In a predawn raid on an apartment building in a neighborhood six miles southeast of Rome, Italian officials last week arrested four Moroccan men and found dozens of fake identification documents, charts of Rome's water system and a map of the city with the U.S. embassy circled in red.
Particularly chilling was the additional discovery of 9 lbs. of a cyanide-based chemical substance, which sparked fears that Rome's water system, which runs beneath the embassy, was the target of a terrorist attack. Upon further investigation, however, authorities learned that the chemical appeared to be potassium ferrocyanide, which is not lethal when diluted in water. It is, however, easily ignited with gunpowder, and suspicion shifted to the possibility that four other Moroccans arrested near Rome last week were planning a chemical attack on the subway or other enclosed spaces.
Italian authorities were alerted to such a scenario last March when they wiretapped a telephone conversation between a pair of suspected al-Qaeda operatives. In the conversation, Tunisian-born Essid Sami Ben Khemais detailed two ways to unleash an attack. One involved an unidentified "efficient" product that could be stored in tomato cans. When released, it would suffocate victims. At another point, Ben Khemais referred to a makeshift "gas bomb" whose "method," he said, had recently been refined by a Libyan professor.
The next month police arrested Ben Khemais in an apartment outside Milan, but he was not in possession of any chemicals. Believed to be head of logistics for Osama bin Laden's operations in Europe, he was convicted last week and sentenced to five years in prison for criminal association with the intent to obtain and transport arms, explosives and chemicals. It was the first conviction in Europe of a suspected al-Qaeda operative since Sept. 11. Now Italian officials are trying to determine whether a link exists between Ben Khemais and the Moroccans and, if so, whether they share any tactics.
--By Jeff Israely