Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini recently delivered a stark warning: Such was the scale of migration into Italy, he argued, that “Islamic terrorist infiltration is no longer a risk—it has become a certainty.”
Although the vast majority of asylum-seekers in Italy are not security threats, the case of Alagie Touray, a Gambian asylum-seeker arrested in southern Italy in April 2018 on suspicions that he was planning an attack, helped lay the groundwork for Salvini’s case. It also made it easier to justify Italy’s decision to prevent ships containing migrants from docking at Italian ports.
What has gone unsaid, however, is that Italy seems to have largely dodged the carnage Islamist terrorists have afflicted on some of its neighbors.
Certainly, Italians have previously suffered at the hands of terrorists. Italy had a very active jihadi scene centered on Milan in the 1990s, leading the U.S. Treasury Department to describe a mosque there as “the main al Qaeda station house in Europe.” In November 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group carried out a truck bombing on an Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Nineteen Italians were killed. And Islamists have threatened to strike the Vatican.
Still, a May 2017 stabbing of two soldiers and a police officer in a Milan train station by a homeless Islamic State supporter is as good as it got for the terrorist group in recent years. Relative to the size of its Muslim population, Italy also had a low ratio of people who left to join the Islamic State at the height of its power.
Relative to the size of its Muslim population, Italy also had a low ratio of people who left to join the Islamic State at the height of its power.
Only around 130 people with ties to Italy went to fight in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and, according to a study by Francesco Marone and Lorenzo Vidino, two scholars of Italian jihadism, official government statistics show that less than 1 in 5 of these were Italian citizens.
Italy must, then, be getting something right.
Some there cite the experience gained in taking on far-left and far-right terrorist groups in the 1970s and 1980s as the reason why jihadi terrorism today is under control. And the Italians certainly had to learn the hard way the importance of breaking down intelligence firewalls. Faulty or insufficient intelligence sharing allowed successful domestic attacks to be perpetrated by groups including the Islamist Abu Nidal Organisation and the left-wing Red Brigades.
In 2003, Italy’s Counterterrorism Strategic Analysis Committee, through which agencies can share information on specific threats, was formed. It is a source of pride in Rome that the Interior Ministry, the police, prison service, and intelligence agencies now work together cohesively, at both state and local levels.
That is undoubtedly positive, but it still serves as only a partial explanation for Italy’s low level of attacks. The United Kingdom has had experience with terrorism since the 1970s too, with the Irish Republican Army ensuring that the police and intelligence agencies got used to working together. And although the British security services are top-notch, they have been unable to stop a series of major terrorist attacks in recent years.
Another explanation offered by officials is that Italy is less geostrategically important than nearby countries. Since it is not regarded as a major foreign-policy player, it is a less desirable target.
That answer, too, is not entirely satisfactory. Italy sent thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan and thousands more to Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Despite an initial reluctance, it supported the NATO mission in Libya. As of 2018, still had around 1,500 troops in Iraq (the second-highest number after the United States), and it headed up the mission to train troops in Somalia—an effort that has seen Italian personnel targeted by al-Shabab in Mogadishu. So Italy has hardly been strategically irrelevant.
This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy