ROME--Italian police have arrested four Tunisian men accused of creating an Islamic militant cell in a small, southern Italian town and discussing the possibility of terror attacks in the United States, Italy and Israel.
The head of the group, Ben Hassen Hosni Hachemi, was formerly the head of a mosque in the town of Andria in the Italian region of Puglia, as well as the manager of a telephone call center, which he allegedly used as a training center, showing recruits videos about bomb making and the use of firearms, as well as speeches by Osama bin Laden.
“They were planning attacks, and while they had yet to choose targets, they were overheard by wiretaps mentioning Italy, the U.S. and Israel as options,” a police source said Tuesday.
After tracking the men since 2008, police allege the group’s leader was also planning to send recruits to fight with other Islamic militants in countries such as Iraq, using contacts in those places.
“They were awaiting orders to send men to join fighters or to mount an attack,” said the source.
Warrants were also issued for two other men, a Tunisian and a Moroccan, who are believed to have fled to Tunisia.
Hachemi was arrested in Brussels; another man was arrested in Lombardy in northern Italy and two others in Sicily. The police source, who asked not to be named, said wiretaps revealed the group had organized physical training on the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna.
“We have broken up a group which trained for terrorist activity and preached and raised funds,” said Gen. Mario Parente, the head of the special operations team within Italy’s semi-military Carabinieri police, which ran the operation.
"The members of the group formed an isolated 'micro community' removed from any external contact or influence, where they could practise their own version of Islam according to the decrees imposed by Al Qaeda," prosecutors said in a statement.
Parente said the group’s leader preached hatred against Judaism, exhorting his followers to carry out violent acts against Jews. Wiretaps also revealed the group celebrated when an earthquake hit the Italian region of Abruzzo in 2009, destroying a number of Christian churches, authorities said.