Italian police arrest 3 terror suspects


ROME - Police on Saturday arrested three Moroccans — a Muslim imam and two of his aides — and accused them of running a "terror school" at a small mosque in central Italy, where they allegedly trained in combat, learned about bombs and stashed away chemicals.

Italian anti-terror police said they found barrels of chemicals and instructions on how to pilot a Boeing 747 in the Ponte Felcino mosque on the outskirts of Perugia, a city known for its Renaissance architecture and idyllic countryside. A fourth suspect was being sought.

"The investigation has shown that, in the Ponte Felcino mosque, there was a continued training for terrorist activity," anti-terror police head Carlo De Stefano said. "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."

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 suspect was believed to be abroad. All four were suspected of conducting training with the aim of international terrorism.

Police also said in a statement that the suspects had contacts with two members of the Moroccan Islamic Combat group arrested around two years ago in Belgium. The Islamic group — known by its French acronym, GICM — is believed to have ties to al-Qaida and has been linked to the 2004 Madrid train bombings and 2003 attacks in Casablanca, Morocco.

It was not immediately clear if the defendants had retained attorneys.

The modest mosque, on the ground floor of a red-painted residential building, hid chemicals, including acids, nitrates and ferrocyanide, which may have been used to experiment making bombs or poisons, said Claudio Galzerano, head of the international terrorism division within the anti-terror police.

Activities at the mosque used films and documents downloaded from the Internet, and included weapons training, instructions on how to prepare poisons and explosives, as well as how to lay an ambush, reach combat zones safely and send encrypted messages, a police statement said.

Galzerano told The Associated Press that the cell was involved only in training activities, and that no one was accused of preparing or carrying out attacks.

Another 20 people who frequented the mosque were placed under investigation for various charges, including violating Italy's immigration laws, Galzerano said.

The arrests followed a two-year investigation in the city, which attracts many tourists roaming its Medieval and Renaissance palaces. It also has many immigrants working in local industries.

The imam at the larger central mosque in Perugia said the Ponte Felcino group did not appear dangerous, Italian news agency ANSA reported. The news agency said Perugia's Muslim community is estimated at 10,000 in a city of about 150,000.

"Generally, it's a quiet community. A few made some noise over the international situation, but those were just words," the imam, Abdel Qader, told ANSA. "We trust justice. Everything will be verified, and if any (of the suspects) has made a mistake he will have to pay."

Between daily prayers, the small mosque doubled as a training camp, the police statement said. The imam held courses, showed propaganda messages and made fiery sermons inciting a small group of disciples, some of them children, to wage Holy War, police said.

In recent years, Italy has tightened its anti-terrorism laws and stepped up surveillance at mosques and Islamic centers.

Authorities have kept a close eye on what they say are extremist clerics, having some expelled or arrested and put on trial, though several cases have ended in acquittals. In May, a court cleared a former imam in the northern town of Varese and two other Moroccans accused of raising money and recruiting extremists for the GICM.

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."

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