The Evolution of Jihadism in Italy: Rise in Homegrown Radicals

'Jihad' graffiti

‘Jihad’ graffiti. Photo: laughing spinning dancing/flickr.

Jihadist terrorism in Italy has recently undergone significant demographic and operational changes. The first generation of foreign-born militants with ties to various jihadist groups outside Europe is still active in Italy, albeit with less intensity than in the past. During the last few years, however, Italian authorities have increasingly noticed a shift toward forms of homegrown radicalization similar to that experienced in other Western European countries. Two recent incidents highlighted this trend: the conviction of a young man from Brescia who, without any connection to established jihadist groups, formed an

online network of jihadist enthusiasts; and a Genoa-born convert to Islam who was killed in Syria. These two incidents marked some of the first cases of homegrown jihadist radicalization in Italy.[1]

This article looks at the first generation of jihadists in Italy, and then shows how the jihadist scene in Italy has progressively changed with the formation of a new generation of homegrown radicals. It finds that although the recent instances of homegrown jihadist radicalization are worrisome, it still remains a small phenomenon in Italy compared to some other European countries.

The First Generation

Jihadist networks have been active in Italy since the late 1980s.[2] Even though small clusters of militants from several North African countries established themselves in various areas of the country, the northern city of Milan has always been the undisputed hub of jihadist activity in Italy. The city’s Islamic Cultural Institute (ICI), a former garage turned mosque, was controlled by members of Egyptian Jama`a al-Islamiyya after its foundation in 1988.[3] The ICI acquired importance for the global jihadist movement when the conflict in Bosnia erupted in 1992. Not only was the ICI’s imam, Anwar Shabaan, the commander of foreign mujahidin in Bosnia, but the network in Milan was an important node supplying documents, money and other forms of logistical support for volunteers worldwide seeking to reach the battlefield in the Balkans.[4]

Throughout the 1990s, the ICI remained, in the words of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “the main al Qaeda station house in Europe.”[5] The ICI established various businesses, which provided money and the possibility to sponsor visa applications for militants.[6] Radical preachers of global stature routinely visited the ICI.[7] Forged documents, funds and recruits from Milan went to support jihadist groups from Algeria to Afghanistan.[8] Particularly noteworthy was the contribution of Milanese jihadists in Iraq, where several individuals recruited within the ICI scene carried out suicide operations.[9]

By the late 1990s, jihadist networks, many of which had connections to the ICI, were present in various Italian cities, particularly in the north.[10] Most of these networks were involved in quintessential logistical support activities for various jihadist outfits operating outside of Europe. Their demographics mirrored migration patterns, as the vast majority of individuals were first generation immigrants from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.[11] Many of them were in the country illegally and lived in conditions of socioeconomic disenfranchisement.

The Scene Changes

By the mid-2000s, several aggressive security investigations that led to the dismantling of dozens of cells and the voluntary departure from Italy of many hardened jihadists caused a significant decrease in jihadist activity. Some of the long established networks and some new actors (Pakistanis, for example) continued their activities, but with a markedly lower intensity. In that regard, it is noteworthy that other than a few improbable plots, no attacks against Italy were planned by established networks in this period despite a number of plots targeting other European countries.

Yet, somewhat preceding a trend later seen in the rest of Europe, Italy in the early 2000s witnessed a handful of lone actor plots.[12] In July 2002, authorities arrested Domenico Quaranta, a handyman who had converted to Islam in prison, for detonating four primitive explosive devices in the vicinity of various targets in the Sicilian city of Agrigento and in a Milan metro station in the span of seven months.[13] Quaranta left at the scene messages threatening to continue his actions until “you will submit to

worshipping the one God.”[14] Two similar incidents took place in Modena in 2003 and Brescia in 2004. In each case, a Muslim man detonated explosive materials in a car in front of a synagogue and a McDonalds respectively.[15] Both men died in the ensuing blast, but there were no other injuries.[16] All three episodes were characterized by the rudimentary nature of the explosive devices and by the fact that the perpetrators were not connected to any known militant circle.[17]

Then, in October 2009, Libyan national and long-time Milan resident Mohammed Game attempted to enter a military base in Lombardy.[18] When confronted by a guard, he detonated an explosive device, severely injuring himself and lightly wounding the guard. The ensuing investigation led to two Milan-based North African men who had helped Game with his plot.[19] Game, who had recently begun attending the ICI, operated mostly independently and his radicalization process had occurred largely online.[20]

Italian authorities considered the attack on the barracks in Lombardy a watershed event. The 2009 annual report sent by Italian intelligence to parliament clearly stated that “in the proximity of structured groupings active in logistics and propaganda can operate isolated individuals or micro-clusters ready to
act in complete independence.”[21] It also raised concerns about the arrival of the phenomenon of internet-driven homegrown radicalization in Italy—in this case, mirroring a dynamic seen in Europe years before.[22]

It is debatable whether Game can be considered a case of homegrown radicalization. Although his radicalization may only have taken place in Milan, Game grew up in Libya and moved to Italy only as an adult. Yet a handful of cases that have surfaced over the last few years present clear characteristics of homegrown radicalization, underscoring how the phenomenon has arrived in Italy.

The Brescia Cases

By the second half of the 2000s, Italian authorities had begun monitoring an online-based network of jihadist sympathizers.[23] The cluster was led by a handful of Italian converts based in various Italian cities and in London.[24] In 2012, authorities decided to act, and charged some of the network’s most active members under article 270 quinquies of the penal code. The article criminalizes the provision of terrorist training and has been used with increasing frequency to prosecute cases in which more or less operational materials are exchanged online. Members of the network had translated into Italian and disseminated online texts ranging from jihadist philosophy to manuals on weapons and explosives.[25]

The investigation led authorities to Mohamed Jarmoune, a young Moroccan-born man living in Niardo, a quiet mountain town in the province of Brescia.[26] Living a secluded life between work and his parents’ house (and not attending a mosque), Jarmoune spent all his time—up to 15 hours a day—online, disseminating jihadist materials and connecting with like-minded individuals around the world.[27] Together with the London-based wife of a known Algerian militant, he administered a private Facebook group and openly discussed his jihadist sympathies.[28]

In an essay, Jarmoune summarized his life as follows: “I am 20, I have lived in Italy since I was 6 and I started following Islam when I was 16 and initially found only books and files in Italian, written by modern, phony and moderate Muslims…I read them in depth and later I found the truth thanks to God and so I began translating books and files for Italian Muslims but later these Italian brothers abandoned me and I don’t know why. Maybe they are afraid…and so I stopped speaking to Italian Muslims…and I began helping Muslims and the nation all over the world. And later I worked with important jhd [jihad] as video producer and other important projects. Now I am the moderator of the jhd forum of God, a great challenge for me and I am very happy about this.”[29]

After months of monitoring, authorities arrested Jarmoune after he conducted online surveillance of Jewish targets in Milan.[30] In May 2013, Jarmoune was sentenced to five years and four months in prison for disseminating terrorist propaganda.[31]

As they wrapped up the case against Jarmoune, authorities stumbled upon another young man of Moroccan descent who, like Jarmoune, lived with his well-integrated family in a small rural town near Brescia. Anas El Abboubi, who idolized Jarmoune but had no connections to him, had allegedly embraced jihadist ideology and spent most of his time online communicating with kindred spirits.[32] Without ever leaving Italy, El Abboubi had managed to build contacts with the leaders of various extremist groups, from Germany-based Millatu Ibrahim to Sharia4Belgium.[33] El Abboubi had apparently taken it upon himself to establish the Italian branch of the franchise, starting the blog Sharia4Italy and involving a handful of local friends. Authorities decided to arrest El Abboubi after becoming concerned by the increased militancy of his online activities and by the fact that he had allegedly used the internet to research various iconic sites in Brescia.[34] He was later released, as the court did not deem his behavior a violation of article 270 quinquies.[35] There are indications that, upon release, El Abboubi traveled to Syria, where he reportedly remains.[36]

From Genoa to Syria

Another active member of the Italian online jihadist scene gained the spotlight in June 2013 after news broke that Giuliano Ibrahim Delnevo had died in Syria. Born in Genoa in 1989, Delnevo had grown up in a middle class family and had converted to Islam in 2008.[37] He had been active in the local Islamic scene, but as his views radicalized he could not find like-minded individuals in Genoa. He sought them online and in European countries with a more developed Salafi-jihadi scene. By 2011, Delnevo was actively seeking to join jihadist groups, yet was struggling to find the right contacts.[38] After an initial, unsuccessful attempt in the summer of 2012, Delnevo managed to enter Syria a few months later. He reportedly died while fighting alongside a Chechen-led brigade of foreign fighters.[39]

Like Jarmoune and El Abboubi, Delnevo’s profile is not characterized by any socioeconomic marginalization. Rather, it seems more appropriate to search for the roots of their radicalization in their psychological profiles and their quest for a personal identity.[40]

It is noteworthy that all three individuals had been at some point fascinated by other alternative ideologies and lifestyles (including fascist militancy and hip hop culture).[41]

Conclusion

The arrival of homegrown jihadist radicalization in Italy does not mean that “traditional” networks are no longer operating.[42] Yet lone operators and small clusters of “sociological Italians”[43] who radicalize on their own, operate independently from mosques and traditional groups, and are prolific online are active in Italy. Nevertheless, they still represent a smaller threat than in other Western European countries.[44]

Authorities have so far contained this developing threat with remarkable success. Yet the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism, as the experience of other Western countries has shown, is by nature unpredictable and extremely difficult to control.

Dr. Lorenzo Vidino is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. This article is part of an extensive study on the development of jihadism in Italy sponsored by the European Foundation for Democracy (Brussels) and the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (Milan).

This article was originally published in the CTC Sentinel on 26 November 2013. (For footnotes, see original.)

[1] With the exception of Domenico Quaranta, which was an isolated incident, every case seen in Italy from 1995 until Mohamed Jarmoune in 2012 involved first generation immigrants (and most linked to established jihadist networks).

[2] Lorenzo Vidino, “Islam, Islamism and Jihadism in Italy,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 7 (2008).

[3] See the report on the searches at the ICI, published by the Italian General Investigations and Special Operations Division (DIGOS), September 15, 1997; “DIGOS Memorandum on the ICI,” Italian General Investigations and Special Operations Division, May 20, 1994. The ICI is also known as the Viale Jenner mosque from the street on which it is located.

[4] See the report on the searches at the ICI, published by the Italian General Investigations and Special Operations Division (DIGOS), September 15, 1997. Also see Evan F. Kohlmann, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network (Oxford: Berg, 2004).

[5] David S. Hilzenrath and John Mintz, “More Assets on Hold in Anti-Terror Effort; 39 Parties Added to List of Al Qaeda Supporters,” Washington Post, October 13, 2001.

[6] “DIGOS Memorandum on the ICI.” Also see the DIGOS reports on Muhajiroun 2, dated October 5, 2001, and Muhajiroun 3, dated November 21, 2001.

[7] Ibid.; Stefano Dambruoso, Milano Bagdad: Diario di un magistrato in prima linea nella lotta al terrorismo islamico in Italia (Milan: Mondadori, 2004).

[8] See, for example, the indictment of Lased Ben Heni and others, Tribunal of Milan, October 1, 2001; verdict against Essid Sami Ben Khemais and others, Tribunal of Milan, May 13, 2002; indictment of Abdelhalim Hafed Remadna and others, Tribunal of Milan, November 21, 2001; indictment of Muhamad Majid and others, Tribunal of Milan, November 21, 2003.

[9] Indictment of Muhamad Majid and others, Tribunal of Milan, November 21, 2003; indictment of Osama Mostafa Hassan Nasr, Tribunal of Milan, April 4, 2005; Giulio Meotti, “Italian Jihad,” Il Foglio, February 26, 2009; Lorenzo Vidino, Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad (Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 2005), pp. 215-290; “Milano, l’imam di viale Jenner condannato a 3 anni e 8 mesi,“ La Repubblica, December 20, 2007.

[10] See the DIGOS reports on Muhajiroun 2, dated October 5, 2001, and Muhajiroun 3, dated November 21, 2001.

[11] Mass immigration to Italy is a recent phenomenon in comparison to most other Western European countries, as it began in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

[12] With a few exceptions, most European countries were targeted by “lone actor” plots beginning in the second-half of the 2000s until the present. See, for example, the lone actor attacks in Stockholm (Taimour Abdulwahab, 2010), London (Roshonara Choudhry, 2010), Frankfurt (Arid Uka, 2011) and Toulouse (Mohammed Merah, 2012).

[13] “Arrestato presunto responsabile attentati Milano e Agrigento,” La Repubblica, July 17, 2002; Francesco Cascini, “Il fenomeno del proselitismo in carcere con riferimento ai detenuti stranieri di culto islamico,” in La Radicalizzazione del Terrorismo Islamico, June 2012.

[14] “Arrestato presunto responsabile attentati Milano e Agrigento,” La Repubblica, July 17, 2002.

[15] For the Modena incident, see Stefano Dambruoso and Vincenzo R. Spagnolo, Un Istante Prima (Milan: Mondadori, 2011), p. 121. For Brescia, see the Brescia DIGOS report on Mostafa Chaouki, July 12, 2004.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Some have questioned whether these incidents should be labeled “terrorism.” On the one hand, it is apparent from their modus operandi, possible targets and, at least in the Brescia case, from the letter claiming responsibility for the attack sent by the perpetrator to the police that there was a political/religious nature behind the actions. On the other hand, the psychological conditions of mental instability and deep depression of the perpetrators cannot be ignored and are possibly the main reasons for their actions. It is difficult to fully understand these dynamics ex post facto.

[18] “Libyan in Milan Bomb Attack,” ANSA Press Agency, October 12, 2009.

[19] Verdict against Mohamed Game and Hady Abdelaziz Mahmoud Abdel Kol, Tribunal of Milan, verdict 10/1583, October 4, 2010.

[20] Personal interview, Italian Interior Ministry official, Milan, Italy, July 2013; verdict against Mohamed Game and Hady Abdelaziz Mahmoud Abdel Kol, Tribunal of Milan, verdict 10/1583, October 4, 2010.

[21]2009 Annual Report to the Italian Parliament (Relazione sulla politica dell’informazione per la sicurezza), pp. 19-21.

[22] Cases predating Game’s attack in which the internet played a key role in the radicalization process included that of the so-called “Irhabi 007” network, a network of jihadist sympathizers spanning several countries that formed online, and the Hofstad group, the Dutch network of militants that was behind several failed attacks and one successful attack (the Theo van Gogh assassination) in the early 2000s.

[23] Personal interviews, Italian Interior Ministry officials, Milan, Italy, August 2013; 2009 Annual Report to the Italian Parliament (Relazione sulla politica dell’informazione per la sicurezza), pp. 19-21.

[24] Personal interviews, Italian Interior Ministry officials, Milan, Italy, August 2013; attachment number 1 in the Jarmoune case, Brescia DIGOS, p. 3.

[25] Verdict in the Jarmoune case, Tribunal of Brescia, verdict 613/13, May 16, 2013.

[26] Personal interviews, Italian police and Interior Ministry officials, Brescia and Milan, Italy, September and October 2013; verdict in the Jarmoune case, Tribunal of Brescia, verdict 613/13, May 16, 2013.

[27] Indictment of Mohamed Jarmoune, Tribunal of Cagliari, case 984/2012, March 13, 2012.

[28] Personal interviews, Italian police and Interior Ministry officials, Brescia and Milan, Italy, September and October 2013; verdict in the Jarmoune case, Tribunal of Brescia, verdict 613/13, May 16, 2013.

[29]Verdict in the Jarmoune case, Tribunal of Brescia, verdict 613/13, May 16, 2013, pp. 10-11.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Personal interviews, Italian police officials, Brescia, Italy, October 2013; indictment of Anas El Abboubi, Tribunal of Brescia, case 28496/12, June 10, 2013.

[33]Personal interviews, Italian police officials, Brescia, Italy, October 2013; Laura Damiani, “Manette al padre di ‘Sharia4Italy,’ terrorista internazionale,” Corriere della Sera, June 12, 2013; Wilma Petenzi, “L’aspirante bombarolo sgridato dal padre per cento euro spariti,” Corriere della Sera, June 14, 2013.

[34] Indictment of Anas El Abboubi, Tribunal of Brescia, case 7456/11, June 10, 2013; Wilma Petenzi, “Nel mirino dello studente pure questore e piazza Loggia,” Corriere della Sera, June 13, 2013.

[35] In November 2013, the Italian Supreme Court affirmed the decision. See personal interviews, Brescia prosecutor Antonio Chiappani and El Abboubi’s lawyer, Nicola Mannatrizio, Brescia, Italy, September and October 2013; Wilma Petenzi, “‘Terrorista’ a Vobarno, la procura pronta a ricorrere in Cassazione,” Corriere della Sera, July 2, 2013; “El Abboubi resta libero, ma è ‘scomparso,’” Brescia Oggi, November 9, 2013.

[36] Personal interviews, Italian police officials, Rome and Brescia, Italy, October 2013; “El Abboubi resta libero, ma è ‘scomparso.’”

[37] Personal interview, Carlo Delnevo, Giuliano’s father, Sestri Levante, Italy, October 2013; Marco Imarisio, “Quei 40-50 jihadisti partiti per la Siria dalle città italiane,“ Corriere della Sera, June 19, 2013; Bruno Persano, “Mio figlio è morto da eroe e oggi
sono orgoglioso di lui,” La Repubblica, June 19, 2013; personal interviews, Italian police and judicial officials, Genoa, Italy, September 2013.

[38] Personal interviews, Italian police and judicial officials, Genoa and Rome, Italy, September and October 2013.

[39] Personal interviews, Italian police and judicial authorities, Genoa, Italy, September 2013; personal interview, Carlo Delnevo, Giuliano’s father, Sestri Levante, Italy, October 2013; Gabriele Piccardo, “Giuliano Ibrahim Delnevo: l’amico Umberto Marcozzi: ‘Mi scrisse che in Siria i martiri profumano,’” Huffington Post, June 18, 2013; Andrea Cortellari, “Siria, Delnevo indagato per terrorismo a Genova già dal 2009,” Il Giornale, June 18, 2013.

[40] Fernando Reinares, “Es que integración social y radicalización yihadista son compatibles?: una reflexión sobre el caso de Mohamed Jarmoune en Brescia,” Real Instituto Elcano, April 17, 2012.

[41] Since an early age, Delnevo was fascinated with fascism and some of his closest friends upon converting were former right-wing activists who had converted. See personal interview, Carlo Delnevo, Giuliano’s father, Sestri Levante, Italy, October 2011; personal interview, Italian police, Genoa, Italy, September 2013. Jarmoune collected Nazi memorabilia. See “Woman, 40, Arrested in London Terror Raid as Police Probe ‘Secret Facebook Plot to Blow up Italian Synagogue,’” Daily Mail, March 15, 2012. El Abboubi was a rapper in his teens under the pseudonym McKhalif. Under that name he operated a YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/MCKHALIF) that, after radicalizing, he used to post religious lectures instead of rap videos. One of El Abboubi’s old rap performances can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPJXqAsUEPE.

[42] In May 2013, for example, the Carabinieri ROS dismantled a cell of North African militants between Apulia and Sicily. The men were first generation immigrants with connections to Milan’s ICI. Authorities accused them of recruiting and planning attacks against American, Israeli and Italian targets. See “Italian Police Arrest Four Suspected Islamist Militants,” Reuters, April 30, 2013.

[43] Since Italy’s current legislation does not automatically give citizenship to individuals born on Italian soil if at least one of their parents is not Italian and it is very difficult to obtain Italian citizenship, few individuals of immigrant origin are Italian citizens. The term “sociological Italians” is therefore used to describe all those individuals who have grown up in Italy, irrespective of their citizenship status.

[44]There are only a handful of court cases against “homegrown” jihadists in Italy, and most of them have been charged with article 270bis, a very broad charge of disseminating propaganda that does not exist in many European penal codes. Moreover, counterterrorism authorities in Italy estimate that only a handful of Italians are fighting in Syria, a smaller number when compared to the participation rate of foreign fighters in Syria from other European countries.


Dr. Lorenzo Vidino is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. This article is part of an extensive study on the development of jihadism in Italy sponsored by the European Foundation for Democracy (Brussels) and the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (Milan).


For additional reading on this topic please see:
Italy and Saudi Arabia Confronting the Challenges of the XXI Century
Journal of Terrorism Research, Volume 4, Issue 1 (2013)
Preventing Violent Extremism
Edges of Radicalization


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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