August 2, 2005

Italians Say London Suspect Lacks Wide Terrorist Ties

By IAN FISHER  (Must register to view original article)

ROME, Aug. 1 - The suspect arrested here in the failed London bombings of July 21 appears to have been part of an "impromptu" group without ties to any broader terrorist network in Italy, Italian antiterror investigators said Monday.

"In the present state of the investigation, from his contacts with others, we can say that no links exist with a terrorist group active in Italy," Prefect Carlo De Stefano, a top official in the antiterror police, told reporters here in the most detailed public account of the arrest.

He added that it was "very probable," from the Italian investigation, that the suspect, Hussain Osman, who also uses the name Hamdi Issac, did not have links with any organized terror group. "In this case, it seems like we are in front of an impromptu group that acted alone," he said.

The news would seem to come as some relief to many Italians, worried that the suspect's choice of Italy as a place of refuge suggested a network of sympathizers among the community of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants and, possibly, terror cells that could carry out an attack here.

The suspect, a 27-year-old Briton of Ethiopian descent, was tracked on Friday to an apartment in Rome as the British police seized four others in London suspected of carrying out the attack on July 21.

The British police said Monday night that they had raided three more locations in south London, arresting two men under counterterrorism laws. The police did not identify the men, but said they had been seized on Monday in connection with the July 21 bombing attempts.

One of the raids was in Stockwell, where Mr. Osman lived before he fled London last week. The police have also said the July 21 bombers had begun their attack at the Stockwell subway station. The arrests are apparently part of what a European counterrorism official has called a hunt for a support network helping the bombers.

Mr. De Stefano did not play down the general risk of an attack here but said that in tracking down the people whom Mr. Osman called after arriving in Italy on July 27, he did not appear to be in contact with any known terrorist groups. Mr. Osman lived in Italy for five years, ending in 1996, and has two brothers here, both of whom have since been arrested, though not on terrorism charges.

"We must say that the results we've had up to now support the hypothesis that they were just acquaintances, and that there is no involvement in any criminal activity," Mr. De Stefano said.

He characterized a call Mr. Osman made on July 26 or 27 to Saudi Arabia, which has raised suspicions about his ties to foreign militant groups, as an attempt to get the phone number of one of his brothers in Italy.

Since the arrest on Friday, the antiterror police have searched 15 places where Mr. Osman made telephone calls, in Rome, Milan, Brescia and Udine. The Italian news media have carried accounts, attributed to anonymous sources, of Mr. Osman's interrogation, in which he claimed that the bombs were meant as a "demonstration," not to kill anyone.

According to the accounts, he denied any links to Al Qaeda or to the July 7 attacks in London, in which 56 people, including four bombers, were killed.

Another Italian police official, Claudio Galzerano, said that from what Italian investigators have seen, Mr. Osman's group had been acting independently. "At the moment, we think they are two separate groups," he said.

British investigators say they have not ruled out a connection between the July attacks, noting similarities in the crude, homemade bombs, and have speculated on the possibility of a common mastermind or bomb-maker. The investigators say it is possible that a large logistical network helped the men responsible for the botched attacks in London.

The Italian police said Mr. Osman and one of his brothers, Wahib, moved from Italy to Britain in 1996, stating falsely that they were Somalis and asking for political asylum. They were later given British citizenship.

Britain is asking for Mr. Osman's return, under a new, speeded-up extradition process in which the courts here have a maximum of 60 days to decide the case. Mr. De Stefano said, "We hope it won't take that long."

Mr. Osman's court-appointed lawyer has signaled that he plans to fight extradition to Britain.

After days of official silence on the arrests, the investigators sketched in some details of the operation that ended in Mr. Osman's capture in a quiet, working-class apartment complex in southeast Rome.

On July 26, Mr. De Stefano said, the British authorities alerted their Italian counterparts that one of the suspects in the July 21 bombing attempt had made phone calls to Italy. On July 27, a cellphone believed to be used by Mr. Osman and carrying a British SIM card, which identifies the subscriber, was turned on in Italy, he said. Later that day, the same phone was switched to an Italian SIM card, and the next day, calls from the phone placed the user in Rome.

The Italian police sent a sample of the voice, speaking an Ethiopian language, to the British police, who confirmed that it was Mr. Osman's, Mr. De Stefano said. The Italian police traced the whereabouts of the user to the apartment in Rome. On Friday he was arrested in that apartment, which had been rented several months ago by one of his brothers.

Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome for this article, and Alan Cowell from London.