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9/11: A Year After / WHO WE ARE NOW

Stefano Dambruoso

September 11, 2002

Stefano Dambruoso, 40, is a top anti-terrorism prosecutor in Milan, Italy. In 2000, he began investigating a Milan cell involved in recruitment and logistical support for Al Qaeda in Europe and Afghanistan. The case accelerated after Sept. 11, resulting this year in the first convictions in Europe of Al Qaeda members since the attacks in the United States. Before starting the Milan counter-terrorism job six years ago, Dambruoso spent five years in Sicily prosecuting the Mafia.

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"Before Sept. 11, we knew about Al Qaeda from our investigation of the Milan cell, from the media and the secret services. But mainly what I worried about was an attack in Europe with bombs against either monuments or airplanes. I was most worried about a symbolic attack against monuments. I didn't want to think about attacks against people like hijackings or bombs on airplanes.

I was very affected because I know the United States. I lived in Los Angeles for eight months. I studied at Santa Monica College.

It was hard for me psychologically to connect Sept. 11 to our suspects in Milan. It seemed too far away. We had not delved deep enough to understand what we understand now: Al Qaeda is an organization that has to be seen in its entirety, not in separate little parts.

In Europe, we didn't have an understanding of the global danger of the organization. We didn't understand that even a small thing in our territory was dangerous because it could help, one way or another, an operation like Sept. 11.

In December, I was awakened by a phone call at midnight: The police told me that the next day, there would be extra security in front of my home. A tip had come from the Italian intelligence services. An informant in the Middle East said a group of Algerians was preparing an attack on a prosecutor in Italy who was investigating Islamic terrorists.

The main danger in Europe today, I think, is the high probability of someone carrying out an attack as part of a personal jihad. That is the hardest thing to intercept. If a network is organizing a big attack, it takes time. Hopefully, there's a period when we can have some luck and stop them. But with an individual, one or two people, it's harder.

There is also the problem of balancing public security with integration of immigrants. Arabs in Europe feel they are more discriminated against since Sept. 11. In certain ways, it's true. You have people saying all Arabs are terrorists. If you keep telling a tolerant Muslim that he is a terrorist, you could have a reaction. He could end up becoming a terrorist. It's a vicious circle."

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As told to Sebastian Rotella

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