in Iraq and, increasingly, in Europe. Some of the more significant observations include:
– The return of jihadis from Iraq is transforming Europe from a logistical base to a forward terrorist planning center.
– The recruitment of Muslims for jihadist activities likely remains in the cultural centers and mosques and through the internet, as well as the prisons (La Repubblica, June 19, 2002). Yet, given the surveillance of these sites by Italian intelligence services, it is possible that Islamists are being driven away from the central mosques to smaller, makeshift mosques and possibly schools, stores and homes.
– The inter-personal relationships of GSPC members in Italy are crucial to the viability of these cells. Understanding these relationships would help counter-terrorism officials in devising effective programs to target their recruitment and logistical activities.
Conversely, insofar as the gaps in knowledge are concerned, security officials should investigate the degree and depth of contact between cell members prior and subsequent to arrival in Italy in order to identify points of leverage and influence in the jihadi movement.