ROME, Italy– At dawn on Wednesday, Italian special forces executed the final stage of a counterterrorist operation, breaking up an ISIS terrorist cell in northern Italy.
Operation “Balkan Connection” was carried out simultaneously in three Italian regions: Piedmont, Tuscany and Lombardy, as well as in Albania. A special ops unit of the Italian State police carried out five raids and made three arrests on various charges involving jihadist terrorism, as well as confiscating mobile phones, tablets and other materials.
Two Albanians—38-year-old Alban Elezi and his nephew Elvis—are being charged with recruiting militants for international terrorism along the Balkan route, while the third, Elmadhi Halili, a twenty-year-old Italian citizen of Moroccan origin, is being held for diffusing propaganda for the purpose of abetting international terrorism, after publishing a 64-page pro-Caliphate document on the internet.
Alban Haki Elezi was arrested 30 miles from the Albanian capital of Tirana, acting on an Interpol warrant issued by the Italian authorities, while Elvis Elezi and Elmadhi Halili were seized in Turin.
“My son is a very good boy, I swear it. But if he is a terrorist, I will kill him with my own hands,” said Idajet Elezi, the father of Elvis. He claims that he hasn’t spoken with his brother Alban “for years.”
The operation was coordinated by a special ops division of the Italian State Police called DIGOS (Divisione Investigazioni Generali e Operazioni Speciali).
The attorney general of Brescia, Tommaso Buonanno, praised the operation, especially underscoring the important collaboration between several different agencies. “It is a great day in the battle against terrorism,” he said.
A judge has also issued an arrest warrant for Anas el Abboubi, a 22-year-old Moroccan man who has been in contact with the three arrested Wednesday. El Abboubi himself was arrested on charges of terrorist training in June 2013 yet quickly released for lack of evidence. Abboubi’s movements were tracked by DIGOS from Italy to Istanbul, and then on to Syria where he joined forces of the Islamic State.
Photos of El Abboubi on the internet show him holding a machine gun and saying: “To kill pagans is a duty for any Muslim.”
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano lauded Wednesday’s operation, noting that it was the first time that tighter anti-terrorism legislation that the government adopted in February was being applied, and that it showed its effectiveness in preventing terrorist strikes before they happen.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome