Italy’s Underground Islamist Network

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 16

In late July, Italian police announced that they had arrested three Moroccans in a counter-terrorism operation codenamed “Hammam.” The operation was aimed at breaking up a terrorist cell believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda and with proven connections to Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (GICM) members tied to the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid. Police reportedly are still looking for a fourth accomplice who may have fled Italy. The three, the imam of the Ponte Felcino Mosque, Perugia Province, and his two aides, had stored 60 chemical substances (including nitrates, acids and cyanide) in the mosque’s cellar, the majority of which were of high toxicity and of the type to fabricate explosive artifacts (, July 21; Corriere Della Sera, July 21-23; La Vanguardia, July 21). The imam used the mosque to proselytize radical Islam and to train young men in the use of arms, explosives and toxic substances in terrorist operations. Police uncovered propaganda films and documents downloaded from the internet, used to instruct the recruits on how to prepare poisons and explosives, pilot a Boeing 747 and send encrypted messages (El Pais, July 22; Corriere Della Sera, July 23; La Stampa, July 23; Las Provincias, July 23).

Officers of the Italian Division for General Investigations and Special Operations (DIGOS) and the Central Office for General Investigations and Special Operations (UCIGOS) also reported that they discovered maps of aqueducts in Umbria—which they surmise might have been targets for potential poisoning attempts—as well as pictures of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. Investigations to date lay no doubt that the Ponte Felcino mosque was a “school of terrorism, embedded within a system of small cells that act autonomously,” according to Carlo de Stefano, director of UCIGOS (El Pais, July 22). In a related development, police searches of the Perugia mosque led them to another imam in Pierantonio, a small village in Perugia Province, who had a map with five or six cities marked. These activities led the Muslim World League chairman, Mario Scialoja, to say that Italy is now “full of dangerous fundamentalists” and argue for an official register of imams in Italy (La Stampa, July 22).

Significance of Perugia as a Jihadi Epicenter

The recent activity in Perugia demonstrates the reach of Salafi Islamism from northern Italy into the south. Most known “jihadi” activity by Salafi Islamists has centered in Milan, Lombardy Province, and Turin, Piemonte Province. There are an estimated 20 Islamic centers, cultural institutions and associations in Piemonte, and circa 15 in Lombardy. Perugia reportedly has five Islamic centers, cultural institutions and associations.

The most significant aspect of radicalization in Italy is Salafi Islamism’s espousal of radical activities, namely recruiting for global jihad in sermons and outreach activities at official and unofficial mosques. The Italian intelligence services—in close coordination with the Spanish, German and Dutch counter-terrorism authorities—now believe that the majority of Islamists in Italy—most espousing radical jihad—are connected to North African radical groups (predominantly the GSPC and GICM) and to Ansar al-Islam, an organization primarily based in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. To date, Islamists have increased their presence in the regions of Piedmont, Tuscany, Umbria and Liguria. Turin and Milan are the epicenters for jihadi activities, but other cities and towns show indications of Islamist activities. A distinct development for Italy is the appearance of Islamist enclaves in parts of major cities—particularly Milan and Turin—in which Islamist traditions, doctrine and lifestyles frequently challenge Italian legal laws (abuse against women, espousal of holy war against “infidels”) and social norms [1].

A case study is Turin, Piemonte, which has become a “Kabul of the Piemonte” due to its history of Islamist imams calling on its faithful to support Osama bin Laden and to engage in jihad against the infidels. Most of the Muslims in the Turin area are Moroccans. In 2005, Italian police detained three Moroccans, believed to be members of GICM, for planning attacks in Italy and abroad, and for recruiting extremists to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq (El Mundo, May 18, 2005). In April 2007, prosecutors in Turin were scheduled to start investigating Mohammed Kohaila, the imam at the Cottolengo mosque, for calling on Muslims to hate Christians and Jews and praying for their deaths. According to media group AKI on April 3, “the DVD portraying Kohaila’s sermon was filmed with a hidden camera by a faithful attending the prayers on behalf of a news program on state broadcaster RAI’s second channel, Annozero.”

According to information as of January 2007, there are 258 mosques officially registered with the Interior Ministry, but their number may be much larger due to their rapid growth (La Stampa, January 5). The oldest mosque is the one in Rome, which belongs to the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, Italy’s oldest Muslim organization; it is the only mosque to have a special recognition as “ente di culto” (entity for religious worship). All Islamic centers function as places of worship and have sites for libraries, Quranic schools and bookstores [2].

Cultural Aspects of Islam and Islamism in Italy

There is no general culture of a global jihad movement among Italian Muslims, which likely can be attributed to the fact that Islam in Italy is not monolithic since no one ethnic group predominates. While groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and a few foreign imams have given verbal and spiritual support to violent jihadi groups, most Muslim organizations do not espouse militant Islam. However, the exportation to Italy of new forms of Islamist movements and ideologies, especially Salafi Islamism, has introduced Middle Eastern and North African Islamist imams, their radical ideologies and their militant Islam activities. This new brand of Salafism, coined Salafi-Jihadis by the French scholar Gilles Kepel, exhorts Muslims to engage in jihad. These “new” ideologies, coupled with the allure of defending the plight of the global ummah, have begun to alter the cultural reference points for Italian Muslims. These subtle exogenous factors, combined with various indigenous cultural characteristics that this author defines as “Cultural Variables,” appear to be transforming traditional cultural reference points for Italian Muslims, which could lead to an increased attraction to Islamism.

Existing empirical research on Islam in Italy demonstrates that the process of Islamization in Italy has increased since the early 1990s, while simultaneously younger generations of Italian Muslims have become more oriented toward socio-religious perspectives and positions versus the more traditional socio-economic platforms of the first generation [3]. Sociological studies demonstrate that for the majority of Muslims, the sense of not being represented at the national level increases their sense of “vulnerability,” and they thus look to alternative sources of authority who can better protect their religious and socio-economic interests—unfortunately, organizations such as Union of Muslim Students in Italy, which are influenced by Wahhabi tendencies and are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, are filling this void. Some of the cultural variables affecting attitudes and behavior among Italian Muslims include: a sense of social inclusion; a sense of alienation due to negative Italian media attitudes toward Muslims; increasing Salafi and Wahhabi influences in make-shift mosques and the power of foreign Islamist imams; internet sites that exhort Muslims to support the global jihad against the infidel; and, the diffused meaning of Muslim identification when ethnicity no longer matters as it did for the first generation—ethnicity is now global and they think and act globally as opposed to locally. Sociological and political studies of mosques, the imams preaching in mosques and Muslim families indicate that these cultural variables are prominently manifested in the sermons of radical imams seeking to influence the attitudes and behavior of young Italian Muslims.

Looking to the Future

Since the September 11 attacks, Muslims have felt pressure to declare their rejection of radical Islam and to adhere to European values. The interaction between Muslim immigrants from diverse countries, cultures and ideologies could facilitate the robustness of the doctrine of jihadi views: if the sense of alienation stemming from social difficulties (unemployment, living in a “foreign” society such as Italy) in individual ethnic Muslim communities in Italy were to accentuate, one could see the development of minorities of disaffected Muslim youth (male and female) accepting Islamist ideas, especially that of the “non-territorial Islamic state” espoused by Islamist groups and al-Qaeda. It is unclear to what extent the appeal of new radical trends is resonating within ethnic Muslim communities, such as Salafi Islamism, but this is an area that bears serious research. Certainly, the continuing absence of a unified/centralized Islamic leadership is not helpful to this situation. Italian journalist Magdi Allam alluded to this problem in his 2002 book, “Bin Laden in Italy: Travels in Radical Islam,” in which he identifies several personalities that he defines as Islamist (such as the director of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, or UCOII, as well as the imams of the Turin, Milan, Bologna and Naples mosques) and their radical impact on Italian Muslims.

Intra-ethnic tensions, which already play out in the competition between various Islamic and Islamist organizations, could cause a splintering between groups and their followers. Although Arab and South Asian Muslim organizations and influences are nowhere as prevalent as they are in the United Kingdom, the appearance of new groups, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, should be studied. Moreover, the strengthening of Muslim Brotherhood organizations and ideologies is something to be observed. Organizational rivalries are evident in the emergence of two types of Islam, each of which has its adherents: an Islam of the mosques (organizations such as UCOII, which represents numerous Islamic mosques throughout Italy), and Islam of the “state” (the ICI in Milan, and other mosques that receive foreign state funding from Saudi Arabia). The friction between Islam of the mosques and Islam of the “state” is that those mosques that receive foreign state funding tend to have a fundamentalist orientation, such as toward Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood—this tension is visible in the politics of each Muslim organization [4].


The existence of Salafi networks and cells, and their proven connections to other cells throughout Europe, are in and of themselves worrisome because they could not exist without a minimum amount of sympathy and support from the general population in which they live and operate. Perugia, like Turin and other cities, can be viewed as a laboratory in which competing ideologies (reform Islam vs. Salafi Islamism) are playing out. Deeper studies should explore the context in which immigration might be inducing an Islamist shift and the underpinnings of religious belonging.


1. Author interview with Lorenzo Vidino, 2007.

2. For a descriptive narrative of mosques and Islamic centers in Italy, please refer to Stefano Allievi’s, “Islam Italiano; Viaggio Nella Seconda Religione del Paese.”

3. Guolo, Renzo, “Xenofobi e Xenofili – Italiani e L’Islam,” Editori Laterza, 2003; Saint Blancat, Chantal, “Why are Mosques a Problem? Local Politics and Fear of Islam in Northern Italy,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, November 2005.

4. Negri, Augusto Tino; Introvigne, Silvia Scaranari; Berzano, Luigi, and Guolo, Renzo, “Musulmani in Piemonte: in moschea, al lavoro, nel contesto sociale,” Guerini e Associati, Milano, 2005.