A terror network close to Osama bin Laden has threatened to attack Europe for failing to uphold an ultimatum to pull troops out of Muslim countries. The group has singled out Italy for the start of its holy war.
Terrorists warn Europe not to follow the United States
"Today, we declare a bloody war on you. We will not stop our raids until you return to reason," said a statement posted Thursday on an Islamist Web site and signed "Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades -- al Qaeda."
The group condemned Europeans for not withdrawing their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan within three months, as Osama bin Laden demanded April 15. In retaliation, the terror network, which claimed responsibility for the March 11 train bombings in Madrid and the Nov. 2003 bombings in Istanbul, vowed to destroy European cities.
"We declare a violent war on you as well as your people ... who, by their silence support you," read the statement, whose authenticity has not yet been verified.
First target: Italy
The Internet statement primarily targeted Italy and its Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, to whom Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades had already directed similar threats last week.
"Wait for us Berlusconi, with your other allies and supporters. Wait for our menace that we declared against you earlier, and are now declaring against all of Europe," Thursday's notice said.
Abu Hafs al-Masri recommended that Europeans "don't help America, otherwise you will regret it."
"We will create waterfalls of blood that will drag you to their depths. You have condemned your people to that. The infidel Europe has done the same to its people by following America. We will destroy European cities starting with you, Berlusconi," it said.
"Withdraw your troops from Iraq," it demanded, telling European countries to follow the example of other states such as Spain, Honduras, Nicaragua and most recently Philippines, who have already withdrawn their forces.
No troop reduction
"We are taking the threat seriously," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini in Rome. "But we are not afraid and we will not reduce our military presence in Iraq," he told the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Since last year's war to depose Saddam Hussein, Italy has been one of the United States' staunchest allies in Europe. After Spain withdrew its troops following the March 11 Madrid bombings which killed 191 people and led to the election of a new government, many thought Italy would follow suit. But Berlusconi refused to recall his countries' soldiers, saying they would remain in Iraq until no longer needed.
Despite opinion polls showing most Italians would rather bring their forces home, Berlusconi has kept 2,700 troops in Iraq, making Italy the third largest member in the US-led coalition.
An empty threat?
Although terrorist experts have since verified the authenticity of the April 15 audiotaped message by Osama bin Laden in which the al Qaeda chief gave Europe an ultimatum to withdraw from Muslim countries or risk a terror campaign on the scale of Sept. 11, US intelligence officials say the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades lacks credibility. In the past the group has claimed responsibility for events in which it almost certainly had no involvement, including blackouts in North America.
European security officials say they have doubts about how credible the threat is. In Germany, which is potentially included in the European terror threat because it maintains troops in Afghanistan, experts have downplayed the group's warning as "only partly believable."
Britain, which has the largest contingent of troops in Iraq after the United States, also remained calm with regards to the threat. Officials in London refused to comment directly on the statement, but a Home Office spokeswoman noted that Britain takes "all necessary measures to ensure the country is protected."
In Italy, security officials were not taking a chance. The government has identified 13,600 high risk targets, including the Vatican, and about 4,000 soldiers have been called in to protect the sites alongside police forces.