Italian police arrested three Moroccans on Saturday — an imam and two aides — accusing them of belonging to a militant cell that allegedly used a mosque in central Italy as a terror training camp.
The cell held courses on hand-to-hand combat and used propaganda films and documents downloaded from the Internet to teach students how to prepare poisons and explosives, pilot a Boeing 747 and send encrypted messages, anti-terrorism police in Rome said in a statement.
The mosque on the outskirts of Perugia, the Umbrian capital, also offered weapons training, as well as instructions on how to ambush, how to reach combat zones safely and how to send encrypted messages, police said.
Officers seized barrels of chemical substances, including acids, nitrates and ferrocyanide, found in the mosque’s cellar, police said, speculating that the chemicals could have been used for experiments in the terror training courses.
Police identified the imam as 41-year-old Korchi El Mostapha and his two aides as Mohamed El Jari, 47, and Driss Safika, 46. A fourth Moroccan was still being sought and was believed to be abroad.
The three men, arrested in Perugia, are accused of international terrorism, with the arrests coming after a two-year investigation. An additional 20 people who frequented Perugia’s Ponte Felcino mosque were being investigated for various charges, including violating Italy’s immigration laws, police said.
'A real 'terror school''
Outside daily prayers, the small mosque doubled as a training camp, the police statement said. The imam made fiery sermons inciting a small group of disciples, some of them children, to join the Holy War.
“We have discovered and neutralized a real ‘terror school’ which was part of a widespread terrorism system made up of small cells that act on their own,” said anti-terror police head Carlo De Stefano.
Police did not say if cell members had participated in terror attacks or planned any. However they said the cell had contacts with two Moroccan Islamic Combat Group members arrested some two years ago in Belgium.
Ties to al-Qaida?
The Islamic group, known by its French acronym, GICM, is allegedly tied to al-Qaida and has been linked to the 2004 Madrid transit bombings and 2003 Casablanca attacks.
In recent years Italy has toughened its anti-terrorism laws and intensified surveillance at mosques and Islamic centers.
Authorities have closely watched several clerics, expelling some and arresting others, but several cases have ended in acquittals. In May, a court cleared the former imam of the northern town of Varese and two other Moroccans accused of raising money and recruiting extremists for the Islamic Combatant Group.
In a statement praising Saturday’s arrests, Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said the Perugia case “confirms the need to always maintain high surveillance in locations where only religious activities should take place.”