Italy has been on heightened alert since the London attacks in July, as information available to the intelligence community points to the country as one of the most probable targets for al-Qaeda’s next attack.
On July 14, Niccolo Pollari, director of the Italian intelligence agency SISMI (Servizi per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare – Military Security and Information Service) offered his agency’s gloomy assessment of the security situation in the country, telling Parliament that “in Italy there are cells ready to strike” (Corriere della Sera, July 15, 2005). Two days earlier, Italian police had carried out a massive preemptive operation, raiding more than 200 sites and arresting 174 individuals connected to Islamic extremism throughout the country, from Sicily to the large cities of the north, where most Islamist terrorist cells are known to operate (La Repubblica, July 13, 2005).
Rome’s fears are more than justified, as Italy finds itself in a situation that is eerily similar to that of Great Britain before the London attacks. The Italian government has been one of the staunchest supporters of the US-led war on Terror—and more importantly, of its campaign in Iraq—contributing more than three thousand troops to Operation Iraqi Freedom. The bombings in Madrid and London have proven beyond doubt that the terrorists’ goal is to attack European countries that have or had a presence in Iraq, both to punish them and to force them to withdraw their troops. Italian officials and Islamists alike are well aware that an attack in Italy would have particularly devastating effects on the already fragile Berlusconi government, whose support of the Iraqi war was strongly opposed by the great majority of Italians.
In a recent interview with Corriere della Sera, Saudi dissident and designated terrorism supporter Saad Al Faqih warned that Italy will be hit soon, as it is the logical next step in al-Qaeda’s strategy of driving a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies (Corriere della Sera, July 12, 2005). It is chilling that the Italian Minister of Justice, Roberto Castelli, went even further and declared that authorities know that the attack will take place next February, when Italy will be hosting the Winter Olympics in Turin and just two months before the national elections (Corriere della Sera, July 13, 2005).
Like Great Britain, Italy has been one of the most active scenes for Islamic militants operating in Europe over the last 15 years. London’s infamous Finsbury Park mosque has seen no greater radical activity than Milan’s Islamic Cultural Institute and intelligence agencies in both countries put the number of hardcore militants operating on their territories in the hundreds. Exactly as occurred in the UK, Italian authorities have thwarted terrorist plots in the past, arresting individuals planning to attack mass transportation systems and U.S. diplomatic and military facilities in the country. Just five days after the London attacks, a court in the northern Italian city of Brescia convicted two North African militants who belonged to a cell that in 2002 had allegedly planned to bomb the cathedral of Cremona and the Milan metro system, the busiest in the country (Corriere della Sera, July 13, 2005). Moreover, suicide bombers recruited in Italy have carried out deadly attacks out of the country, and authorities fear that they might soon strike at home.
As British militants blew themselves up in Israel and Iraq in 2003, at least five young Muslims recruited in northern Italy are believed to have carried out brazen suicide operations in Iraq over the last two years. One of them is Lotfi Rihani, a Tunisian who had close ties to a Milan-based al-Qaeda cell that had planned chemical attacks in France in 2001. According to military intelligence, Rihani died in September of 2003 when he, along with two other Tunisian passengers, struck U.S. forces with a car laden with explosives . Algerian national Fahdal Nassim, died in the August 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people, including UN special envoy to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello (Corriere della Sera, December 10, 2004). Kamal Morchidi, a 24-year-old Moroccan who had served on the board of a Milanese company used as a front to launder money by al-Qaeda operatives, died in October 2003 during an attack against Baghdad’s Rashid Hotel. The likely target of the attack was U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who was staying at the hotel on the night the terrorists struck. The fear that suicide bombers could now target Italy is becoming more and more legitimate.
As was the case in Great Britain in the months prior to the London bombings, Italy has long been unable to find the political unity to pass effective anti-terrorism legislation or to effectively enforce the existing immigration and terrorism laws. While membership in a terrorist organization was introduced as a new crime in the wake of the attacks of 9/11 (article 270 bis of the Penal Code), the Italian Parliament repeatedly failed to pass measures that would have granted more stringent surveillance powers to anti-terrorism investigators. Only after the London attacks, proposals for new measures (e.g., prolonging detention without charge of a suspected terrorist from 12 to 24 hours, faster deportations for illegal aliens deemed “security risks” and easier procedures to allow investigators to tap phones) have been passed following violent infighting among political parties. In some cases where authorities did have the legal tools they needed, their case fell apart because of the judges’ interpretation of the law and of events in Iraq. Most recently, this situation was demonstrated in January 2005, when Italy was shocked by the sentence returned in the trial of a group of Ansar al-Islam affiliates accused of recruiting fighters for the Iraqi-based group. Although the Milan judge, Clementina Forleo, decided that the men were indeed part of a network that was recruiting fighters for the Iraqi conflict, she interpreted the operations taking place in Iraq as “guerrilla warfare” and not terrorism, and thereby acquitted them of all terrorism-related charges . Moreover, even though the Italian government has repeatedly connected illegal immigration to terrorism, authorities have failed to deport thousands of illegal aliens. This trend has partially changed in the two months following the London attacks, as more than a dozen known radicals have been deported, but immigration flows are still uncontrolled.
While few doubt that an attack in Italy over the coming months is likely, it is more difficult to predict which group among al-Qaeda’s network of affiliates and offshoots will attempt to carry out the attack. Italian authorities are taking into consideration different hypotheses, including the idea that the plot might be hatched by different groups working together. The group that most worries Italian authorities is the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), the loosely-connected but extremely dangerous network that is believed to have been behind the attacks in Casablanca and Madrid. After the Casablanca bombings, Moroccan authorities passed information to their Italian counterparts about a number of members of the group living in Italy and since then DIGOS (Italian special police) has been monitoring suspected cells in various northern Italian cities such as Turin, Varese, Vercelli, Udine and Vicenza (Corriere della Sera, July 15, 2005). A nationwide investigation revealed that money had been sent from Italy to individuals involved in the Casablanca bombings. The confirmation that the group was active in Italy came in June 2004, when Rabei Osman El Sayed Ahmed, an Egyptian believed to be one of the masterminds of the Madrid bombings, was arrested in Milan .
Another organization that worries authorities is the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which, over the last few years, has established an extensive network in Italy. GSPC’s main bases of operations are in Naples, where its operatives work closely with local criminal gangs to obtain false documents and weapons, and in Milan, where they have established a sophisticated recruiting network out of the city’s infamous Islamic Cultural Institute. These Algerians have worked very closely with the Tunisians, who also have several cells active in the Milan area, despite repeated anti-terrorism operations carried out against them by Italian authorities between 2000 and 2001 .
Milan, the real hub for Islamists in Italy, was also the headquarters of the network that recruited fighters for Ansar al-Islam. A two-pronged investigation led to the arrest of most of the key players in the Ansar cell, but authorities believe that parts of the network are still active. More troubling is the fact that some of the militants who have acquired battlefield experience in Iraq are now making their way back to Western Europe, exactly as their brethren did after the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan (Il Giornale, July 12, 2005).
Proof that the attackers might come from Iraq comes from U.S. Special Forces’ July 10th capture of a key lieutenant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Ramadi. Detailed satellite pictures of several symbolic locations in Rome were on his laptop, and the man, identified as Abu Shiba, told interrogators he attended a meeting where attacks in Italy had been discussed (Corriere della Sera, July 24, 2005).
Authorities are also watching the movements of more independent cells, such as those composed by members of Takfir wal-Hijra (Anathematization and Exile) or the so-called “non-aligned mujahideen.” Cells of East Africans are also monitored, as Italian authorities believe that Somalis and Eritreans have established an extensive network throughout the country. In fact, it is not a coincidence that one of the perpetrators of the failed July 21 London bombings, Ethiopian Osman Hussein, sought refuge in Italy, where he contacted associates in Rome, Brescia and Udine (Corriere della Sera, July 31, 2005).
The Italian Ministry of Interior has a list of what it considers “likely targets” for terrorist attacks and has put all of them under some form of police surveillance. The list contains more than 13,000 sites that range from foreign diplomatic facilities to the thousands of tourist sites scattered throughout the peninsula. Police are also currently monitoring more than 700 individuals believed to be linked to Islamic militancy (La Repubblica, July 8, 2005). Despite these precautionary moves, there is a sort of resignation among Italian authorities, who are well aware than an attack on Italy has long been inevitable.
1. Tribunal of Milan, Indictment of Muhamad Majid and others, November 25, 2003.
2. Tribunal of Milan, Sentence against Maher Bouyahia and others, January 24, 2005.
3. Tribunal of Milan, Indictment of Rabei Osman Ahmed El Sayed and others, June 5, 2004.
4. DIGOS, Report “Muhajiroun 3,” November 21, 2001.