Brescia is a quiet town east of Milan and few would think of it as a hot spot for international terrorism. Yet Italian authorities believe that last year's terror attack in Mumbai (Bombay), where 173 people lost their lives, was partially planned from there.
On Saturday night, Italian police arrested two Pakistani nationals, Mohammad Yaqub Janjua and his son Aamar, on charges they helped pay for the attack. The two own "Madina Trading," a money transfer agency, which made it easy for them to send large amounts of currency abroad without attracting attention. Authorities became suspicious when they learned that 400,000 euros ($599,000) were transferred to a false name.
"This operation confirms that terrorism is a global threat," said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. "Yet it also demonstrates our police forces are able to face it."
The police announced they arrested other two Pakistani men in Brescia. The pair are accused of breaking immigration laws, but police suspect that they, too, supported the Mumbai attacks. A fifth man is currently on the run.
Local authorities say these arrests are part of the growing body of evidence that northern Italy has become a fund-raising spot for international terrorist organizations.
Earlier this month, a judge in Milan issued 17 arrest warrants for people accused of raising 1 million euros ($1.49 million) to fund terrorist activities in Algeria. Six of them were arrested in Italy, the others were detained as part of a Pan-European operation.
In recent years, a number of North African immigrants in the Milan area have been arrested on suspicion of raising funds for Al Qaeda. A few of these cases have developed into international disputes.
Tunisian-born Riadh Nasri and Moez Fezzani, who where held for years by the US in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are accused of having raised funds for Al Qaeda from 1997 to 2001 in Milan. The Obama administration recently transferred both to Italy, where they are expected to be tried.
"We are not talking about terrorist cells building bombs or directly planning attacks, but rather of people involved in money laundering and document counterfeiting," says Andrea Margelletti, head of the Center for International Studies in Rome.
"Those activities need to take place where money is abundant and where there is a large immigrant community," he says. "That's what makes Lombardy [the wealthy region where Brescia and Milan are] a good spot. But other wealthy areas in Germany or France face the same problem as well."
Yet others says there's something more specific that makes Italy a good fundraising spot for terrorists.
"Overall, Italian authorities tend to be more lenient on international terrorism when compared to other European countries," says Giampiero Giacomello, who teaches strategic studies at the University of Bologna.
When it comes to terrorism, argues Mr. Giacomello, Italian authorities tend to be less proactive than their British, Spanish, or French counterparts: "After all, we didn't suffer the attacks they did, so the public doesn't care all that much"
On the other hand, the Italian police have other priorities: "We are the only Western European democracy still facing huge problems with organized crimes and domestic terrorism," says Giacomello. "First comes the war on the Mafia, then the Red Brigades [a local Marxist terror group], and international terrorism comes only third."
Before 9/11 "there was a tradition of closing an eye," says Giacomello. Now authorities are not very proactive, but respond quickly when asked by allies. "I wouldn't be surprised if the input for this weekend's arrests came directly from New Delhi."