Italian counter-terrorism authorities are monitoring several dozen Italian Muslims who have obtained combat experience in Syria and are now promoting jihad, or holy war, in Italy.
Somewhere between 45 and 50 Italian citizens — mostly Muslim immigrants from North Africa, but also some Italian converts to Islam — have been to Syria at least once to fight alongside rebel forces seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Many of these individuals, including several women, have returned to Italy and are using the Internet to spread jihadist propaganda and to communicate with other Islamic radicals.
Some of the Italian jihadists have links with a Belgian Salafist group, «Sharia4Belgium,» and are actively seeking to recruit fellow Muslims to overthrow the democratic order in Italy, according to Italian law enforcement officials.
The revelations were made after a 24-year-old convert to Islam, Giuliano Ibrahim Delnevo, became the first Italian to die in Syria. Delnevo, who was raised in a Roman Catholic home in the northern Italian port city of Genoa, converted to Islam at the age of 20 after meeting a woman during a visit to Morocco.
In an interview with the daily newspaper Il Giornale, the director of Italy’s Security Intelligence Department (DIS), Giampiero Massolo, said that Delnevo became increasingly radicalized due to exposure to Islamic propaganda on the Internet.
For example, in a television interview filmed shortly after his conversion to Islam, a youthful and impressionable Delnevo talks about his experience at a celebration to mark the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. The event, held at a middle school in Albenga, a town on the Gulf of Genoa, was attended by more than 500 townspeople.
More recently, however, Delnevo began uploading videos onto YouTube in which he lashed out at cartoonists depicting Mohammed in a negative light. Visibly intoxicated by Islam, Delnevo also recited verses from the Koran and demanded that Italy withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
Delnevo first travelled to the Turkish border with Syria sometime in 2012, where he came into contact with a group of Chechen jihadists and quickly became swallowed-up by the lure of Islamic fundamentalism and holy war.
In September 2012, for instance, Delnevo posted the following quote from the late Abdullah Azzam — a Palestinian preacher known as the «Father of Global Jihad» — on his Facebook page: «We are jihadists and jihad is an obligation to believe in Allah.» In March 2013, Delnevo replaced the photo of himself on his Facebook page with the logo of the Kavkaz Center, a well-known Chechen website that publishes jihadist propaganda. By the middle of June 2013, Delnevo was found dead on a battlefield in northern Syria.
According to Massolo, Delnevo was a «lone wolf» who became indoctrinated by «a powerful form of self-training.» Massolo continues that although the «phenomenon of jihadist recruitment is much less prevalent» in Italy than in other European countries, «it is clear that the situation in general does not allow us to sit back and needs to be monitored. In some cases, they decide to take direct action and join jihadist fighters.»
An Il Giornale essay, «The Italian Boy who died Fighting in the Name of Allah,» sums it up: «The tragic death of Giuliano D. reminds us not only about how close we are to the conflict in Syria, but also about the risk posed by the fatal attraction exerted on Muslims living in our country. Those who will return transformed as fanatical fighters, capable not only of using weapons and explosives, but also ready to undermine the internal security of our country.»
«It happened once before,» the essay continues, «during the time of the war in Bosnia, when Muslim volunteers from Milan decided to join the international jihadist’s brigade fighting against the Serbs. After Bosnians returned from the battlefields, many of the militants turned the Viale Jenner mosque in Milan into one of the cornerstones of European al-Qaeda.»
Italian authorities have indeed been confronting an endless series of threats from jihadists based across the country.
In June 2013, counter-terrorism police in the northern Italian city of Brescia arrested a 21-year-old Moroccan blogger accused of inciting Muslims to wage jihad against Italy and France.
Police say the suspect had created an «Italian branch» of the grassroots jihadist movement «Sharia4» via his blog, Sharia4Italy. They also say he had recently researched possible terror targets and had expressed a growing interest in the conflict in Syria. He had, for example, told one online interlocutor that he wanted to join the jihadists there fighting to overthrow President Assad.
The Moroccan blogger had also used the Internet to obtain instructions on the use of explosives, weapons and warfare techniques. According to police, he had developed a hatred of the West as a child, after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, when he was allegedly victimized by being called a «terrorist» and a «Taliban.»
Additionally, in May 2013, a court in Brescia sentenced Mohamed Jarmoune, a 22-year-old Moroccan jihadist, to more than five years in prison for planning terrorist attacks on the main synagogue in Milan. The sentence was for more than the four years requested by the public prosecutor.
Jarmoune, who lived in Italy since childhood, was arrested in Brescia in March 2012. Investigators found documents on his computer analyzing the security measures of Milan’s main synagogue. He was also accused of using the Internet to organize terrorist groups and plan jihadist attacks against Western targets.
Prosecutors said Jarmoune «incited hatred of Western populations, especially unbelievers and Jews, condoning incredible acts of terrorism and self-sacrifice.» They also said he «tried stubbornly to hide his identity on the Internet and released numerous videos for the maintenance of weapons and for the preparation of explosives, all aimed at realizing attacks for terrorist purposes.»
During his court trial, Jarmoune repeatedly told the judge that he was ready to sacrifice himself for Allah.
Later, in April 2013, Italian police arrested four men suspected of planning terrorist attacks in Italy and the United States. One of the arrested men was a Tunisian imam at a mosque in the southern Italian city of Andria, where police said the terror cell was based.
According to police, the men recruited illegal immigrants who were subsequently sent to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and Yemen. Police described the group as being characterized by «fierce anti-Semitism and a bitter aversion to ‘infidel’ states such as Italy and the United States.»
Investigators accused the suspects of «a constant and continuous work of proselytizing and indoctrination designed to train new recruits and allow them to reach the territories of jihad with preparation, including psychological and ideological, such as to allow their placement on the terrorist circuit.»
Police said they also intercepted text messages and telephone conversations attributed to the men, including the following: «Jihad is our destiny»… «May Allah litter our bodies for his cause» … «I want my meat to go to pieces» … «In the name of Allah, I am ready» … «Allah’s horses run for jihad» … «Allah take my blood as you want and scatter my body for your design as you want. Amen!» and «America has promised us defeat, and Allah has promised us victory, and we’ll see which of the two promises is realizable.»
In September 2012, Italian authorities deported two suspected Libyan jihadists who were accused of trying to prepare attacks on targets in Rome as well as other European cities.
The two men, aged 26 and 28, had been in Italy to receive medical treatment for injuries sustained during the civil war that led to the ouster of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. They were convalescing, courtesy of Italian taxpayers, at hotels in Rome.
According to the Italian Interior Ministry, the pair came under suspicion because of the «radical nature of their behavior» and were deported for wanting to stage a revenge attack for an American-produced YouTube film that allegedly ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.
Investigators said the two men, who were thought to have links to Salafi militia operating in Libya, «had started activities of proselytism and propaganda for the jihad in the Libyan community to obtain material to carry out attacks against Western interests.»
Earlier, in July 2012, Italy deported a notorious former imam of a mosque in Perugia after he was released from prison, where he was serving part of a six-year sentence for terrorism-related offenses.
Moroccan Mostapha El Korchi, the former imam of the mosque at Ponte Felcino, was known for recording public sermons with frequent incitement to wage jihad against «crusaders» and «infidels.»
El Korchi was also a central figure in an investigation that led counter-terrorism authorities in Italy to arrest him and two Moroccan associates in 2007, and to seize a wide range of materials. Police raids turned up more than 50 suspicious chemicals for making explosives. The police also found marked-up maps of six cities in central and northern Italy, including Milan, that were a focus of special attention for the cell, as well as maps of Umbria’s water supply system, indicating there may have been a plot to poison it.
Also in July, police in Venice arrested a radical imam and three Syrians accused of operating a human-trafficking gang that allegedly smuggled jihadists to Italy from the Middle East.
In April, police in the Adriatic seacoast town of Pesaro arrested Andrea Campione, aged 28, an Italian convert to Islam, for disseminating jihadist material, including information about how to carry out terrorist attacks. Police said Campione had also spoken about his wish to travel to Afghanistan to join Taliban fighters there. He was detained as he was preparing to leave Italy for Morocco with his Moroccan girlfriend.
Investigators had also linked Campione to Mohammed Jarmoune, the Moroccan jihadist sentenced to prison for plotting an attack on the main synagogue in Milan. During the court proceedings, prosecutors presented a series of emails that Jarmoune had exchanged with a Moroccan woman living in the Netherlands. One email reads, «When I get my house you and your children will live with us … but I am a mujahedeen and you have to be prepared for anything.»
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.