On Tuesday 17 September 2019, at around 10:45am, in the square in front of Milan’s Central Station, a young man attacked from behind an Italian soldier on duty for a “Safe Streets” service in the city. The soldier’s colleagues, along with a Senegalese passer-by, immediately intervened to block him. The 34-year-old soldier was stabbed in the neck and shoulder but fortunately was not seriously injured.
As he was immobilized, the stabber shouted “Allahu akbar” (usually translated from Arabic as “God is [the] greatest”), the well-known religious invocation that jihadists have instrumentally misappropriated to mark many of their acts of violence.
The attacker is Mahamad Fathe, a 23-year-old migrant from Yemen. A few hours after the attack, during the police interrogation, the man presented himself as an aspiring martyr. According to Italian media, he stated: “I wanted to reach the paradise of Allah. When I attacked the soldier I was sure I would be killed and that's what I was looking for, I wanted to die”.
The prosecutor’s office in Milan charged Fathe with violence against a public official and attempted murder with the aggravating circumstances of terrorist purposes and, after new evidence was collected, with terrorist association, too.
At the time of writing, information about the attacker’s background and motivations is still unclear. In the police questioning, the man also reportedly expressed economic concerns: “I no longer had a penny, I had not eaten for days, for three nights I slept on the street. My life turned bad and that’s why I chose to end it with a kind of redemption, looking for paradise”.
To further complicate the picture, there are also references to alleged mental health problems: the man said he “heard voices” in his head. However, at the moment there is no record of medical diagnosis. He also mentioned that he smoked cannabis before the stabbing.
Interestingly, the night before the attack, Fathe had already attracted the attention of the police, but not for reasons related to violent extremism. He had climbed up an awning near the Central Station and had begun to yell in a mix of Arabic and Italian, from a distance threatening passers-by with a pen and later even the police. In the end, the police had blocked and denounced him for resisting a public official. Because there had been no use of violence and the man was formally without a criminal record, Fathe remained on the loose.
Now new details start to emerge of his complex story. Fathe arrived in Italy via Libya in 2017, reportedly not by boat but by plane through a humanitarian corridor, and was assigned to a reception centre as an asylum seeker in Bergamo, not far from Milan. However, he soon fled to Germany, where he lived for a year and a half, between Frankfurt and Munich. There he dedicated himself to selling women’s clothes, but also to the sale (and use) of khat, a controlled substance in Germany – apparently representing another case of individual terror-crime nexus in Europe.
The German authorities deported him to Italy, under the Dublin Regulation, on 12 July 2019, on a flight from Munich to Milan. After his deportation, in early August, the German police notified Italy of the dangerousness of Mahamad Fathe for his violent extremism, but in terms that Italian investigators define “vague”, so much so that he had been allowed to travel from Germany to Italy. On 8 August, the Italian Ministry of the Interior in Rome reportedly sent a confidential note to provincial law enforcement headquarters explaining that: “The German authorities communicated – in the context of international collaboration – that the Yemeni citizen in question would have been indicated as a person ‘with sympathy for the Islamic State and who participated in armed clashes in Yemen’”. Yet this alert, based on generic indications, was not included in the database of Italian law enforcement agencies.
Back in Italy, Fathe was housed in a reception centre in the province of Mantua, not far from Milan, and received a temporary humanitarian protection permit on 23 August. However, he fled after a short time, reportedly because he could not live side by side with other migrants (the Yemeni mentioned that he struggled to communicate because the others spoke in English). Fathe then moved to Milan, where he slept the first night at the home of a North African and then for at least three nights in the public gardens of the Central Station.
On the day of the attack Fathe did not look like one of the many homeless people who frequent that area of the city, especially at night. He also had a mobile phone in which Italian police found videos with “war scenes”, presumably of fighting in Yemen. A flash drive was also confiscated.
During the police interrogation, the young man explicitly claimed that he was not part of the so-called Islamic State (IS) or other jihadist armed groups. “I am not a terrorist," he reportedly said, “I fled Yemen because there was war”. On 19 September, the young man, described as in a confused state, refused to show up for a new interrogation.
In general, terrorism puts a strain on intelligence and law enforcement forecasting and analysis skills; in fact it is necessary to determine not only if an attack will take place, but also where, when and how. By their nature, terrorists operate in a clandestine manner and usually use the surprise factor. Furthermore, preemptively detecting so-called lone-actor terrorists is perceived as particularly challenging. To make matters worse, as evidenced by this case, the work of agencies that already have to deal with an overabundance of information can be further complicated by communication problems between states but also within a state.
At the moment, according to the Milanese investigators, the attack can be considered a solitary action, in terms of both preparation and execution. Fathe’s stabbing can thus be associated with lone-actor terrorism, a phenomenon on the rise on a global scale over the last two decades.
According to the information available to the public, there are currently no clear indications of the presence of accomplices, let alone of instructions from jihadist armed groups such IS. It is still difficult to accurately reconstruct the phases of his radicalization process from his country of origin to Milan through passages in Libya and in Germany. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that Fathe, like many other “lone actors”, was not totally socially isolated and had some kind of contacts with other extremists.
Apparently the act of violence was not planned with great care, unlike similar cases. According to Italian investigators, Fathe planned the attack in few days, after he decided to sleep in the public gardens of the station. The man attacked in the area where he lived at the time, without having to trace a route (like many other lone actors), and used a common, readily available object (a pair of scissors) as a weapon. The attack did not require skills, resources or support.
It is noteworthy that, unlike a typical lone actor, he decided to attack a soldier, in a crowded area which could offer many other targets, even “softer”. However, there are no clear indications as to the reasons for this target selection. In any case, recent research has suggested that very little differentiates lone actors who attack high-value targets such as public officials from those who attack members of the public.
Overall, at the time of writing, the information about Fathe’s real motivations is even vaguer than the information related to his background and behavior.
It could be conjectured that at least a psychological feeling of personal frustration, also due to his condition of economic and social deprivation in Europe and perhaps even aggravated by possible mental disorders, may have found an outlet in a resounding gesture wrapped in religiously-inspired justifications. A specific “trigger event” has not emerged so far.
On the other hand, the presence of genuine links to Salafist-Jihadist ideology is still uncertain. In his words, he rejected a connection with this cause. Aside from the shout immediately after the assault, Fathe left no message to justify the attack before or during the stabbing and his testimony is still rather vague.
Rather, the action was presented as a case of “suicide by cop”: the stabber described himself as a person who was already contemplating suicide and decided to attack law enforcement in order to provoke them into killing him. Furthermore, if so, it would not be the first time that an innermost suicidal intent (forbidden by Islam) is presented and justified as a desire for “martyrdom”. Rather than offering a positive motivation, the religious expectations about other-worldly rewards “might have the disinhibitory effect of lifting some of the normative constraints against suicide missions” (or high-risk missions). To the extent they are reliable, Fathe’s words trace a personal, quite narrow view: an extreme act for individual redemption, without a public, collective value associated with a political cause.
This attack bears some similarities to two of the very few acts of violence carried out in Italy that can be traced back to religiously-inspired motives in some way – both took place in Milan, historically the most important city for the jihadist phenomenon in the country.
On 12 October 2009, in a watershed event in the history of Italy’s jihadism, Mohammed Game, a Lybian national who had arrived in Italy in 2003 as an adult, partially detonated a rudimentary explosive device in front of a barracks in Milan, without causing serious injuries. Therefore in this case, too, the attack, inspired by jihadist motives, was directed against a “hard” military target. Game, after the failure of his business activities in Milan, had planned the attack with the help of two friends, but without having any contact with armed groups.
A more recent incident has even more striking outward similarities with Fathe’s stabbing. On 18 May 2017, in the same train station of Milan, Ismail Tommaso Ben Youssef Hosni, a homeless 20-year-old Italian citizen born in Milan to a Tunisian father and an Italian mother, stabbed a policeman and two soldiers with kitchen knives after they asked to see his identity papers. Hosni, who had a criminal record (specifically, for drug dealing), was allegedly under the influence of cocaine at the time of the incident. Italian authorities found that the young man was an Islamic State sympathizer. In his trial, the investigation for international terrorism was dropped, while Hosni was sentenced to 5 years and 8 months in prison for the attack, with the recognition that he was not in full possession of his faculties at the time.
The scarcity of religiously-inspired acts of violence in Italy makes Mahamad Fathe’s stabbing even more noteworthy. In fact, unlike many other Western countries, Italy has suffered no lethal jihadist attacks on its soil and has shown limited levels of jihadist radicalization, according to various indicators (not only the number of attacks, but also the number of foreign fighters, etc.). Overall, the Italian jihadist scene is more limited in size, less structured and less sophisticated than that of many other Western European countries.
This fact is all the more interesting when you consider that the country presents several (potentially) worrisome elements at the macro level, including: geographical proximity to conflict areas and porous borders; the growing presence of migrants, including many irregular migrants, from Muslim-majority countries and even conflict areas, with significant risks of economic and social marginalization in the country (such as Fathe himself); the role of Italy and the Vatican as important symbolic objectives in jihadist propaganda; Italy’s active role in conflicts in the Greater Middle East.
As a few experts have noted, this Italian “exceptionalism” is presumably due to several factors. A significant class of causal factors is of a demographic nature: large-scale Muslim immigration to Italy began only in the late 1980s and early 1990s and therefore the first wave of second-generation Muslims – a category which is, on average, particularly vulnerable to jihadist radicalization across Europe – has only recently entered adulthood. As said, Fathe himself, like Game, is not a second-generation Muslim.
Even more importantly, overall, Italy’s counter-terrorism system has so far been effective, thanks also to the use of “hard” measures such as the administrative deportations of foreign nationals, in the absence of a systematic national strategy of “soft” counter-radicalization and de-radicalization initiatives.
At the moment it would be premature to reach the conclusion that this isolated act in Milan, currently devoid of unequivocal jihadist motives, drastically alters the happy “exceptionalism” of Italy, but it certainly has begun to draw attention to this type of threat, even at a time of declining jihadist attacks in the West and, as said, in a country that fortunately has remained largely immune to jihadist violence on its territory.