ROME — Al Qaeda has built a thriving support network among Italians and is busily collecting funds from left-wing militants to buy arms used to kill Americans and other allied troops in Iraq, news reports and a high-level intelligence official say.
Details of the fund raising for Osama bin Laden’s foot soldiers were disclosed in the Italian press as the government put final touches on extraordinary security for the recent visit to Rome by President Bush.
“Al Qaeda’s front no longer consists exclusively of Arabs or Muslims,” said a recent front-page article in the Libero newspaper. “Italian extremists are enrolled in al Qaeda.”
Details of this and other reports were confirmed by a senior Italian intelligence official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
Italian extremists’ involvement with the terrorists is thought to be so deep that, according to press reports, at least one Italian accomplice was present when an Italian contractor was killed in April in Iraq.
Much of the fund raising for al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents has been done by two groups — the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance (IPA), made up of Iraqi exiles, and the Anti-Imperialist Alliance, made up mainly of European leftists.
Italian police are investigating the IPA, whose members originally were Iraqi communist dissidents living in European exile. Their leader, Abdul Jabbar Kubaisy, reconciled with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in February 2003 and committed the group “to confront American imperialist aggression.”
Mr. Kubaisy returned to Baghdad when the United States invaded Iraq, leaving his deputy, Awni al Kalemji, to organize anti-American propaganda, according a senior official of the Italian military intelligence organization SISMI.
Mr. Kalemji took part last summer in the “Anti-Imperialist Camp,” a weeklong gathering of communists and other leftists including revolutionaries from Iraq, the Philippines, Nepal, the Palestinian territories and Venezuela. The camp was held in the Umbrian hill town of Assisi, home of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), patron saint of animals and the environment and founder of the Franciscan Order of monks.
Also present were radical intellectuals such as Franco Cardini, a leading expert on medieval history who says that recent videos of Osama bin Laden are fakes distributed by the CIA to foster anti-Islamic sentiment.
Another participant was the Rev. Jean-Marie Benjamin, a French Roman Catholic priest who in February 2003 organized a visit to the Vatican by then Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
Father Benjamin’s name appeared on a list of 270 persons and organizations that received suspect vouchers under the U.N.-run Iraqi oil-for-food program, the subject of several investigations.
Organizers of the Anti-Imperialist Camp still are collecting funds for the IPA, asking for the equivalent of $12 from each participant, Libero reported recently. It said the contributions were going into a special bank account but did not say where they went from there.
The intelligence official confirmed the newspaper report and said the funds were being transferred to Iraq.
Other militants of the anti-imperialist movement are active as IPA supporters in Austria and Germany and make no secret that funds they gather are used to buy weapons for Iraqi guerrillas, intelligence sources said.
It is not clear why Italian authorities have tolerated the fund-raising activities. In Italy and Germany, raising funds for a foreign terrorist organization is a crime.
Among those frequently donating funds to the Iraqi resistance are militants from the hard-line Rifondazione Comunista, unreconstructed Marxists who broke away from the Italian Communist Party mainstream when it ditched orthodox communist thought and changed its name to the Democratic Party, the article said.
One of the most vociferous leaders of the Anti-Imperialist Camp is Moreno Pasquinelli, an activist arrested April 1 in the Umbrian city of Perugia as part of an international crackdown on sympathizers with the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), a Turkish Marxist terror gang. He subsequently was released.
“It is not our business to know what use is made of the funds,” Libero quoted him as saying. “They can print newspapers or buy weapons, it is the same thing for us.”
Mr. Kalemji said the IPA has hundreds of men fighting coalition forces in Iraq and said he hoped the conflict there will “finish like the liberation war in Vietnam.”
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a strong U.S. ally in the war in Iraq, where Italy has 3,000 troops.
Recent al Qaeda propaganda has included a surge in attacks on Mr. Berlusconi, prompting SISMI operatives to worry the group is planning attacks on Italian interests in the hope of undermining the country’s support for the Iraq war.
Four Italians were taken hostage in Iraq recently, and one of them, contractor Fabrizio Quattrocchi, was killed in April.
An Internet posting this week attributed to Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, the purported head of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, said the man’s throat was slit “as a gift for the Italian government and its leader, a little stupid and arrogant, who is proud of his hostility to Islam and of having sent troops to fight Muslims at wars like in Iraq.”
Persistent reports have appeared in the Corriere della Sera newspaper and on TG5 television channel suggesting that one or more Italians might have been present as accomplices during the killing.
Gen. Niccolo Pollari, the head of the intelligence agency SISMI, has been invited to appear before the parliamentary Committee for Control of the Secret Services to explain those reports.