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Start with a letter. Talk about a car. A Ford Fiesta. parked. There are weapons. Go get it. The coded letter comes from a prison in Puglia; addressed to an Egyptian living in Viale Monza. It is intercepted. Passed on to the police. We didn’t find that car, remember Raffaele Magnotta, former team leader of the Digos of Milan, a career of anti-terrorism investigations, now retired. To develop the information, we began to find the threads, still unstable, that led to the leaders of the mosque in Viale Jenner (the investigations concerned the management team and not the place of faith; in the following years the mosque leaders moved away from extremism) . early 1993. On February 26, the first (failed) attack on the Twin Towers took place in New York. There is a performer, Ramzi Youssef. And a spiritual guide: the blind sheikh. From the United States, during the investigation, they report a number of Milan in contact with the attackers in Manhattan. We work on that number, and we discover that it leads to the mosque, recalls Michele Centonze, another policeman who has spent his entire career on counter-terrorism at the police station. That 02.400919 … made out to the muezzin of Viale Jenner. The threads become more and more marked traces, and will be the architect of the Sphinx operation, which will close in 1995 with 10 arrests. In that investigation there is the story of Al Qaeda in Italy: before world public opinion and the governments of the West realized what a threat it could represent. It will be discovered on September 11, 2001, twenty years ago. But there is a before, and in this before the stories of the terrorists that they tried to build an outpost of fighting Islamism in Europe in Milan they intersect with the tenacity of the invisible investigators who with growing concern found themselves in the presence of the rising tide of terror.

Those were the years of Tangentopoli, of the mafia attacks. Politics and the judiciary were engaged on these fronts. Islamist terrorism was growing. And not exactly under the radar. The imam of the mosque since 1989 was Anwar Shaaban, an Egyptian, engineer, highly educated, charismatic. The Digos men soon arrived to work on him: He kept in touch with half the world, from the blind sheikh of New York to the fundamentalist imams of Vienna, Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris. And then we began to see men who, passing through Milan, with false supports and documents, went to fight in Bosnia. When we searched the mosque, we found an Egyptian passport on Shaaban’s desk. He was from the head of the Cairo terrorist cell. Shaaban was a colonel, perhaps the highest ranking in Europe, of the Jamaa Islamiya; since 1987 it has been recruiting extremists to send to Afghanistan. Among the phone calls intercepted in 1994 in Viale Jenner there is the one with a voice believed to be Al Zhawahiri, Bin Laden’s future right-hand man. We realized that the Milanese group was connected to a global Islamist reality and to military contexts such as that in the former Yugoslavia. There was a strategy, an organization chart, a larger project behind it. And Milan was a bridgehead for this project.


Years later, the Milan-Bosnia channel is a decisive element in assessing the extent of the unknown presence of Al Qaeda in Italy. The Islamist fighters reached Bosnia in aid of the Muslims attacked by Serbia. But the plan behind those trips was more ambitious: to create a Caliphate at the gates of Europe (a project that will then be re-proposed in Chechnya, and by Isis in Iraq). The foreign mujahideen, gathered in the 7th battalion of the Bosnian army, cut off their heads in that war. And they had a single guide: Shaaban, imam of Milan, who left shortly before the arrests of Sphinx and in Bosnia he was emir, spiritual and military guide. The photos show him in a military camp next to the then Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic. The men of the Digos tell: During the searches we seized false stamps and documents of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which the fighters used to conceal the reasons for their trips to the war zones. In 1995 a car bomb exploded in Rijeka, in retaliation against the Croatian police who had blocked some Islamists. It was a Fiat 131. They gave us the plate – says Magnotta – It was made out to an Egyptian man who lived in a farmhouse in the hinterland and had gone to Croatia. We had him under investigation. We understood that they had the conviction and the strength to strike.

Shaaban would never return to Milan. He died at a Croatian checkpoint on December 14, 1995, probably betrayed by those who wanted to cancel the cumbersome presence of Arab fighters in Bosnia after the end of the war. In Milan he would have been replaced by Abdelkader Mahmoud Es Sayed, colonel of Al Qaeda, who apparently was informed of an attack from the air in preparation. Shortly before 9/11.

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11 September 2021 | 08:56

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