Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy

Martedì, 29 Aprile, 2014

Lorenzo Vidino



Jihadism in Italy has followed a route that differs somewhat from the paths it has taken in most Western European countries. Italy was one of the first countries on the Continent to witness jihadist activities on a relatively large scale: as early as the first part of the 1990s, various Italian-based North African networks were playing a prominent role in the nascent global jihadist movement. Yet, in the early and mid-2000s, when most Western European countries were confronted by various challenges coming from both traditional and home-grown jihadist networks, the situation in Italy was relatively quiet.

This was the result of two factors. First, the pressure put by Italian authorities on structured networks either disrupted them or forced them to decrease the intensity of their activities. At the same time, this diminished role did not correspond to a growth of home-grown networks. Throughout the early and mid-2000s, Italian authorities did not detect any sign of the forms of home-grown radicalisation that were increasingly spotted throughout Europe.

The attempted suicide attack carried out by Libyan national Mohammed Game in Milan on 12 October 2009 is widely considered a

watershed event. In its 2009 report to Parliament, the Italian intelligence community saw in the case the confirmation of a fear it had long expressed: “the sudden operational activation of individuals residing on national soil who, independent of any structured terrorist formation, elaborate their own hostile project, adhering to the call of global jihad”. Game might not be considered a ‘pure’ home-grown jihadist, since, although he was radicalised in Italy, he had arrived in the country as an adult. Yet, the Game incident was unquestionably a first, strong manifestation of the arrival in Italy of home-grown jihadism, even if not in its purest form.

Over the past few years, various cases with quintessentially home-grown characteristics have surfaced: 

- In March 2012 authorities in Brescia arrested Mohamed Jarmoune, a 20-year-old Moroccan man who had grown up in Italy, on suspicion that he was planning an attack against Milan’s Jewish community. In May 2013 Jarmoune was sentenced to five years and four months in prison for having distributed jihadist material with terrorist intentions. Given his characteristics (having grown up and been radicalised in Italy, active on the Internet and unconnected to established groups), Jarmoune arguably represents the first

case of an Italian home-grown jihadist convicted in a court of law.

- A related investigation – Operation Niriya, which ended in 2012 – also brought to light the existence of a network of Italy-based jihadist enthusiasts spread throughout the country’s territory, most of them converts, who translated and shared jihadist texts on an array of blogs, web forums and social network sites.

- In June 2013 authorities arrested for terrorist activities Anas el Abboubi, another young man of Moroccan descent who, like Jarmoune, had grown up in the Brescia area. The man, who attempted to start the organisation Sharia4Italy, was accused of planning attacks in Brescia. Later released on appeal, el Abboubi travelled to Syria, where he reportedly joined an al-Qaedalinked formation.

- In June 2013 an Italian convert from Genoa, Ibrahim Giuliano Delnevo, was killed in Syria while fighting alongside a jihadist militia.

These cases indicate that the phenomenon of home-grown jihadism, long visible in other European countries, has arrived in Italy, albeit on a significantly smaller scale. The delay in its emergence there is the result of a simple demographic factor: large-scale Muslim immigration to Italy began only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, about 20 (or, in some cases, 30 or 40) years later than in more economically developed European countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands or Great Britain.

The first, relatively large, second generation of Italian-born Muslims is coming of age only now, as the sons of the first immigrants are becoming adults in their adoptive country. A statistically insignificant proportion of these hundreds of thousands of young men and women (and the thousands of Italian converts to Islam) embrace radical ideas.

The current panorama of jihadism in Italy is extremely fragmented and diverse, characterised by the presence of various actors with markedly different features. The arrival of home-grown jihadism to Italy does not mean that ‘traditional’ networks are no longer operating. Many of them have been significantly weakened by the waves of arrests and expulsions carried out by authorities over the past 15 years, yet they are still very much active, mostly in logistical support activities.

At the same time, small clusters and lone actors with home-grown characteristics are increasingly active. Providing exact numbers is an impossible task, but rough estimates can be given. The individuals actively involved in this new home-grown jihadist scene can be numbered at about 40 or 50 people. Similarly, those who in various ways and in varying degrees sympathise with it can be estimated to be somewhere in the low hundreds. It is a small, informal milieu of individuals with varying sociological characteristics who share a commitment to jihadist ideology.

Most of them interact online with like-minded individuals both in Italy and outside of it. Most are scattered throughout northern Italy, from big cities like Milan, Genoa and Bologna to tiny rural villages. A few are located in the centre or the south of the country. The majority have not been involved in any violent activity. Most limit their commitment to an often frantic online activity aimed at publishing and disseminating materials ranging from the purely theological to the operational. This milieu possesses some core characteristics, although exceptions are always possible:

- Its members tend to operate outside the realm of Italian mosques, where their ideas have little traction.

- There seems to be no overlap between them and traditional networks affiliated with al-Qaeda-linked groups, who tend to distrust the new militants.

- The Internet is their main operational platform.

- Some make the leap from ‘keyboard jihadism’ to action, whether that entails planning attacks in Italy or travelling for jihad. Those who seek to travel generally look for ‘gatekeepers’ to facilitate their linkage with established groups operating elsewhere. Linkage patterns for aspiring Italian jihadists are varied and difficult to determine.

- Issues of discrimination and lack of socio-economic integration do not seem to be primary reasons for the radicalisation of Italian home-grown jihadists, although those are elements that should not be overlooked. Each case, of course, deserves a separate analysis.

The implications of the arrival of home-grown jihadism to Italy are twofold. The first is operational. Home-grown clusters or lone actors are difficult to detect; they do not operate as part of a structure whose communications and activities authorities can easily monitor. Article 270 quinquies of the Italian penal code, which punishes an individual who ‘trains or in any way provides instructions on the preparation or the use of explosive materials, firearms or other arms, dangerous chemical, bacteriological substances, or any other technique or method’ for the execution of terrorist acts, has been used on various occasions by authorities to arrest home-grown radicals, active on the Internet, well before they take concrete steps to plan attacks. Yet the article’s application, as the el Abboubi case showed, could be problematic. Moreover, the jihadism phenomenon poses a challenge to Italy’s frequent use of deportations as a counterterrorism tool. As a result of Italy’s strict naturalisation laws, some home-grown jihadists, despite

being born or having grown up in Italy, may not have citizenship and, therefore, be subject to deportation. But many, starting with converts, are full-fledged Italian citizens and have a right to remain in the country.

Moreover, it is arguable that home-grown radicalisation poses an even more severe challenge at the socio-political level. If it turned

out that Italian-born Muslims were behind terrorist attacks on Italian soil—thus replicating a dynamic seen throughout central and northern Europe—this could have enormous repercussions on the already tense and highly politicised national debate over immigration and the presence of Muslims in Italy.

Lorenzo Vidino is Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy

* The ISPI online papers are also published with the support of Cariplo