THE image is of a young man with his back turned, grasping a large knife. Beside him in stark white capitals are the Italian words “Devi combatterli” (“You must fight them”). The photo-montage, circulated in late August on Telegram, the favoured communications app of Islamic State (IS), is a blatant incitement to “lone wolves” to kill Italians. It was reproduced on the website of Site Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist communications, days after a video circulated of masked, IS-affiliated guerrillas in the Philippines sacking a Roman Catholic church and ripping up a picture of Pope Francis.
“You. Kafir [Infidel] . Remember this,” says a masked figure, wagging his finger at the camera. “We will be in Rome,inshallah.” His threat, from 10,000km away, may be far-fetched. The attraction for jihadists of an attack on the seat of Western Christendom is certainly not. So it is remarkable that Italy should not have experienced a single deadly jihadist attack when Britain, France, Germany and Spain have all been targeted—not least because it undermines the argument for a link between illegal immigration and terrorism (in the first half of 2017, Italy accounted for 82% of unauthorised arrivals in Europe).
The most colourful explanation for the Italian exception is that Italy’s mafias have quietly deterred jihadists from gaining a toehold. The defect of that idea, says Arturo Varvelli of the Milan-based Institute for International Political Studies, a think-tank, is that Italy’s mobsters exert greater control in the south, whereas a sizeable majority of its Muslims live in the north.
“To some extent, it is the Mafia,” says a senior law-enforcement official. “But not in the way most people mean.” The fight against Italy’s formidably organised criminals has given its police a wealth of experience in monitoring tightly knit target groups. It was enhanced by the campaign to subdue the left- and right-wing terrorists who wrought havoc in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. Organised crime and terrorism have also encouraged judges to take a more expansive attitude than in other European countries to issuing warrants for wiretaps and particularly to the electronic surveillance of suspects’ conversations. Italy’s recent history may also explain its hardline approach to apologists for terrorism.
On September 24th, when a Boeing 737 took off from Bologna airport bound for Tirana, the capital of Albania, it carried the 209th person to be expelled from Italy since the start of 2015 for reasons of “religious extremism”. The 22-year-old Muslim had been released from custody a day earlier, after being arrested for trying to persuade worshippers not to enter a church. He had been under constant police scrutiny since first being detained in 2016.
But, as Italian law-enforcement agents readily concede, they have fewer suspects to monitor than their French and British counterparts, and that is only partly because large numbers have been deported. The number of IS “foreign fighters” from each European country offers a guide to radicalisation. A study for the American National Bureau of Economic Research, using figures from 2014-15, found only 87 foreign fighters from Italy, compared with 760 from Britain and perhaps 2,500 from France (all three countries have similar populations). That, argues Mr Varvelli, is for two reasons. First, few of Italy’s Muslim immigrants belong to the second generation, which is the most susceptible to radicalisation (0.3% of Italian residents are second-generation immigrants of non-EU origin, against 3% in Britain and 3.9% in France). Second, Italy has no Muslim ghettos like the French banlieues.
Michele Groppi, who teaches at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, points to a third important factor: evidence to suggest that, while al-Qaeda was the dominant force in the jihadist world, it used Italy as its logistical base in Europe. “That is what kept us safe; they needed us,” he says. The situation has changed since: several jihadists who have recently attained notoriety have had links to Italy. Among them is Youssef Zaghba, a Moroccan-born Italian and one of the three terrorists who used a truck and some knives to kill eight people on and around London Bridge on June 3rd. Mr Groppi worries that if Libya were to become the next theatre of jihadist insurgency, Italy and the Vatican could become prime targets.