In this context, Italy’s contingent appears to be modest in size, at least compared than those of other Western European countries. In fact, according to the latest official data, foreign fighters linked to Italy in various forms – not only citizens and residents – number 141 (as of 31 July 2019). That means less than 1/13 of France’s contingent (approximately 1,900 individuals) and 1/4 of Belgium’s (approximately 600).
Western foreign fighters by country in absolute terms
Source: Estimates by J. Cook and G. Vale, 2019
From a Western European perspective, if the overall number of foreign fighters with ties to Italy can be considered low in absolute terms, it is even very low in relation to the entire population, with a ratio of around 2 foreign fighters per million people, compared to the over 50 per million in Belgium, or even the approximately 30 in Sweden, in France and in Austria.
Western foreign fighters by country in relative terms (per million people)
Source: Author’s elaboration based on estimates by J. Cook and G. Vale, 2019
According to official data, by 31 July 2019, 29 out of 141 foreign fighters linked to Italy (20.5%) had already returned to Europe – not necessarily to Italy. In October 2019, Italy’s Anti-Mafia and Anti-Terrorism National Prosecutor, Federico Cafiero de Raho, specified that only 10 returnees were present at the time on Italian territory (3 were detained and 7 were closely monitored by national authorities).
In 2018 an ISPI study thoroughly analyzed the profiles of all individuals with ties to Italy who travelled to conflict areas since 2011 – at the time, 125 people –, using exclusive information provided by the Italian Ministry of the Interior. This original data enabled a public and systematic investigation of Italy’s foreign fighters, for the first time, by studying in detail over 20 individual categories of variables.
According to this empirical research, Italy’s contingent of foreign fighters mainly consisted of male (90.4% of the total), relatively young (average age: 30 years old), first-generation immigrants (66.4%). Generally, they also came from modest economic backgrounds and enjoyed modest levels of education. Many of them could also be characterized to have weak and unstructured ties with other militants and extremist organizations.
In contrast to trends observed in other Western European countries, the vast majority of these foreign fighters linked were born abroad – in particular, 40 individuals in Tunisia and 26 in Morocco. Only 11 individuals (accounting for 8.8% of overall profiles studied) were actually born in Italy.
Similarly, only a minority of foreign fighters were Italian citizens: 24 individuals (19.2%), including 10 dual citizens. Most foreign fighters came from North African countries (50.4% of the total).
Interestingly, converts accounted for 11.2% of Italy’s overall foreign fighters. Though relatively few in number, they appeared to be overrepresented among foreign fighters, when considering the fact that they represent only a tiny part of Italy’s Muslim community.
Once they arrived in the conflict area, most travelers linked to Italy joined jihadist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (IS), Jabhat al-Nusra (and its successors), and other smaller extremist groups.
According to the data supplied by Italian authorities, no foreign fighters had actively participated in the support or execution of terrorist attacks in the West.
In general, this ISPI study reaffirmed the notion that a single profile for foreign fighters does not exist, just like a single profile for jihadist militants does not exist in general. Nevertheless, this research demonstrated a few characteristics that appear among the Italy-related foreign fighters with greater frequency than in other Western European countries. These differences include a higher average age, a larger presence of first-generation immigrants who were born abroad and held foreign citizenship (in particular, from North Africa), a small quantity of individuals who resided in metropolitan areas and large cities, weak and unstructured ties with other militants and extremist organization, and a (so far) relatively small proportion of returnees on national soil.
It can be argued that, in many respects, this picture mirrors the main characteristics of the overall jihadist scene in Italy. It remains quite small in size, relatively unstructured and unsophisticated, at least in part as a result of an effective counter-terrorism system, and it includes a significant number of first-generation immigrants, mainly due to a simple demographic lag (i.e. relatively recent large-scale migratory flows from Muslim majority countries).
According to currently available information, today few jihadist foreign fighters with ties to Italy are still in Syria and Iraq. Less than ten of them are Italian nationals.
It is known that most European countries have not actively committed themselves to repatriate their foreign fighters (and especially male adults), for a combination of reasons associated with security concerns, political risks, legal issues and economic costs.
In this regard, Italy has taken decisions that deserve attention. At least two interesting cases can be mentioned.
First, in June 2019, Italian authorities repatriated a male adult with combat experience in Syria: Samir Bougana, a 25-year-old man of Moroccan descent who holds an Italian passport. Bougana was born in 1994 in the province of Brescia, not far from Milan, and lived in Italy until he was 16 before moving to Germany with his family. In that country the young man started his process of jihadist radicalization and decided to leave for Syria, in November 2013. After having fought with different jihadist groups (including IS), in August 2018 he surrendered to the Kurdish YPG. In the meantime, an arrest warrant was out for Bougana for the crime of terrorist association after Brescia prosecutors opened an investigation into him in 2015. His return to Italy in 2019 came about thanks to cooperation between the Italian authorities and the FBI, who made contact with Kurdish majority forces. Bougana’s repatriation was officially applauded by the US State Department. The man is now awaiting trial in prison.
Second, in November 2019, after the start of the Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria, a complex international operation by Italian authorities in cooperation with Albanian authorities and NGOs led to the homecoming of Alvin Berisha, an 11-year-old child who holds an Albanian passport, even if he grew up in Northern Italy with his Albanian family. Before his return to Italy, the minor was alone in the Al-Hol camp, in northeastern Syria. He had been kidnapped in 2014 by his mother Valbona (born in Albania in 1982), unbeknownst to his father. The woman, who had joined the “caliphate”, was killed by an air strike, while Alvin was wounded. In addition to his physical injuries, Italian experts confirmed that he shows a high level of shock for the emotional trauma.
In conclusion, it can be argued that from a Western European perspective the Italian case presents interesting peculiarities in terms of both the foreign fighter threat and the response to this threat.