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Anti-Terror Efforts Increase as Italy Braces

Italy appears to be taking a warning from the group which claimed responsibility for the London bomb attacks very seriously. While there is no specific threat, Italy has swung into action to prevent a possible atrocity.

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The warning from the al Qaeda-affiliated group put Italy on alert

While there has been no confirmation of a specific threat or any official statement of unease from the government, the intense activity in various areas of the political arena suggests that Italy is considering itself a target high on the international terrorism hit list.

The country has been a hive of political activity ever since the still yet uncorroborated claim of responsibility for the London bombings on July 7 by a group calling itself the Organization of al Qaeda Jihad in Europe that warned that Italy could be next.

In the immediate aftermath of the London attacks, Italy placed its security forces on alert after the direct threat -- which also included a warning to Denmark -- was issued over its support for the US-led coalition in Iraq. Italy maintains a 3,000 strong-force in the country

Berlusconi nach der Freilassung von Sgrena

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi

"We are checking the veracity of these claims and of this threat," Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said last week. But he acknowledged that Italy "is in the front line because it is defending freedom and democracy."

"Italy is the third biggest contributor to international peace missions and that has brought negative attention from terrorist organizations," he said.

"It's pointless to hide the fact that targets like trains are difficult to protect and for that reason, we have to strengthen our vigilance and our attention, being conscious that we are exposed."

Nach Terroranschag erhöhte Sicherheit in Italien

Police officers patrol at the entrance of the central railway station in Milan

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Berlusconi's government have placed some 13,000 potential targets permanently under guard -- up to 6,000 of them in Rome -- using some 23,000 police and military.

Extremists at large in Italy

Despite a series of direct threats from shadowy Islamic extremist groups, Italy has to date remained untouched by the sort of terror attacks which have devastated Madrid and London in the wake of the Iraq war.

One such threat was made in August last year in a statement posted on an Islamic Web site in the name of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades-al-Qaeda. It declared "a bloody war" on Italians, specifically targeting Berlusconi, a staunch supporter of US President George W. Bush.

There are an estimated 350 Islamic extremists who intelligence sources believe are based in Italy in several "sleeper cells" -- mainly in the industrialized north and around Naples in the south.

They said the two groups most active in Italy were the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which aims to establish an Islamic state in Algeria, and the Moroccan Salafist Fighting Group.

Support for Iraq mission will not change

Italienische Carabinieri in Irak auf Streife

While Italy has escaped terrorist attack at home, it lost 19 of its soldiers in a truck bomb attack on the Italian base at Nasiriyah, Iraq in November 2003.

Berlusconi has stubbornly insisted Italy will maintain its forces in Iraq, and despite the London bombings and yet another direct threat to Italy, is unlikely to change his mind. "Terrorism is the cancer which we mustn't be frightened to fight. If we are united and determined to face it, terrorism will not win," he said last week.

Huge anti-terror sweep

And fight it he appears determined to do. Within days of the London bombings, Italian police and ant-terror troops raided scores of homes and detained 174 people across the country in a sweeping crackdown on suspected Islamic militants. Raids were carried out in a number of cities across Italy but investigations were focused on Milan, Rome, Turin and Naples, Interior Ministry sources said.

While assertive action has been taking place on the streets, Berlusconi and his government are working to provide a political framework to step-up the battle against extremists in Italy.

Government discusses hard-line measures

The government is set to discuss an anti-terror package at a special cabinet meeting on Friday to discuss a package of anti-terrorism measures that were presented to parliament earlier this week.

The package, which would be subject to parliamentary approval, includes allowing police to detain suspects longer without charges, giving police greater investigative powers and incentives for those helping investigators bring down terrorist cells, and strengthening judicial provisions for terrorism-linked offenses.

The state would also move to freeze the assets of businesses suspected of supporting terrorist groups, which would go beyond an asset freeze ordered on criminal organizations set in place after Sept. 11.

The government also suggested that anti-terrorism investigators should be allowed to offer residence permits to illegal immigrants in the Muslim community in return for regular information about the community.

Nach Terroranschag erhöhte Sicherheit in Italien

Police officers patrol at the entrance of the central railway station in Milan

Italian media reports say the proposals include enlarging police powers to allow closer electronic surveillance of the Muslim community and creating a dedicated national anti-terrorism agency, modeled on one already in place to fight Mafia crimes.

However, this much-touted agency has yet to be established some four years after it was first proposed in the wake of Sept. 11. It is evidence of a significant problem which still remains: the process for implementing policy in Italy is notoriously lethargic, a state that must be rectified before it is too late.

"The Italian state apparatus is still very slow," Italy expert Roman Mahrun of the Munich Center for Applied Policy Research told DW-WORLD. "The security services cannot achieve much if they are restrained by politics," Mahrun concluded.

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