Is Italy Immune From Terrorism?

In recent years, the country has managed to avoid jihadi violence. But not everyone will want to copy its methods.

Police stand guard on the street in front of the Colosseum near concrete blocks placed to prevent vehicle attacks in central Rome on Aug. 26, 2017.
Police stand guard on the street in front of the Colosseum near concrete blocks placed to prevent vehicle attacks in central Rome on Aug. 26, 2017. Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini recently delivered a stark warning: Such was the scale of migration into Italy, he argued, that “Islamic terrorist infiltration is no longer a risk—it has become a certainty.”

Although the vast majority of asylum-seekers in Italy are not security threats, the case of Alagie Touray, a Gambian asylum-seeker arrested in southern Italy in April 2018 on suspicions that he was planning an attack, helped lay the groundwork for Salvini’s case. It also made it easier to justify Italy’s decision to prevent ships containing migrants from docking at Italian ports.

What has gone unsaid, however, is that Italy seems to have largely dodged the carnage Islamist terrorists have afflicted on some of its neighbors.

Certainly, Italians have previously suffered at the hands of terrorists. Italy had a very active jihadi scene centered on Milan in the 1990s, leading the U.S. Treasury Department to describe a mosque there as “the main al Qaeda station house in Europe.” In November 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group carried out a truck bombing on an Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Nineteen Italians were killed. And Islamists have threatened to strike the Vatican.

Still, a May 2017 stabbing of two soldiers and a police officer in a Milan train station by a homeless Islamic State supporter is as good as it got for the terrorist group in recent years. Relative to the size of its Muslim population, Italy also had a low ratio of people who left to join the Islamic State at the height of its power. Only around 130 people with ties to Italy went to fight in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and, according to a study by Francesco Marone and Lorenzo Vidino, two scholars of Italian jihadism, official government statistics show that less than 1 in 5 of these were Italian citizens.

Italy must, then, be getting something right.

Some there cite the experience gained in taking on far-left and far-right terrorist groups in the 1970s and 1980s as the reason why jihadi terrorism today is under control. And the Italians certainly had to learn the hard way the importance of breaking down intelligence firewalls. Faulty or insufficient intelligence sharing allowed successful domestic attacks to be perpetrated by groups including the Islamist Abu Nidal Organisation and the left-wing Red Brigades.

In 2003, Italy’s Counterterrorism Strategic Analysis Committee, through which agencies can share information on specific threats, was formed. It is a source of pride in Rome that the Interior Ministry, the police, prison service, and intelligence agencies now work together cohesively, at both state and local levels.

That is undoubtedly positive, but it still serves as only a partial explanation for Italy’s low level of attacks. The United Kingdom has had experience with terrorism since the 1970s too, with the Irish Republican Army ensuring that the police and intelligence agencies got used to working together. And although the British security services are top-notch, they have been unable to stop a series of major terrorist attacks in recent years.

Another explanation offered by officials is that Italy is less geostrategically important than nearby countries. Since it is not regarded as a major foreign-policy player, it is a less desirable target.

That answer, too, is not entirely satisfactory. Italy sent thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan and thousands more to Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Despite an initial reluctance, it supported the NATO mission in Libya. As of 2018, still had around 1,500 troops in Iraq (the second-highest number after the United States), and it headed up the mission to train troops in Somalia—an effort that has seen Italian personnel targeted by al-Shabab in Mogadishu. So Italy has hardly been strategically irrelevant.

Then there is deterrence. From major tourist sites to relatively small piazzas, the state police and Carabinieri presence is unavoidable. Yet that cannot entirely explain the lack of attacks either. When France deployed 10,000 troops domestically after the November 2015 terrorist strikes in Paris, a series of Islamist attacks on these soldiers soon followed.

In truth, the most important factor in Italy’s success is its particular willingness to deport security threats. In the wake of the suicide bombings in the London transport network in July 2005, Italian authorities passed new measures that allowed the Interior Ministry to deport those considered to be security threats.

These measures also involved changes to immigration law. Now, the Interior Ministry can deport those whose presence “could favour in any manner terrorist organization and activities,” even if they had not been convicted or accused of a terrorism-related crime. Appealing to a judge is possible, but it does not suspend the deportation process; appeals may be filed from individuals’ country of origin.

After these changes were made, the primary backstop for appellants was the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. When Italy tried to deport Nassim Saadi, a Tunisian who lived in Milan on a residence permit, as a national security threat (after he completed his sentence for conspiracy, theft, and forgery), the ECHR blocked it. Strasbourg ruled that he might be mistreated back home in Tunisia and ordered Rome to pay Saadi 8,000 euros in compensation.

Italy was not alone in falling foul of the ECHR: Such rulings prevented the United Kingdom from expelling Abu Qatada, one of al Qaeda’s favored theologians, for the better part of a decade. But Italy was different in that it largely ignored the rulings. Although Saadi stayed in an Italian prison, the country’s deportation of those convicted of terrorist offences to Tunisia continued, despite criticism from human rights groups. The Council of Europe has labeled Italy’s behavior “disgraceful” and “intolerable.”

Yet the approach has endured, and Italian officials say successful appeals to Strasbourg have now dried up. According to an Italian Institute for International Political Studies analysis from November 2017, 221 security threats had been deported since January 2015.

These deportations would count for little if Italy had a thriving homegrown jihadi problem. Yet a 2014 report by the jihadism scholar Vidino estimated that “the number of individuals actively involved in this new home-grown jihadist scene is about 40 or 50, and that those with varying degrees of sympathy with it number somewhere in the lower hundreds.”

On one level, the low numbers of homegrown threats are understandable. Whereas countries like France and the United Kingdom took in large numbers of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries in the 1950s and 1960s, such immigration into Italy took place decades later. Quite simply, there are fewer second-generation Italian Muslims.

Yet it is not just demographics. There is no evidence that jihadism has particularly taken root with second-generation Italian Muslims. Of 13 individuals accused of planning Islamist attacks in Italy since January 2014, only two were Italian. Why this is remains uncertain. Rome cites benefits such as free public schools and universal health care as being powerful tools of integration. Other officials describe the lack of economically deprived, Muslim-majority areas in Italy that exist in other parts of Europe.

The perceived potency of Italian law enforcement and intelligence agencies is also relevant. An official based in Rome told me that useful intelligence comes from mosques leaders who simply assume that their mosque is bugged anyway and want to be seen to be helpful. This perception is probably helped by the size of the Italian police force. Italy has roughly the same population as England and Wales. Yet whereas England and Wales have around 125,000 police, Italy has over 300,000—more than any other EU country.

This approach may not be entirely palatable. Yet it adds up to an outcome that has been more successful than that realized by some of Italy’s neighbors. Of course, no one knows if Italy will be able to sustain its record. Italian authorities speak with confidence about their ability to largely control any domestic threats, and the Islamic State’s destruction in Iraq and Syria has helped reduce, although by no means eliminated, the overall terrorist challenge to Europe.

To be sure, as long as terrorism exists, Italy will not be immune. It will likely just be better prepared than others to manage the consequences.

Robin Simcox is a counterterrorism analyst. Twitter: @RobinSimcox