More than 30 alleged members of the al-Qaida terror organization have been arrested in Italy since the September 11 attacks last year in the United States. Italian authorities were not always this aggressive in pursuing suspected terrorists.
Since the attacks in the United States, Italian investigators have made serious efforts to identify and arrest anyone believed to be an operative or supporter of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. This, analysts say, is not the way Italy used to behave.
The director of the Rome-based Global Security research center, Giorgio Prinzi, says, in the past, international terrorists found it relatively easy to carry out their business in Italy. For them, he says, it was a tranquil base for operations, where they enjoyed a certain level of freedom of movement and action.
Mr. Prinzi says Islamic extremism, which has always been seen as Middle Eastern terrorism, enjoyed a certain degree of what he called complicity with the authorities. He adds there were tacit accords between the Italian authorities and radical groups, the police would ignore the terrorists, as long as the terrorists did nothing against Italian territory or interests.
Italian officials deny that any such accords existed. Luigi Ramponi is chairman of the defense committee of Italy's lower house of parliament. Far from ignoring the terrorists, Italian investigators fully cooperated with their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa to ensure stability and security in the Mediterranean, says Luigi Ramponi, chairman of the defense committee of Italy's lower house of parliament.
But Mr. Prinzi insists there was no real political will to arrest extremists, although the authorities knew who they were. He says, this situation could no longer continue after the September 11 attacks. Italians began to think they could also be vulnerable. From then on, he says, the authorities went from watching the terrorists to hunting them down.
Mr. Prinzi says, over the years, the groups had let down their guard, and the police were able to put to good use the time they had spent quietly observing them.
A Rome-based political analyst, Vittorfranco Pisano, a former consultant to the U.S. Senate's subcommittee on security and terrorism, says Italy's geographically strategic position, as a Mediterranean country in Europe and between Africa and Asia, induced extremists to conduct support activities on its territory.
Colonel Pisano explains that "The activity that goes on in Italy consists primarily in personnel-oriented operations and logistical support operations, rather than terrorist attacks as such."
According to Colonel Pisano, the extremist elements operating on Italian territory originate mainly from North Africa, although some come from Iraq and Pakistan. He adds they set up activities such as clothing stores or butcher's shops, which appear to be legitimate on the surface, but are often a cover for illegal activities.
"There are various locations in Italy, which constitute a base for unlawful activity, all within the support sphere: The acquisition or forgery of identification or travel documents, the collection and recycling of funds through businesses and charities, the procurement and dispatching of weapons, explosives and chemical agents to other areas of the world, obviously, for terrorist activities," explains Colonel Pisano. "Then we can also add facilitating clandestine entry into Italy, as well as recruitment of Muslims from the local Islamic community for training in other countries, or for direct involvement in Europe or elsewhere."
Seven Tunisians were convicted earlier this year in a Milan court of helping al-Qaida recruits get fake documents. It was the first al-Qaida-related guilty verdict since the attacks.
U.S. authorities had named Milan's Islamic center as a logistical aid station for al-Qaida operatives.
In addition to the arrests they have made in recent months, Italian authorities have managed to thwart an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Rome and on the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, which has a fresco depicting the prophet Mohammed burning in hell. Italian police have also stepped up security at airports, train stations and sensitive targets across the country.
Given Italy's aggressive attitude toward al-Qaida and similar organizations, Colonel Pisano believes such precautions are now necessary. "If, at a certain point, certain groups come to the conclusion that Italy is no longer useful as a bridge or a corridor, that it can no longer be exploited in logistical and recruitment terms, then they might decide because of its closeness to the areas from which these extremists originate, then it might be worthwhile to attack targets on Italian territory," he points out.
The colonel says the purpose of the attacks would be to intimidate the Italian people and to secure the release of those arrested. And, he adds, another concern for Italian authorities is that some terrorist groups may decide to act independently.
"They have been held in check by the fact that, until now, there was some degree of central control on the part of the terrorist organizations themselves," he adds. "But as these terrorist organizations begin to suffer setbacks, then you may be seeing far more freelancing than we have been seeing until now."
Mr. Prinzi of the Global Security research center agrees that Italy is wise to step up its security measures. After years as a bystander in the fight against terrorism, Mr. Prinzi says, the Italian government is now playing a far more active role. Italy's new attitude has won it new friends, but also gained it new enemies, many of whom live in Italy.