The terrorist attack on London Bridge and the alleged terrorist attack at Pensacola, Florida (USA), late last year have once again demonstrated that jihadism is not dead. Indeed, despite the downscaling of al-Qaeda and the military defeats of the Islamic State, both groups are still active in waging wars on their “distant enemies” in the West. However, it looks as if one large, influential European country has remained free of a successful jihadist terrorist attack: Italy. While academic research has focused its attention on numerous European countries, which have been the target of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, they have largely neglected the Italian case study (here a couple of exceptions). In a recently published paper in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism we shed light on the Italian reality and here we discuss some of its aspects.
It is important to note that in Italy there have in fact been small-scale terrorist attacks, even if not as bloody or well organized as those in other European countries. Moreover, “no terrorist attacks” does not mean no terrorist activities. In this regard it should be noted that in recent years, Italian security forces have conducted several operations. For instance, in June 2017 in Alessandria there was the arrest of Lara Bombonati who had joined Islamist militias in Syria with her husband, Giovanni Cascio, who was killed in the same country. She was a member of a jihadist cell with links to Italy and Europe. In April 2018, due to operation Scorpion Fish 2 the Guardia di Finanza arrested 13 people (Tunisians, Moroccans and Italians), who used high-speed motorboats to smuggle cigarettes and illegal immigrants from Tunisia. Further investigations showed that members of the transnational criminal group had links with terrorism. This operation is also important because it sheds interesting light on the terror-crime nexus, namely the link between illegal trafficking (tobacco, weapons, drugs and people) in the Mediterranean Sea and the possibility that such activities may fund terrorist groups. According to Franco Gabrielli, chief of the Italian Police, at the moment it is not possible to state that between these two phenomena (crime and terrorism) close links exist. However, investigations clearly show that in several instances there are forms of collaboration, even though this is not an established cooperation but seems to be a kind of marriage of convenience that is a collaboration for single operations. In the spring of 2016, due to an FBI warning, Italian Security Forces tracked down Moftah Al Sllake, a Libyan illegal immigrant who fought in Libya for Ansar al-Sharia and who had already conducted two reconnaissance missions in a mall near Genoa. The operation Over the Web in 2017 targeted in Genoa Nabil Benamir, a Moroccan citizen with fighting experience in Syria and Iraq with ISIS. According to the investigators, his aim was to train ISIS members to make and use explosives.
In our paper we counted at least three perpetrators of the attacks in Europe who have family or criminal links to Italy: Anis Amri, the attacker of the Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016, who had arrived illegally in Italy in 2011 and after the attack in Germany was killed near Milan; Ahmed Hannachi, who was shot dead by a French soldier after killing two women with a knife outside the central train station in Marseilles on 1 October 2017, who had lived near Rome and who had two brothers arrested by Italian police; and Youssef Zaghba, one of the assailants during the London Bridge attack in 2017, who had Italian nationality.
While researching the terror-crime nexus we interviewed a former high-ranking security officer and current police officers to explore the Italian counterterrorism landscape. Italy has a long history of anti-terrorism operations related both to internal terrorism, namely the Brigate Rosse and far-right groups, and international terrorism, mainly Palestinian groups during the 1970s and the 1980s. This long and considerable experience helped develop the Antiterrorism Strategic Analysis Committee (CASA), that is a common platform where Italian security forces (Police, Carabinieri, Guardia di Finanza, Penitentiary Police and intelligence agencies) share information about terrorist groups, intelligence, people, and threats. In 2017 alone, thanks to CASA’s activities, 26 people with links to jihadism were arrested and 105 were expelled. CASA is also responsible for the intelligence gathered while monitoring of Islamist websites.
An often-cited explanation for Italian exceptionalism in counterterrorism is related to the history of colonialism. Unlike the United Kingdom and France, Italy did not have a comparably long and vast colonial empire and, as a result, Italy did not experience the same amount of immigration from colonies or former colonies and largely avoided the embitterment of local communities. This explanation is, however, not fully convincing. It is true that Italy did not have a colonial history comparable to that of the United Kingdom and France, but neither did Germany and yet it has suffered jihadist terrorist attacks. Indeed, Italy had a colonial empire and controlled both Libya (from 1911) and Somalia (from around 1892), two countries where modern jihadism finds its roots.
The Libyan case is very interesting. The military operations in Libya in 1911 against the Ottoman Empire allowed Italy to control the Libyan coastline but not the interior. Such control weakened in the years during and after the First World War. Only under Fascism did Italy manage to conquer what we nowadays call Libya and finally repress the local revolt. However, in order to do so Italy displaced huge parts of Cyrenaica’s population into specific detention camps, killing thousands, and then hanging the leader of the revolt, Omar al-Mukhtar, in 1931. This is not a sideshow because the image of Omar al-Mukhtar is printed on 10-dinar banknotes. During his visit to Italy in 2009, then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was accompanied by the elder son of Omar al-Mukhtar, who was holding a photograph of his father. And yet, despite its colonial history, Italy does not seem to attract much attention from Islamist groups
It is well known that the alert to the danger of jihadist terrorism is still high across Europe. The threat is very serious and real, as demonstrated by several terrorist attacks between 2015 and 2019 in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. As far as Italy is concerned, two elements have to be taken into account. First, it is true that Italy has managed to remain free of a successful jihadist terrorist attack, but investigations and counter-terrorism operations have revealed a strong presence in our national territory of terrorist activities of different kinds from support to attempted attacks. Second, Italy remains a country at risk of violent radicalization, a risk that is constantly evolving, however, so far its success in counter-terrorism is probably due to the combination of considerable and long anti-terrorism experience, its anti-terrorism legislation, the crucial role of CASA and a different social situation as compared to other European countries.