Swiss police have arrested a man whom they suspect of belonging to an Algerian Islamic fundamentalist cell that financed terrorist attacks in Algeria.
The Swiss Justice Office confirmed on Monday that a man detained last week on charges of counterfeiting documents was now ready to be extradited to Italy.
Italian authorities, working in cooperation with the Swiss, said the Milan-based cell had raised at least €1.62 million (SFr2.57 million). The Italians issued international arrest warrants for three suspects and charged two others already in prison for separate crimes.
An Italian police statement on Monday said the cell "financed and gave logistical support to Islamic terrorism responsible for massacres in Algeria, including two that killed 18 people in 2005".
It was the second such operation in Italy in little more than two months. In July, police arrested four suspected members of an armed Algerian group linked to al Qaeda who were preparing terrorist operations in Algeria and in Iraq.
The Milan cell has ties with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), Algeria's largest outlawed rebel movement, Italian police confirmed.
The GSPC pledges allegiance to al Qaeda and has rejected an amnesty offered by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika aimed at ending years of bloodshed that has killed 200,000 people.
The Milan cell financed at least two attacks carried out by the GSPC, including one on January 3, 2005 and another on March 27, 2005 in towns southwest of Algiers.
Authorities began investigating the suspected cell in December 2003, tracking its activities and movements through wiretaps and surveillance. It ran legal businesses in Italy, including shops and a restaurant, from which it channelled money to fund terror activities in Algeria, police said. It also provided fake documents.
"The cell has now been dismantled, with all of its members in prison or abroad," said police Colonel Rosario Lorusso on Monday.
The man named by the authorities as Afif Mejri, also known as Lofti, 43, was arrested in Switzerland last week on charges of counterfeiting documents.
Two others have been jailed in Italy since May 2005 for weapons trafficking aimed at supporting terrorist groups. Yacine Ahmed Nacer, 35, and Ali El Heit, 36, are accused of criminal association aimed at international terrorism.
Three other suspects, identified as Rabah Bouras, 44, Lamine Ahmed Nacer, 35, and Farid Aider, 41, are fugitives and are believed to have left Europe last year. They also are being sought on the more serious criminal association with terrorism charges.
Authorities were investigating eight other Algerians also believed to be part of the Milan cell. Of those being investigated, three are detained in Italy. The others are free: one in Italy, one in England and three are believed to be in northern Africa.
At least €1.3 million was transferred via banks and another €320,000 was wired abroad, police said. The cash was tracked to Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland and Spain.
Money also was smuggled abroad via couriers, leading investigators to believe that the total sum being funnelled for terrorist activities was far greater than €1.62 million.
The group met in a Milan storage area, where investigators found terrorist materials including videotapes of terrorist attacks.
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In Switzerland national security bodies can only carry out investigations in the public sphere and use public data.
Tightened national security measures include the possibility of access to citizens' private lives – even if they are not under suspicion.
A third party could also be monitored if they are suspected of aiding a suspected "dangerous person".
Since January, border guards have been able to use small unmanned aircraft (drones) belonging to the army to monitor borders.
Justice Minister Christoph Blocher has recently called for film from CCTV cameras to be kept for 48 instead of 24 hours.
September 15, 2001: Switzerland sets up a task force to probe any Swiss ties to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
September 4, 2002: Bern and Washington sign the secret "Operative Working Arrangement" to fight terrorism.
May 3, 2006: Bern announces a new formal accord with the US to replace the secret treaty of 2002.
July 12, 2006: Switzerland and US sign the accord, which needs parliamentary approval.