An often overlooked aspect of Jihadist terrorism in Europe is Italy’s idiosyncrasies in avoiding it. Was it just luck, or was Italy taking a different and more effective approach to countering terrorism? And, most importantly, how long can Italy keep it?
Despite al-Qaeda’s downscaling and ISIS’s many military defeats, both groups are still actively operating and committed to fighting their Western enemies. Jihadist attacks this fall in Paris, Nice and Vienna are a painful reminder of the threat still sweeping Europe.
However, one country has been spared so far: Italy. Europe’s third-largest economy and home to Rome, Vatican City and the Pope, Italy remains largely unscathed by the deadly attacks of Islam – despite its historical legacy as a symbol of Western Christianity.
In contrast, a number of Italy’s neighbors in Europe, including Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and more recently Austria, are out of luck.
Italy’s exception to the landscape of terrorism is even more remarkable given that its beaches often account for the majority of illegitimate arrivals in Europe (82% in 2017 only). Statistics like that have weakens the argument that illegal immigration is correlated with a higher likelihood of terror attacks in the short term.
Has Italy been lucky enough so far, or are there structural forces that might explain why it has largely managed to avoid Jihadist terrorism?
The oft-cited factors that explain why Italy has managed to remain free of Jihadist terror attacks are rooted in it a long history of counter-terrorism operations.
As long as Italy is famous’Leadership Year‘Between the late 1960s and late 1980s, Italian authorities gained considerable experience dealing with political terrorism. This period of social and political turmoil was marked by a wave of terrorist attacks carried out by domestic terrorist groups – especially the most distant left. Red Brigade and the right wing Black shirt. Attacks from international paramilitary organizations linked to Palestine were also prominent during this period.
Thus, in 2004 the Italian government was able to hone its extensive and significant experience in fighting terrorist militias and developing Anti-terrorism Strategic Analysis Committee (CASA). This platform allows the different Italian security forces (Police, Carabinieri, Penitentiary Police, Investigative Tax Police and intelligence services) to share important data about radical Islamic groups. Intelligence about specific individuals, terrorist groups and propaganda activity that can be considered real and potential threats can be shared and coordinated between the various domestic security forces tasked with suppressing the threat.
Unlike other European countries, whose intelligence services rarely cooperate with national security units, CASA’s greatest success has been in strengthening collaboration between Italian counter-terrorism actors.
As well as introducing CASA, Italy has long taken a hardline approach to defenders of terrorism. In fact, compared to other European countries, Italian law enforcement is more closely following violent anti-terrorism act and, because of its centralized intelligence unit, it is well equipped to identify, monitor and deport religious extremists.
Another important factor explaining Italy’s ability to avoid terror attacks has its roots in it a long, varied and drawn-out fight against the Italian Mafia.
It turns out that the presence of well-organized criminal gangs has one advantage: it has endowed Italian authorities experience and knowledge in tracking and infiltrating a tightly-knit underground criminal group.
In addition, the war against the ubiquitous and sophisticated Italian Mafia has prompted the Italian government to strengthen its already extensive anti-terrorism law together with its investigative and security forces, which have since been adapted to combat Jihadism. For example, compared to other countries in Europe, Italian judges have more freedom to issue orders authorizing them electronic surveillance of the suspect’s conversation via telephone tapping.
As such, Italy’s previous experience with terrorism and organized crime has provided law enforcement with the expertise and legislation needed to implement more effective countermeasures for suspected terrorists. Such actions usually restricted to those officially accused of criminal activity across Europe. But in Italy, greater freedom to target suspected terrorists – without the need for explicit charges of crime – can help thwart potential attacks.
Another important factor behind Italy’s anti-terrorism exclusion has to do with its history and consequences colonialism.
Unlike France and England, Italy did not have a long, extensive and successful colonial empire. Therefore, Italy does not accept the influx of former colony immigrants that his British and French counterparts did after the Second World War. This meant Italy was able to largely avoid strife between local communities and immigrants, as the nation’s colonial ties were not as deep as those of Britain and France.
Anyway, large scale Muslim immigration to Italy only started in the early 1990s, meaning the first wave of the second generation of Muslims – often the most prone to radicalization – just entered adulthood.
Due to this demographic factor, there is little separation between Italians and Muslim immigrants in Italian cities than in the rest of Europe.
As such, Italian authorities have far fewer suspects to look out for than France and Britain, where more second and third generation Muslims live. In fact, in 2017 alone 0.3% of Italy’s population are second generation immigrants, far from England 3% and France 3.9%.
It is therefore not surprising that between 2014 and 2015 ‘only’ 87 foreign fighters were found in Italy against Britain 760 and France 2500, although all three countries have the same population size.
Overall, it seems that Italy’s success in avoiding deadly terror attacks is not just luck, but rather a byproduct of its laws, demographics and experience against clandestine groups.
Amazing Not Again?
However, the country is not immune to jihadist propaganda and it should be noted that ‘no terror attacks’ does not mean no terrorist activity.
Italian law enforcement has committed anti-terrorism in increasing numbers investigation and operation. This operation has exposed a the increasing presence of Jihadist terrorist activity in Italy – from support to attack attempts.
Analysts are now pointing to worrying signs suggesting the risk of religious fundamentalism and violent radicalization in Italy is on the rise.
In addition, the large number of episodes of terrorism wreaking havoc across Europe in recent years has deepened the concerns of the Italian authorities, as they exposed Italy’s links to foreign attacks and the growth of domestic violence.
It is impossible to say with certainty when Italian law enforcement can expect a sizeable increase in Islamic terrorist activity, although some anticipate that the arrival of second generation Muslim immigrants – which will grow over time nativist, anti-immigrant Italy – possibly predating an unprecedented wave of terror attacks across the peninsula.
Thus, although the Italian Jihadist threat remains limited and unsophisticated compared to other European countries, it is possible that Islamic propaganda efforts and growing Italian anti-immigrant sentiment will offend some Italian Muslims in the future.
How long did Italian counter-terrorism last?
So far, Italy has been very free of successful terrorist attacks. This is largely due to a combination of anti-terrorism laws, centralized intelligence, deportation policies, significant and protracted counter-terrorism, as well as the experience of organized crime, and the social composition of the Muslim community living in Italy.
For now, these historical, legislative and social buffers are not bound to change. Thus, it can be predicted that Italian authorities will likely continue to thwart Jihadist terror attacks in the near future and avoid the wave of Jihadist violence currently sweeping Europe.
In the long term, however, second and third generations of Muslims will eventually emerge which could increase the risk of radicalization, reduce the effectiveness of current prevention and control efforts and thereby jeopardize Italy’s national security.
Fortunately, unlike other European countries, Italy has several years to prepare a strategy on how to reduce such threats.
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