Jihadist Terrorism: Italy the Next Target?

Jihadist Terrorism: Italy the Next Target?

An often-overlooked aspect of Jihadist terrorism in Europe is Italy’s exceptionalism in avoiding it. Does this come down to mere luck, or is Italy taking a different, more effective approach to counter-terrorism? And, most importantly, how long is Italy going to be able to keep this up?

Despite al-Qaeda’s downscaling and the Islamic State’s numerous military defeats, both groups are still actively operating and remain committed to waging war against their Western enemies. This autumn’s Jihadist attacks in Paris, Nice and Vienna serve as a painful reminder of the threat that is still plaguing Europe.

However, one country has been spared so far: Italy. Europe’s third largest economy and the home of Rome, Vatican City and the Pope, Italy has remained largely unscathed by deadly Islamist attacks — despite its historic legacy as the symbol of Western Christendom.

In contrast, a number of Italy’s European neighbors, including the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and more recently Austria, have been less fortunate.

Italy’s exceptionalism in the terrorism landscape is even more remarkable considering its shores often account for the majority of unauthorised arrivals in Europe (82% in 2017 alone). Such a statistic has weakened the argument that illegal immigration correlates to a higher probability of terror attacks in the short-term.

Has Italy simply been fortunate so far, or are there structural forces that might explain why it largely manages to avoid Jihadist terrorism?

Italian Exceptionalism

An often-cited factor that explains why Italy has managed to remain free of Jihadist terror attacks is rooted in its long history of counter-terrorism operations.

During Italy’s infamous ‘Years of Lead’ between the late 1960s and late 1980s, Italian authorities gained considerable experience handling political terrorism. This period of social and political turmoil was marked by a wave of terrorist attacks perpetrated by domestic terrorist groups — most notably the far-left Red Brigades and the far-right Blackshirts. Attacks from International paramilitary organisations linked to Palestine were also prominent during this period.

As such, by 2004 the Italian government was able to hone its vast and significant experience fighting terrorist militias and it developed the Antiterrorism Strategic Analysis Committee (CASA). The platform allows different Italian security forces (Police, Carabinieri, Penitentiary Police, Investigative Tax Police and intelligence agencies) to share crucial data about radical Islamist groups. Intelligence about specific individuals, terrorist groups and propaganda activities that could be deemed real and potential threats are able to be shared and coordinated  between the various domestic security forces tasked with quelling such threats.

Unlike other European countries, whose intelligence agencies seldom cooperate with national security units, CASA’s biggest success has been the strengthening of the collaboration between Italian counter-terrorism actors.

On top of introducing CASA, Italy has long taken a hardline approach towards apologists for terrorism. In fact, compared with the rest of Europe, Italian law enforcement follows much more draconian counter-terrorism measures and, because of its centralized intelligence unit, it is well-equipped at identifying, monitoring and deporting religious extremists.

Another important factor accounting for Italy’s ability to avoid terror attacks is rooted in its long, varied and protracted fight against the Italian Mafia.

It turns out that the presence of formidably organized criminal groups has one upside: it has provided Italian authorities with an abundance of experience and know-how in tracking and infiltrating tight-knit, underground criminal groups.

Moreover, the fight against the omnipresent and sophisticated Italian Mafia has prompted the Italian government to strengthen its already extensive counter-terrorism legislation alongside its investigative and security forces, which it has since adapted to the fight against Jihadism. For instance, compared with the rest of Europe, Italian judges have more freedom to issue warrants authorizing the electronic surveillance of suspects’ conversations through wiretaps.

As such, Italy’s prior experience with terrorism and organised crime has provided law enforcement with both the expertise and legislation needed to apply more effective preemptive measures to suspected terrorists. Such measures are typically restricted only to those formally accused of criminal activity in the rest of Europe. In Italy however, greater freedoms to target suspected terrorists — without the need for an explicit accusation of a crime — can serve to aid in the foiling of potential attacks.

Historical Precedents

Another important factor behind Italy’s anti-terrorism exceptionalism relates to the history and consequences of colonialism.

Unlike France and the UK, Italy did not have a comparably long, broad and successful colonial empire. Consequently, Italy did not receive the influx of former colony immigrants that its British and French counterparts did following the Second World War. This has meant Italy has largely been able to avoid any acrimony between local and immigrant communities, since the nation’s colonial ties did not run as deep as those of Britain and France.

After all, large-scale Muslim immigration to Italy only began in the early 1990s, meaning that the first wave of second-generation Muslims — often the most vulnerable to radicalization — has only recently entered adulthood.

Because of this demographic factor, there is less segregation between Italians and Muslim immigrants across Italian cities than in the rest of Europe.

As such, Italian authorities have far fewer suspects to monitor than the French and the British, where larger numbers of second and third-generation Muslims reside. In fact, in 2017 only 0.3% of Italian residents were second-generation immigrants, a far cry from Britain’s 3% and France’s 3.9%.

It is therefore unsurprising that between 2014 and 2015 ‘only’ 87 foreign fighters were found in Italy against Britain’s 760 and France’s 2500, despite all three countries having similar population sizes.

Overall, it appears that Italy’s success in avoiding deadly terror attacks doesn’t merely come down to good fortune, but rather it is the by-product of its legislation, demographics, and experience fighting clandestine groups.

Exceptional No More?

However, the country is not immune to jihadist propaganda and it is worth noting that ‘no terror attacks’ does not mean no terrorist activities.

Italian law enforcement has been conducting a rapidly increasing number of anti-terrorism investigations and operations. These operations have exposed a rising presence of Jihadist terrorist activities within Italy — ranging from support to attempted attacks.

Analysts are now pointing to alarming signs that suggest the risk of religious fundamentalism and violent radicalisation in Italy is on the rise.

For instance, between 2004 and 2014 an average of 14 Islamist extremists per year were deported from Italy. Between 2016 and 2017, that number grew to 123.

Moreover, the numerous episodes of terrorism that have wreaked havoc across Europe in recent years have deepened Italian authorities’ concerns, as they exposed Italian links to foreign attacks and a growth in homegrown violence.

It is impossible to say for certain when Italian law enforcement can expect a considerable uptick in Islamist terrorist activities, though some anticipate that the coming of age of second-generation Muslim immigrants — who will grow up in an increasingly nativist, anti-immigrant Italy — may precede an unprecedented wave of terror attacks across the peninsula.

As such, though the Italian Jihadist threat remains limited and unsophisticated in comparison with the rest of Europe, it is likely that Islamist propaganda efforts and Italians’ growing anti-immigrant sentiments will embitter some Italian Muslims in the future.

How Long Can Italy’s Counter-Terrorism Exceptionalism Last?

So far, Italy has been exceptionally free of successful terrorist attacks. This is largely down to a combination of its anti-terrorism legislation, centralised intelligence, deportation policies, significant and protracted counter-terrorism and organised crime experience, and the social composition of the Muslim communities living in Italy.

For the time being, these historic, legislative and social buffers are not bound to change. Accordingly, it could be forecasted that Italian authorities are likely to continue thwarting Jihadist terror attacks in the near future and avoid the current wave of Jihadist violence ravaging through Europe.

In the long term, however, a second and third generation of Muslims will eventually emerge which could heighten the risk of radicalisation, diminish the efficacy of current prevention and control efforts and thus jeopardise Italian national security.

Fortunately, unlike its European counterparts, Italy has a few years to prepare a strategy on how to mitigate such a threat.


Categories: Europe, Security

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