The 2006 Olympics: Assessing the Threat of Unconventional Attacks

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 18

Al-Qaeda’s repeated threats to punish Italy for its continued involvement in Iraq, coupled with the organization’s public pronouncements justifying chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) attacks against its adversaries, may culminate in an attack on Turin, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates could view attacking Turin, either conventionally or unconventionally, as an opportunity to influence Italy’s lengthy electoral campaign, which immediately follows the Olympics.

Italy as a Target for al-Qaeda Unconventional Attacks

Al-Qaeda has, in the last several years, threatened Venice (which it dismisses as the “Jewish Ghetto”), the Milan subway, the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and the Vatican with chemical attacks, involving poisons and toxins such as Ricin. While none of the chemical attacks actually occurred, the arrest of radical Islamists in various European countries (London, Paris, and Rota, Spain) and the discovery of toxins and poisons in their possession illustrate a clear intent to use them.

Of the four parts of the CBRN equation, a chemical attack is probably the most attractive to terrorists, since the materials are easier to obtain and disperse. Commonly available industrial toxic chemicals, such as cyanide, and poisons are widely available on the commercial market, and are listed on the Internet. The most difficult step, however, is the dissemination of the toxic substance, whether in a confined or open space. Al-Qaeda will have little ability or opportunity to execute a large-scale chemical attack. The Turin Olympics will be primarily conducted in very large spaces; however there are enclosed spaces (locker and hotel rooms in particular) that could be targeted and still have a maximum public shock factor. An Italian periodical recently described how a jihadist group could spray the nerve agent Sarin [1]. A chemical attack would seriously disrupt the Olympics and could lead to their cancellation. Depending on the substance/s used and the degree of affected civilians, the Italian government would have to decide whether or not to continue with the Games.

Regarding biological and radiological threats, the most likely scenarios are releases of radiological material through so-called “dirty bombs” and low-technology biological attacks, such as the contamination of the food supply with a bacteria or toxin. Terrorists could attempt a radiological dispersal device attack by combining radioactive material with a simple explosive. Although the actual radiation levels would be low and not cause any deaths, the explosion itself would result in death and injury. The Italian government would have to deal with contaminated areas, but not on a large scale. However, the propaganda victory of a “dirty bomb” attack would eclipse any attempts by the Italian government to dispel fear and distrust in the government. This pernicious form of attack likely would close down the Olympics.

Al-Qaeda’s Justification for Unconventional Attacks

Al-Qaeda’s most recent exhortation to the Muslim community for global jihad comes from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s September 6 audiotape posted to the Internet. Increasingly, al-Qaeda’s videotapes and Internet postings threatening those countries allied with the U.S. in Iraq are targeted to indigenously-based Muslims—especially in Europe with references to the recovery of al-Andalus in Spain. Although the Italian security services have routinely monitored the most egregious Imams, there are certainly less observable individuals who may be motivating their followers to justify an al-Qaeda unconventional attack in Italy. Recent justifications for and interest in CBRN attacks include:

• According to a media report, the Italian intelligence services describe in a classified report how Italy—in conjunction with several allies—established “an operating profile” for dealing with an al-Qaeda nuclear attack on Italian territory. In addition, the Italian report discussed preparations for a scenario in which an al-Qaeda nuclear device explodes in an Italian city [2].

• “We call for the Muslim brothers to imitate Pakistan as to the possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons,” read a letter alleged to have been written by bin Laden and seized in London three years ago.

• Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a Abu Musab al-Suri) the notorious Syrian al-Qaeda leader and the purported founder of the first al-Qaeda cell in Spain, justifies the use of nuclear, “dirty bombs,” chemical and biological weapons by “martyrs” in his “holy war” strategy. Al-Suri’s statements go “beyond classical Islam’s criteria for a just jihad and recognize no limits but their own, employing any weapons or means” [3]. In his vision, he calls for a new holy war that employs nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons, and dirty bombs [4].

• The former Imam of Carmagnola and follower of bin Ladin, Abdel Qader Fadlallah Mamour, threatened that, “within six months Italy will undergo a chemical attack.” Mamour specifically stated that if the attack had to be organized by a concurrent al-Qaeda group in Italy, “it [the attack] could take place in little weeks” [5].

• Imam Amar Sahounane in Naples stated: “Just as the Jews and Christians in the past had divine authorization for their warfare, now Muslims have divine approval for the actions they believe opportune…” [6]

• Tunisian citizen Essid Sami Ben Khemais—who attended the Milan Mosque and probably was the leader of the Milan cell—described a terrorist attack to an al-Qaeda operative, Lased ben Heni (a Tunisian) in a bugged 2001 conversation: “…an extremely efficient liquid that suffocates people” [7]. While there is no apparent reporting that Khemais or other members of the Milan cell explicitly discussed using Sarin or other chemical agents in Italy, Khemais’ relationship with the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell is unsettling. It is public knowledge that the Hamburg ring was preparing poison gas attacks in France, possibly with Sarin nerve gas.

Given the logistics involved in preparing for a chemical/biological/radiological attack, individuals would have to obtain the substances and then prepare an appropriate dissemination method, possibly involving suicide bombers. Although the Italian security services disrupted an al-Qaeda “mujahideen recruiting” cell in Milan, it is possible that a CBRN nucleus exists somewhere in the country. Similarly, there presumably was a “poisons/toxins” cell in France, the UK, and Spain set up to conduct the planned chemical attacks against the Paris Metro system, Ricin attacks in London and Spain’s Rota Naval Base.

Counterterrorism Measures for the Turin Olympics

There are various measures that the Italian intelligence services, acting in close coordination with European and U.S. government counter-terrorism services, can take now to secure the Turin Games:

• Continue with the selective expulsion of radical Islamist Imams and other individuals under Italy’s new counter-terrorism law, which makes it easier to expel foreigners who are deemed a risk to national security or found supporting terrorist groups.

• Begin immediate preparation for scheduled events hosted in Italy tied to the 2006 Games, which include a symposium on 21 September in Turin.

• Physically secure key sites months ahead of the Games and begin monitoring for CBRN substances.

• Increase border security by checking containers and individuals, especially any individual who has recently travelled to Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

• Continue monitoring all forms of communication between known and suspected radical Islamists in-country as well as their conversations with individuals outside of Italy.

• Increase attempts to recruit clerics and Imams—as well as other Muslims—to report on any suspicious activity relating to the Turin Games.

• Monitor the purchase/selling/theft of industrial chemicals and radioactive materials and ensure effective communication through the G-5’s new “CBRN alert mechanism network” established in Granada, Spain in March [8].


An al-Qaeda unconventional attack on the Turin Olympics could result in electoral defeat for the incumbent government. Italy is in a unique situation: it is hosting a hugely symbolic international event shortly before national elections. While it is impossible to predict how the electorate would vote in the event of an unconventional attack, voter repudiation of Berlusconi and his Iraq policy as the reason for the attack is not implausible. In addition to risk mitigation activities, the government would face the crucial task of reassuring a scared and possibly angry public which will likely clamor for the immediate withdrawal of forces from Iraq.

An unconventional attack against the Turin Olympics would represent a major coup for al-Qaeda and will constitute yet another victory against a vulnerable European power. If Italian Muslims were discovered to be involved in any attack, that would seriously advance al-Qaeda’s “polarization” project, which seeks to create as much distance as possible between Muslims and non-Muslims (especially in Western countries). Most significantly, a CBRN attack would legitimize and standardize unconventional attacks as an “appropriate” act of terrorism by al-Qaeda affiliated groups around the world.


1., 12 Sept 05

2. La Stampa, 12 Sept 05.

3. Al-Suri’s quote cited in: “Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam,” John Esposito.

4. “Espana Sigue Amenazada,”, 6 Jun 05.

5., 14 July 05

6. Magdi Allam, “The Sermons of Hatred in Certain Mosques,” November 2003, printed in Corriere della Serra, and

7. . Khemasi was recently extradited to Italy due to his involvement with a member of the now disrupted Milan cell.

8. www.elmundoes., 15 March 05