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 Friday, 24 January, 2003, 10:45 GMT
Q & A: European terror arrests
The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner explains the background to the terror arrests in Italy.

What happened in Italy?

This does seem to be a very serious raid undertaken by the Italian police. The raid took place on Wednesday and unlike in the UK, where such raids happen unannounced, Italian TV was invited along on this raid.

There are amazing TV pictures of them going into this ramshackle crumbling farm house near Venice, which according to the media reports was littered with beer cans, which is not very Islamic behaviour.

Inside the arrested a gang of five Moroccans who had 1kg of C4 explosives hidden in a sock under a pile of laundry.

What is C4 explosive?

C4 explosive is a very powerful military explosive and the same type of explosive as used in the Bali bombing last year. Used in a confined space it can kill dozens of people. If you used it in a crowded place, like a station or if it was made into a car bomb it could be absolutely devastating.

They also had maps, including one of London. Does it indicate they were planning to attack the UK?

I wouldn't yet read too much into the fact that they had a map of the London underground because no targets were marked on that.

They did, however, have a map of a Nato base in Verona, near to where they were arrested and targets were marked on this map. There were also maps of embassies in Italy.

They're believed also to have had addresses of men in London, people they were in contact with and a number of Arabic documents.

At the moment however, it looks like they were planning attacks in Italy rather than London. Senior security sources in the UK have told me that they are not assessing this as a plot to attack London.

It sounds like a basic operation with targets marked on maps. How organised are they?

These are not particularly sophisticated cells which are operating there. In general terms the North African network, and that includes those operating here in the UK - they are all linked - they are not in the same league as those who plotted the September 11 attacks.

Those bombers' operational security was very tight. The Germans for example never saw them in Hamburg, where we know some of the bombers operated and organised the US attacks.

How effective have the Italians been in countering terrorism?

This is the third plot that the Italians have been able to thwart and it won't be the last. There was a previous plot to blow up St Peter's Square in Venice and one to poison the water supply in Rome as well.

The Italian authorities have told me they are watching 500 suspects and they believe there are at least 12 sleeper cells in Italy and it looks now like one of them has gone active.

Since September 2001 there have been more than 100 arrests in Italy. All of these have been involved in logistics, this one seems to be an operational plot.

Are these freelance terrorists?

Freelance is probably the best way to describe them.They are not strictly linked to al-Qaeda. They have the same aims, the same philosophy. They believe that the West is evil and that Western governments must be hurt in some way and that means killing people to make a point.

They believe the West must be punished for all the suffering Muslims are experiencing in the Middle East - that is their philosophy.

More than a year has passed now since al-Qaeda lost its Afghan bases, so fewer and fewer people who were trained in those bases are involved in these plots.

But with a little bit of encouragement and very little money they do seem to be operating on a freelance basis.

Key stories

European probe


See also:

24 Jan 03 | Europe
11 Dec 01 | Europe
06 Sep 02 | Europe
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