France Suffered Its 20th Islamist Attack Since 2014. Experts Explain How Italy Stayed Terror-free

Tough citizenship laws that make deportations easier are just part of the answer, say experts on Islamic extremism

A photo of Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame Carcassonne, France, Saturday, March 24, 2018
Emilio Morenatti/AP

At the end of January, the Italian authorities charged Egyptian-born Sayed Fayek Shebl Ahmed with radicalizing his son and sending him to fight in Syria. Ahmed, now in his 50s, had fought in Bosnia in the 1990s and allegedly encouraged his son Saged to follow in his footsteps in jihad’s new global center.

When the police raided the family home in the suburbs of Como near Switzerland, they arrested the father on terrorism charges. Saged’s mother, who was considered less involved in the family’s alleged jihadi activities, was deported to her birth country Morocco.

Meanwhile, the same day, two cousins suspected of being “followers of jihad” were sent back home to Macedonia from the Treviso region near Venice. And last week a Senegalese soccer player who failed to shine for the Verona team was thrown out of the country on similar allegations, in the most recent expulsion by the Italian authorities.

According to data from the Italian Interior Ministry seen by Haaretz, this year Italy has carried out a record number of expulsions on jihadism charges. With 25 foreigners deported in the first two months, the figure could reach an unprecedented 150 by the end of the year. The policy of issuing immediate expulsion orders without trial against anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Islamic State is seen by experts as a main reason Italy has been virtually immune to violent Islamic fundamentalism.

After Friday’s attack in Trebes, which killed four and wounded 15, France in contrast has now suffered 20 terrorist attacks since 2014 that have left 245 dead. No country in the West has been targeted by violent Islamist extremists to such an extent. Since the Charlie Hebdo shooting of January 2015, Islamist terrorism has significantly changed the way France views security and relates to the Muslim world.

Yet neighboring Italy, with a population of nearly 2 million Muslims (about half that of France) has yet to experience Islamist terrorism. Its contingent of foreign fighters – the radicals who travel to war-torn Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State or similar militias – has barely reached 130, the Interior Ministry says. (The number in France tops 1,700.)

Italy’s number of jihobbyists – the anti-terrorism term for sympathizers of radical groups who don’t take action – is in the hundreds, not the thousands as in France. And countries like Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Britain have all been affected by episodes of violent jihadism.

“Italy’s expulsion policy is a crucial factor in explaining the country’s success in preventing episodes of violent Islamist fundamentalism,” says radicalization expert Francesco Marone of the Milan-based think tank ISPI. “Expulsions against foreigners were rare occurrences before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France and have since increased to levels unparalleled in other European countries.”

In 2015 and 2016, Italy averaged around 60 expulsions a year, a number that surged to 105 in 2017, compared with the 150 seen possible this year.

“This is an aggressive preventive measure since the police only need a green light from the Interior Ministry to execute an expulsion, with no need for a trial,” Marone says. Countries like Britain, France and Belgium can’t do this because radicals are often citizens of the country and therefore can’t be deported.

Italian Carabinieri officers on patrol in Rome,  March 11, 2018.
Max Rossi / Reuters

“In some respects, Italy’s restrictive citizenship laws help anti-terrorism forces clamp down on fundamentalism more freely,” Marone adds. Key also has been the country’s experience in fighting organized crime. There is “a backlog of tough legislation against the mafia, and our experience of fighting internal political terrorism has helped too,” he says.

Blaming the second generation

In the run-down industrial town of Azergrande near Venice, Haaretz met with Roudani Rehaily, the father of Meriem, one of the 129 foreign fighters from Italy. After leaving for Syria, Meriem reportedly became an important “jihadi hacker,” working the keyboard for the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“One day Meriem retreated to her bedroom with only her phone for company,” recalls Rehaily, a gaunt man who has worked years in manual labor, the family’s only source of income. “Those who are to blame are the online recruiters; it was all online.”

Little is known about what has happened to his daughter Meriem since the fall of the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, Raqqa, in October. The right-wing daily Il Giornale claimed she was stoned to death in Raqqa before the fall, but this was based on scant evidence and is widely considered untrue.

Meriem’s father, Roudani Rehaily, came to Italy from Morocco when Meriem was 9, which means Meriem belongs to the second generation of Muslim migrants, the generation counterterrorism experts consider the most open to radicalization.

In an interview with Haaretz in August, French terrorism expert Olivier Roy said as many as 60 percent of those who espouse violent jihadism in Europe are second-generation Muslims who have lost their connection with their country of origin and have failed to integrate into Western societies. They are subject to a process of deculturation that leaves them detached from both European society and their origins. The result, Roy argues, is a dangerous identity vacuum in which violent extremism thrives.

Besides the expulsions, experts cite another reason Italy has been almost immune from violent Islamist fundamentalism: There are actually very few people of age in the second generation.

“Muslim migration into Italy happened 20 years later than in France and Belgium,” says Maria Bombardieri, whose book on Italian female foreign fighters is about to be published. “This means the second generation is currently kids and teenagers. The pool of those vulnerable to radicalization has been smaller, but it could soon expand.”

Marone of the ISPI agrees but says the notion that the second generation is more dangerous, could foment anti-immigration sentiment and unduly aid campaigns by the conservative right such as one against a bill that would grant Italian citizenship to migrant children born in Italy.

In Bologna, Haaretz met with Valeria Collina, the mother of Moroccan-Italian Youssef Zaghba, one of three men who carried out the June 2017 attack at London Bridge that left eight dead. Collina says another key element to explain the limited impact of violent Islamist extremism in Italy is that “Italy has no equivalent of Molenbeek, the infamous downtrodden neighborhood in Brussels.”

A French gendarmerie four-star general, Richard Lizurey, speaks to journalists after the Trebes terror attack, Carcassonne, France, March 25, 2018.

Collina, an Italian convert to Islam married to a Moroccan, lives in Fagnano di Valsamoggia, a town just outside Bologna that she describes as “perfectly livable and nice, by no means a run-down suburb. Foreign migrants here live good lives.”

Shortly after speaking with Haaretz, Collina was due to meet with agents from Scotland Yard who arrived from London to disclose details of the attack in which her son and his two accomplices were killed.

“I told them I only want to know the dynamics if they tell me my son wasn’t driving the van that plowed into the crowd, and if he didn’t kill anyone,” she says. About one year before the attack, Zaghba had attempted to go to Syria to fight, but in an alleged slip of the tongue he told the airport authorities in Bologna he was off to Turkey to be a “terrorist,” not a “tourist.”

“I think he did it on purpose; he wanted to be stopped,” Collina says. Ever since he was monitored closely by the Italian authorities but “suffered a lot from not being able to go to Morocco, where he knew anti-terrorism policing is really tough,” Collina says.

Disputed role of Islam

France has recently delegated the training of imams to the Mohammed VI Institute in Rabat, a global center for the education of religious scholars entrusted to teaching a more tolerant version of Islam. Sources in Italy’s Interior Ministry say their country has long mulled following suit.

Collina says that denying that Islam has anything to do with violence is the wrong approach when trying to understand why violent extremism does or doesn’t thrive. “If you look into the Islamic religious scriptures, you certainly find incitement to violence,” she says. “We have to ask how we should deal with this, not deny it.”

In France, the theory that extremism has nothing to do with Islam has been labeled by critics as rien à-voirisme, literally “nothing-to-do-ism.” Among the critics is Roy’s archrival Gilles Kepel, who told Haaretz last June the problem is the “radicalization of Islam,” not the “Islamification of radicalism.”

Carlo Delnevo, the father of Giuliano Delnevo, who left Genoa for Syria in November 2012 and was reportedly killed by Hezbollah fighters soon afterward, is one of Italy’s few outspoken parents of foreign fighters. He believes Islam has played a major role in the stories of young men like his son, who was one of about 15 foreign fighters who had converted to Islam. (The figure of 129 foreign fighters includes people with only a loose affiliation to Italy, such as foreign residents or the one American whose short stay in the country preceded his trip to Syria. Only about 30 are believed to be Italians by both citizenship and nationality.)

When asked why in Italy the parents of those 129 foreign fighters haven’t been active in anti-radicalization advocacy – as parents have been in countries like Belgium, France and Denmark where a raft of organizations have been created – Delnevo says he “radically disagrees with their approach.”

“Those parents espouse a narrative whereby our sons and daughters were retarded and failed human beings who fell prey to evil, ruthless recruiters,” he told Haaretz on a walk at the Genoa harbor. “I reject that. I defend the dignity of my son’s choice, his brave decision to go to fight a ruthless dictator like Assad who’s still slaughtering civilians in Ghouta. To me these youths are like freedom fighters who fought Franco in Spain in the 1930s. History will tell us if they’re good or bad.”

As Delnevo, who converted to Islam after his son was killed, puts it, if his son went to Syria long before the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate in 2014, how can you call him a terrorist?

The declaration of the caliphate was a watershed moment; the number of foreign fighters recruited in Europe soared. According to Marone of the ISPI, unpredictable events like this make identifying patterns of radicalization and predicting the future all the more difficult. But in the 100-page paper “Fear Thy Neighbor” written with Lorenzo Vidino and Eva Entenmann, Marone concluded that the “hotbeds” or “radicalization hubs” were crucial in explaining violent fundamentalism in Europe and North America.

Such hubs are formed around “organized structures” (such as radical Salafi groups or mosques), “charismatic personalities” or “a tight-knit group of friends,” he says. “It’s actually very difficult to become a radical and travel to Syria on your own. You need social and psychological support, not to mention the logistics,” he says.

In Belgium, where the ratio of foreign fighters to inhabitants is the highest in Western Europe (more than 20 times higher than in Italy), it wasn’t only by chance that more “radicalization hubs” materialized. For example, the rise of Shaaria4Belgium, a group that formed in Antwerp to preach the enforcement of sharia law, was far more likely than in Italy. For years the organization was tolerated by the authorities, who cited freedom-of-expression laws. Only in 2015 did a Belgian tribunal declare it a terror group.

As Marone concludes, “Italy instead has heavy anti-radicalization laws that can kill the hotbeds when they’re born, and the policy of fast expulsions is probably the most important pillar of its zero-tolerance policy.” If only a few hot spots – like the Tunisian-fighter hotbed in the town of Ravenna on the northeast coast – have sown their seeds in Italy, it’s probably not solely a matter of luck.