Italy’s Counterterrorism Strategy – A Stroke of Fortune or an Example to Europe?
“Aside from a small number of low-level plots either thwarted or failed, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks on Italian soil since 9/11, a trend that has remained true since the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in 2014” (Vidino 2017). Why is this the case? Why has Italy not been on the receiving end of recent brutal terror attacks in the same way that many other European nations have? By this research, I attempt to understand what Italy has done to mitigate terror threats better than other European nations. To do this, it is important to distinguish luck from planning, as one theory purports that there is no inherent piece of the Italian system that has reduced the threat of terrorism. My research indicates that a series of factors are important, including policing, border policies, historical context, radicalization issues, and governmental practices and policies. Italy excels in many areas where other nations do not, occasionally at the expense of due process and human rights. In this research design, Italy will be compared across Europe as a whole, the EU, and Western Europe in different situations. However, these strengths in comprehensive Italian counterterrorism are still fallible; it would be unwise to predict that these trends are foolproof as the potential for terror always exists, especially as growing numbers of second-generation immigrants experience the potential for radicalization.
In 2018, Interpol circulated a list of 50 potential Tunisian ISIS fighters believed to have landed on Italian coastline (Tondo and Messina 2018). It was not expressly known where the individuals had disembarked, where they were going, or if they had direct ties to ISIS. This is a regular occurrence. For example, Berlin Christmas market bomber Anis Amri was part of the same trope of individual. He disembarked in Lampedusa, Italy years before committing the attack in Berlin. It was not known where he was going or if he had direct ties to ISIS. Hundreds more potential terrorists complete the same journey – and it is often done through Italian coastline.
Why then do we see the biggest terror attacks of the 21st century in Europe take place anywhere but in Italy? Here are some of the attacks that quickly come to mind: the Paris Bataclan attacks of 2015, the Brussels bombings of 2016, the Madrid train bombings of 2004, the 7/7 bombings in London of 2005, the Berlin Christmas market bombings of 2016, the Manchester concert attack of 2017, and the Nice boardwalk attack of 2016. Although not exhaustive, these represent some of the deadlier and best-covered attacks in Western Europe in the 21st century. Italy is nowhere to be found. Of course, it is important to separate 20th century Italy, during which time there were numerous attacks by separatist and Italian political groups. The Bologna massacre of 1980 claimed 85 lives. However, as the face of terrorism has changed, so have the targets and so has the counterterrorism response.
Italy is aware of the potential for attack. Leaders of the country understand how vulnerable Italy can be given its coastline and nature as a destination for immigrants. Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega Nord and former Prime Minister, claims that “Islamic terrorist infiltration is no longer a risk—it has become a certainty” (Simcox 2019). Although this generally falls in line with political and party rhetoric, it is nonetheless a stark condemnation of Italian counterterrorism. He is not the only leader to believe terror to be a certainty rather than a possibility. Italy knows of the potential and, in the minds of many, should be just as susceptible to terror attacks as other European nations.
There are multiple aspects of Italian culture and counterterrorism to consider when assessing predisposition to terror attacks. Policing, entrenched cultural norms and history, invasive counterterrorism operations, and government policy all factor into Italy’s fortune. I argue that the recipe for success has been one part planning, one part historical and demographic context, and zero part luck. There is Strong evidence that highlights Italy as tougher on terror despite potential flaws in judicial process. However, the evidence I present does not overwhelmingly rule out any possibility of terrorism. The possibility to experience large-scale terrorism is ever present, but Italy can teach its European neighbors how to better be prepared for this threat.
History and Demographics
To understand whether luck may be involved in Italy’s recent clean record, it must first be gauged whether Italy is at risk to the same extent that other nations are from terrorism. Demographics in comparison to EU averages can indicate whether Italy experiences a situation different than that of its neighbors. Across the EU, 4% of inhabitants are Muslim and 9% of inhabitants are foreign born nationals (with two-thirds being non-European nationals). In Italy, the situation is much the same. 4% of inhabitants are Muslim and 10% are non-Italian born individuals. However, one important note is that when compared to only France and the U.K., Italy has a much smaller per capita number of Muslims, nearly two million less in total (Groppi 2017). As for refugees and asylum seekers, Italy’s geopolitical positioning makes it a target for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. As a Western European nation with strong democratic traditions and quality of life, it is a desirable destination. Not only does it have strong democratic values, it remains a symbolic home for Catholicism, a western religion that is often the target of radical Islamic terrorism. Furthermore, its lengthy coastline and proximity to North Africa leave it vulnerable to disembarking migrant ships. Italy, along with Spain and much of the EU’s eastern border, must be the recipient of most of the arrivals of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. This presents an enhanced threat as many future terrorists pass through its borders.
Most of the religious wave of terrorism in Europe has centered upon radical Islam, but this is not exclusive. However, it is important to note that this constitutes most of the recent terror attacks on European soil. This was not always the case. Italy had been blighted over the second half of the 20th century with political terrorism as well as the Mafia. These experiences were instrumental in helping Italy learn how to deal with multiple types of structured crime and terrorism. Political terrorism represented a much more individualistic and disconnected style of terrorism, with unconnected leftist and rightist cells carrying out attacks. The Mafia has always been an extremely hierarchal system of crime, and Italy was able to counter its structure as well as its activities as the century progressed. The example of the Red Brigades in Italy showed officials there that “an effective counterterrorism strategy based on intelligence gathering and strong law enforcement measures, as part of a comprehensive political approach, are integral to eradicating terrorism, as these kinds of terrorists are more than a public order problem” (Irrera 20). Initial failures, such as with the Bologna bombing or with massive corruption scandals spurred by Mafia involvement became strengths. The Mafia was largely suppressed, and the numbers of thwarted terror attacks improved.
One additional general trend in Italian demographics is the makeup of urban populations. In many other European states, certain cities are susceptible to Muslim-dominated sectors that breed terror cells. For example, the Molenbeek district of Brussels in Belgium was instrumental in planning the Paris attacks in 2015. Molenbeek has dominant Muslim sectors and well-known terror cells. By contrast, Italy does not have the same phenomenon. While there are some northern cities that have high populations of Muslims, such as Reggio-Emilia or Milano, the situation is not as dire (Groppi 2017). This trend directly affects the potential for radicalization as a product of the snowball effect. Disparate geographies of radicalized individuals benefit counterterrorism operations. It is impossible to legislate city composition, but Italy’s current demographics are helpful when compared to other Western European nations that experience radicalization in local cells.
The Radicalization Problem
Among the possible metrics to understand radicalization, the number of foreign fighters leaving to fight in MENA (Middle East North Africa) may be the most revealing. Data is difficult to collect on radicalization, but foreign fighters are proof of it. Italy has a comparatively small radicalization problem with respect to the rest of Western Europe: “According to data released by the Italian Interior Ministry in August 2017, 125 individuals with ties to Italy (only a minority of whom are Italian citizens) left the country to join various jihadist groups (mostly the Islamic State). The minuteness of these numbers is quite apparent when compared to recent estimates for other large European countries, such as France (at least 1,700 fighters), Germany (940), the United Kingdom (around 850); and even when compared to less populous countries such as Belgium (470), Austria (300), and Sweden (300)” (Vidino 2017). Although it would make sense for Germany, France, and the U.K. to have higher numbers – as each nation has at least a million more resident Muslims – it makes less sense for Belgium, Austria, Sweden to have two to three times larger exoduses.
With native birthrates and continual immigration, Muslim populations will continue to increase at a faster rate than Italian populations. Although large scale terrorist incidents are isolated and rare, there is a small correlation between foreign fighters and propensity to experience an attack. France, Germany, the UK, and Belgium have all experienced large-scale terror attacks; Italy has not. Their foreign fighter numbers are substantially greater than those of Italy. While this may be attributable to a demographic advantage, it may also be related to themes of policing culture and Italian deportation law.
Reports also indicate that Italy’s Muslim population is much more measured in its approach to the interplay of state and religion. While some European nations have seen overt displays of extremism and unofficial local sharia law, Italy has not. This is not to say that the endorsement of violence does not exist among Italian Muslims. In fact, 24% of respondents in a 2016 survey supported violence in the defense of Islam (Groppi 2017). What this does indicate is that the manifestation of views held across the continent differs. It is difficult to point to any causal relationship in radicalization that would differ from other Western European nations. Rome is a Catholic center and Italy is as much a part of the west as France, Germany or the U.K. Italy participates just as well in military endeavors in nations that send refugees to its borders. T But, given the smaller number of Muslims in the country and lack of Muslim-dominated city sectors, this radicalization is kept at bay. If the population continues to increase at its current rate and outstrips Italian birthrates, this delicate situation may become more similar to Belgium or the U.K.
However, foreign groups such as ISIS have not spared Italy from attempted propaganda campaigns. A 35-minute video was released in August 2016 that showed ISIS fighters threatening to conquer Rome (Counter Extremism Project, 2019). ISIS has threatened Italy, attempted to radicalize Italian citizens, and held Italian citizens hostage in MENA. Although there may not be a demographic equivalence between other Western European nations and Italy, terrorist organizations have still not spared expense in targeting Italy’s population.
Examples of Current Counterterrorism Successes
Italy employs various strategies that are common across western nations in combatting terrorism. Wiretapping and surveillance have been some of the most widely used strategies, heavily applied in the Imam Rapito affair of 2003 and the 2015 arrest of nine alleged al-Qaeda affiliates. Wiretapping was codified in Italian law as potential anti-terrorism procedure in 2001, with Italy being the quickest to create legislation in that regard after the 9/11 attacks. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 of the al-Qaeda arrests, with claims that the militants had planned on carrying out attacks on the Vatican. “The investigation,” the WSJ states, “was mainly based on wiretaps of the suspects’ phone conversations… the wiretaps included mention of the Vatican and indicated the presence in Italy of a Pakistani militant who was attempting to organize attacks in Italy” (Zampano 2015). The nine men were arrested with warrants placed for nine more. This is one example among many others, including the Brescia 2015 arrests, the April 2016 region wide operation that resulted in four arrests, and the March 2017 Venice arrests. Thus, it is not the fortune of not being targeted by terrorist groups that has helped Italy. Between targeted propaganda from terrorist groups and myriad successful counterterrorism operations, it takes more than luck to avoid an attack.
Policing and CT
Depending on the classification, differing statistics exist on police force sizes in EU nations. Various units or positions may not be included in different data collection. However, in most cases, Italy ranks near the top of EU nations for police force size. It outranks France, the UK, Germany, Spain (depending on the survey), Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, and other important western nations. The Italian police force, for example, is more than two times larger than that of England and Wales based on EU data. Naturally, a nation such as Cyprus that deals with its internal division will have a disproportionate amount of police. By contrast, Italy’s recent stability theoretically could represent less of a need for policing. But it is exactly this constant police force that aids deterrence and operational success.
While increasing a nation’s police force would naturally affect the discourse on public funding, counterterrorism remains a high priority for lawmakers and citizens alike. Therefore, the benefits of increased police forces should be given due diligence in first assessing the benefits before contrasting with drawbacks. Some of the benefits are more obvious; an increased police presence on the streets will respond more quickly to imminent threats. Similarly, there is a greater capacity to cover non-imminent threats, including routine work that still yields results in eliminating crime and terrorism. There are also underlying benefits. One of the most important factors in counterterrorism is deterrence strategy. A larger police force on the streets acts as deterrence as well as a culture. General European stereotypes of the Italian police force derive from truth, and these stereotypes can be influential before a terrorist decides upon its target.
There will be drawbacks in terms of cost and potential human rights considerations. While there may be an inherent human right to safety, an abundance of police may create a dangerous culture:
“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[sic] 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” (Simcox).
The assertion that perceptions of the size of the police force induce cooperation is both useful and dangerous. This negative aspect of Italian counterterrorism may be a reason why other European nations are slower to increase police forces. While it creates extremely successful cooperation and provides useful intelligence, individuals are subject to potentially undue scrutiny, such as in the above example.
But, this aspect of counterterrorism also stems from government initiatives. In January 2017, Italy’s Ministry of the Interior announced constitutional education for Italian imams. These classes or lessons would be centered on freedom of speech and religion as well as the Italian constitution (Counter Extremism Project, 2019). As imams constitute the center of local religious worship, their cooperation with Italian officials may engender stronger ties between the state and Islam. Thus, it is believable that an imam would assume state involvement in his mosque, potentially via bugging, and work to preserve his people regardless. It is also believable that there are more genuine ties in Italy between imams and the state than other Western European nations. This can help the integration difficulties experienced across Europe as a trickle-down effect from imam to worshipper can take place.
In a period spanning March 2016 to March 2017, the Italian Interior Ministry reported stopping and questioning 160,593 individuals by counterterrorism officials. This led to 550 arrests on suspicion of terrorism and 38 actual indictments and sentences on terrorism charges (Counter Extremism Project). Although that is a 7% success rate in converting arrests into sentences, this creates a deterrent culture and casts a wide net of safety. Because Italy employs a relatively high level of police, it is able to make 160,000 stops in a year, even if those stops do not turn in to arrests. This has been the Italian mantra: cast a wide security net and let nothing fall through the cracks, even if it constitutes a burden on citizens or oversteps judicial boundaries on occasion.
Deportation Policy, Italian Judiciary, and Citizenship Issues
Among European nations, Italy has one of the strongest policies of deportation. There are negative aspects to its execution, voiced primarily by Amnesty International, but the efficacy of the program to both expel dangerous individuals and create deterrence cannot be understated. The foremost piece of Italian law that differs from Western European counterparts is the ability to expel a migrant on prima facie, or first impression, judgement. Individuals can have a clean background (that is, no conviction of crime) and still be lawfully expelled. Amnesty International wrote in 2005 that the “law does not require the person deported to have been convicted or charged of a crime connected to terrorism” (Amnesty International). The ability to deport without any background to the individual aid in rooting out terrorism, but it also creates a deterrent culture. Migrant individuals with radical-leaning ideologies may be encouraged or even forced to find alternate routes into Europe. Indeed, roughly 300 individuals were deported between 2015-2018 on these grounds.
What Italian law leaves to interpretation is the very definition of what can be considered probable cause for deportation. The official wording in the 2005 law is on a basis of “public order and security.” There is a lack of specificity that can leave case by case interpretation open to counterterrorism officials. Any individual deemed at risk for supporting terrorism in Italy in any form is subject to expulsion. While this does well to blanket most cases, it may also allow for snap judgements to be false, allowing potentials terrorists to still enter the country.
Inherent in the prima facie style of deportation is the bypassing of judicial review. The law “does not provide for judicial confirmation/authorization of the decision and of its implementation. The law provides for a judicial appeal before the administrative court, [but] an appeal does not suspend the actual deportation” (Amnesty International). For the purposes of counterterrorism, this can end immediate threats and deter future migration of potential radicals. This willingness to immediately deport perceived threats is stronger than nearly every other Western European nation. Naturally, this raises questions about human rights and judicial process. Italy has been fined in recent decades for judicial malpractice and delay. The long delays in processing appeals while migrants are already being deported is cause for concern in the international community. While bypassing the judicial review provides immediate solutions, it is very non-discriminatory and does undue harm.
Another deterrent factor that Italy has employed through legislation is that of essentially dividing the citizenry in two categories. A 2018 law allows for the revocation of citizenship in cases of convicted terrorists (Vedaschi 2019). However, this only happens if the convicted terrorist was not an Italian by birth. Thus, this law only targets immigrants. Revoking citizenship becomes extremely problematic for stateless individuals. It is also difficult in that it can weaken attempts at further integration.
The goal of this research was to find a response to why Italy has not experienced terrorist actions to the extent that many of its European neighbors have. Considering all relevant evidence, it can be assumed that Italian counterterrorism successes derive from many factors, none of which are simply good fortune. The demographic makeup of its urban centers, the learning over time that has occurred through a bloody past, the invasive counterterrorism and policing techniques, and many government policies have all contributed to a stronger Italian counterterrorism response. Italy is not without threat; most Italian leaders agree that Italy is under dire threat from internal and external terrorist elements. But, its cocktail of strategies has combined thus far to mitigate large-scale terror attacks.
Many scholars believe one factor or another to be the most important. Some cite deterrence through deportation policy, some cite incredible policing operations, and yet others question Italy’s geopolitical significance. None of these responses are entirely satisfactory because proving a correlation of this nature is nearly impossible. There is no direct link between deportation policy and potential terrorist line of thought. Thus, the only plausible explanation is that a strong combination of factors can be beneficial despite financial or human rights drawbacks.
Despite this, Italy its current successes, Italy deals with the same pressures as many other European nations. Growing inequities in integration and a population replacement that heavily favors Muslims will present internal challenges in second- and third-generation immigrants. Foreign propaganda will continue to have influence within Italian borders. Italian counterterrorism is strong, but it would be unwise to predict that this good record could easily continue. Terror attacks are nearly impossible to predict, but the risk in Italy remains high.
Should Other Nations Follow Suit?
The implications of Italian success are complicated. Of course, if it was simply a case of observing and implementing the best Italian practices, many other nations would have already done so. However, Italy faces certain concerns for rights of the detained, rights of immigrants, and rights of citizens. Deportation before appeal, citizenship revocation, and invasive counterterrorism and its associated paranoia do not shine a kind light on Italian democracy. The question for other nations then becomes that of weighing the security of its nation with cultural perceptions of moral justification. Naturally, the tightest possible security would effectively thwart terrorist attacks, but there is a cost to increased security capabilities. Should the U.K., Germany, France, Belgium, or other European nations experience another large-scale attack, I hypothesize that legislation on counterterrorist initiatives a la Italia may be pushed to the forefront of public discourse. Historically, periods of large terror attacks have spurred change. This time, Italy will be at the forefront of positive counterterrorist operations and thus be a model for change. Policies may not be adopted by neighboring countries in a verbatim fashion, but Italy’s example will certainly cause discussion.
As with the case in Italy, these would not be foolproof changes. There will continue to be the possibility of terror attacks. It is not entirely possible to crush an ideology. Also, the application of the Italian methods of counterterrorism will differ in other states. Practices would need to fit within the framework of established culture and procedure. Thus, any addition of Italian methods would take time. Again, these could be positive changes in the right environments, but more country specific research would need to be done to assess what developments could be applied successfully. Certainly, increasing police force sizes could be considered in most cases as its drawbacks are mainly financial. However, invasive counterterrorism such as bugging and wiretapping, or policies like deportation and citizen revocation require much more caution in implementation.
Amnesty International. “Summary of Amnesty International’s Concerns in the Region, July – December 2005.” Europe and Central Asia, Amnesty International. Accessed via https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/76000/eur010072006en.pdf
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Groppi, Michele. 2017. “The Terror Threat to Italy: How Italian Exceptionalism is Rapidly Diminishing.” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, May. Vol. 10, No. 5.
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Vidino, Lorenzo. 2017. “The Jihadist Threat in Italy: A Primer.” Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale, November 13th. Accessed via https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/jihadist-threat-italy-primer-18541#nota1
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