Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 4

Investigations by the Italian security services since 2001 indicate that Italy has become a platform for al-Qaeda associated terrorist operations in Europe and Iraq. Italy’s Muslim population is concentrated in Milan, with an estimated 100,000 Muslims residing in the northern city. Not surprisingly Milan appears to be the base of Italy’s extremist network, which has connections to other Islamic radical groups in Europe, specifically in Spain and Germany. The primary focus of the Islamists’ activities in Italy appears to have been that of a staging ground for recruiting suicide bombers to conduct attacks against U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Nevertheless, the sizeable presence of determined Islamic militants in Italy make the country a potential target for a major Madrid-style terrorist attack.

The Italian intelligence services – in close coordination with the Spanish, German, and Dutch counterterrorism authorities – now believe that the majority of jihadis in their country are connected to North African radical groups and interestingly to Ansar al-Islam, an organization primarily based in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. The time-line of terrorist-related activity in Italy reveals an extensive campaign to support radical activities in other countries, send human and logistical resources to the Iraqi theatre, and possibly prepare the grounds for terrorist attacks on Italian soil.

Special intelligence investigations into the activities of a group of Islamic militants operating primarily in Milan revealed that the Milan mosque has played a pivotal role in supporting terrorist activities in other parts of Europe and Iraq since at least 2001. Most recently, a Milan judge’s decision earlier this year to drop charges of terrorism against five North African Muslims (four Tunisians and a Moroccan) accused of international terrorism prompted the justice minister to order an inquiry into how the decision was reached. The alleged five terrorists are apparently linked to the Milan cell responsible for the recruitment of suicide bombers and fighters for Iraq missions.

In November 2004, the Italian authorities deported the Imam of a mosque in Carmagnola, near the northern city of Turin, on grounds that he posed a threat to public security for making statements supporting the al-Qaeda network and for warning of the possibility of terrorist attacks in Italy. Apparently, Abdel Qadir Fadlallah Mamour, originally from Senegal, supported the November 2003 attack on an Italian base in Iraq, which killed 19 Italian servicemen. Moreover, the Italian security services were investigating Mamour for alleged illicit fundraising and links to another terrorist organization.

Two intelligence reports in 2004 emphasize that many of the extremists in Italy have links to al-Qaeda operatives in northern Iraq. One report notes that the Milan cell and a group of Tunisian Islamists picked up in Florence are allegedly linked to Ansar al-Islam and the Zarqawi network in Europe. The report said that Italian authorities also identified other cells seeking to recruit people out of Cremona, Parma, and Reggio Emilia, and noted regions such as Tuscany and Piedmont in the North and Campania in the south, where Islamic radicals are thought to be active. In addition, evidence gathered shows “the strategic importance to our country…not only as a transit point or logistical and financial support, but also as a departure point for would-be Mujahideen in Iraq.” A second report states that the “Madrid massacre confirms that the threat does not only come from outside, but from locally integrated extremist communities.” [1]

During 2003 and 2004, the Milan mosque stands out as the epicenter of jihadist activities. In June 2003, Italian police arrested five Tunisians and a Moroccan in raids conducted against forty sites in Milan, including the mosque. The suspects were accused of providing financial and logistical support to a militant Algerian group, the “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” (GSPC), which has declared allegiance to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

The Milan mosque appears to have had connections to “satellite” mosques in other parts of Italy. For example, in late 2004, the Division for General Investigations and Special Operations agents from Genoa and Florence arrested an Algerian Imam, Rachid Maamiri of the Sorgane mosque in Florence, and four Tunisians, all of whom were accused of membership in a cell linked to Ansar al-Islam. According to the prosecution, the group fit into a network of organizations “belonging to the galaxy of international Islamic-religious terrorism.” [2]

Since raiding the mosque, Italian authorities have been investigating Abu Imad al-Masri, an Egyptian who immigrated to Italy in 1993. An Imam of the mosque at Milan’s “Instituto Culturale Islamico”, Masri has been accused of preaching violent jihad, recruiting suicide bombers and supporting various terrorist organizations. Unidentified sources have linked al-Masri to Ansar al-Islam. Although al-Masri remains free, the Italian security services have arrested several of his associates.

Italian police arrested a Moroccan (Jousni Jamal) and a Tunisian (Bouyahia Maher Ben Abdelaziz) shortly after a suicide bombing killed 19 Italian soldiers and policemen in Nasriya, southern Iraq. Italian Interior Minister Pisanu accused the two individuals of recruiting suicide bombers from inside Italy and maintaining links with Ansar al-Islam. Italian officials note that the Milan organization was widespread and “capable of surviving arrests and keeping the extremist cells supplied daily with bombers.” [3] At least five suicide bombers who made their way to Iraq are known to be from Italy, possibly originating from Milan. For example, Kamal Oridichi was one young Moroccan who grew up in Italy but ended up volunteering his life for a suicide attack in Iraq in 2003 or 2004. [4]

In 2003, the Italian Police and the carabinieri from the Special Operations Unit uncovered a link between the alleged Italian cell and its extremist associates in a number of European countries, primarily Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. The Milan probe revealed that “young North Africans were ‘trawled for’ in the European mosques, given money, and supplied with a visa…” to travel to Iraq to conduct suicide operations. [5]

In February 2002, four Moroccans possessing maps showing the city’s water supply grid as well as a substance containing cyanide were arrested in Rome. The men, who operated out of the Milan mosque, were charged with counterfeiting money and documents as well as illegally acquiring weapons and explosives. In late 2002, Chief Public Prosecutor Dambruoso initiated a trial involving 13 Algerians and a Moroccan thought to be members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a notorious Algerian terrorist outfit. These men also operated out of the Milan mosque and Dambruoso similarly charged them with counterfeiting money and documents, and illegally acquiring weapons and explosives.

As early as the fall of 2001, Italian Government officials uncovered a cell of radical extremists with ties to half a dozen European countries. The authorities arrested a Tunisian, Essid Sami Ben Khemais, known among his associates as “the Sabre” and suspected of heading Osama bin Laden’s European logistics: he likely was the leader of the Milan cell. The Milan cell documents and other evidence (Italian intelligence wiretapped Khemais’ apartment) reveal that Khemais’ cell was part of a broader network of al-Qaeda cells in Europe. Italian police contend that soon after he started frequenting the mosque, Ben Khemais joined the al-Qaeda associated GSPC. He also developed a circle of recruits from the Milan mosque. [6]

Italy: the Next Target

The Italian military presence in Iraq certainly increased the country’s vulnerability to an al-Qaeda attack. In the summer of 2004, Italian media ran sensationalist headlines such as, “Message from al-Qaeda: Italy and Berlusconi are the prime targets for a blood bath.” [7] In addition, various Islamic websites, such as reinforced bin Laden’s threat to Italy. The website posted Bin Laden’s three-month truce to Italy and other European countries as an incentive to not acting aggressively against Muslims. In addition, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades warned on its website that its cells in Rome and other cities were prepared to carry out their “mission”, given Italy’s failure to accept bin Laden’s truce. In August 2004, the “Islamic Army in Iraq” (an Iraqi Islamic-Nationalist insurgent organization) executed an Italian journalist in response to Italy’s refusal to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq.

Although the majority of the Italian extremists appear to have been bent on traveling to Iraq for terror operations, the involvement of others in logistically supporting Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda cells in other parts of Europe is of critical concern. The possibility of Islamic militants focusing operational planning on targets inside Italy is a likely advent, one that the Italian government certainly fears. The Italians are well aware that Madrid’s March 11 terrorist train attacks were perpetrated by a group of predominantly Moroccan militant Islamists with strong ties to Spain. Italian intelligence chief Mario Monti recently expressed relief that Italy has not suffered attacks like that of March 11 in Madrid. However, Monti recognized the magnitude and seriousness of the terrorist threat to Italians by acknowledging that “definitive remedies have as yet not been found.”

Kathryn Haahr-Escolano is a former CIA analyst and currently Program Manager and Senior Policy analyst at Spectal, LLC.


1. Turin La Stampa, December 04.

2. “Islamic Terrorism: Former Imam of Sorgane and Four Tunisians Remain in Jail,” Milan Il Giornle, 22 Dec 04.

3. “Mujahiddin Trail: Those Five Suicide Bombers Who Set Out From Italy,” Turin La Stampa, 25 Jan 05.

4. Corriere della Stella, 25 January 05.

5. ibid.

6. According to some reports Khemais’ controller was a 36-year-old Tunisian, Tarek Maaroufi, identified as a key figure in al-Qaeda. On Maaroufi’s instructions, Ben Khemais traveled to Spain in the spring of 2001, at the same time Atta was in the country.

7. “Al-Qaeda: Italian nel mirino Berlusconi e il primo obiettiov,” “Minacce di Al-Qaeda all’Italia con Berlusconi bagno di sangue.”;