The Curious, Quiet Success of Italian Counter-Terrorism

April, 2017, War is Boring

After a wave of recent terrorist attacks, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Belgium have all debated their existing security strategies. The duty of politics is to answer public fears—however this always comes with the risk that fears will guide reactive counter-terrorism policies that ultimately fail.

Italy, however, has taken a different approach. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” appears to be the strategy, as if largely avoiding the discussion will take away the threat.

Partly, this is because Italy has been “immune” to jihadist terrorist attacks, although not from terrorist threats. Days after the March 22 vehicle attack on pedestrians walking on London’s Westminster Bridge, Italian police nabbed four alleged jihadi terrorists for plotting to blow up Venice’s 16th-century Rialto Bridge.

Incompetence appears to have undone these would-be terrorists, as police had wiretapped their phones. Indeed, threats from jihadist groups directed at Italy are “quite naïve” and unsophisticated, according to Marco Arnaboldi, a researcher at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

“Italian jihadists are still on Facebook, while the others are using Twitter or Telegram.”

However, this doesn’t mean that the threat isn’t real. Italy has participated in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the military intervention against the Islamic State—meaning the country is a potential target for retaliation. Although the Italian military has kept a relatively low profile overseas.

Since the 1980s, Italy has functioned as a logistical base for various radical Islamic movements from North Africa and South Asia. Cities such as Milan and Como, as well as other northern provinces, have long served as hubs of the jihadist network operating in Europe.

Above—Italian police in Venice. Dalbera photo via Flickr. At top—a Carabinieri during a training exercise. Allied Joint Force Command photo

These hubs still exist to some extent, despite police counter-terrorism operations. Yet, many Italians have little knowledge of their own state’s counter-terrorism policies.

Public debate is largely confined to the margins of a consensus assumed by both left-wing and right-wing governments. Since the early 2000s, Italy has closed many unregulated mosques to the widespread silence of the Italian population, who opposed building new ones.

Italy’s official commitment to freedom of religion is at odds with anti-migration policies and rhetoric, and some MPs have relegated the issue to a “security matter.” With a population of more than 1.6 million Muslims, Italy has only four registered mosques. The reasons for this are also bureaucratic, according to Arnaboldi.

Opening a mosque requires burdensome documentation, while creating an Islamic cultural center—there are hundreds in Italy—is more straightforward. Yet, the issue remains.

Furthermore, the government has applied counter-terrorism measures, such as the systematic deportation of suspects, without much public inquiry. In 2015, then-Interior Minister Angelino Alfano proudly announced that the number of deportations for security reasons tripled compared to 2014. To date, that number has risen to 153.

The motivations behind deportations can vary from less to more serious accusations. It is not unusual, however, for Italy to deport immigrants for showing even basic signs of sympathy for extremist ideas, such as naming one’s daughter “Jihad,” in the case of a Salafi preacher.

From a democratic perspective, the Italian approach raises doubts as to whether it balances security and respect for fundamental rights—such as religion, even fundamentalist forms of it.

“Apologia [for terrorism] may be the prelude to a crime,” explains Riccardo Noury, spokesperson of Amnesty International Italy. “But in that case, we need to assess whether or not it is legitimate to intervene at that stage. In some case probably it is, but without a specific body of law, there is the risk to confuse apologia with an actual act of crime.”

Nonetheless, some analysts such Edward Luttwak argue that Italy’s tough enforcement is the real reason behind Italy’s success at preventing terrorist attacks.

A long history of combating domestic left- and right-wing terrorist groups, as well as the fight against the Mafia, have prepared local intelligence and police forces to be more effective, albeit questionable from a humanitarian point of view. But this theory is perhaps too neat to explain the whole story.

“Indeed, Italy has a history of prevention and counter-terrorism …. But this is not the reason why Italy have been immune until now to the attacks,” says Arturo Varvelli, a research fellow at ISPI, a leading Italian think tank.

“I believe the main reason is strictly related to numbers,” he adds. “We have a generation of migrants who are growing [up] now, so we haven’t seen the second or third generation who appear to be more sensitive to the propaganda of the Islamic State in [the] last two years in parts of Europe.”

Statistics support this point. The Interior Ministry estimates that 110 people from Italy traveled to Syria or Iraq with the intention of joining militant groups, among whom only 12 to 15 hold an Italian citizenship. It’s a paltry number compared to the 1,200 militants believed to have traveled from France and might return to Europe with terroristic intent.

According to this theory, Italy is relying on its demographic structure rather than on a comprehensive formula to confront threats. The result is a reduction of potential threats through hard security measures and by controlling migration. “In this context, deportation is working well,” Arnaboldi said. “Certainly, a suspect can always come back, but for now these type of measures prove to be effective.”

But there is another peculiarity of the Italian model, strictly related to structural obstacles rather than the government’s measures. The most important obstacle is the monopolistic role of Italian organized crime groups in the black market weapons trade.

“The Italian market for illegal arms is saturated by the Mafia organizations” Arnaboldi explains. “In the case a jihadist want to organize a terrorist attack, there is the possibility that he will face these endemic obstructions.”

However, if Italian jihadists have simply not caught up with their French, British, Belgian or German counterparts, then it might just be a matter of time before Italy’s security services fail to react to new, unpredictable threats.

“The government is working on an Italian approach of countering radicalization,” says Varvelli, explaining that a commission to define the guidelines for a more comprehensive strategy has been set up.

Perhaps the most infamous recent episode is the case of Imam Abu Omar. The Egyptian Imam arrived in Italy in 2001, obtaining a regular asylum passport. However, security authorities soon put Abu Omar under surveillance for suspected ties to Al Qaeda networks. Abu Omar was an alleged member of Gamaat Islamiya, which had engaged in a bloody insurgency in Egypt during the 1990s.

In 2003, the Italian and American intelligence services abducted him from the center of Milan, moving him to Egypt, where he was imprisoned without charges, and allegedly tortured, until 2007.

Armando Spataro, the public prosecutor who followed the case, denounced the impunity around this extraordinary rendition, warning that the Italian justice system was under threat.

On several occasions, including during closing proceedings in a 2009 case—in which 22 CIA operatives and a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel were convicted in absentia for kidnapping—Spataro stressed the importance for anti-terrorism policies to not undermine legal principles, the basic fabric of any democracy.

But it is not only the critical balance between security and liberty that challenges Italy’s democracy. There are also serious concerns about the long-term consequences of a hard-line approach. Academics might debate on whether or not jihadist groups represent a new form of terrorism, but they seem to agree that terrorists are exploiting growing social divisions in Europe.

In this context, an anti-Muslim attitude will prove to be counter-productive. A sense of persecution and grievance is likely to increase, especially among extremist sympathizers, who may then go on to commit violent acts. The Islamic State knows this well, and have already used these feelings as powerful tool for recruitment.