Italy’s emerging terrorist threat

Italy’s emerging terrorist threat

The recent apprehension of the Moroccan Nabil Benhamir in Genoa has sparked renewed interest in Rome’s counterterrorism strategy. Although Italy is a highly symbolic target and despite the Islamic State’s repeated calls for attacks, the country has not suffered from  jihadist terrorism – yet.

On December 19th, Italian authorities successfully apprehended Nabil Benhamir, a Moroccan citizen who was charged with planning a suicide mission somewhere on Italian soil. Benhamir had previously resided in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany and it is believed he traveled to Syria multiple times where he was allegedly trained by the Islamic State (IS). Authorities believe Benhamir is a returning foreign fighter sent back to Europe in order to train other IS members to manufacture and use explosives. Far from being a “lone wolf,” Benhamir is suspected of belonging to a small network of IS sympathizers who he was teaching how to manufacture homemade explosive devices.

Benhamir’s arrest is only the latest of a list of successful Italian counterterrorism operations over the last few years. Even though it has been argued that the terrorist threat Italy faces is lower than that of other major European countries, Italian authorities have been quite effective in countering jihadist networks and lone attackers. Out of all of the major countries of Europe, Italy is the only one which has not suffered any major jihadist terrorist attacks recently.

Italy’s exemption is even more notable due to the country’s high symbolic value. Besides being the cradle of Catholicism, Rome is also believed to play an eschatological role in the Islamic State’s apocalyptic belief. Both Italy and Rome have been the object of IS propaganda, and the group encouraged lone attackers to target the Eternal City and the Vatican. In one of the goriest propaganda efforts, they released a poster depicting Pope Francis being beheaded by an IS militant.

Background on Italian counterterrorism

Italy is far from invulnerable to the jihadist terrorist threat, but has a wealth of experience accumulated during the last decades against criminal organizations and left and right-wing extremist groups. As the former director of the Italian intelligence confirmed, this experience has greatly influenced Italy’s current counterterrorism strategy, a hallmark of which is the close and constant dialogue between the intelligence community and law enforcement forces.

The lessons Italy has learned from the past have also contributed in shaping a corpus of legislative measures that have proved to be effective against terrorist organizations. The origins of these measures can be traced back to the 80’s, when the government introduced Article 270 bis into the Penal Code. This allowed authorities to take action against individuals or organizations promoting, organizing, or directing acts of terrorism. In 2015, the Italian government expanded these provisions and promulgated a new anti-terrorism law, which provides additional penalties for propaganda, recruitment, promotion and direction of terrorist activities on the Internet.

In order to implement such measures, a special unit of the Postal Police has been established and charged with monitoring the Internet. Aided by interpreters and cultural mediators, this unit identifies individuals and groups who proselytize or direct attack plans online. The importance of including cultural mediators in this team was shown by Benhamir’s arrest. Benhamir referred to a surah in the Quran that calls for shahada (martyrdom) in a phone call that was tapped by the authorities. Once the Postal Police collects this type of evidence, the Special Operative Group (a unit of the Carabinieri, a military corps assigned to law enforcement) along with the DIGOS and the NOCS (the State Police’s units for special operation) proceed by arresting the suspects.

Unique tactics

Intercepted phone calls are another key tool in Italy’s fight against organized crime and terrorism. Unlike in other countries, these intercepted calls can be used in court as evidence against the suspects. Many would-be terrorists have been stopped thanks to intercepted calls, including the aforementioned Benhamir and a cell of three that was planning to place an IED on the Rialto Bridge in Venice in March 2017. Besides relying on tapping, authorities invest resources in infiltrating suspected networks and also maintain close relations with communities which occasionally report their members if they have shown signs of radicalization.

After authorities apprehend the suspects, there is an additional measure that distinguishes Italy from other country: deportation. Unlike any other European country, Italy has frequently resorted to this measure. From January to June 2017, Italian authorities expelled 135 suspected individuals.

All these tools have contributed in keeping Italy safe and untouched from the jihadist threat. However, as many analysts have noted, developments such as the emergence of second generation of Muslim immigrants, urban areas resembling the French banlieues, and the rise of social tensions due to the steady flows of migrants from Muslim countries might increase the scale and number of the jihadist threat in the near future. Even though Italy’s counterterrorism has proved quite effective so far, future attacks cannot be conclusively ruled out. Given the theatrical nature of terrorism, even a single attack on a highly symbolic target on Italian soil would be resounding victory for the attackers, and may well be only a matter of time.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Mauro Lubrano

Mauro Lubrano is an Analyst at Global Risk Insights, where he focuses mainly on emerging technologies, terrorism and Jihadism. Previously, he worked for the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. He holds a Master in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Research from the University of Frankfurt am Main (Germany) and a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Perugia (Italy). He is fluent in German and a native speaker of Italian.