ROME — There is something decisively “not right” about the Easter Saturday arrest of Djamal Eddine Ouali, a 40-year-old Algerian who was picked up in Bellizzi near the Amalfi Coast town of Salerno on an international arrest warrant for supplying false documents to at least three known terrorists connected to the Paris and Brussels attacks. He was arrested after applying for a permit to stay in Italy using his own Algerian document, which has raised eyebrows in Italy since a false document mastermind would likely be able to give himself a new identity—especially if he was a wanted man.
Anti-terrorism police are now trying to sort out whether he was really naïve enough to think that Italians wouldn’t double-check his identity, whether he was a scapegoat being used to “test the system” of surveillance across Europe, or if his own identity was stolen and used to set him up.
No matter what, Ouali’s arrest Saturday led to the discovery that one of his alleged clients, Khalid el-Bakraoui—one of the brothers who blew themselves up in the Brussels attacks—passed through Italy last summer on his way to Greece. According to police, Bakraoui crossed Italy a few days before another of Ouali’s alleged false-document clients, Salah Abdeslam, also crossed through the country on his way from Greece.
Just how Ouali’s alleged role aided in the logistics of terrorism travel is of great interest to counterterrorism officials in Europe who are trying to thwart the next attack. But connecting the dots is proving challenging because officials in Italy concede that little makes sense. Ouali’s lawyer, Gerardo Cembalo, told The Daily Beast that his client “had no idea” he was wanted on an international arrest warrant. “If he did, why would he use his own document?” he said.
Ouali, who is not cooperating with police and who faces an extradition hearing on April 1 to be returned to Brussels, apparently spoke only French to officials and apparently would not respond to questions in Arabic.
Bellizzi, where Ouali was arrested, is a town of around 13,000 people, known mostly for a couple of Camorra crime bosses doing life sentences for a variety of trafficking rackets, including toxic garbage and illegal arms. It’s also where Francesco “The Beast” Matrone, Camorra kingpin and one of Italy’s most wanted mobsters, was caught hiding out in 2012 after evading authorities for years on the lam.
Ouali, who is a Muslim, was picked up as he left the Sacred Heart Church, where he had spent about half an hour in a pew rifling through his backpack. Luigi Amato, head of the local General Investigations and Special Operations Division known as DIGOS, confirmed to The Daily Beast that local police were on his trail after discovering an international arrest warrant from Brussels issued Jan. 6. The arrest warrant came after raids in Brussels tied to the Paris attacks, in which thousands of digital photos tied to a false-document racket led to an alleged connection to Ouali.
Amato confirms that is around the time in January when Ouali and his pregnant wife, possibly a Belgian woman, crossed the Brenner Pass, a vital border point that connects Italy to Austria. It is the lowest pass in the Alpine region, and it has been used as a crossing point since Roman times. Since there are no border controls in place thanks to the European Union’s Schengen Agreement, Ouali and his wife were not stopped and their documents were not checked.
A few days later, they apparently settled down in the nearby and even smaller town of Montecorvino Pugliano, according to the application for a permit to stay in Italy filed in Bellizzi by Ouali’s wife in February. Permits to stay are generally automatically granted to all pregnant women of any origin in Italy and valid until the newborn baby is three months old. On March 16, Ouali applied for a similar permit to stay to “assist his wife,” using his own name and Algerian documents.
Because Ouali didn’t show up on any electronic database as having lived anywhere in Europe despite listing Belgium as his last residence, authorities grew suspicious and sent a digital photo of him to their counterparts in Brussels to verify then application. It was then, Amato says, that they were alerted that there was an international warrant out for the Algerian man who had been tied to Salah Abdeslam. A few days later, the Brussels attacks also tied him to Bakraoui.
Local police confirm that they also are looking for any ties Ouali may have to an Iraqi man arrested in the same area the day of the Brussels attacks and who is also known to have ties to terrorists in both Paris and Brussels.
But the real web they are hoping to unravel, according to Amato, is why two different terrorists affiliated with two different attacks traveled through Italy last summer. Italian news outlets have reported that Bakraoui flew into Treviso on a Ryanair flight from Brussels on July 23 and flew out of Venice to Athens on July 24. On Aug. 1, Abdeslam instead took a ferry from Greece to Bari and stayed in Italy. He last used a prepaid Italian debit card in Padova on Aug. 6. All the documents were apparently organized by Ouali, according to the preliminary judicial report written by Claudio Tringali, who secured his detention, and who told reporters, “He will be extradited. This investigation belongs in Brussels, not Italy.”
Still, the search for clues goes on. Local press in Bellizza reported Monday that police were questioning a known associate of Ouali who may have been found through cellphone contacts, though no new arrests have been made. “We are not searching for any specific accomplice,” Alfredo Anzalone, head of the Salerno police, told local media. “But we have certainly found disturbing links with terrorist organizations.”