ROME – Italian anti-terrorist police said they arrested five suspected Islamic extremists, including an imam, who were preparing to leave Italy to carry out suicide bombing missions against Western targets in Iraq.
Police said the men, the Algerian-born imam and four Tunisian nationals, were arrested in and around the city of Florence and nearby Siena during an anti-terrorist operation carried out across Tuscany and Liguria in the early hours of Sunday.
They said the group belonged to the outlawed Ansar al Islam and provided logistical support to al-Qaeda.
The leader of the group was named as Mahamri Rashid, a 34-year-old imam of a local mosque in Florence, the police said.
Prosecutors said the four Tunisians, all aged in their 20s, had been planning to leave for Iraq via Syria and Yemen in the next few days.
There they were to make contact with other Ansar al Islam extremists who were to supply them with weapons and explosives and help them enter Iraq to carry out suicide bombings, according to prosecutors.
The five men — all legally resident in Italy — were later moved from Florence’s police headquarters to the Tuscan city’s Sollicciano prison, suspected of “subversive association for terrorist ends”.
Police said a total of 14 searches had been carried out in Florence, Siena and nearby Prato as part of the pre-dawn operation.
According to Italian media reports, Rashid — the imam of one of Florence’s two mosques — had been appointed to replace his predecessor at the Sorgana mosque, Mohamed Rafik, a Moroccan national arrested in Italy last October in connection with the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca which killed 45 people.
An Italian court has ordered Rafik’s extradition to Morocco. Rafik has denied the charges.
Police indicated the men had been under surveillance by an anti-terrorist unit based in Genoa for the past year, which began after one of the men had been questioned in Genoa as he was about to leave on a ferry for Tunisia a year ago.
The DIGOS anti-terrorist unit began a lengthy phone tap and surveillance operation after a search of his car turned up material extolling a jihad, or holy war.
The arrests came after Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu told a meeting of Islamic diplomats and experts in Rome on Saturday that he feared Italy could become the target of terrorist attacks.
“We are not underestimating any negative signals and we are preparing for any eventuality,” Pisanu told a meeting of the World Council of the World Islamic Call Society.
The interior minister said the Rome government wanted to accommodate an “Italian Islam, formed by believers who cultivate their own identity in full respect for other identities and of our laws”.