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Why has Italy avoided jihadist terrorist attacks? Our research helps explain.

Italy’s centralized intelligence and controversial deportation policy have made a difference.

- December 24, 2019

On Nov. 29, London Bridge was the site of another terrorist attack. Usman Khan, a 28-year-old convicted on terrorism charges in 2012 and then released from jail last year, stabbed two people to death and injured three others. British police shot and killed Khan, and the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack the following day.

A week later, a Saudi trainee at a Navy base in Pensacola, Fla., killed three sailors before military security shot him dead. The Navy grounded nearly 300 Saudi trainees while the FBI investigated the incident as a presumed terrorist attack.

These two acts jolted Western governments and security agencies to the risk of jihadist terrorism. In fact, disrupted terrorist attacks increased substantially in Europe last year — between 2015 and 2019, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom all were targets of terrorist attacks.

So how is Italy the exception?

Italy hasn’t suffered a successful large-scale jihadist attack — even though Italy is a member of the global coalition against the Islamic State, participates in the fight against the group and has been threatened with terrorist attacks.

The cradle of Western civilization, host of the Vatican City, and a powerful E.U. country and close ally of the United States surely would make Italy a target for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s terrorism. Our research, recently published in “Studies in Conflict and Terrorism,” demonstrates several reasons behind this Italian exceptionalism. Here are four things to know:

1. Deportations have proved effective

A cornerstone in Italian counterterrorism — administrative deportations of foreign nationals suspected of being involved in terrorism — likely offers a partial explanation of why jihadists haven’t been successful in targeting Italy.

Since 2015, Italy has expelled and returned about 400 people to their country of origin. This approach is controversial for avoiding due process but seems to have been effective in preventing dangerous people from proselytizing and striking against Italy.

Unlike the scenario in France, Belgium and the United Kingdom, all of which have homegrown jihadists, Italy’s approach has proved especially effective, because most of the people whom security forces identify as possible threats are not Italian citizens.

2. Italy has established a highly centralized collaboration

In May, the Italian government showcased its Anti-terrorism Strategic Analysis Committee (CASA) to 30 different global security services. CASA was established within the Ministry of Interior in late 2003 and operates as a common platform where Italian security forces share information about terrorist groups, intelligence, people and threats. The goal is to centralize information and intelligence from different sources and security forces to improve anti-terrorism prevention activities, to coordinate operations against groups or people suspected to be related to jihadist movements, and to share intelligence.

3. Italian security forces have decades of experience

A third key element is Italy’s deep experience fighting international and domestic terrorism for many decades. Italian security forces developed counterterrorism procedures during the Anni di piombo (“Years of Lead”) — a period of social and political turmoil marked by a wave of both left-wing and right-wing terrorist attacks from the late 1960s through the 1980s. In this period, the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), a left-wing terrorist group, was responsible for numerous violent incidents, including assassinations, kidnappings and robberies.

The government managed to dismantle the Brigate Rosse in the 1980s. New cells reappeared a decade later, striking at the heart of Italian institutions. The resurgent group killed Massimo D’Antona, labor law professor at Rome’s Sapienza University and a government adviser, in 1999, then in 2002 killed professor Marco Biagi, an economic adviser to then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The joint work of intelligence and law enforcement agencies rounded up these terrorist cells. Italy’s security forces since then have put their experience and resilience to good use in combating jihadist terrorism.

4. There have been jihadist terrorist activities — but no successful terrorist acts

It would be inaccurate to depict Italy as a land where jihadist terrorism does not take place. In fact, as we show in our study, in Italy there have been small-scale terrorist attacks, albeit not as successful, bloody or well-organized as those in other European countries. The country has also experienced terrorism activities, as some of the perpetrators of the attacks in Europe have family or criminal links with Italy.

There are two noteworthy cases. In 2009, a Libyan named Mohammed Game tried to drive into the Santa Barbara barracks near Milan. He loaded his car with four kilos of triacetone triperoxide but did not manage to explode it. In 2013, an Italian convert to Islam named Giuliano Delnevo allegedly died in Syria fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda offshoot group.

But Italy is similar to countries such as Scotland, where the Muslim community has not radicalized to the extent it has in other European countries. Indeed, just over 120 foreign fighters have left Italy to fight in conflict zones in Syria and Iraq — such numbers are much lower than in the United Kingdom or Germany.

Like Scotland, Italy has avoided the “ghettos” that have formed in France’s suburbs, or Molenbeek in Belgium. This has helped avoid clashes between Muslims and non-Muslims in Italy.

Italy also seems to lack a large second and third generation of Muslims, and there seems to be little resentment among immigrant communities for either Italian colonial history or foreign policy. No doubt these factors also play a role in the absence of a large jihadist foothold. While not all aspects of the Italian model are applicable to other European countries, some elements, such as the CASA, could certainly be taken as an example of “intelligent” intelligence-sharing.

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Stefano Bonino is an Italian scholar and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is the author of “Muslims in Scotland: The Making of Community in a Post-9/11 World” (Edinburgh University Press 2016), which was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Research Book of the Year Award 2017.

Andrea Beccaro is adjunct professor in security studies at the University of Turin. He is the author of the article “Modern Irregular Warfare: The ISIS Case Study” (Small Wars & Insurgencies, 2018).

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