In what is being touted as an important victory for anti-terrorist forces in Italy, police have apprehended Abdel Majid Touil, a 22-year-old Moroccan who allegedly participated in the attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis on March 18 that left 22 dead.
The Milan section of the Italian anti-terrorist unit called “Digos” arrested the suspect Tuesday night in the northern Italian city of Gaggiano at the home where he lived with his mother and two brothers.
During the search of the apartment, the police also seized material, including cards and notes, which reportedly provided information pertinent to the investigation.
On March 18, gunmen opened fire on tourists who were exiting buses, and then entered the museum and fired on more tourists inside. During the attack, two of the armed assailants were shot dead by police while another escaped. Four Italians were among the dead.
Tunisia reported it had already arrested the majority of those involved in the attack, which was perpetrated by a cell of 23 jihadist militants with overlapping allegiances to a number of radical Islamist groups.
According to reports, Touil’s participation in the attack comprised both the planning phase and the execution. The Tunisian international arrest warrant issued by authorities includes a series of charges ranging from premeditated murder to membership in a terrorist organization, arson, and conspiracy against the state. The Tunisians also claim that he was involved in pursuing new recruits for jihad.
Touil, nicknamed “Abdallah,” had already been identified by Italian authorities in February 2015, a month before the Tunis attack, when he arrived in Porto Empedocle with ninety other illegal immigrants aboard a barge. A few days later, he was served a deportation order. Nonetheless, after the Tunis massacre, Touil succeeded in returning to Italy and making his way north to Milan, where his mother and brothers live.
It is not known exactly when Touil returned to Italy. Police were aided in discovering his whereabouts when his mother went to the police station of Trezzano sul Naviglio to report her son’s missing passport.
Police admit that he was off their radar. “We have no evidence that in Italy he attended mosques tied to fundamentalism,” said the head of the anti-terrorism group, Bruno Megale, “and before reports came from Tunisian intelligence, we knew nothing of him apart from the deportation order. If the cross-checks on the database allowed us to catch him, then it means that the controls work.”
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi congratulated the police for the arrest, saying he was “proud of [their] professionalism.”
It is unclear whether the Italian authorities plan to send Touil back to Tunisia to be tried. For the moment, he is being held in the San Vittore Prison in Milan.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.