ROME (AP) — A Moroccan man arrested in Italy on suspicion he helped organize the attack on Tunisia’s Bardo Museum had been ordered to leave Italy after having arrived with other migrants on a smugglers’ boat, authorities said Wednesday.
The arrest of Abdelmajid Touil, and details about his voyage to Italy, fueled criticism of Europe’s Mediterranean rescue operations by anti-immigrant politicians, who held up the case as evidence that Islamic extremists were slipping into Europe aboard migrant boats to then plot attacks.
Touil was arrested Tuesday night on a Tunisian arrest warrant at the home of his mother and two brothers in Gaggiano, near Milan, anti-terrorism investigator Bruno Megale told reporters.
The accusations against Touil include premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit attacks against the state, belonging to a terrorist group and recruiting and training others to commit terrorist attacks, Megale said.
“He was wanted internationally for co-participation in, planning and executing the March 18 attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis,” Megale said. Twenty-two people were killed, four of them Italian.
The only trace that Italian authorities had of Touil prior to his arrest was that he had arrived in Italy on Feb. 17 along with migrants from a smuggler’s boat, police said. He was identified by authorities in Porto Empedocle, Sicily, and was subsequently issued an expulsion decree, Megale said.
Expulsion decrees are usually given to migrants heading to Europe for economic reasons — not refugees from conflicts who could apply for asylum. Police believe he left Italy to take part in the attack, though it’s not clear if he ever left.
The ANSA news agency, reporting from outside Touil’s home, quoted his unnamed brother and an unnamed neighbor as saying he had never left.
Megale said authorities lost trace of him after the expulsion order was issued. Also unclear is how and when he returned if he did indeed leave Italy.
Anti-immigrant politicians have warned that Islamic extremists might enter Italy via any one of the dozens of migrant boats setting off weekly from Libya for European shores.
The leader of the xenophobic Northern League, Matteo Salvini, demanded the interior minister resign following the arrest while others called for greater border controls to prevent the indiscriminate welcome of possible extremists.
“We cannot allow a general and indiscriminate flow of people, who taking advantage of the desperation of many immigrants and the pretend goodwill of the left, arrive in Italy with the aim of attacking us,” said Ignazio La Russa, lawmaker for the conservative Italy Brothers party.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for attacking the Bardo, Tunisia’s leading historical museum, which has a trove of Roman mosaics. Gunmen opened fire on tourists getting out of buses and then entered the museum and fired on more tourists inside. Two gunmen were killed in a shootout with police.
A number of people have been arrested in connection with the attack, but the Tunisian interior ministry has said the mastermind is still at large.
Tunisian authorities do not think Touil is that mastermind. But a spokesman for the country’s interior ministry, Mohammed Ali Aroui, confirmed that Touil was the subject of an international arrest warrant for his involvement in the attack.
“He participated indirectly in the attack, supporting the ones who carried it out,” he told The Associated Press, adding that authorities were now working on Touil’s extradition to Tunisia.
He didn’t say if Touil’s assistance was provided while he was in Italy or Tunisia.
Two Moroccans were involved in the Bardo attack as well as two Algerians, added Aroui, although the killing was only carried out by the two Tunisian shooters.
Some 20 people have been arrested in connection with the Bardo attack. Ten days after it took place, security forces in southern Tunisia killed nine militants led by an Algerian that the government has also linked to the attack.
Italian police said they were able to identify Touil in part after his mother reported that her son’s passport was missing immediately after the Bardo attack.
Associated Press writer Bouazza ben Bouazza contributed to this report from Tunis, Tunisia.
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