A European terror cell that recruited suicide bombers and insurgent fighters for Iraq and Afghanistan has been dismantled yesterday in a series of coordinated raids in Italy, France and Portugal.
20 Algerian and Tunisian militants have been arrested throughout Europe. The leaders of the group, Dridi Sabri, Mehdi Ben Nasr and Imed Ben Zarkaoui where operating from Northern Italy since at least 2002.
Among the arrested cell members in Italy was Bechir Kaouana (37), a Tunisian who since 1999 is known to have connections with the terrorist network of Essid Sami Ben Khemais. During searches at his home at the time, propaganda material was found, including a videotape on “Jihad in Chechnya” with pictures of fighting mujahideen and summary executions of Russian soldiers captured by Chechen rebels.
Another arrested cell member, Tunisian Habib Ignaoua (47), was also identified in 1998 as a member of the cell of Ben Khemais. According to Italian legal records, Ignaoua is as a veteran of the Bosnian war.
Two other men were arrested in England under an extradition warrant from the Italian authorities on charges of providing logistical support to the cell between 2003 and 2005. The Italians charged them for providing forged documents facilitating the illegal entry into Italy of recruited volunteers on their way to fight jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ali Ben Zidane Chehidi (34), was arrested in the London suburb of Croydon, and Mohamed Salah Ben Hamadi Khemiri (53), was arrested in the northern English city of Manchester.
Interestingly, Khemiri is also a veteran of the Bosnian war, where he is believed to have fought with the Muslim Mujahideen Brigade according to our sources. One document from the Bosnian police lists “Mohamed Salah Khemiri”, son of Hamad, born on April 7, 1954 in Beja, Tunisia. Khemiri was granted Bosnian citizenship in 1995, as were hundreds of foreign fighters.
In a pattern recently highlighted by the British MI5 Director-General, the cell was recruiting young candidates for suicide bombings. The core of the network was led and coordinated by Algerian and Tunisian veterans of the Bosnian war, that now appears as a key factor in many European terrorist networks.
According to the Italian investigation, the cell was financed by the trafficking of false passports and by donations raised in mosques. The cell was using legitimate businesses fronts to cover its activities, including butcher shops, call centers and car dealers.
During an intercepted telephone conversation in November 2006, the leader of cell reportedly said: “We want projects for the long term. Create a group of three or four persons with no criminal records, and with legal documents. We should open three or four butcher shops in Italy, and France. We should open a call center and trade in clothing. I’m talking about projects that bring profits.”
Click to view an exclusive surveillance video of the cell provided by the Special Operations Unit of the Italian police (ros_surveillance_tape.avi).