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Italian police explore Al Qaeda links in cyanide plot

Four cases focus on the recent arrests of North Africans and others allegedly tied to Islamic militant cells.

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During a raid on a small Roman apartment frequented by alleged Arabic terrorists arrested at dawn last Friday, police found videos of decapitations and suicide bombings, plus political propaganda for a holy war.

But what set off alarm bells was an Arizona address on a folder of Arabic documents. "We are working with our American colleagues to see if there is a link between this Phoenix address and pilots of the September suicide attack in New York," says Col. Gianfranco Cavallo, a leading police investigator, in an interview. He says Italian and FBI detectives are also exploring the possibility that Lofti Raissi, the Algerian accused of training the Sept. 11 suicide pilots, stayed at the Phoenix address.

Investigators also believe the men arrested Friday may have been part of a network of cells operating throughout Italy and Europe with links to the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) and the GSPC (Salafist Group for Call and Combat), and ultimately with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Salafism, a philosophy shared by bin Laden, is a pan-Islamic movement advocating a return to the purity of the roots of Islam, as Mohammed and his companions practiced it. The GSPC is an offshoot of the GIA, the most radical antigovernment force in Algeria, which has been waging war on the government for several years. Where the GIA puts priority on overthrowing the Algerian government, the GSPC believes "that if jihad is not international, it has no meaning," says Claude Moniquet, an expert on fundamentalist Islamic groups.

The GSPC is believed to have received funding from bin Laden, and to have sent members to his Afghan training camps. The group was banned in March 2001 in Britain, where police say it raises money from racketeering, smuggling in Algeria, and money laundering. The organization was on President Bush's list of 27 organizations whose assets were frozen after Sept. 11.

Italian authorities are looking for any links between the group arrested last Friday - which included a Pakistani (suspected as the ringleader), a Tunisian, an Algerian and three Iraqis - and a group of nine Moroccans arrested earlier this month after the discovery of a perforation in a tunnel near the US Embassy. So far, the only links between the two groups are cyanide and a mosque whose address was found in the Moroccans' apartment. The mosque was attended by the other group.

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