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Monday, 25 February, 2002, 18:48 GMT
Analysis: Italy's terror connection
View of Rome
Al-Qaeda appear to have had particular interest in Italy
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By Frances Kennedy in Rome
Nearly a week after the arrest of a group of Moroccans suspected of preparing a terrorist attack on the US embassy in Rome there are many unanswered questions troubling the investigators and the Italian public.

The biggest of them all is - why Italy?

Rome magistrates on Sunday confirmed the arrests of eight Moroccan men on charges of subversive association.

Leaked reports said investigators believed they "were part of a terrorist organisation that intended to use poisonous substances for acts of indiscriminate fanaticism".

Map showing Rome
Four of the Moroccans were found in possession of a cyanide compound, gunpowder and detailed maps of the water system around the US Embassy on Rome's famous Via Veneto.

Italian police met embassy officials on Monday to consider security measures after the discovery of a recently created hole in a utility tunnel a few metres from the embassy's foundations.

Italy's loose immigration laws and strategic location make it a tempting location for terrorist groups wanting a European base, yet it has never been considered a priority target for Islamic extremists.

It has always had a balanced stance on touchy issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and has played only a marginal role in the US-led "war against terrorism".

However, the US State Department last year warned that Italy was becoming a key European base for al-Qaeda activists and listed Milan's Islamic Cultural Centre as a suspected cove of terrorists, a claim rejected by the centre's leaders.

Cell convictions

These accusations seemed to be reinforced by the the convictions last week in Milan of four Tunisians, in the first post-11 September trial of men accused of belonging to an Italian al-Qaeda cell.

The four were arrested last year and phone taps show they were in close contact with other al-Qaeda operatives in Europe and in Afghanistan.

Italian police officers at the Trevi Fountain
Police have made eight arrests over the alleged poison plot
General Luigi Caligaris, an Italian defence expert, said recent events seem to contradict traditional thinking that terrorists prefer to keep a low profile in countries they want to use as a logistical base.

"However, if we are in a transition, from a period in which it was easier to get away with things to a new tougher climate, fanatics might want to take advantage of that for some high profile action," he commented.

The current government, keen to foster a "special relationship" with Washington, is trying to show it is doing all in its power to halt Islamic extremists while reassuring Italians that they are not under threat.

Prison 'converts'

Investigators were furious that news of the arrests was leaked to the media. Sources say this was because they consider the Moroccans arrested minor players and wanted to use them to trace the organisers of a potential attack.

According to reports in the Italian press, the secret services have in recent months been focusing on the many North Africans in Italian jails.

They said there was clear evidence that al-Qaeda was looking for low-level operatives among the often desperate prison population.

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