Italian authorities have arrested four suspects, who have seemingly had an “accentuated willingness” to carry out terrorist attacks in Rome and the Vatican. At least two other members of the Islamic State cell are on the run.
While there was no indication of an imminent attack, the group was allegedly ordered by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) to carry out atrocities in Italy “with particular attention to the city of Rome” as well as the Vatican during the Jubilee Of Mercy year, Milan prosecutor Maurizio Romanelli told reporters.
Two of those detained included Abderrahim Moutaharrik, a kickboxing champion and his wife Salma Bencharki. The couple was arrested in the Lombardy province of Lecco as part of a joint investigation by Italy’s anti-terrorism agency, the General Investigations and Special Operations Division (DIGOS) and ROS, a special operations group that is part of Italy’s carabinieri police force.
Authorities said that the couple were planning to travel to IS-held territory with their children aged two and four. The third person arrested on Thursday was a 23-year-old Abderrahmane Khachia, who was also planning to travel to the so-called ISIS caliphate.
Italian authorities are now looking for a 39-year-old Italian woman, Alice Brignoli, who changed her name to Aisha, and her husband Mohamed Korachi. Both are believed to have fled Italy last year to join jihadists in Syria.
Koraichi is believed to be an IS fighter and the one who initially communicated the orders to carry out attacks in Italy. He is also believed to be the person who was arranging a trip to ISIS-held land for the three of those arrested. The fourth arrest made on Thursday was of Koraichi’s sister, prosecutors said.
Those arrested, all of whom were Moroccans, according to Italian authorities, communicated with terrorists via the WhatsApp messenger service. Romanelli said that the texts received by the group were “very strong, very serious and very efficient,” and were aimed to incite lone-wolf attacks “as the best way of creating terror within western countries.”
“This is a new profile, because it was not a generic indication, but an indication given to a specific person who was invited to act within the territory of the Italian State,” Romanelli said.
One of the messages to Moutahrrik said, “Dear brother Abderrahim, I send you… the bomb poem… listen to the sheik and strike,” Italian ANSA news agency reports, adding that the “sheik” most likely refers to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Other transcripts from the intercepted conversations seen by Reuters between three of the suspects indicate that one of the targets in Rome was supposed to have been the Israeli embassy.
“I swear I will be the first to attack them in this Italy of crusaders, I swear I’ll attack it, in the Vatican God willing,” one of the arrested men is quoted as telling the man on the run in the transcript.
The other target for the jihadists were Christian pilgrims to the Holy See, after Pope Francis called for the Jubilee of Mercy to be held from December 8, 2015 – November 20, 2016.
According to Interior Minister Angelino Alfano “there was a serious intention to hit Italy,” he told Sky TG24. While they weren’t yet involved in the material preparations for an attack, “there was a decision, an accentuated willingness, to proceed,” he added.
Italy has been repeatedly threatened by ISIS as the next possible target. Last year a video released by ISIS featured numerous threats to western capitals including the threat of a “conquest of Rome.” The Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square was also recently featured on the cover of the terror group’s online magazine. On Monday James Clapper, the Director Of National Intelligence warned that ISIS underground cells operate in the UK, Germany and Italy.
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