In the months since September 11, U.S. authorities have received significant support in Europe in their effort to track down al Qaeda operatives. Nevertheless, the severe evidentiary requirements of many European legal systems are preventing them, in some cases, from bringing terrorists to justice.
One example of this troubling situation is currently taking place in Italy. Last January, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Italian intelligence (DIGOS) has been monitoring the activities of a suspected al Qaeda cell in the northwestern city of Turin for over a year and a half. The cell first drew DIGOS’s attention in June 2001, when the CIA raided a Peshawar office used by bin Laden operatives and uncovered several Turin telephone records.
DIGOS gathered new intelligence and identified all the members of the cell, who meet at a radical mosque in Turin’s Arab neighborhood. The mosque has been a recruiting center for mujahedeen since the beginning of the 1990s, for the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya; and its imam, Bouriki Bouchta, is famous for having defended bin Laden on Italian television in the days following 9/11.
According to confidential DIGOS reports, the Turin cell is active in recruiting young, disenchanted Muslims and in providing logistical support to a wide network of “brothers.” The alleged leader, whose name cannot be disclosed because the investigation is ongoing, has been involved in smuggling guns to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) since the mid 1990s. He kept close contacts with several terrorists who have been arrested in Milan in the last two years, and also selected aspiring mujahedeen for training camps in Afghanistan. In fact, two of the eight “Italian” detainees in Guantanamo Bay are young immigrants in their twenties who were recruited by members of the Turin cell.
Even more alarming is the fact that the cell obtained substantial assistance from an officer at the Pakistani embassy in Rome. Telephone conversations intercepted by DIGOS revealed that a member of the cell received instructions from an al Qaeda operative in Pakistan on how to obtain false Pakistani passports from this individual. It is unclear whether he acted as a “mole” inside the embassy or if his involvement with the cell was endorsed by Pakistani authorities. In either case, this situation represents a political minefield, given the delicate position of Pakistan in the war on terror.
Repubblica reported that, after receiving the report of the investigation by DIGOS in the spring of 2002, a U.S. official in Rome said that the arrest of the members of the cell was imminent. However, no action has been taken so far. Despite intense pressure from the Americans, no Italian prosecutor has moved to indict the members of the cell.
Although the Turin cell closely fits the profile of many terrorist cells uncovered in Europe, its members have never committed a major crime, and so any Italian court would release them in a matter of days. Investigators lack any intelligence indicating that they are planning to carry out an attack. To date, they could only be charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization — and prosecutors realize this would also be a lost battle. In fact, most of the evidence pertaining to the cell comes from the confessions of Mohamed Aouzar and Mohamed Ben Salah Sassi, the two Muslims recruited by the cell and detained in Gunatanamo Bay. Like most Western systems, the Italian legal system for the most part does not allow a witness to testify unless the defense has the ability to cross-examine him. Even if the judge admits the confessions of the two detainees without cross-examination, the defense could easily claim that the two men were forced to confess under physical and psychological pressure.
This troubling scenario is just one example of how the West is currently unprepared to effectively combat the threat of international terrorism. Other European intelligence agencies have seen the results of their work nullified by technicalities in the legal systems of their countries. Last December, for instance, a court in Rotterdam acquitted four men accused of stealing passports and credit cards and of providing support for a planned suicide bombing of the U.S. embassy in Paris. The Dutch magistrates considered that there was “no independent investigation by the police” and that the prosecutors had based their case “solely on the contents of information given by the security agency.” In other words, the Netherlands freed four men who were planning attacks on American targets — simply because, under Dutch law, a case cannot be based on intelligence findings.
Severe evidentiary requirements and liberal courts allow known terrorists to wander the streets of Europe, deriding the legal systems of the very countries they want to destroy. New problems require new solutions, but so far European countries have been slow to catch up. Until or unless less-stringent standards can be applied to terrorist cells, our ability to prevent future attacks will be severely limited.
— Lorenzo Vidino is a research analyst for the Investigative Project.