The recruitment of volunteers to fight in Iraq against American soldiers cannot be considered under any point of view a terrorist activity.? These words, which would have been more fitting in the speech of a radical anti-war militant, were the core of the ruling with which a Milan Court of Appeals acquitted three men linked to Ansar al Islam (the motivation of the November 2005 ruling were made public only recently and excerpts from it can be found here).
As shocking as it might sound, this is nothing new in Italy. The Court of Appeals, in fact, only upheld the first degree ruling of another Milan-based judge, Clementina Forleo. In January 2005, Mrs. Forleo decided that the men were indeed part of a network that was recruiting fighters for the Iraqi conflict, but that the operations taking place in Iraq constituted ?guerrilla warfare? and not terrorism. In her view, ?Ansar al Islam was structured as an Islamic combatant organization, with a militia trained for guerrilla activities and financed by groups in Europe and orbiting in the sphere of Islamic fundamentalism, without having goals of a terrorist nature, goals probably shared by only some of its members.? Because one of the men on trial, Mohammed Tahir Hammid, conveniently declared that he did not agree with Ansar al Islam?s tactic of using suicide bombers, Forleo considered Ansar al Islam to be a ?heterogeneous? organization whose members had conflicting opinions on the valid means to use in fighting enemy forces.
Therefore, according to the judge, Ansar al Islam could not be considered a terrorist organization as a whole and those who recruit and raise funds for it cannot be considered terrorists. Two men, while found guilt of minor crimes such as document forging, were acquitted of all the charges involving terrorism. The third, Mohammed Daki (who, incidentally, happened to be a close friend of top 9/11 planners Ramzi Binalshibh and Said Bahaji while living in Hamburg) was cleared of all charges and now lives happily in his native Morocco (after the Italian Ministry of Interiors deported him).
The ruling is the quintessential example of the divide between the United States and parts of the establishment in Europe. Naturally, many Italian politicians harshly criticized the ruling, both from a legal (Ansar has been designated as a terrorist organization even by the United Nations) and political point of view. Franco Frattini, security and justice commissioner of the European Union, commented the verdict: "This sends a devastating signal. Fundamentalist Islamic cells can now think that there are safe havens in Europe. The judge has interpreted the law wrongly?
Over the next few days two other very important trials will come to an end in Europe. An Amsterdam court will judge members of the Hofstadgroep, the home-grown group that planned various attacks inside the Netherlands (including the assassination of Theo van Gogh), while a Brussels court will render a verdict against a maxi-cell linked to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. In both cases a new anti-terrorism legislation is being tested. We can only wait and see what the outcome will be.