Speech “Migrations and terrorism: a politically charged debate for Italy”

ICT’s 16th Annual International Conference

September 11-15, 2016, Herzliya



Recent Immigration to Europe: Gauging the Terrorism Threat and Counter – Terrorism Options

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished panelists,

Let me first of all express my deep appreciation to Dr. Amichai Magen for having outlined the main issues we will discuss this morning. I found the notes which have been circulated very stimulating and useful.

I) Increased pressure on Italian maritime borders.

According to Frontex the number of illegal entries into Europe by migrants hit a high point last year. As their numbers grew, a new picture emerged of the land and sea routes many migrants are taking.

In 2015, more than 1.8 million people crossed the European Union’s borders illegally‎. This was up substantially from 2014, with about 280,000 detections of illegal border crossings, and 2013 about 100,000 detections. In fact, 2015 saw the most illegal entries into the EU since Frontex began collecting data about a decade ago.

With the diversion from the Balkan to the central Mediterranean route after the EU agreement with Turkey, the illegal border crossings to Italy has increased dramatically, to an  unprecedented situation, with peaks of 4.000 landings in a single day during the summer. The Libyan quagmire has continued to be a breeding ground for human traffickers, jihadist organizations, Daesh and every kind of criminal network.

Even if this trend would stabilize around the 2015 levels, as the Italian Ministry of Interior thinks, there are anxieties for the “cumulative effect “that  an immigration of this magnitude is having on the Italian society, economy and security. There are also concern‎s about the real numbers of illegal immigrants on the Italian soil because they appear significantly underestimated.

Frontex’s data reflect apprehensions, or “detections,” of migrants entering the EU illegally (Frontex uses the term “irregular migrants”), so they are not an exact count of migrants entering Europe. Many migrants enter Europe illegally without being detected. Others are counted more than once because they cross European borders twice (for example, both a sea and land border) or try to enter the EU several times. Still others may enter legally on a travel visa, but overstay their allotted time in Europe or later claim asylum to remain, at least temporarily.


II) Immigration and national security.

The theme of our panel seems to imply that   threats to European countries are increasing, while the flow of immigrants only worsens the security situation. This is a politically charged point to make.

Until March 2015, when the Italian Authorities learned from Tunisians investigators that a terrorist involved in the March19th attack at Bardo museum in Tunisia- with 4 Italian victims and 18 more from other countries – Abdel Majid Touil, possibly the organizer, had traveled from Libya to Porto Empedocle in Italy a month before, undetected in a dinghy among immigrants, until that March any hint at the risk that jihadist may   hide among migrants crossing the sea from Libya  was labeled as an anathema .Even after the Tunisian request of extradition of Abdel Majid Touil  the Italian Minister of Interior insisted for weeks that there was no evidence of jihadists taking the migrants route; to the point that many in the opposition and in the press called for the resignation of the Minister.


In fact, until the Bardo’s tragedy, no one in Italy could even dare to say that a risk  in fact did exist that terrorist could mix with migrants, or that migrants of first or second generation in Muslim families could radicalize and become terrorist. Until a year ago if anybody said that in public he was sure  to be attacked as “populist” or  “islamophobic”, trying to scare the public for electoral purposes .That was also the common wisdom  among Cabinet members, intellectuals, media, in the Catholic Church, Ngo’s and humanitarian organizations active in migrants hospitality.


The deep rooted conviction was the following: these are desperate people fleeing wars and destruction; we must welcome them with open arms, without fears or second thoughts. The same impulse to help the needy and express solidarity that has prompted so many volunteers to run to Amatrice during the recent earthquake , has worked towards the hundreds of thousand of destituted human beings coming to our shores. A cabinet member did even make a statement such as: “immigrants do not come on dinghies carrying kalashnikovs”. These convictions were so strong that, as the Government recognized with the EU Commission, tens of thousands illegal immigrants were allowed to enter Italy, a Schengen member, between 2014 and 2015 without any fingerprinting or other identification being taken. Unfortunately, not only did such attitudes contrast with the changing surrounding environment, but also ignored warnings. Mr. Bou Saab, the Lebanese Minister of Education, had already warned his British counterpart, Mr. David Cameron, about the peril of terrorist infiltrations exploiting immigration flows, stating that, on the way to Europe, one terrorist is hidden every 50 migrants. Likewise, in 01/2015, the Mossad reported to the Italian authorities about the presence on Italy’s soil of 162 Isis’ affiliates, potentially ready to mount attacks. Such numbers somehow echo the declarations by an Isis prisoner in Turkey, according to which more than 4,000 fighters would have already been smuggled to Europe disguised as refugees. Accurate or less accurate, instead of spearheading debate, these warnings have gone nearly unheard.


III) A turning point.

The wave of attacks in Europe which  followed the one I just mentioned in Tunisia, the killings of nine Italian citizens in Dacca, and the increasing number of casualties of Islamic terrorists are finally changing the overall perception of security in my country, as in all Europe. For the Italian Government and part of the public opinion that change happened with considerable delays compared to the threat. The Islamic State was present in Libya since mid 2014. The Italian intelligence and Judiciary had been tracking for at least six/seven years cases of first and second generation immigrants who had embraced the Jihad. Investigations and trials had been underway for a long time. Still, even during 2014 and the first months of 2015, that is to say until the killing of Italians at Bardo Museum in Tunisia, the Italian government and the mainstream media were extremely cautious on the subject. There was a great care in downsizing the perceived risk, differently from other European Governments.

The reason was political. The attempt was to tell the public that the concerns raised by anti migration and “populist” parties were wrong and misdirected. That become unsustainable in the course of 2015 and later on. A Pew Research survey among the ten biggest European countries found last July that 58% of respondents believes that immigration increases the risk of terrorist attacks in their countries.  Migration, Muslims radicalization and terrorism are now perceived by the Italian public opinion as more and more interconnected. But for quite a long time there has been an effort to deny the evidence, to “wait and see”. This attitude was also explained in one sentence by the American philosopher Michael Walzer when he said: “I often meet people more concerned of being considered islamophobic, than willing to condemn Islamic terrorism”. By confusing in such a way the political debate, European leaders do not help their own citizens in getting together, to reinforce their common will and identity.

Almost half a million illegal immigrants‎, a large share of which from Muslim countries, has entered Italy over the last three years, with increasingly high numbers of unaccompanied children, and single young men. Although the total numbers of foreign residents or ‘de facto’ residents are in Italy around 10% of the total population, the share of the Muslim communities is growing much more rapidly than the others as effect of last years “open door policy” for humanitarian reasons. These critical elements may bring the Italian model close to the ‘breaking points’ we had to observe in UK and in France but which faster then the Italian Government seems to believe and tries to sell to its public opinion.


An advice should therefore be addressed to European leaders who are more concerned of appearing “politically correct” then providing a correct information to their citizens , then raising awareness on extremism, radicalization and the need for a different approach in the way our societies should respond to Islamic fundamentalism.  A distorted and complacent narrative is only reinforcing the attempts by radical islamists to spread their message that our constitutional values are not seriously believed and supported by all layers of our institutions, and by the political establishment. Whenever schools and teachers are shy or reluctant in asserting those values, when they accept that in their classes hatred propaganda and antisemitic feelings develop, as it happened after recent attacks in France and Belgium, extremists and radical Islamists win. The same happens when complacency is shown at the highest level, hiding symbols of western culture and christianity in order to please foreign Muslim visitors. If the public were adequately informed of the true picture, especially the strategies, connections, duplicities and threats inherent in the radicalization process, the involvement and support of our societies for a wide plan of Action in education, counterterrorism, and social and economic support to the most critical sectors in our societies and immigrated communities would be quite different.


IV) How Islamic radicalism has recently developed an is expected to increase among immigrated communities.

The surge in terrorism over the last few years has brought to the attention of scholar and authorities some crucial aspects of the terrorism inspired by Islamic fundamentalism ‎among Muslim communities‎ of recent or older immigration.

Stefano Dambruoso, a Member of Parliament and former prosecutor involved in Islamic terrorism cases has   contributed‎ last year to a research on Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy, written by Professor Lorenzo Vidino. Prof. Vidino was appointed just a few days ago by Prime Minister Renzi to a consultative Committee on the matter. ‎The conclusions of that inquiry were alarming. It noted that Jihadism in Italy can hit anyone, in any place and at any time and that there is a specific threat caused by so-called home-grown (or second-generation) terrorists. Accordin to Mr. Dambruoso, it is increasingly evident that actions carried out by individuals motivated by jihadist ideology but operating independently (that is, they were self-radicalised and self- trained, whether as individuals or in small groups) are in line with the appeals launched through internet by al-Qaeda’s ideologue Abu Musab al Suri. “Al-Qaeda”, al Suri argued, “does not represent the apex of the global jihadist network, but rather is an appeal to all Muslims worldwide to carry out jihad”. Dambruoso recalls that a few days after the Navy Seals operation in Abbottabad, al- Qaeda spokesman Azzam al Amriki disseminated via the Internet a clip entitled ‘Thou Are Only Responsible for Thyself’ in which he called for do-it-yourself terrorism. He mentioned Italy and the attempted attack against Pope Benedict XVI during the 2009 Christmas Mass and the throwing of a blunt object at former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as examples of permeability of the security surrounding world leaders.

In the vast majority of cases we are dealing also in Italy, says Dambruoso, with extremists devoid of any link to organised structures at the international level-lone terrorists who, often due to social disenfranchisement and psychological imbalances, enter the path of jihad by learning on the web. A telling case was the one of Libyan immigrant Mohammed Game, who tried in 2009 to detonate a rudimentary bomb close to an ammunition depot in Milan. This kind of threat – “lone wolves”- emerged in Italy ‎ later than in other European countries, mainly for demographic reasons: the first wave of second-generation Muslims immigrants had only recently entered adulthood.


V) Measures currently considered in the Italian Parliament.

Against this background Mr. Dambruoso and other members of the Italian Parliament tabled last January a Bill with “Measures to prevent radicalization and Jihadist extremism”.

This ambitious Plan is centered ‎ on: specific training in counter-radicalization for police operators‎; creation of an integrated “Information System” among all relevant Public Administration entities (security, local governments, schools); adoption of mandatory guidelines for the education aimed at promoting  dialogue and preventing radicalization; on line programs to promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue among Students and teachers of different countries; programs in the labour market to encourage integration and socially useful activities, to Internet; the adoption of a National Action Plan to prevent radicalization in the prisons and to encourage social reintegration of detainees.

The Bill proposed nine months ago should have been immediatel‎y adopted and implemented. Even more so, given the time lost for prompt action. Significant reforms were included. But the legislative process was too engulfed with other priorities, which had little or nothing to do with national security.

On the other hand, all UN member States need to reform their legislations and adopt a wide set of measures requested by Res.2178 to counter violent extremism, to prevent terrorism, to engage on the Foreign fighters threat. The report submitted on 2/9/2016 to the UN Security Council on the implementation of Resolution 2178 underlined, in its regional analysis of the situation in Western Europe, that only a few Member States had complied with the Resolution by adopting new or amending existing criminal legislation. Some States – according to the report- apply existing legislation under the concept of recruitment or participatory acts, pursuant to general criminal law provisions.‎ Other challenges mentioned by the report concern: the admissibility of evidence acquired from intelligence sources; the legal measures to prevent movement of foreign fighters;‎the exchange of data between enforcement and intelligence agencies.‎ In addition to the Bill I have already mentioned, other proposal have been tabled in the Italian Parliament in order‎ to introduce reforms in line with Res.2178. The latest proposal concerns a Bill- tabled by Giorgia Meloni and other members of Parliament- aimed at filling a vacuum that has raised difficulties in investigating and bringing to justice suspects of recruiting Islamic terrorists through radicalization, hatred propaganda and incitement to violence. The proposal would introduce in the criminal code the crime of “radicalization” for all those who concretely endanger the public safety by promoting and disseminating appeals to: execute individuals accused of apostasy; implement punishments such as torture, mutilation, flogging; deny religious freedom; admit slavery, servitude or trafficking of human beings.


VI) More recent cases of home grown Jihadism.

A prominent expert on Islam in Europe whom I would like to quote is Professor Lorenzo Vidino. His detailed investigation into home-grown Jihadism in Italy is particularly noteworthy.‎ He describes a growing number of investigations and arrests. The “Jarmoune case”, “Operation Niriya” and other examples of immigrants of Arab descent and radicalised in Italy. ‎ Dr. Vidino higlights:  autonomy of home-grown jihadists from jihadist networks; massive use of the Internet;  “lone wolves” available both for attacks in Italy or for “joining jihad” in Syria; and last but not least, the limited relationship between failure of  socio-economic integration and the radicalisation of home-grown jihadists.

According to Dr. Vidino‎ Jihadism in Italy has followed a different route from most Western European countries. Italy was one of the first countries on the Continent to witness jihadist activities on a relatively large scale: in the early 1990s, North African networks present in Italy had a prominent role in the nascent global Jihad. Yet, in the early and mid-2000s,the situation in Italy was relatively more quiet than in other European countries.

That was probably due to the pressure put by Italian authorities on Jihadists networks and their disruption. But‎ over the past few years, cases of home-grown radicalization in the immigrated Muslim communities  have surfaced again:

–     in March 2012 authorities in Brescia arrested Mohamed Jarmoune, a 20-year-old Moroccan immigrant  grown up in Italy, because he was planning an attack against Milan’s Jewish community. In May 2013 Jarmoune was sentenced to five years and four months in jail;

–     a related investigation – Operation Niriya, ended in 2012 – also brought to light the existence of a network of Italy-based jihadist who translated and shared jihadist texts on an array of blogs, web forums and social network sites,

– in June 2013 authorities arrested for terrorist activities Anas el Abboubi, another young man of Moroccan descent who, like Jarmoune, had grown up in the Brescia area. The man, who attempted to start the organisation Sharia4Italy, was accused of planning attacks in Brescia. Later released on appeal, el Abboubi travelled to Syria, where he reportedly joined an al-Qaeda-linked formation,

– in June 2013 an Italian convert from Genoa, Ibrahim Giuliano Delnevo, was killed in Syria while fighting in  a jihadist militia.


VII) The established Jihadist networks.


The above mentioned cases indicate that the phenomenon of home-grown Jihadism, long visible in other European countries, exists also in Italy. It has been delayed by demographic factors: large-scale Muslim immigration to Italy began only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, about two to four decades later than in France, Germany, the Netherlands or Great Britain. A second generation of Italian-born Muslims is coming of age only now, sons of a first generation of immigrants . Recent surveys show that statistically significant portions of these hundreds of thousands of young men and women (and the thousands of Italian converts to Islam) embrace radical ideas. Jihadism in Italy is fragmented and diverse. The arrival of home-grown Jihadism does not mean that ‘traditional’ networks are over. Many of them have been weakened by arrests and expulsions made by authorities over the past 15 years, but they are still active.‎ They interact online, are scattered throughout northern Italy, in Milan, Genoa and Bologna and in rural villages. Their presence is documented also in Central and Southern Italy. The majority have not been involved in violence and limit their commitment to a frantic online activity aimed at disseminating material ranging from the purely theological to the operational.

This milieu possesses some characteristics‎:

–  its members tend to operate outside mosques, where their ideas have little traction;

–      they do not necessarily overlap with networks close to al-Qaeda;

–      the Internet is their main field of fight;

–      t‎o leap from “keyboard Jihadism” to action, they generally look for “gatekeepers”  with established groups;

–      discrimination and lack of socio-economic integration do not seem  primary reasons for the radicalization;

–      there are also in Italy two main implications of home-grown Jihadism. It is difficult to detect; it does not operate as part of a structure relatively easy to monitor. Article 270 quinquies of the Italian Criminal Code sanctions any individual who ‘trains or in any way provides instructions on the preparation or the use of explosive materials, firearms or other arms, dangerous chemical, bacteriological substances, or any other technique or method’ for the execution of terrorist acts, has been used on various occasions by authorities to arrest home-grown radicals, active on the Internet, well before they take concrete steps. Yet this norm raises problems as recent trials have shown.


VIII) Old seeds of radicalization in the immigrated communities.


Italy was among the first European countries to witness jihadist activities on a relatively large scale.  Militants from North African countries settled in different regions. Milan has always been the undisputed hub of Jihadism in Italy. The city’s Islamic Cultural Institute (ICI), a former garage turned mosque, has been controlled by members of the Egyptian Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya since its foundation in 19882. The ICI, known as the Viale Jenner mosque, acquired enormous importance for the global jihadist movement when the conflict broke out in Bosnia in 1992. Not only was the ICI’s imam, Anwar Shaban, the commander of the foreign fighters” Mujahideen Battalion. Milan was a crucial node supplying documents, money and logistical support for volunteers seeking to reach the battlefields. The network was also behind the first suicide bombing in a European Country: the 1995 car-bomb attack against a police station in Rijeka a Milan resident of Egyptian descent.  The investigation ended with a dramatic raid on Viale Jenner mosque and the indictment of 17 militants, only a fraction of those investigated. Police found hundreds of false documents, radical magazines, tools for forging documents and documents proving the ICI ties to extremists worldwide. Yet the ICI continued its activities throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, remaining, in the words of the US Department of the Treasury, “the main al-Qaeda station house in Europe” providing money and sponsorship for visa applications for militants. Radical preachers of global outreach visited the Institute. While the leadership remained Egyptian, militants from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco began to congregate there, turning the ICI into a hub for radical networks throughout northern Italy. Forged documents, funds and recruits from Milan went to support jihadist groups from Algeria to Afghanistan. Particularly noteworthy was the contribution of Milanese jihadists in Iraq, where several individuals recruited at the ICI carried out brazen suicide operations.

By the late 1990s, jihadist clusters, many connected to the ICI, had been present in many Italian cities, particularly in the north. Relying on their charisma and violence, ICI affiliates established and took over mosques in Lombardia: Como, Gallarate and Varese. A radical group did congregate around the mosque in Cremona. Born out of the initiative of members of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, since the mid-1990s the Cremona network has been active in recruiting, fund-raising and spreading propaganda. Their leader, Ahmed el Bouhali, reportedly died as a result of American bombing in Afghanistan in 2001, but the network continued its operations until 2004, when most of its members were convicted of terrorism-related crimes. The network had also allegedly planned attacks against Cremona’s cathedral and Milan’s subway.

Between late 1990s and early 2000s, Jihadist from North Africa were found in several other cities throughout Italy, leading to large seizure of weapons in Turin and Bologna. In Naples groups from Algeria were particularly active.

The vast majority of clusters monitored or dismantled by Italian authorities during this stage possessed similar characteristics.

Since early 2000s, lone-actor plots were discovered in Italy which could have told in advance what jihadists would do later on in other European countries. Rudimentary explosives such as gas canisters were used. Motivations were often unclear, wether religious, personal or psychological. These incidents were aimed at the police, jails, public institutions, synagogues, churches. Arab immigrants, Italians converted to Islam were indicted for some of these cases.

By the mid-2000s most Western European countries were increasingly confronted by various challenges from both traditional and home-grown networks. The most visible manifestation of the growing threat from Jihadism was represented by the various successful plots – Madrid 2004, Amsterdam 2004, London 2005 – and those that were thwarted throughout the Continent. In opposition to this European trend, the Italian jihadist scene went through a phase of relative tranquillity during those years. Some of the long-established networks and new actors (like the Pakistani groups) continued their activities but with a markedly lower intensity. It is noteworthy, then, that other than a few far-fetched plots, no attacks in Italy were planned by established networks in all this period.


Several factors can explain that:  pressure by Italian police ; waves of arrests; aggressive netting layers around the militants arrested; deportations. Dozens of militants were jailed for a few years and deported to their home countries upon release. Many more were expelled from Italy on national-security ground and on the base of administrative decrees and regulations.


  1. IX) As a general conclusion, I tend to agree with those who insist that the first order of business is to tell the truth about radical Islamists.


European countries should confront supporters and enablers of violent Islamist ideologies. In order to do that, Western Governments should pursue a foreign and security policy especially in the Gulf, apt to guarantee regional security, while containing Iranian ambitions and Teheran’s meddling in neighbours affairs. It is difficult to imagine that a serious engagement by Sunni States in countering all the hidden forces which promote radicalization worldwide could emerge in a situation where an Iranian and Shi’ite threat is perceived as growing by the day. Yet, to do so, international cooperation at all levels is paramount, because, as I have learned from Israel and here at the IDC, “I takes a network to beat a network”.



©2024 Giulio Terzi

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