The Italian counter-terrorism formula: prevention and repression of radicalization


Assessing the jihadist radicalization phenomenon in Italy could represent a complex and largely nebulous exercise. This is due to two main factors. Firstly, Italy has faced a disappearance typology of jihadism that has never consistently attacked the national borders. Secondly, the absence of a record of significant attacks does not entail that Italy has been immune from the jihadist contagion.

In stressing the disappearing dimension of the Italian jihadist galaxy, we will refer to the concept of Dune organization, through which Mishal and Rosenthal described the organizational evolution of the Al-Qaeda’s network from 2001 onwards. According to the two scholars,

“The Dune organization manifests the following key features:

  1. A lack of affiliation with any explicit territorial rational, thus rendering it diffi­cult to monitor the organization’s maneuvers.
  2. No imminent institutional presence. In fact, an organizational reality is often built on its disappearance.
  3. Dynamic activity that lacks adherence to any sequential reasoning regarding in­teraction with other organizations.
  4. Command and communication chains that may be waived, intentionally frag­mented, or severed at any point in time.
  5. Consequent maneuverability among various interests and the attendant ability to align with different regional conflicts.
  6. Adherence to a grand vision, such as global jihad, as a substitute for affiliation to a specific territory”[1].

In coping with this peculiar form of jihadism, Italy has developed a complex counter-terrorism formula, entirely forged in the need of balancing the preventive and the repressive dimensions of radicalization. This paper aims at addressing the Italian counter-terrorism system, understanding how does it work and the reason why it has been implemented in the way it is at the present day.

In order to do so, this research is divided into four main sections.

The first provides an assessment of the two main dimensions of radicalization (cognitive and behavioral), pointing out that the process through which an individual decides to engage himself in terrorism is a combination of psychological and behavioral factors that might enable violence or not.

The second contains a brief overview of the Italy’s having been an incubator of a disappearance form of jihadism, since its first embryos during the 90s.

The third is dedicated to the analysis of the operational scheme of the Italian counter-terrorism. In tackling such a complex and multifaceted phenomenon as terrorism is, Italy has equipped itself with a polymorphous system to contrast the different activities by which radicalization manifest its effects in the country’s borders.

The fourth constitutes the central core of this paper and seeks to analyze the dual division of the Italian counter-terrorism formula, repressive and preventive. In doing so, this study tries to underline that the repressive dimension has largely been the core of the Italian counter-terrorism system, whereas the preventive part of the contrast of jihadism has been developed only in recent times and due to the initiatives of scholars and, partly, of politicians.

This operative formula – and not only a weaker threat represented by the Italian jihadists – has been the reason of the absence of relevant jihadist plots in Italy.

Cognitive and behavioral radicalization

Radicalization could be understood as the process through which an individual progressively embraces a radical mindset that might ultimately lead him to violence. By stressing the relevance of different factors able to shape an individual pathway towards terrorism, scholars have produced a very large mole of written works regarding the different dynamics through which a radicalization process is molded. Although there are large disagreements about how to address radicalization towards terrorism, scholars generally agree about a common starting hypothesis: radicalization is a twofold process, fueled by both a cognitive and a violent dimension[2]. Briefly: radicalization that leads to violence entails two sub-processes named cognitive and behavioral radicalization.

This theoretical division of radicalization towards terrorism is crucial for the purpose of this assessment related to the Italian jihadist galaxy because it has acquired a significant operational utility. Given the fact that the route towards violence is forged in the midway of the cognitive acquiring of radical ideas and the progressively willingness to put them into practice, this research argues that these dynamics have to serve as fundamental tools also in developing the policies to tackle the phenomenon. Therefore, the cognitive dimension of radicalization is directly connected to the preventive measures that a state may use to contrast it, whereas the preparedness of an individual to carry out violence (behavioral radicalization), inspires the repressive measures to fight terrorism.

Despite this dual nature of radicalization is the ideal-type of each model of radicalization, it remains questioning to assess which are the factors that, given the same cognitive radicalization path, are able to induce an individual to be a terrorist. The search for an answer to this pragmatic question is the core of the radicalization studies field. Scholars and security analysts have disagreed in recognizing the push-factors of a radicalization process because there are several differences from a case study to another. To address this slippery slope towards violence is not the central core of this study.

Jihadist radicalization in Italy

The evolutionary path of the Italian jihadist galaxy is different from that of most of the other  European countries affected by the Islamic radicalization processes. This because of a paradox: despite jihadists networks could be traced in Italy since the early 90s, “the homegrown jihadism arrives in Italy with a few years of delay and with less intensity compared to other countries”[3].

The main hub of the Italian jihadist network was originally situated in the city of Milan. The Egyptian Ibrahim Saad Abu Zeid founded the Islamic Cultural Center (1989), better known as Viale Jenner Mosque, a former garage located in a “building that barely could have contained a mosque, offices, classrooms, and a small grocery store”[4]. The Viale Jenner mosque was a Salafi-centered site, embodied by the Jamaa Islamiya group, whose offshoot in Milan was represented by Ibrahim Saad, who was appointed as the director of the new center. The Salafist mosque was funded by Ahmed Idris Nasreddin, an Eritrean philanthropic businessman well-integrated in Milan, at the time.

The US Department of Treasure described the Viale Jenner network as “the most important base of the Osama Bin Laden’s network in Europe”[5]. As a proof of that, pointing out that the international terrorist Ramzi Youssef, tied to Jamaa Islamiya, spent a period in Milan, under the protection of the Jenner Mosque could be enough. Ramzi Youssef was one of the responsible for the first attack on the Twin Towers in New York (February 26, ’93) and he is also believed to have been involved in the attempted attack on the Pope in his visit to the Philippines. Sentenced to life imprisonment by the District Court in Manhattan, he said: “I am a terrorist and I’m proud”[6].

During the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, the Viale Jenner mosque expressed the most of its organizational potential. In the small garage took place incessant logistic support (falsification of documents, etc.) for the Battalion of foreign fighters involved in the Bosnian war. Many Mujahidin who left for Bosnia were radicalized in Milan, behind the aegis of their leader:  the imam of the Cultural Center Muslim, Anwar Shabaan. In 1995 the Viale Jenner network favored the radicalization of the first suicide bomber that has acted in Europe. This was Jon Fawzaan, Egyptian-descent who blew himself up in a car bombing attempt against a police station in Fiume / Rijeka to avenge the killing of Anwar Shabaan.

After having served as a strategic base where many charismatic preachers and ideologues of international jihadism transited, the Milan-based network survived the death of its vertices, from 1995 onwards.

Deriving from the common Milan’s ideological base and logistics platform, the jihadist radicalization has spread in the Central and Northern region of Italy, from the late 90s. Cities as Gallarate, Como, Varese, Bologna, Cremona have become important hubs aimed at the divulgation of the Salafi ideology. A special emphasis was hired by the jihadist network in the city of Cremona, where several radical cells, headed by the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, found their historical genesis. The group’s leader, Ahmed el-Bouhali, took part in the Afghan war (2001), probably finding death during the expedition.

Although its having been resized by a massive police counter-terror campaign that led to the detection and the arrest of the Italian jihadist leaders, the hub survived. The peculiar characteristics of the Dune organizations have substantially determined this outcome. In the case of Italy, this has been possible through several connections between the Italian jihadists groups and their Balkans facilitators. Broadly speaking, following the end of the Balkans conflicts, many Balkan jihadists found in Italy their safe haven. Their connections with the Italian jihadist hub have determined a win-win situation in which each member has contributed both to its personal interests and to a generic adherence to the Global Jihad ideology. Basically, the Italian jihadist formula has carried out its international goals by providing logistic tools to foreign combatants: false documents, fund-raising, propaganda, etc. The Italian jihadist network tried also to directly plot the national borders. However, this has not been the first goal of the movement both in order to avoid to be targeted by the security services and to maintain its logistic role in the spread of jihadist violence across the European borders.

This organizational evolution has gone in parallel with a changing face of the Italian jihadist network, which has progressively shifted from representing a safe haven for foreigner combatants to be the incubator of the homegrown jihadist phenomenon. As stressed by Lorenzo Vidino, the turning point of this transition could be outlined in the failed terrorist attack against the military complex of Santa Barbara, in the periphery of Milan (October 12, 2009), carried out by the Libyan descent Mohammed Game. Born in Benghazi Game had lived in Italy since 2003. Despite the failure of the attack, it represents a turning point because it became clear that Italy would have been prone to the risk of homegrown contagion.

This has been even more evident in recent months, with the Daesh’s Italian-Balkans branch that directly threatens the Italian security, at the present day. This has been clearly shown by the numerous arrests conducted by the Italian security forces against Balkans citizens involved in terroristic activities.

On March 25, 2015, Italian police dismantled a Daesh’s cell based in Italy. It was composed by two Albanian citizens, uncle and nephew, the first resident in Albania and the other in the province of Turin and an Italian Moroccan-descent who was living in Turin too. They have been accused of recruiting aspiring jihadists in Italy and of Daesh’s propaganda activities through the web. The Moroccan-descent 20 years old guy is the author of a 64-page document entirely in Italian appeared recently on the web titled “Lo Stato Islamico una realtà che ti vorrebbe comunicare”[7]. The Albanian national was arrested in Kavaja, about 40 kilometers south of Tirana: his name is Alban Haki Elezi, is 38 years old and is a Rasshbull resident, in the village of Kavaja. The three individual were in contact with Anas El Abboubi, one of the Italian foreign fighters currently in Syria, on which hangs an arrest warrant. Anas a few days before moving to Syria had traveled to Albania to visit Alban Haki Elezi[8].

Early in July 2015, a large operation codenamed Martesë[9] led to ten arrests against 4 Italian, 5 Albanian and one Canadian citizen that were living nearby Milan, Bergamo, and Grosseto and were ready to reach the Syrian powder keg[10]. The suspected terrorists have been accused of association with terrorist aims and travel arrangements for the purpose of terrorism. Among the individuals arrested, there were the father, the mother and the sister of Maria Giulia Sergio, a young Italian girl from Torre del Greco (Naples) already in Syria as a foreign fighter, and the uncle of her husband. Her husband and his mother are in Syria to fight among the ranks of Daesh. The key center of radicalization has been the mosque of Treviglio (Bergamo) and Grosseto, the safe haven of the Albanian component of the cell.

On December 1, 2015, Italian and Kosovar counter-terrorism forces dismantled four men at an advanced stage of radicalization. They published on the web a series of photos in which they were portrayed with weapons in hand. Surveys have shown that they had already assumed the typical attitudes of Isis militants. Imishiti Samet, Kosovar citizen who has lived for some time in Italy, is considered the “mastermind” of the group and has been arrested in Kosovo while the other three have been arrested in Italy. The Samet Italian base was in an apartment in Chiari, near Brescia. The cell was composed by Imishiti Ismail, his brother, a Kosovar domiciled in Savona and a Macedonian domiciled in Vicenza. Their activities on the web are evidence of their alarming radicalization level. After the 13/11 Paris attacks, they posted this words: “Unbelievers you will understand that Islam can’t be destroyed. Lions have left you a message […] but you have joked with their message and have continued to bomb and then this is the result”[11]. They have also menaced Pope Francis and Tracy Ann Jacobson formed US ambassador in Kosovo. “They could have gone into action” – commented Giovanni De Stavola of the Digos of Brescia – “The weapons found in Kosovo show that they were ready to action”[12].

Late on February 2016, Italian ROS special agents have stopped Ajhan Veapi, a Macedonian citizen investigated for recruiting purposes of terrorism[13]. The man, arrested in Mestre, has recruited aspirant mujahideen and organized their travel to Bosnia where they have been indoctrinated by a local imam and then enrolled in Daesh ranks in Syria. This arrest allows the intelligence to gather further information about the recent expulsion of Arslan Osmanoski and Redjep Lijmani, two Macedonian citizens suspected of terrorism activities. The investigation also allowed to document the departure from Italy to Syria of three foreign fighters: Macedonian and Bosnian citizens, two of whom that have been killed between 2013 and 2014, and the third who still is in war zones. Ajhan Veapi was the most important preacher of the North of Italy. According to the military of the ROS, his proselytism activities were directly embedded in the territory. More precisely, these activities were conducted in Islamic Cultural Centers that in some circumstances “may hide fragile citizens who can be brainwashed by preachers and radicalized”[14].

Last March 12, Italian ROS special agents have arrested Karlito Brigande, a former Macedonian soldier of UCK Army documenting his recent adhesion to Daesh and his attempt to flee to Iraq to carry out a car bomb attack. Brigande lived in Italy before the transfer to Iraq and has been brainwashed by Barhoumi Firas, a Tunisian of 29 years. The two men have radicalized in the prison of Rebibbia months ago. The operation led also to the arrest of Abdula Kurtishi, a Macedonian escaped from a jail in his country and in contact with Brigande, accused of possession of false documents. Brigande is born in Debar (Macedonia) and has a long list of criminal records. Prior to 2004, he served a sentence of 15 years in Italy for robbery, then was arrested again in Skopje accused of being a smuggler. He changed his real name (Vulnet Makelara) in Karlito Brigande, in honor of the protagonist character in the movie Carlito’s Way. He lived in Rome, in the Torre Spaccata district, and he had been already arrested early in November 2015 for crimes of  “serious personal injury, public danger, illegal possession of weapons and explosive materials, assaulting public official”[15]. Using Telegram’s chat, he and Firas were organizing a suicide mission in Iraq. Brigande planned to fleed to Iraq through Turkey and overpass the Syrian border. Then Firas would have organized the transfer to Iraq. In a vocal message, Firas told Brigande “I have planned for you a suicide operation: it means you take a car fully of explosives and you perpetrate an operation against the kuffar (unbelievers) inshallah”[16].

This long list of arrests can serve to prove that the jihadist radicalization in Italy is not a new and occasional phenomenon. However, the Italian jihadist activities have never led to a direct attempt to carry out attacks to Italy’s national borders. As stressed above, this is due not to a weakness of the Italian jihadist network but to the strength of the Italian Counter-terrorism system.

The operational scheme of the Italian counter-terrorism

The Italian counter-terrorism organizational structure has been re-defined after the 9/11 events. The Italian intelligence system is headed by the Prime Minister assisted by the Inter-ministerial Committee for the Security of the Republic (CISR) that decides on the allocation of financial resources of the Information System for the Security of the Republic and indicates the necessary information requirements for the ministers to carry out the government business. The so-called Delegated Authority acts as an intermediary figure between the Prime minister and the Information System for the Security of the Republic. The Delegated Authority engagement may be covered by a Secretary of State or by a Minister without portfolio, who cannot exercise other functions. Beneath the Delegated Authority, there is the Italian intelligence system which is called Information System for the Security of the Republic and is composed of three different organisms.

Figure 1. The operational scheme of the Italian counter-terrorism.

First, there is the Department of Security Information (DIS), which basically coordinates the entire activity of the System of Information for the Security of the Republic, including that relating to cybersecurity. Moreover, it verifies the results of intelligence activities even through promoting and ensuring the exchange of information between intelligence services and police forces. Next, to DIS, there is the Agency of Information for the External Security (AISE), whose main task is to carry out the information activities that take place outside the national territory in order to protect the Italian political, military, economic, scientific and industrial interests. Finally, there is the Agency of Information for Internal Security (AISI), that basically has the same duties of AISE but in an internal national dimension.

The Italian intelligence system coordinates also the investigative activities of other fundamental Ministerial organisms.

The Minister of Internal Affairs has two main structures that carry out counter-terrorism activities. The first is the Crisis Unit (Law n. 133/2002) that verifies the rightness of information about a potential security threat and coordinates the activation of the appropriate emergency measures. The second is the Committee of Counter-terrorism Strategic Analysis (CASA-Law May 6, 2004) that is a permanent table composed of representatives of intelligence system and of judicial police officials. Among its important tasks, there is the information analysis concerning the national and international terroristic menace; the coordination of the national investigation of radical Islamic milieu in order to prevent radicalization and root causes conducive to terrorism; the control activity on the financial aids to international terroristic organizations; the constant monitoring of the Internet activities.

Since 2001, the Minister of the Economy and Finance is equipped with the Committee for Financial Security (CFS), that aims at preventing the terroristic infiltration in the Italian financial system.

Finally, there is the Department of Information and Safety of the General Staff of the Minister of the Defense (RIS), that exchanges information with AISE concerning an external terroristic threat to national interests.

The Italian Efforts to Balance the Repression and the Prevention of Radicalization

The Italian Penal Code provides excellent tools to contrast radicalization and terrorism. In fact, since the Law 438/2001, it has been equipped with measures against the association with international terrorism aims.

Recently, the Italian security system has implemented its tools to fight jihadist terrorism with the Law April 15, 2015, that contains a set of repressive tools against foreign fighters, suspected radicalized individual and facilitators of terrorism. This Law contains even norms regarding the Internet surveillance (with the creation of a Black List of individual suspected radicalized) and an allocation of a conspicuous amount of resources for the fighting of the Mediterranean human trafficking.

These excellent repressive tools are a necessary but not sufficient condition to address the radicalization processes that could lead to terrorism. The only criminal and repressive dimension of counter-terrorism fuels the risk of further exacerbating the feeling of exclusion and social marginalization of individuals and groups already prone to radicalization processes. Furthermore, it is in disagreement with the Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, approved by the General Assembly of UN December 24, 2015, and with the resolution n. 2178 (September 24, 2014) approved by the Security Council. In order to implement the effectiveness of the counter-terrorism activities, each country has to balance the repressive and the preventive dimensions of its policies.

As shown by interesting initiatives as the Symposia “Enhancing the Role of Parliamentarians in Building Effective Counter-Terrorism Systems within a Rule of Law Framework” (organized in Malta and Brussels), parliamentarians are in the right position to implement the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism. For this reason, the Italian Parliament has presented a law draft titled “Measures for the prevention of the jihadist radicalization and extremism”. The law contains several references to the good practices collected during those symposia. For example:

  • Investigating the sources of terrorism, including radicalization of potential individuals. Since the radicalization is a social phenomenon, investigating the root causes conducive to terrorism is the crucial preliminary assessment to address counterterrorism policies. In the Italian system, this investigative approach is excellently carried out by the threefold structure of the Information System for the Security of the Republic. This activity is essential in preventing radicalization because allow a better comprehension of the real root causes that lead to violent extremism by analyzing them in social contexts in which radicalization in itself find its genesis (social milieu, prisons, etc). For this reason, the law draft provides special training courses for the police officials aimed at providing tools for the recognition and interpretation of the radicalization and jihadist extremism evidence.
  • Setting investigative tools within the rule of law. This practice is a necessary tool to ensure the respect of Fundamental Rights and Right of Expression in a context of public security. The Parliament role in ensuring that the intelligence activity figures out within the rule of law is In charge of this tasks, the Italian Parliament has equipped itself with the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR – Law n. 24/2007), which basically verifies that the activities of the Information System for the Security of the Republic are carried out in respect of the Constitution and of the rule of law. The COPASIR has both a surveillance role towards the intelligence system and a consultant task on the matter of security activities.
  • Fostering public acceptance and inclusiveness of the national counterterrorism legal strategy and Engaging civil society in the formation of national counterterrorism strategy. Reports and analysis on counterterrorism activities show that citizen’s resilience is a goal to counter the terrorist’ narrative and communication. The abovementioned law draft proposed the development of an online portal of information on the issues of radicalization and jihadist extremism directed to spread alternative narrative and counter-narrative. The victims’ role could be crucial to implementing a counter-narrative. As showed by The Terrorism Survivors Storytelling platform developed by the RAN (Radicalization Awareness Network) group of the EU Commission, using victims’ traumatic experiences could have positive outcomes in civil society. Furthermore, the draft proposed a norm aimed at implementing the multicultural dialogues inside the scholastic institutions with a focus on the need for professors formation towards this direction.
  • Promoting the inter-parliamentary exchange of information and cooperation. Finally, one of the main need to foster the counter-radicalization policies in an increasingly effective way is the inter-parliamentary exchange of information. Since radicalization is a transnational menace, failing in collectively monitoring terrorism investigations could lead to a general failure in the prevention of this complex phenomenon.

The most important factor in the Italian intelligence activities has been the development of a counter-terrorism formula entirely entrenched in the necessity of balancing the preventive and the repressive dimensions of counter-terrorism. As we have seen above, even if the concept of radicalization is in itself a source of confusion, scholars generally agree in considering it a dual-nature process that encompasses both a cognitive and a behavioral dimension. In brief, radicalization is a process that begins in the mind of an individual and that, through different mechanisms, may lead to violence. For that reason, the so-called Italian counter-terrorism formula has recently concentrated its efforts in the preventive dimension of its activities. In fact, the prevention represents the most important tool in combating violent jihadism because it operates directly by tackling the incubator factors of a radical mindset. The idea is that of offering to potential radicals a  way to disengage – or not engage – from the jihadist narrative. This is the real strength of the Italian counter-terrorism formula and without this interplay between the prevention and the repression, the Italian security system would not be as effective as it is.


Federico Solfrini

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)




[1] Mishal, Shaul, and Maoz Rosenthal. “Al Qaeda as a Dune Organization: Toward a Typology of Islamic Terrorist Organizations.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, No. 28, 4 (2005): 275-293.

[2] On the definitions of radicalization see: Vidino, Lorenzo. “Countering radicalization in America: lessons from Europe, United States”. Washington DC: Institute for Peace Special Report, Nov. 2010; Dalgaard-Nielsen, Anja. “Violent Radicalisation in Europe: What We Know and What We Do Not Know”. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, No. 33, 9 (2010): 797-814.

[3] Vidino, Lorenzo. “Il jihadismo autoctono in Italia: nascita, sviluppo e dinamiche di radicalizzazione”. Milano: ISPI (Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale), 2014, 8.

[4] Gatti, Fabrizio. “Viale Jenner, la moschea più indagata d’ Italia”. Corriere della Sera, October 18, 2001,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Weiser, Benjamin. “Mastermind gets life for bombing of trade center.” New York Times, January  09, 1998,

[7] “Lo Stato Islamico una realtà che ti vorrebbe comunicare”. Downloadable at:

[8] Panorama. “L’Operazione contro l’Isis della procura di Brescia.” Panorama, March 25, 2015,

[9] Ros. “Operazione Martese.” Interno,

[10] La Repubblica. “Terrorismo, 10 arresti e perquisizioni in Lombardia e Toscana: “Erano pronti a partire per combattere in Siria.” La Repubblica, July 01, 2015,

[11] La Repubblica. “Terrorismo, 4 fermati tra Italia e Kosovo. Sul web scrivevano: “Questo sarà l’ultimo Papa.” La Repubblica, December 01, 2015,

[12] Ibid.

[13] La Repubblica. “Mestre, arrestato macedone: “Reclutava combattenti per l’Is.” La Repubblica, February 26, 2016,

[14] Il Secolo d’Italia. “Macedone arrestato in Veneto, reclutava terroristi per l’ISIS.” Il Secolo d’Italia, February 26, 2016,

[15] Tonacci, Fabio. “Roma, arrestato Karlito Brigande, ex criminale macedone arruolato nell’Is: cellula pronta a attentato in Iraq.” La Repubblica, March 12, 2016,

[16] Rainews. “Isis, Roma. progettavano attentati in chat: “pronta autobomba contro i miscredenti.” Rainews, March 12, 2016,