Europe can no longer afford to ignore Islamic radicalization. After the recent attacks in Copenhagen and Paris, the question no one wants to ask is, "Will my city be next?"
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Italy has long been considered sheltered from the threats of radical Islam. With no major terror attacks on its soil and barely any mention in the media of Islamic radicalization, Italians have felt our country is relatively safe.
But a 516-page report on Muslim radicalization and jihadist activity in Italy, authored by me and published Tuesday by CeMiSS – the Military Center for Strategic Studies affiliated with Italy's Defense Ministry – challenges that perception, showing that Islamic terrorism and radicalization do indeed pose threats to Italy's national security.
According to my study, imams and Muslim public figures in Italy have for years been preaching hatred of the West and its core democratic values. A number of Muslim leaders have publicly and proudly showed their support for violence and terrorism. Dozens of mosques, Islamic centers and individuals have dedicatedly engaged in proselytism, recruiting and funding of Islamic terrorism. And Italy has been exporting fighters to theaters of jihad – to Syria, Chechnya, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq and others.
The report also shows that, for years, jihadists have attempted to mount attacks on Italian soil. Since 2001, 13 jihadi plots have been thwarted, six attacks were carried but failed and one attack was carried out and achieved partial "success." That was in 2009, when Mohammed Game attempted to strike an army barracks in Milan, but the bomb did not detonate entirely. In addition, since 2001, more than 200 people have been arrested on charges of terrorism and more than 100 have been tried and found guilty, according to my study.
Nevertheless, despite the real, potential threats stemming from such evidence, according to a number of pundits, Italy lacks – almost entirely – internal debate on issues of Islamic radicalization and jihadist activity – as the Italian public has displayed a certain degree of indifference, ignorance and, at times, reluctance to address the issue.
My study also shows that Italian government officials have yet to conduct a frank, constructive conversation with the Muslim community about radicalization. The absence of such dialogue might prove problematic, for not only does it demonstrate a lack of understanding and vision, it could also herald counterproductive government policies on preventing radicalization and terrorism, and building public resilience.
Aside from keeping on improving its legal and operative tools for fighting terrorism, Italy, and Europe at large, should foster debate about radicalization. The benefits are two-pronged. Debate enables political elites and the public to better understand the nature of the threat, weighing risks and opportunities. It also gives the Italian population, including Muslims, a chance to directly confront radical visions of Islam and create a solid counter-narrative to radicalization – a pivotal element to winning this battle for the hearts and minds of our Muslim population.
This equation cannot be completed without the help of the Muslim community. Yes, those Italian Muslims that led demonstrations in the streets against the attack on Charlie Hebdo, against Islamic State, and against any type of violence in the name of Islam. Those Muslims who feel they belong to Italy and want to contribute to its wellbeing. Rome must realize these Muslim Italians are the key. They are the ones who boast the appropriate degree of credibility required to confront radicals. They are the ones who are able to spot embryonic spurs of radicalization and terrorism. They are the ones most likely to teach their children peaceful coexistence.
Still, trust can never work unilaterally and it requires hard work and sacrifice. In this case, hard work means building bridges between Italian/Western culture and Islam, it means having the courage to listen to the Muslim community's needs, without suspicion, racism and arrogance. It is true that evidence shows no correlation between levels of integration, education, socio-economic status and the burst of radicalization and, in some cases, terrorism. Regardless, we as a country of past immigrants have the moral duty to help, listen to and include those who want to belong to our society.
Doing so does not guarantee victory, but giving the Muslims who love Italy a voice and nurturing their sense of belonging could promote debate within the community and, eventually, pave the way for the creation of a united front against radicalization and terrorism.
Michele Groppi is a Defense Studies PhD student at King’s College London, U.K. He was awarded his Bachelor's Degree at Stanford, California, and his Master's Degree in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. He is also a professional volleyball player.