Italy's Fight Against Islamic Extremism

Photo Source: The Economist

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

When Islamic extremism spilt over to Europe, after 9/11 attacks, the Islamic war had truly become global. Britain, France, Germany and Spain were attacked mercilessly and randomly. But Italy has all along avoided the Islamic war on its soil.

However, the rising threats of Islamic war that Italy can face in future can no longer be undermined.

In August 2017, when a video was circulated by al-Hayat, a pro-ISIS organisation based in the war-ravaged city of Marawi, Philippines, the ISIS sympathisers threatened Vatican and Rome, while tearing the image of Pope Francis in a sacked Roman Catholic Church.

The video had been directed towards jihadi sympathisers based in Italy that showed militants wrecking statues of Jesus, Mary, St. Joseph and ripping pictures of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI.

A graphic illustration of a young man holding a knife with Italian phrase ‘Devi Combatterli’ meaning ‘You must fight them’ was also circulated on Telegram, the most preferred social app of Islamic militants.

The montage was then reproduced by US-based Site Intelligence Group and then by mainstream media such as Fox News lately. These developments have become concerning to Italian security agencies.

Italy has accounted for about 82% of unauthorised arrivals in 2017 alone, mostly through the central Mediterranean route ending at Lampedusa Island in Sicily.

Hence, even if migrants are not treated as criminals, the argument of a link between extremism and immigration cannot be largely undermined.

According to inputs of Italian Interior Ministry, up to 70 suspected Islamic extremists were deported from Italy in 2017.  

It also seems that Italian authorities have decided to take a hardline approach. 

Counterterrorism authorities have questioned about 160,593 people between March 2016 and March 2017. They have interrogated about 34,000 people at airports.

More than 500 websites have been shut down and nearly half a million websites are monitored. Even Lega Nord party members have asked the local mosque preachers to give sermons in Italian.

On 19th August 2017, three extremist Moroccan Muslims were sent back to Syria. A month after on 24th September, when a Boeing 737 took off from Bologna airport bound for Tirana, Albania’s capital, it carried the 209th expelled person from Italy since 2015, after being in constant police scrutiny. The 22-year-old Muslim had been arrested for trying to persuade the worshippers not to enter a church.

Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti in 2015 commented that 87 Islamic fighters travelled through Italy, where only 12 had Italian passports.

Italian law enforcement agencies, however, often concede that they have fewer suspects to monitor than their French and British counterparts. They believe Italy’s second-generation Muslims, which are only a small number (0.3% of Italian residents) are susceptible to radicalisation (against 3% in Britain and 3.9% in France).

Apart from that, Italy has no Muslim ghettos like the French ‘banlieues.’ The predominance of small and medium towns has also made it easier to monitor the situation.

Arturo Varvelli, of the Milan based Institute for International Political Studies, believes that Italian mafia (the Camorra around Naples, the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and Ndrangheta in Calabria), dominant in Italy’s south, has averted the jihadis in making a stronghold in the country.

Italian law officials also believe that the wealth of experience which they have acquired over the years to fight against Italian organised mafia, that ran amok during the 1970s and 1980s, have given them the advantage to guard the system. It has helped them in understanding the importance of increased cooperation between the police and the intelligence.

Issuing wiretap orders, holding suspects without charge up to four days, hiring informants and electronic surveillance has been encouraged by judges and the police to tackle terrorism threats, a stance that is similar to what they did during the ‘Years of Lead’ of the mafia.

In the past, Italy suffered at the hands of its own people. Factually, 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing, 1974 Piazza della Loggia bombing, 1980 Bologna bombing were some major attacks carried out by local far-right groups like Ordine Nuovo, whereas countless assassinations, drug and weapons trafficking, waste mismanagement, conspiracies and extortions perpetuated by the mafia have harmed the social fabric in Italy.

Michele Groppi, who teaches at Defence Academy of the UK, points out another important factor, where he believes that jihadists have used Italy as a ‘logistical base’ to Europe and that’s what kept the country safe.

Despite this, several high profile Jihadis have attained notoriety such as Youssef Zaghba, a Moroccan born Italian, one of the three extremists, who used a truck and some knives to kill eight people on and around London Bridge on 3rd June 2017.

Many recent attacks in Europe have had some sort of Italian connection. Anis Amri, the Tunisian who attacked a Berlin Christmas market last year, was shot in the outskirts of Milan by Italian security officials. He was believed to have been radicalised in a prison in Sicily. Mohammad Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian behind the deadly attack in Nice, France last year, was identified by Italian police as having spent time in the border town of Ventimiglia in Liguria.

Michele Groppi also believes that if the war in Libya intensifies, it will be a very sensitive matter because major Italian cities may become the next target of Jihadist insurgency.

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