How Long Will Italy Weather Europe’s Rising Terror Threat?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 20

Italian Special Police forces outside St. Peter's Basilica (Source: Alessandro Bianchi-Retuers)

In recent months, Islamic State (IS) has made a number of public threats against Italy, with a number of its fighters expressing their willingness, via their Telegram channels, to target the country and claiming they will “conquer Rome”  (La Repubblica, August 19, 2017, La Stampa, August 24, Il Corriere della Sera, September 24). However, while Europe has witnessed a significant rise in terrorist attacks over the past few years, Italy has so far managed to escape the violence.

Italy’s exceptionalism cannot be explained purely as good fortune. A mix of socio-demographic factors is also at play, and the Italian security services have acquired considerable experience over the years in their fight against other forms of terrorism, tackling the Red Brigades, one of the fiercest and more efficient European terrorist organisations, in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the Mafia.

Yet recent developments have meant that Italian intelligence agents and terrorism experts are now questioning not whether an attack will happen, but when and how (Il Post, December 22, 2016).

Demographic Advantage 

From a demographic perspective, Italy is very different to France, the United Kingdom (UK), Belgium and other northern European countries, benefiting from its peculiar demographic and social composition, the result of its migrant communities.

Although Italy was a colonial power between the late 19th and early 20th centuries — extending its influence to a greater or lesser extent in Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia — its colonial links have never been as deep as those of other European countries. This was reflected in the lack of mass migration from imperial territories to Italy in the years after the Second World War. In fact, Italy was primarily a country of emigration and, to a certain extent, remains so today (La Repubblica, February 26, 2016).

Nonetheless, since the late 1980s, and particularly in the early 1990s with the eruption of the Balkans wars, Italy has become a major immigration center in Europe, and migrants from Muslim countries have made up a large number of these new arrivals. Since then, significant Islamic communities have developed, particularly in northern Italy. In the 1990s, Milan became a fundamentalist center in the landscape of European jihadism. Led by radical preacher Anwar Shabaan, Milan’s Viale Jenner mosque was a recruitment hub for al-Qaeda and fighters headed to Bosnia (Corriere della Sera, August 8).

In demographic terms, however, this is incomparable to the inflows other European countries have seen, especially Germany, which actively encouraged the migration of Turkish laborers. The influx of migrants from Islamic counties to Italy is still young, and its second-generation — typically the generation more prone to radicalization — is still numerically weak compared to other countries in Northern Europe.

Micro-culture of Inclusion

While the numerical weakness of the second generation is well acknowledged, it is often overlooked that in Italy, particularly outside of the major urban centers, there is a significant micro-culture of inclusion. This is linked to the economic structure of Italy, a structure that has emerged particularly following the collapse of big industry, but which has ensured that social relationships are very much centered around personal contacts and communitarian activities.

The Italian corporate landscape is dominated by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are spread all over Italy, not only around major urban centers. These account for 99 percent of Italy’s economic activity, with 95 percent of them employing fewer than ten workers, according to Confcommercio (Confcommercio, May 7, 2009). In addition, at the time of Italy’s post-war industrial expansion, the country did not rely on workers from abroad, instead it saw a significant wave of migration from the south of the country to the more industrialized north.

As a consequence, when Italy opened its doors to immigration, these factors meant that immigrant workers largely ended up settling in small urban enclaves or towns, avoiding the ghettoization of larger urban centers. This has meant that despite having a number of dangerous suburban peripheries — such as Tor Sapienza and Tor Bella Monaca in Rome; Lambrate and Quarto Oggiaro in Milan; and Secondigliano and Scampia in Naples — Italy has not seen the development of urban centers of radicalization such as Molenbeek in Brussels, the banlieues of Paris or certain areas of London, Birmingham and Luton in the UK.

Researchers continue to search for a definitive common pattern that can explain the process of radicalization, many experts agree that in most cases radicalization occurs at the intersection between “an enabling environment and a personal trajectory.” [1] Cultural and social narratives focused on divisions, conflicts and fears are likely to engender an enabling environment for radicalization, fostering division and alienation.

Although in some cases Italy’s population centers are dominated by local parties that are right wing or xenophobic in their politics, local relations are based on a less confrontational and more nuanced micro-culture. Residents often know each other, sometimes work together and frequently interact with their neighbors. They generally have greater exposure to each other, something that is in stark contrast with the segregation that has developed in some European cities over the past 30 years.

Lessons From The Past

The third fundamental factor is Italy’s past experiences combatting the Mafia, domestic terrorism and the politicization in jails.

In the 1970s, Italy witnessed a wave of politicization in its prisons, through the interaction of radical students and workers who started socializing, within the jails, with criminals. The phenomenon fed the rise of left-wing terrorism. Italy recognized the phenomenon early on. One of the key players in Italy’s Anni di Piombo (the “Years of Lead”), Cesare Battisti, currently at the center of a thorny diplomatic dispute over his extradition from Brazil, was simply a “regular criminal” who became politicized in jail, as described by Judge Armando Spataro (L’Espresso, October 5).

When, shortly after 9/11, an Italian painter named Domenico Quaranta, who suffered from mental health problems, became radicalized in jail and attempted to carry out a number of attacks in Sicily, Italian authorities were forced to take action against potential radicalization well before it became an established trend in Europe (La Repubblica, July 17, 2002, Il Tempo, January 21, 2015). In another case in which radicalization occurred away from incarceration, Mohammed Game, a Libyan, tried to carry out an attack in Milan in 2009 (see Terrorism Monitor, November 20, 2009).

Some observers claim that Italy is safe from terrorism because of the presence of Mafia groups, which acts as a deterrent against jihadist organizations (Il Giornale, Nov 18, 2015). This is somewhat far-fetched, but the presence of organized criminal groups in Italy has compelled the state to strengthen its investigative and security capacities.

Despite claims to the contrary, the fight against the Mafia, particularly over the past 25 years, has been relatively successful in Italy (ADN Kronos, June 30; il Denaro, April 27, 2016). In many cases, the leadership of these groups have been brought to book. Mafia organizations still operate in Italy and internationally, and remain involved in significant illegal activities, but they pose much less of a structural threat today than was the case in the 1980s and the 1990s.

The fight against these organizations has honed Italian security and investigative capacities. From the struggle against the Mafia, Italy has also learned to employ a more pro-active and preventive approach for dealing with suspects, extending the personal preventive measures usually reserved for those accused of links with criminal organizations. This has become clear over the past few years, with Italy relying heavily on instruments such as expulsion. An average of 14 people per year were expelled between 2004 and 2014, but this number has grown to about 123 per year in the past two years (Il Post, December 22, 2016).

A Potential Target

To date, these factors have allowed Italy to remain free from Islamist terrorist attacks. However, Italian analysts and experts on counterterrorism are increasingly worried these buffers are now eroding. Second- and third-generation immigrants are set to become numerically more prominent in the coming years, complicating prevention and control efforts.

Meanwhile, economic problems, the rising centrality of right-wing xenophobic and populist parties, the return of openly fascist groups (something forbidden by the Italian constitution) and a public discourse that is increasingly centered on an anti-migration focus have the potential to dismantle the micro-culture of inclusion that has so successfully mitigated against radicalization.

Finally, as a consequence of Italy’s reliance on expulsion, militants are becoming increasingly aware that any overheard word or taped conversation could be used against them, and as such may reduce their public exposure. These changes may diminish Italy’s ability to stave off an Islamist terror attack, a concern since by virtue of its geographic position and its political role in the world, Italy remains a target by default for many radical Islamists.



[1] Rogelio Alonso et al., ‘Radicalization Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism. A Concise Report Prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalization’, 2008, 9.