Italy and Islamic Militancy: From Logistics Base to Potential Target

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 18

Islamic radicals have been present in Italy in large numbers since 1992, shortly after the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan. Like in other European countries, the influx of former mujahideen volunteers from the Arab world had a great impact. Geographically and politically, the center of gravity for the Islamists was North Italy, where thousands of Muslim immigrants live and work. In Milan, the most active are from Egypt and Algeria, whereas Turin, Varese and Cremona are the territory of the Moroccans and the Tunisians. Further south, apart from a few small groupings in Rome, the most significant presence is in Naples, where the Algerians have established their bridgehead. The Palestinians are of less importance, being fewer and generally more wary of extremist doctrines.

In the mid-nineties, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Milan became the “hotbed” of Islamic extremism for five main reasons: 1) the activism of the Egyptian Imam Anwar Shaban, linked to al-Gamaa al-Islamiya and close to the positions of the blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman; 2) the importance of its Viale Jenner mosque, a proselytizing and recruitment center with international connections; 3) its geographical position, allowing easy access to Northern Europe, the Balkans, the U.S. and the Middle East; 4) the presence of numerous Afghan war veterans and North African extremists linked to terrorist movements; and 5) the ease of collecting funds, documents and arms in North Italy for the jihad fronts, especially in Morocco and Chechnya.

Shaban, with his many contacts in the Persian Gulf, was instrumental in keeping the rank and file of the Islamic networks in Italy together. While clearly inspired by the principles of international jihad, his main objective was to bring down the Egyptian regime. His sermons drew in new recruits, many of whom were sent to Bosnia to fight the Serbs, with a smaller number going to Chechnya [1]. Viale Jenner formed part of a network that linked up Islamist groups in Austria, Germany, Turkey and the U.S. Milan was often visited by a then little-known character who was to gain notoriety in 2003: Mullah Krekar, head of Ansar al-Islam [2].

In the course of investigations into the first attack on the Twin Towers (February 1993), telephone contacts between Milanese Islamic militants and the cell involved in the attack were uncovered. There were also close links with other prominent international exponents of jihad, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, who faxed over his orders and advice. Shaban gradually increased his involvement in Bosnia and became the emir of the Mujahideen Battalion. When the war ended, many of the volunteers went back to their countries (including Italy) and started forming the first al-Qaeda groups in Europe. The Imam’s career ended dramatically in 1996 when he was killed at a Croatian road block. But his death didn’t signal the end of radicalism in Italy as many of his followers went on to develop networks of their own.

Investigations by the Italian authorities (the Milan counter-terror unit in particular) since 1995 show the growth of this phenomenon. Operation Sfinge (targeted against the followers of Shaban) brought 35 suspected Islamic militants to trial; operation Ritorno led to the investigation and sentencing of 11 Islamists; operation Fattar led to the sentencing of 10 individuals and 3 acquittals and the Essid operation led to the successful sentencing of 13 individuals.

Various radical groups have a presence in either northern or southern Italy. The Armed Islamic Group, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (the draft of a document about the formation of the group was found in Cremona in 1998), the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, the Egyptian Gamaa, the Egyptian Jihad and the pan-Islamic (albeit non-violent) Hizb ut-Tahrir all have some form of presence in Italy. The extent of the phenomenon is demonstrated by the fact that, despite the police raids, the cells continue to reform—stronger than before—thanks to the activities of “veterans” such as Abdelkader Es-Sayed [3] and Nasr Mustafa, alias Abu Omar [4]. Investigations have proved that Es-Sayed knew about the September 11 attacks before they happened [5].

From 1995 to the present, northern Italy—with its mosques in Viale Jenner and Via Quaranta in Milan—has been an important base for Islamic militants, which have used it for: recruiting mujahideen for Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya; recruiting suicide bombers for the Zarqawi network in Iraq; supplying forged documents for international operations; illicit financial activities; illegal immigrant trafficking; and providing a base of support for fugitives.

Since the anti-terrorism offensives prompted by 9/11, the extremists have changed their modus operandi. They visit mosques less frequently because of increased surveillance and they also establish small communities in provincial towns that do not have a strong police presence. Moreover, they have developed special and largely secure channels of encrypted communication with their reference contacts and task masters in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. The networks are no longer led by charismatic figures like Shaban, but by local leaders who, although considered minor and unimportant, are capable of planning and ordering attacks [6]. These local leaders have the military expertise and connections with mid- to high-level operatives in al-Qaeda to successfully plan and execute attacks. For example, in an area north of Milan there is a small but very active group of Pakistani militants with links to London and Lahore. Some of them are veterans of the Afghan war. According to informed sources, the Italian military intelligence service (SISMI) is keeping a very close eye on this network, with suspicion that they are controlled by a rogue agent in Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID—better known as the “ISI”).

As with the rest of Europe, the Italian intelligence services are concerned about the militants connected to the Islamic Moroccan Combatant Group, which has roots not only in rural areas but also in larger cities such as Milan and Turin. The arrest of Mohammed Rabei in Milan, alias Mohammed the Egyptian, one of the masterminds behind the Madrid bombings, has probably prevented an attack in Italy or in other European countries. After the attacks in Spain, Rabei traveled to Italy to find a safe place and recruit potential terrorists. Furthermore, recent developments have confirmed links between extremists in Italy and the Zarqawi network in Iraq.

Also noteworthy are changes in the funding methods and communication channels. Before 9/11 the money came from zakat (alms) and donations from the Persian Gulf States, which were usually routed through Middle Eastern banks. Since 9/11 the funds have been coming in cash, usually brought over by couriers with suitcases full of dollars or from crime: forged documents, drug trafficking and forged residence permits have all been used to generate funds. Moreover, Pakistanis and Somalis run call centers, which give excellent cover for fundraising and “clean” phones. According to investigative sources one militant, involved in clandestine activities, would use 30-40 SIM cards for a single mobile phone. His method was very simple: he would make a first call and pronounce a few words, before changing the SIM card and ringing the number again to communicate a few words in code.

The Islamic extremists in Italy have proved themselves to be particularly adept at producing forged documents. Some of the forged passports ended up in the possession of the network involved in the killing of Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in September 2001. Others found their way to an organization active in Morocco. And yet others were found to have been sent to al-Qaeda leaders arrested in Malaysia in 2002. The militants have developed the expertise to produce not just Italian passports but also documents of North African countries (Morocco in particular).

The lives of cell members in Italy have always been governed by Spartan principles, putting security before all else. In some districts where they have safe houses, they have created “fortress” zones with a trusted network of look-outs. One of these was in the Porta Venezia district of Milan; a member of the cell spending hours in a little Arabic restaurant posing as a customer, the Tunisian barber keeping an eye on a junction, the Algerian seller watching over a possible escape route; they were like sentries with eyes and ears everywhere. They noted the faces of all “suspect” persons: Italian law enforcement agents, but above all spies from Arabic intelligence agencies. The militants display regimented behavior and have regulated and standardized conduct through the production of manuals, one of which was found by the Carabinieri (paramilitary police) in Milan in July 2002, in an apartment used by Islamic militants.

Given this impressive presence in Italy, if the order comes for an attack, there are various teams that are ready to act; all of which have people capable of preparing explosive devices, the hideouts, the documents needed for escape and the would-be martyrs. Moreover, it is very easy to procure explosives in Italy, the traditional sources of supply being either local (Calabrian mafia) or East European (particularly Albanian) organized crime networks. The going price for a kilo of plastic explosives is about USD 1500, whereas civil-use explosives costs USD 1000 per kilo and a machine gun can be bought for just a few hundred dollars [7]. A Tunisian detainee who agreed to cooperate with the authorities spoke of a cell, active from 2001 to 2002, that had looked into ways of fabricating bombs from substances freely available on the market: the ingredients and the formula were the same as those used in the London bombs [8]. In the attacks, they were to be packed in trucks specially reinforced to carry large quantities of explosives, rucksacks left in station luggage deposits and a police car that was to be stolen, filled with explosives and launched against the Cathedral in Milan. The possible targets considered were the U.S. Embassy in Rome, American Consulates, an international school in Milan and the Police Headquarters [9].

There are essentially two reasons why there have been no attacks in Italy thus far; several plots have been thwarted by police and intelligence action and in certain cases the Islamic extremists have elected to protect their logistics networks. But, as in London, this can change in the space of a few hours.


1. Islamic source in Milan

2. From investigation papers, Operation Sfinge

3. Possibly died in 2001 in Afghanistan

4. Seized by the CIA in 2003 in Milan

5. Police report

6. Intelligence source

7. Corriere della Sera, 12/07/2005

8. Police report, 2003

9. Intelligence source