A group of suspected Islamic militants arrested in Italy and Belgium may have been planning an attack on NATO headquarters or the European Parliament, Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera said on Wednesday.
Quoting Italian investigators, Corriere said a suspected planner of the Madrid bombings in March — among those arrested on Tuesday — had intended to travel from Italy to Belgium possibly to take part in an attack on a “symbolic” target.
Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, known as “Mohamed the Egyptian,” was seized on Tuesday with a fellow suspect in Milan, and Belgian police, acting on information from Italy, arrested 15 people they said had been gearing up for an attack.
Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said on Tuesday that Ahmed was part of a “dangerous group of terrorists close to al Qaeda” which had been planning attacks.
Corriere said Italian investigators believed the symbolic target might have been the headquarters of NATO in Brussels or the European Parliament, which has its main building in Strasbourg, France, and offices in Brussels.
Investigators in Milan and Brussels were not available for comment.
A spokesman for the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance declined to comment on the Corriere report, but noted that the security level at the low-rise complex on the edge of Brussels had been at a relatively low Alpha+ for weeks and still was.
“The safety of this headquarters is ensured by the Belgian authorities, not by NATO,” he said. “If they have any information that there is a higher risk then they would warn NATO and NATO security measures would be upgraded appropriately.”
The newspaper quoted Belgian prosecutor Daniel Bernard as saying he believed the suspects arrested in Belgium were probably planning an attack outside the country.
Corriere published excerpts from telephone conversations intercepted by police in which Ahmed purportedly urged others to carry out suicide attacks and claimed responsibility for organizing the Madrid train bombings which killed 191 people.
“We young people must be the first ones to sacrifice ourselves … because God puts us all to the test, he tires us out, he tests the faith of us all,” Ahmed was quoted as telling the man arrested with him in Milan on Tuesday.
“There is only one solution, to join al Qaeda,” he was quoted as saying.
In another phrase, Ahmed was reported to have said: “The attack in Madrid was a project of mine and those who died were my most dear friends.”
Spanish authorities have linked Ahmed to Serhane ben Abdelmajid Farkhet, known as “The Tunisian,” whom they consider the ringleader of the Madrid bombings.
Farkhet, 35, was killed on April 3 when he and six other suspects blew themselves up in a suburban Madrid apartment rather than surrender to police who had surrounded them.
In the phone tap excepts published in Corriere, Ahmen also referred to militants leaving for Iraq for suicide attacks.