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Italians face terror threat deadline in stride

As Italy heads  into its biggest holiday weekend of the year,  it faces a deadline for terror attacks if it doesn’t withdraw its troops from Iraq by Aug. 15.  The result has been the  biggest security build-up the country has ever seen. NBC News' Stephen Weeke reports from Rome.
An Italian police helicopter patrols the sky over the Roman Forum in Rome
An Italian police helicopter patrols the sky over the Forum as Italy steps up security following a stream of threats from Muslim militants.Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

As Italy heads into its biggest holiday weekend of the year, celebrating Ferragosto, or the height of summer, by shuttering shops and heading out of town, it is also facing a deadline for terror attacks if it doesn’t withdraw its troops from Iraq by Aug. 15th.

Although security experts believe this ultimatum comes from a group that doesn’t really exist, the Italian government is fielding the strongest police presence this country has ever seen.

The threat of a bloodbath in Rome or other major Italian cities, triggered by cells already in place, comes from a group called Abu Hafs al Masri Brigade. The name refers to a pseudonym for Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Atef, who is believed to have been the head of al-Qaida’s military wing until he was killed by a U.S. missile strike in Afghanistan three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

What undermines this group’s credibility are claims of responsibility for events it couldn’t possibly have caused, like the East Coast Blackout a year ago. 

While the threats may turn out to be bogus, the media resonance has had a big impact on the country’s consciousness and the government doesn’t want to be caught unprepared. 

Government trying to offer reassurance
Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu is doing his best to sound reassuring.

“The people can sleep soundly because the Ministry of Interior is keeping watch. We are in the midst of a terrorist media offensive, but we are not underestimating any threats and our defenses are high,” said Pisanu.

More than half the Italians polled by La Stampa, a national daily newspaper, believe a terror attack is imminent, but they aren't changing their behavior as a result. They are going about their daily lives.

Others, like Lebanese-born limo driver Elie Yammine, 51, think the threats are a lot of hype.

“These people who are threatening to attack Italy or the Vatican around the August 15th holiday are a bunch of buffoons. The media is constantly bombarding us with these unconfirmed reports that are driven by political interests. My personal opinion is that this is just a big circus,” said Yammine.

Despite the fact that people are still going about business as usual doesn’t mean that they are not affected.

Calm difficult to maintain
On the contrary, a metal detector set off by an El Al passenger checking in at Rome’s International airport this week led to a panicked evacuation from the terminal that turned into a stampede.  Witnesses say people were screaming, running into each other and diving over ticket counters to get away. Others say they were trampled by terrified travelers desperate to reach the exits. 

Calm was restored when the scare proved to be a false alarm, but airport authorities were surprised at how quickly people got out of control.

Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni appealed for calm. “These terror alerts must not be underestimated but we have to stay calm. Terrorism feeds on these fears and alerts, and we mustn’t create panic by amplifying them,” said Veltroni.

Typical Romans think the mayor’s words are easier said than lived.

Adelelmo Brecciaroli, a 62-year-old pensioner, was not encouraged. “I think and believe that something is going to happen because these guys are all crazy.  If they want to hurt us they will, and they’ve already proved it.”