On June 23, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported that Italian police had smashed a Milan-based Islamic terrorist cell that was planning an attack on the Basilica of San Petronio. This church, the most important in Bologna, is dedicated to its patron saint, and it contains a fresco showing Muhammad being tortured by demons in hell. Corriere della Sera said police uncovered the plot after intercepting the phone conversations of a group of Moroccans and Tunisians, some of whom are believed to be members of Algeria’s extremist Salafist Group of Preaching and Combat, led by Hassan Hattab. The cell was reportedly in contact with a Libyan terrorist known as Amsa, allegedly a leading member of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terror network and active in Afghanistan, Iran, and Europe. Amsa was arrested this summer in London. The paper reported that Amsa’s job had been to “make contact with various terror cells in Europe in order to organize terror attacks.” The group in Milan had links to similar cells in Bologna, Rome, Naples, and Vercelli, and Italian investigators had uncovered its plans to coordinate an attack on the church in Bologna in February.
The fresco, painted in 1415 by Giovanni da Modena, has long been criticized by Muslims in Italy. There have been campaigns for its removal or destruction, including letters to Pope John Paul II and Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, archbishop of Bologna, calling the painting “barbarous.” Yet Islamic leaders were skeptical about the terrorist plot. The Union of Italian Muslims said the press report was “not very convincing” and “could be an attempt to discredit Muslims who live in this country, to convince public opinion that they are violent people and terrorists.” They added that “obviously, we consider the work an insult to our religion and people, but that doesn’t mean we would contemplate or plan an act of vandalism or, worse, terrorism.” The Union argued that the fresco should be removed, but it stressed that Muslims would also be satisfied with a decision to cover up the name of Muhammad, written beneath the figure in hell.
Prosecutors and antiterrorist police in Bologna, probably in a bid to soothe fears, said that they knew nothing about this alleged plan by Al Qaeda-linked terrorists. The then-interior minister Claudio Scajola also sought to allay public alarm: “There is too much talk about these arguments, perhaps stemming from the hunt for news,” he said. But dismay ran high again the following day, June 25, when Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino said that a major attack by Islamic terrorists is certain to take place somewhere in the West—perhaps in Italy itself. “We do not know where this attack will take place nor how it will take place, and thus it is very difficult to say that we can guarantee the security of our citizens,” he stated. The opposition branded the minister’s words “irresponsible,” “alarmist,” and “shocking,” and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, speaking from Canada where he was participating in the G8 summit, played down Martino’s statement as “over-emphasized.”
Against this background, it is no wonder that the Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi, started calling for the government, of which it is a part, to withdraw its own bill on religious freedom, because it would place Islam on the same footing as any other religion in Italy. The government’s bill, currently before the House Constitutional Affairs Committee, was tabled in mid-June and drew almost immediate criticism from the League, especially after the opposition center-left lent its support to the measure. Those supporting the bill, League MP Federico Bricolo argued,
appear to ignore the fact that mosques and Islamic centers are not just places of worship but also forums for fundamentalist propaganda and the recruitment of terrorists, as took place at the Milan and Turin mosques. The ministers of the Islamic faith referred to in this bill have often been responsible for this recruitment.
According to Michele Saponara, the head committee member from Prime Minister Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, “The problem is verifying whether the religions which will be recognized by the new law will truly abide by our laws and the fundamental rights of man.” For instance, he argued, “Muslim laws governing the family are in clear contrast with Italian ones. On points like these we must have absolute guarantees.”
Furthermore, as an inescapable consequence of the bill, Muslim civil and religious rights would be codified regarding education, hospitals, barracks, and other institutions, and Muslim taxpayers in Italy would be allowed to assign a percentage of their income before taxes to their religion, just as Catholics and other recognized religious groups can. This is money that will, at the very least, fund mosques in Italy. Though the bill was signed by Prime Minister Berlusconi, one of his most influential advisors, priest-turned-politician Gianni Baget Bozzo, is firmly against it:
What’s the sense of recognizing, in the name of religious freedom, full constitutional rights to a creed which does not recognize those values in its dispensation? Under several grounds Islam is incompatible with Italy’s constitutions.
Taxpayer money, Bozzo argues, “would end up funding those factions which are closest to terrorism.”
During the National Symposium on Narco-Terrorism at DEA headquarters in Virginia last December, Larry C. Johnson, a specialist in money-laundering investigations, contrasted traditional money-laundering operations with a less-conventional system he termed the “money-dirtying process.” Speaking particularly of the bin Laden network, he pointed out that
We’ve also seen . . . the money does not start out . . . as dirty money. It doesn’t start out as money generated from illegal activities. In fact, in some of the cases, it’s money generated by charitable contributions that flows into bank accounts, flows through the system, and it’s only when it comes out at the other end [that it] is put in the hands of those folks who are going to go out and kill and murder people[. A]t that point you then have a criminal act.
Examples of this, recently reported in the Financial Times, are the huge sums of money being channeled from Islamic extremists in Great Britain to terrorists groups in the disputed region of Kashmir in India. The money is often collected after Friday prayers, under the auspices of human-rights charities, particularly in London, Manchester, and Cardiff. If this is already happening in Rome, Milan, and Turin, Italy may soon turn out to be the first Western country to fund an Islamic jihad, courtesy of its internal-revenue service.