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Experts Say Iraq Insurgency Has Reduced Terror Threat in West 

  • Sabina Castelfranco

Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu speaks at the Foreign Press Association in Rome (June 9, 2005)
International terrorism experts say the situation in Iraq has diverted the attention of Islamic extremists away from the West. But they believe the threat to the West will resume, once violence in Iraq subsides.

International terrorism experts say terror networks are focusing on their fight in Iraq, temporarily reducing the dangers faced by Western countries that have been targets in the past. But Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, speaking recently to journalists at Rome's foreign press club, say this will change once the situation in Iraq is resolved.

"I think we need to need to concern ourselves with a return of the terrorists who went to Iraq," he said. "Once the Iraqi situation has calmed down, they will tend to return to Europe, as occurred with Bosnia, at the end of the Balkan wars."

Mr. Pisanu added that the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader of insurgents in Iraq, is more interested in fighting the West in that country than in Europe or in the United States.

Retired U.S. army colonel and international terrorism expert Vittorfranco Pisano agrees with the Italian Interior minister. He says the American and allied intervention in Iraq has definitely concentrated resistance efforts against the United States in particular and westerners in general.

"The focus is elsewhere right now," he said. "The focus is on Iraq. This has caused a diversion in terms of the emphasis that Islamic extremists attribute to targets."

Western countries massively stepped up security measures following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States. Interior Minister Pisanu says those measures are still in place in Italy and preparations are being made for when terrorists active in Iraq come back.

"Prevention measures were tightened significantly throughout Europe," he said. "In Italy, 1,300 sensitive targets are under surveillance and clearly this also discourages potential terrorists."

Dozens of terror suspects have been arrested in Italy, since the terror attacks on the United States. Seventy-five people suspected of illegal activities linked to terrorism have been arrested during the past year. But most have either been released, acquitted during trial or convicted of only minor crimes, such as falsifying documents. One expert noted that of 500 people arrested for terrorism in the European Union, only a couple of dozen have been convicted.

Interior Minister Pisanu notes that magistrates face problems because the legal systems in democratic states were not designed to handle the issues presented by modern terrorism.

"Our juridical culture, our democratic system has not yet adapted to the characteristics of this threat and are therefore finding it difficult to respond with the needed effectiveness," he said.

Italy's legal system introduced the charge of "subversive association," aimed at international terrorism, shortly after the U.S. terror attacks. But magistrates have yet to convict anyone of this crime. Experts, such as Colonel Pisano, say the matter is not simple because there is no agreement on what constitutes terrorism.

"There is no definition available either at the universal level, global level or at the regional level, which reflects the real nature of terrorism," he said. "Substantially terrorism is a form of unconventional conflict characterized by the three elements. The first of these is criminal violence, the second is political or political-religious motivation, and the third is made up of clandestine structures and dynamics."

Terrorism experts say Italy has been mainly used as a logistics base, where cells based mostly in the north of the country are active in recruitment and manufacturing false papers.

Police wiretaps have intercepted what are said to be discussions of terror plans between members of Islamic cells based in Italy and elsewhere. But Colonel Pisano says Italy has not been a prime terror target because it is viewed more as a base of operations for terror cells.

"Italy is an excellent quarter or bridge in terms of linking the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa with Europe and the western world itself. It has been a matter of convenience to exploit Italy from this standpoint, instead of actually conducting terrorist attacks as such," he said.

Italian intelligence information, made public last year, said the country has been used as a departure point for suicide attackers, linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, active against allied forces in Iraq.

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