RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
We go now to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Hello.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Hello, there.
MONTAGNE: So where did these arrests take place?
POGGIOLI: Police say it was virtual academy of terrorist training. Both in the mosque and in the imam's home, they seized barrels of chemical substances that the Italian media identified as acids, nitrates and cyanide. The imam, 41-year-old Korchi El Mostapha, was arrested along with two aides, while a fourth man is being sought and 20 other people are under investigation.
MONTAGNE: And what do authorities there think? That this was in preparation for a terrorist attack in Italy?
POGGIOLI: Well, it's not clear. Police tried to play down fears that the suspects were planning an attack here. But they found maps of Milan and Bologna and the Rome airport. And terrorism experts says the arrest show a shift in strategy on Italian soil. It started in the 1990s. Italy was a transit area for mujahedeen going to fight in Bosnia. Then it became a logistics base for forged identity documents, fundraising and safe houses for jihadis going to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. So the arrests have raised fears that Italy itself may have become a target just like Spain and Britain.
MONTAGNE: And have police discovered at this early date any links between this Italian cell and al-Qaida itself?
POGGIOLI: In May, I spoke to the leading Spanish anti-terrorism magistrate, Baltazar Garzon, who said al-Qaida's presence in the Maghreb is a reality, and that North Africa has become an ideal base from which to engage at attacks against Europe.
MONTAGNE: Tell us how this terrorist training school operated, a few more details on that, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Now from all this traffic, police paint a picture of a very diffuse, horizontal terrorist network without any hierarchy, where instructions are encrypted in pictures on Web sites. Police say that with the increasing sophistication of jihadi videos, computers can replace training camps in Afghanistan in the Middle East. So any mosque or Islamic cultural center can become a terrorist academy. The European union is aware of this. Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini announced his office has drafted what he calls a detailed map of all European mosques with the names of all the imams and sources of their financing.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.
POGGIOLI: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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