Italian investigators arrest 2 accused of leading terror cell

Rotella and De Cristofaro are Times staff writers.

Italian anti-terrorism police Tuesday dismantled an alleged Islamic extremist cell accused of plotting to bomb a military base, police stations and civilian targets in an industrial area north of Milan.

Investigators arrested two Moroccan immigrants accused of posing a more urgent and direct threat to Italy than in previous cases in the country, which mostly have involved recruitment or logistics for terrorist networks in Iraq and North Africa.

The elite anti-terrorism division of the national police launched the raid after surveillance revealed the suspects were researching explosives techniques, discussing attacks and conducting reconnaissance, authorities said. The alleged targets included a military base, police stations, a nightclub and a supermarket. An additional eight men remain under investigation.

"We were able to intervene before they struck," Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said in a televised interview. "It is certainly a new and worrying situation because for the first time we are talking about people who had planned attacks in Italy. We are verifying whether it is an extended network or whether it is an isolated case."

The two alleged leaders arrested on suspicion of international terrorism exemplify a serious emerging threat in the West, anti-terrorism officials said: a previously unknown group that was inspired by Al Qaeda's ideology but began plotting violence without training or direction from an established network.

Police described Abdelkader Ghafir, 44, and Rachid Ilhami, 31, as family men and legal residents, a profile that contrasts with the combat-hardened militants, petty criminals and illegal immigrants who have dominated past cases. The men were well established in the area north of Milan, an expanse of well-off towns and specialized industries that attract an immigrant workforce.

"This is classic do-it-yourself terrorism," Bruno Megale, chief of the anti-terrorism unit in Milan, said in a telephone interview. "These were people who worked, had been here 10 years, lived better than average. But they were consumed by Al Qaeda ideology, sermons, videos. They indoctrinated others, they became intensely motivated and, little by little, they reached the point of preparing operations."

Ilhami, a welder, had taught his 2-year-old son to refer to Osama bin Laden as Uncle Osama, authorities said.

Ilhami and Ghafir, a construction worker, are accused of recruiting at a small mosque that functioned without a permit in an abandoned store. About 70 worshipers attended the mosque in Macherio, a community of 6,000 where Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns a villa.

After moderate sermons during official services, the rhetoric turned angry and violent in small-group meetings, authorities said.

The suspects tried to enter into contact with Al Qaeda networks active in Iraq and Afghanistan but encountered difficulties and decided to wage holy war on Italy instead, investigators said.

"Their maximum ambition was to blow themselves up against a target," Megale said.

Wiretaps in cars and other locations picked up conversations about planning suicide bombings against civilian, military and police targets in Milan and the nearby Monza region, authorities said.

The Milan anti-terrorism unit, which has carried out the most high-profile investigations in Italy, conducted searches Tuesday but did not find explosives.

Some previous investigations in Italy have ended in acquittals or mixed verdicts after initial fanfare. In 2002, the prosecution of a group of North African suspects in an alleged plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Rome fell apart because of weak evidence.

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Sebastian Rotella

reporting from madrid

Maria De Cristofaro

reporting from rome

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rotella@latimes.com

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