MADRID — Police around Europe arrested at least 14 suspected Islamic extremists Tuesday in an operation targeting an Italian-based network that allegedly trained and dispatched suicide bombers from Europe to battle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, authorities said.
The network allegedly gave clandestine training in explosives and tactics to its recruits, predominantly North African immigrants, before sending them via Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan, authorities said.
"We believe they sent at least 10 fighters to Iraq between 2003 and 2007," said Col. Mario Mettifogo of the Carabinieri, Italy's paramilitary police. "The three leaders were based in Milan."
Italian investigators arrested most of the suspects in a sweep across the north of the country, Mettifogo said in a telephone interview. Police also arrested three men in Britain and one in Portugal. French police were seeking at least two more people, he said.
During a wiretapped conversation in a moving car in Italy, a chief suspect gave a detailed explanation of how to carry out a vehicle-bomb attack, Italian anti-terrorism officials said. Raids in the cities of Milan, Bergamo and Reggio Emilia turned up manuals with instructions on poisons, long-distance detonating systems, and bomb-making, officials said.
Investigators, however, found no signs of plans for an attack in Europe. The Milan cell grew out of a network dismantled last year that allegedly plotted bombings in France and Italy, Italian counter-terrorism officials said.
The raids come at a time when authorities in southern Europe are increasingly worried about the threat from Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, an Algerian-dominated network that has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
Ayman Zawahiri, considered deputy leader of the broader Al Qaeda movement, recently issued a videotaped statement repeating his exhortations to the North African group to strike European countries.
Despite the propaganda and recent attacks in Algeria, Al Qaeda in the Magreb has struggled in its efforts to federate North African groups into a single force. And there is not yet much evidence that it has established strong operational links to the core leaders of Al Qaeda, who are believed to be based in Pakistan, experts say.
Nonetheless, the two-year investigation by the Carabinieri reiterated the front-line role of extremists in Europe's North African diaspora in providing fighters to Al Qaeda's offshoot in Iraq and, increasingly, to the Pakistani-Afghan region where foreign militants battle alongside the resurgent Taliban.
The case shows the connections between the Iraqi and South Asian combat zones, investigators said.
"Today, everybody wants to go to Afghanistan," said a senior Italian anti-terrorism official who, like many officials involved with investigating sensitive terrorism cases, requested anonymity. "In this case, the route was to cross Iraq and go through Iran to Afghanistan. But the most interesting thing is the proof of previous training in Italy. It was mostly theoretical. They showed them how to make a little bomb, how to get to the jihad zone, what to do when you arrive."
Italian investigators coordinated with American counterparts, providing intelligence that enabled U.S. troops in Iraq to capture some of the recruits who arrived from Italy, the anti-terrorism official said.
The case has another interesting and enigmatic aspect. The suspects in Reggio Emilia belong to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a disciplined and highly structured fundamentalist group with roots in the Middle East and a strong presence in Northern Europe and Central Asia.
Despite its radical calls for establishment of a worldwide Islamic caliphate and virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric, Hizb ut-Tahrir insists it is nonviolent. It focuses relentlessly on ideological and propaganda work and remains legal in most Western countries. Members of the group have rarely been implicated in violence, though former members and associates have turned up as suspects in terrorism investigations around the world, experts say.
"This case shows there has been an evolution in Hizb ut-Tahrir's activity," Mettifogo said.
Other Italian officials were more circumspect, saying the investigation still had to make clear the alleged role of the Hizb ut-Tahrir members.