By
NBC News
updated 7/16/2004 8:37:33 PM ET 2004-07-17T00:37:33

A posting on an al-Qaida-linked Web site Friday hinting of an “imminent” terrorist attack on Italy has raised serious concern in the U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism community, a senior U.S. official told NBC News.

The Web site, an Internet forum called the Global Islamic Media Center, posted its third threat against Italy in less than two weeks, referring to expectations of an operation that would occur “imminently” in Italy. The two previous threats, posted July 3 and on Wednesday, called on Italians to oust Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a prominent U.S. ally who strongly supported the war in Iraq.

The site has been used as a “de facto al-Qaida Web site where communications [from al-Qaida leaders] are posted,” the U.S. official told NBC, speaking on condition of anonymity. In particular, the official noted, the Web site’s moderator, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Banan, has ties to al-Qaida and has previously used the site to signal terrorist attacks by choosing particular messages for posting.

U.S. intelligence monitors the site, which is published under various addresses, and Abu Banan’s editing decisions, the official said. “He chooses. He is the editor, and he is the one with al-Qaida ties.”

Posting comes as deadline passes
The recent posting raised special concern, U.S. officials said, because of an audio message released April 15 by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, which offered a truce to European countries if they removed their troops from Muslim countries within 90 days. That deadline passed Thursday.

Internet Haganah, an Israeli group that monitors terrorist Web sites, reported Friday that there were suggestions on Abu Basan’s site and others that the target of a coming attack “may be Italy.”

“Jihadists believed to be in Italy have been observed [on what is clearly the Global Islamic Media Center, although it is not named] very recently speaking about their expectations of an operation to occur imminently,” Internet Haganah reported. “These jihadists are of North African ethnicity, which fits the profile of recent al-Qaida operatives in Europe. There has also been an increase in chatter expressing great expectations for an operation in Europe generally.”

“The sum of all this information leads us to the conclusion that al-Qaida operatives may strike sooner rather than later, and of the possible targets in Europe, Italy would appear to be at the top of the list,” it said.

Robert Windrem is an NBC News producer based in New York.

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