COULD RETURNING FOREIGN FIGHTERS BECOME ROLE MODELS IN THEIR ADOPTED COUNTRIES?
“Many fighters will try to return and import their experience in the countries from which they come. These individuals are dangerous not just because of their familiarity with weapons and their links with former commanders, who might in some way activate or mobilize them from afar, but also to the possibility that they might become a radicalization and attraction magnet, a role model for the young.” Lamberto Giannini, Central Police Director for Prevention, speaks about the potential impact of returning foreign fighters in their countries.
From your point of view, what is the evidence of criminal activities (trafficking of migrants, weapons, drugs, cigarettes, antiquities, etc.) aimed at supporting Jihadist terrorism?
These are not systematic activities. With the rise of the Islamic State, people who found themselves in areas controlled by a terrorist organization were able to exploit a large amount of goods and resources, and they did this in many different ways. Clearly the availability of money, oil and archaeological items may have offered opportunities for illicit trafficking and various types of contraband.
As far as attacks brought by the Islamic State in the heart of Europe, it should be underscored that they did not require great funding. One of the characteristics of the Islamic State was the ability to move at two levels: warfare in a geographic area, which seems to be running out, aside from a some pockets still holding out against coalition forces, and the ability to carry out attacks anywhere, including Europe, by infiltrating individuals and leveraging ideals, proclamations and concepts launched by the Caliphate’s ideologues through the internet to activate individuals which did not necessarily share an organic link with each other. Just as an example, the Berlin Christmas 2016 attack was carried out by a single individual that simply stole a vehicle and killed its driver.
It is possible that those performing these attacks have contacts or experience with criminals and weapon recovery, and that past contacts and membership in criminal organizations help them get some kind help, but I don’t believe this is the case in general. It is necessary to look place-by-place, case-by-case. As a matter of fact, there is no evidence of major alliances between large-scale criminality and terrorism.
But is it possible to say there are functional/instrumental links between criminal organizations and terrorism? Perhaps not a true alliance, but occasional convergences driven by the exchange of goods and services?
I would be extremely cautious in this respect. There are several investigations that need to be developed before drawing conclusions, but for the time being there are no significant indications of common strategies. Of course there can be individual cases in which a given individual receives some kind of support from criminal structures. But now the real problem is that of the possible return of fighters, and it is likely that some return using a criminal organization to organize the trip. This does not however constitute evidence of a sort of common strategy between criminality and terrorism.
Which trajectories are returning foreign fighters following?
We have evidence of relocation to other theaters in which there is fighting, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Indonesia and the Philippines. At the time being, this return of foreign fighters does not seem to be an organized phenomenon. It would appear that military defeats have caused some kind of disorientation in these individuals: among them there are certainly those who will have some difficulty in slipping the bonds of the Caliphate – not an easy thing to do, as there are reports of retaliation against so-called traitors and we know it is not so easy to leave. It is possible that some returnees only want to close their experience and move on. But several fighters will try to return and import their experience into the countries they came from. Many fighters will try to return and import their experience in the countries from which they come. These individuals are dangerous not just because of their familiarity with weapons and their links with former commanders, who might in some way activate or mobilize them from afar, but also to the possibility that they might become a radicalization and attraction magnet, a role model for the young
This will create a new challenge: it is conceivable that, lacking a territorial dimension, the Caliphate might become a sort of virtual reality that continues to broadcast its messages of hate and to incite to war.
What are the current risks for Italy? Are risks greater than before?
I wouldn’t say we are more at risk than before. Italy is threatened like other countries, as shown by the threatening messages issued against it and the defensive activities we have carried out.
The media occasionally report that we are protected from terrorist attacks because organized crime and terrorism in general.
In the first place, there is nothing to confirm this theory. Secondly, given the minimal cost of carrying out these attacks, I cannot imagine what these convergences might be. Third, as I have said, Italy is not a zero-risk country. We have found evidence of indications to strike in Italy. It would seem to me that these comments overlook the results of a number of operations which have led to discovering in our country individuals who were being pressured to remain and hit in Italy, rather than to leave to go fight in war areas.
Do you believe that it would be useful to face the problems of returnees and indigenous Islamism by focused de-radicalization programs like those implemented by other European countries such as Denmark?
Absolutely yes. We must face the problem. Moreover, we must avoid the mistake of believing that de-radicalizing is a mere police problem. In reality it is a great social issue, which calls for the fullest commitment of several parts of society: school, social organizations, medical structures, counseling structures, meeting points, etc. We must strengthen the ability of law enforcement, social workers and prison staff to identify early on the first symptoms of radicalization in order to intervene swiftly. Young people, if spotted at the beginning of the route to radicalization, still have a full life before them that can be used to recover and adopt a correct relationship with religious ideals. Fighting radicalization must go hand in hand with fighting marginalization, because frequently the challenge of integrating, of being isolated and social discomfort make these individuals easy preys of radicalizing influences, both as physical persons and as web messages.
Which de-radicalization approaches can be followed for individuals who have significantly radicalized, including actual participation in terrorist activities?
This is a difficult question. If an individual has committed a crime, there is of course a criminal sentence, which under Italian law should also aim to re-educate. In addition to the punishment and to security measures, which reduce the individual’s ability to do harm, and to preventative measures established by our Criminal Code with various limitations, there remains the possibility of removal from national territory. We are already doing this by expelling people.
Which areas of Italy are more at risk, whether because more radicalized or more affected by violent extremism?
In the 1990s there formed in Northern Italy various centers of radical aggregation, but today traces of radicalized individuals can be found throughout the country. In addition, radicalization now occurs so quickly – on the Web, indoors, particularly with people who are in various ways uncomfortable, who do not engage with others – that putting under the spotlight a given situation instead of another might actually be deceiving. The same high attention must be used throughout the country. Before the Internet became widely available, many investigations started in mosques in the North, particularly in Milan. Today, instead, anyone can access the most terrible images, messages and other. To focus on individual realities might not be correct.
Is this because radicalization has little to do with belonging to a community?
Radicalization is often the path of an individual or a micro group within a community. In my opinion the problem is not that of discovering so-called ‘radicalization hubs’. While in some countries there are veritable extremist strongholds, in Italy it is often the case that two or more individuals develop friendships based on extremism and radicalization, which act as aggregators. If I am an extremist and my circle of accomplices revolves around my town, that in itself does not necessarily make it a hub of radicalization. Even a single individual can act as aggregator.
Do you know of any returnees in Italy? Are you monitoring them?
We have arrested some, who are now in jail. Others are being monitored. Others were not part of Jihadist units, but the phenomenon still requires close attention.
What can be done to verify whether an individual participated in combat?
This is a big question, which can be answered with both technical and investigative activities, as well as messages, posts and pictures that sometimes document actions even on social media.
In other countries there have been cases of women explaining their departure for Syraq with being forced to do so by their partner. What about Italy?
In Italy investigations and even court decisions indicate a different situation: women meeting and marrying men through the Web and chats, precisely in order to join certain ideals and to leave for war zones.
What is the approach for women who return to our countries without having seen combat, but presumably willing to raise their children in adherence to Jihadist ideals?
When evidence of criminal activities cannot be found, our legal system still allows for various preventative measures to be implemented. Italian citizens can be subjected to certain limitations, or be instructed to report to police stations and follow a prescribed behavior. In the case of foreign citizens it is possible to interrupt their presence in the country.