Terrorism. Paolo Branca: “Italian foreign fighters are few and they don’t strike against Italy”

There are a few “made in Italy” foreign fighters, like the London Bridge attacker Youssef Zaghba. However, they don’t strike in Italy for a two set of reasons, Paolo Branca explained in this interview. First of all, our Country is an easily-accessible corridor, and blowing it up is not convenient. The second reason is linked to organized crime “which supports human trafficking but probably under a set of conditions that include not striking against Italy, the churches, and the Pope”

The third identified terrorist London Bridge attacker was Youssef Zaghba, he was born in Fes, Morocco, 22 years ago, of a Moroccan father and an Italian mother. His mother converted to Islam at the age of 26. She lives in Italy. The young man was known to Italian law enforcement authorities, who had signalled his name to Scotland Yard. He was stopped at Bologna’s airport in 2016, before embarking on a direct flight to Istanbul. The Moroccan twenty-year-old youth was carrying only small rucksack, his passport, and a one-way plane ticket to Turkey: suspicious circumstances for which he was taken in for questioning. In Italy there are several youths like Youssef Zaghba, said Paolo Branca, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Cattolica University in Milan. “There aren’t many of them. It could be said that if we are ‘lucky enough’ it is very unlikely that they will strike against our Country. However, it’s a relative luck.”

Who are they? Many of these youths who try to reach Syria are very young. They are not all practising Muslims nor do they necessarily go to the Mosque. However, they all have strong identity problems that are typical of their age, adolescents or a few years older. They are the offspring of undefined identities. They feel neither fish nor foul; neither Italians nor Moroccans, that’s why they feel ill-at-ease in Italy where they are seen as foreigners, and they feel ill-at-ease in their parents’ Countries of origin because they are viewed as Westerners.

Can the phenomenon of “made in Italy” foreign fighters be quantified? They are few, but what’s most interesting is that they don’t strike against Italy. The question is: why? I think there are two sets of reasons. On the one side, Italy is an easily-accessible corridor, and blowing it up is not convenient, seen that the real targets are those Countries that are most involved in the Middle-Eastern crisis scenario. The second reason, although it’s not a nice thing to say, is probably linked to the same organized crime that supports this form of human trafficking under a set of conditions that include not striking against Italy, the churches and the Pope.

It’s not unrealistic to say that if Italy has not been attacked to date it is due not only to the efficiency of our secret services, but also because we are a transit country, and probably someone has placed a set of conditions.

What are the paths crossed by extremism in Italy – since, at least for the time being, Italy has not experienced the same situation of Paris’ banlieues and of British cities like Birmingham?
For those who are outside, it’s the Internet; for those who are inside, it’s the prisons. The chosen “victims” are those who perceive the failure of an integration process. In most cases it’s a sudden, radical path.

How can such a transformation occur so rapidly? We should assume that the extremist proposal must be very convincing if it leads young people to make radical choices. What is its strength? We ask young people to be moderate. Instead, they seek extreme, unrestrained experiences. They prefer radical options, when falling in love, and also in their passion for a football team. They seek heroism. So if a youth considers himself a loser, victim of a society that he views as unfair, he will develop a mix of anger and depression which becomes a fertile ground for extremist proposals such as those made by the self-described Islamic State. It represents the possibility of devoting oneself to a cause, to give meaning to a life that finds it hard to find a way out. To some it can represent a form of revenge against a society which they expected to grow emancipated from and which instead turned into a cage, a final trap which they miserably fell into.

In your opinion what could be the role of Islamic communities? They are active. Especially in the past years, they have been trying to isolate these people, to send them away, in some cases they reported them to the police. But the situation is more complex than is generally imagined.

In the meantime

People who get radicalized are not people who fail to integrate into the community.

They spend a long time on their own, or in small parallel groups. Moreover, I’m not sure to what extent people feel the duty to report to the police someone who is a bit awkward but might have some good reason to be unhappy. It should be said that for decades many Islamic centres disseminated materials glorifying the Islamic cause, not necessarily of a terroristic nature.

So what can be done? Until the geopolitical situation in Northern Africa and in the Middle East is normalized there isn’t much room for a solution. And Europe is absent also on this front. In addition to all this we are facing a lack of middle and long term visions. What counts is winning the election, and it appears that elections are won via extremist cries of alarm over an impending – albeit non-existing – invasion or by advocating reception of all migrants, which is not possible. Media outlets fail to report reasonable stands. There is want of figures who are not short-sighted. In short, nobody is truly facing the issue. But it’s a suicidal impasse under everyone’s eyes to see.