ROME – Italy has become a departure point for suicide attackers linked to al-Qaida and active against U.S.-led forces in Iraq, according to an Italian intelligence report released Tuesday. The document also warned that forces staging anti-coalition attacks in Iraq might expand their scope and targets.
In December, Italian investigators said they shut down a European network suspected of recruiting Islamic militants to carry out attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq. The investigators said the volunteers were drawn from Muslim youths living on the fringes of society in Western Europe, including Italy.
Evidence gathered over the past six months shows “the strategic importance of our country … not only as a transit point and for logistic and financial support, but also as a departure point for would-be `kamikaze’ or holy warriors” in Iraq, read the biannual report put together by the Italian secret services.
The report said many of the extremists stationed in Italy have links to North African terror groups and to al-Qaida operatives believed active in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The intelligence report said Italian cells seeking to recruit people for suicide attacks include high-ranking suspects, and are mainly based in Milan and other northern cities, such as Cremona, Parma and Reggio Emilia. Regions like Tuscany and Piedmont in the north, and Campania in the south, are also considered fertile ground for extremists, the 46-page report said.
From there, the extremists have taken part in what the report described as the “Iraqi campaign.”
The report, which covered the last six months of 2003, did not spell out what attacks in Iraq might have been carried out by people coming from Italy.
However, in December, top Italian investigators said one recruit from Italy may have been involved in a rocket attack on the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad in October. At the time of the attack, the assistant U.S. defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, was staying at the hotel.
Italian authorities has put many suspected terrorists behind bars in the last few years, in many cases alleging they provided logistical support to extremists, such as providing fake papers.
In November, Italian authorities arrested two people on suspicion of recruiting militants for suicide attacks in Iraq, the first such arrests in Italy since the beginning of the war. A third suspect, an Algerian, was picked up in Germany on an arrest warrant issued in Milan as part of the same probe.
In an interview published Tuesday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said NATO needs to strengthen ties to southern Mediterranean and Middle East countries to combat terrorism.
“Only by involving countries from the southern side (of the Mediterranean) in a common defense and security plan can we create the conditions for a stable solution and especially for a stable action against terrorism,” Frattini told Corriere della Sera.
He did not identify the countries he wanted to be part of increased cooperation, but said the plan might in the future include Iraq. The minister was quoted as saying he would make a proposal to NATO at an alliance summit next month.