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.

During a raid on a small Roman apartment frequented by alleged Arabic terrorists arrested at dawn last Friday, police found videos of decapitations and suicide bombings, plus political propaganda for a holy war.

But what set off alarm bells was an Arizona address on a folder of Arabic documents. "We are working with our American colleagues to see if there is a link between this Phoenix address and pilots of the September suicide attack in New York," says Col. Gianfranco Cavallo, a leading police investigator, in an interview. He says Italian and FBI detectives are also exploring the possibility that Lofti Raissi, the Algerian accused of training the Sept. 11 suicide pilots, stayed at the Phoenix address.

Investigators also believe the men arrested Friday may have been part of a network of cells operating throughout Italy and Europe with links to the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) and the GSPC (Salafist Group for Call and Combat), and ultimately with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Salafism, a philosophy shared by bin Laden, is a pan-Islamic movement advocating a return to the purity of the roots of Islam, as Mohammed and his companions practiced it. The GSPC is an offshoot of the GIA, the most radical antigovernment force in Algeria, which has been waging war on the government for several years. Where the GIA puts priority on overthrowing the Algerian government, the GSPC believes "that if jihad is not international, it has no meaning," says Claude Moniquet, an expert on fundamentalist Islamic groups.

The GSPC is believed to have received funding from bin Laden, and to have sent members to his Afghan training camps. The group was banned in March 2001 in Britain, where police say it raises money from racketeering, smuggling in Algeria, and money laundering. The organization was on President Bush's list of 27 organizations whose assets were frozen after Sept. 11.

Italian authorities are looking for any links between the group arrested last Friday - which included a Pakistani (suspected as the ringleader), a Tunisian, an Algerian and three Iraqis - and a group of nine Moroccans arrested earlier this month after the discovery of a perforation in a tunnel near the US Embassy. So far, the only links between the two groups are cyanide and a mosque whose address was found in the Moroccans' apartment. The mosque was attended by the other group.

In conversations bugged in mosques and apartments and published in the press (which police confirm as authentic), the group led by the Pakistani allegedly discussed the need to find cyanide and also talked about having a pistol, obtaining other arms, killing a policeman, and even the need to eliminate US President George Bush.

The group's alleged leader, Ahamad Naseer, arrested at the Fiumicino airport in Rome on charges of "subversive association and violation of arms" as he returned from Saudi Arabia, is the director of a small makeshift mosque near Rome's main train station.

Chihab Goumri - an Algerian accused of being the "messenger" of the cell and in "direct contact with elements of Islamic fundamentalism," according to published judicial documents - argued that he frequented the mosque to have assistance for a physical handicap resulting from the loss of his left leg in an accident in the early 1990s. In an interrogation Monday, the three Iraqis arrested with Nasser said they were Kurdish refugees who slipped into Italy illegally.

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.

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.

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