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Italian police explore Al Qaeda links in cyanide plot

Four cases focus on the recent arrests of North Africans and others allegedly tied to Islamic militant cells.

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Meanwhile, the investigation into the case of the nine Moroccans continues. Five of them were found with slightly under 10 pounds of potassium-ferrocyanide, a cyanide compound used in agriculture, and maps of the water main located in underground utility tunnels around the American embassy in Rome.

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Press leaks and the discovery of the hole in a tunnel containing a water main led to a wave of panic and speculation that the terrorists were trying to contaminate the water supply of central-northern Rome. Though US State Department officials downplayed the risk to the embassy, Cavallo says that the Moroccans had the capacity to create poisonous substances. Along with the cyanide compound, police found a gunpowder substance that could have created the heat needed to release the cyanide gas, he says.

"But what is even more damning are the maps of the tunnels around the embassy," he says. "What were they plotting to do? Police have said the men may have been "small fish" laying ground-work for a more sophisticated operation.

The number of people in custody in Italian jails on charges related to international terrorism continues to grow, with around 30 arrested since Sept. 11. This month four men, including Tunisian Essi Sami Ben Khemais, one the alleged leaders of Al Qaeda in Europe, were convicted of selling false documents, recruiting Islamic militants for Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, organizing illegal immigration into Italy and associating with criminal intent to obtain and transport arms, explosives, and chemicals - the first such terrorists with ties to bin Laden to be convicted since September 11.

Arrested last April, Mr. Khemais is believed by police to have spent time in Afghanistan - though his lawyer denies it - and to have conspired with cells in different European countries to obtain weapons to terrorize civilians. In one wiretapped conversation, he reportedly discussed putting poison gasses in cans of tomatoes and talked of wanting to get permission from the "sheikh" to move forward with the "attack". "Khemais had contacts all over Europe, but especially with Germany, France, England, and Spain," says Inspector Massimo Mazza, head of the Milan office of Italy's antiterrorist police (DIGOS).

In late November, another group of North Africans in Milan was arrested. Mr. Mazza says that they were "in telephone contact with people high up in Al Qaeda and in particular with people running training camps in Afghanistan." Defense lawyers maintain this was a group of young, poor, frustrated immigrants who were "simply blowing off steam" during their taped conversation, and point out that no arms or tangible evidence was found, apart from documents.

Mazza says the only "advanced stage" plan for an attack by Milan cells was on the cathedral of Strasbourg, which was foiled by police. Khemais and another Tunisian were each sentenced to five years, while two other defendants each received four years.

• Peter Ford in Paris contributed to this report.