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Italian police arrest 3 suspected of training terrorists at mosque

July 22, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Italian police swooped into a mosque Saturday in central Italy's bucolic Umbria region and arrested an imam and two aides suspected of operating a terrorism training school and preparing fighters for attacks abroad.

All three detainees, plus a fourth suspect outside the country, are Moroccan nationals.

The arrests come after a two-year investigation and are the latest indication of the expanding presence of Al Qaeda-style groups in Morocco and the rest of the Maghreb region of northern Africa, and their branches in Italy, Spain and other parts of Europe.

Italian authorities alleged that the mosque in the Umbrian capital, Perugia, was being used to teach followers to build bombs, wage hand-to-hand combat, use guns and poisons, and pilot a Boeing 747.

"An actual terrorism school has been discovered and dismantled," Carlo de Stefano, head of Italy's counter-terrorism police, told reporters. He said the operation at the mosque was one of numerous autonomous cells across Europe that function as part of a "widespread terrorism network."

In their raid on the Ponte Felcino mosque, a ground-floor apartment in a nondescript building on the outskirts of Perugia, authorities said they confiscated barrels of various chemicals that could be used in explosives.

Instructions for most of the alleged terrorist training came via Internet downloads of manuals and propaganda videos, police said, and also included information on how to encrypt messages.

"They were preparing explosives," Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said Saturday night. "The thing we don't know is whether they were going to use them in Italy or in Morocco."

Italian authorities did not link the men arrested Saturday to a specific attack but said they had ties to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a Maghreb-based network implicated in recent deadly bombings in Madrid, Casablanca and Algiers. The group last year announced its allegiance to Al Qaeda.

Spanish counter-terrorism officials, who have conducted extensive investigations into the Maghreb networks, say parts of northern Africa have been converted into Afghanistan-like no man's lands for training camps. Operators of the camps are poised to send aspiring terrorists into Europe, these officials said.

Moroccan suspects are on trial in the 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people, the deadliest terrorist attack on the European continent. Bombings in Casablanca in 2003 and Algiers this year signaled a growing Islamic militancy that is targeting its home region.

In the Perugia case, police identified the detained men as Korchi el Mostapha, 41, the imam; and his two aides, Mohamed el Jari, 47, and Driss Safika, 46.

Mostapha gave fiery recruitment speeches to his congregation, which often included children, about fighting in Iraq, Italian authorities said.

It was not possible Saturday to contact the detainees for comment.

Italian authorities have stepped up their surveillance of mosques and Islamic centers in recent years. Dozens of suspected Islamic radicals have been deported and a small number prosecuted for alleged ties to Al Qaeda or for recruiting and dispatching fighters to Iraq and elsewhere.

Saturday's Perugia arrests illustrate the need for such vigilance, said Amato, the interior minister.

"This confirms the need to maintain, always, close attention to places that should only be used for religious activities," he said.

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