Italy in urgent need of national deradicalisation strategy

Italy might be in need of a national de-radicalisation strategy but it is not clear that the wide-ranging strategy pursued in France is the answer.

Sunday 19/08/2018
Urgent challenge. An Italian police officer watches a screen during a news conference to illustrate an anti-terrorism operation at police headquarters in Milan. (AP)

LONDON - The issue of countering Islamist radicalisation remains an urgent challenge for many European countries, particularly because collapse of the Islamic State could return jihadists to European shores while homegrown jihadism is on the rise.

A report by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), titled “De-radicalisation in the Mediterranean: Comparing Challenges and Approaches,” compares the vastly different policies enacted by Mediterranean countries on the issue. Nowhere are the differences clearer than in the de-strategies pursued by France and Italy.

Lorenzo Vidino, an Italian foreign policy expert and director of the programme on extremism at George Washington University in Washington, said Italy has not experienced the same surge in radicalisation as other European countries despite its proximity to Middle Eastern conflicts and a huge influx of migrants and refugees from the region.

“The Italian jihadist scene remains small and unsophisticated when compared to that of most other European countries but there are reasons to assess that it will grow in coming years,” the section of the report on Italy, which was written by Vidino, warned.

This growing jihadism is likely to include the rise of a “quintessential homegrown jihadist scene” supplanting foreign jihadists and bring Italy in line with the situation in other European countries, such as the United Kingdom and France.

Italian authorities have addressed the jihadism scene with a focus on law-and-order solutions and by prioritising the expulsion of foreign nationals determined to be involved in extremism. Rome will need to adapt to confront a changing scene, however.

“More and more radicalised individuals have Italian citizenship, acquired either through marriage or after the long residency period required by law. The number of Italian converts engaging in militant activities also appears to be increasing,” the ISPI report said.

This means that Italy will need to formally adopt national counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation strategies. Italy remains one of the few European countries not to have a national strategy on this issue, relying on various isolated initiatives in prisons and school systems.

Although a bill proposing the establishment of a Countering Violent Extremism Strategy passed the lower house of parliament in 2017, parliament was dissolved before the Senate could vote on it. The bill would have created the first nationwide countering extremism strategy, including the establishment of several government agencies dedicated to counter-radicalisation.

It remains to be seen whether the new government, composed mostly of populist anti-immigration parties and dubbed the Government of Change, will seek to change Italy’s strategy towards confronting extremism and implement a new national strategy.

The Italian strategy, or lack thereof, can be contrasted with France’s stringent top-down plan that was largely formalised following the 2015 Paris attacks and that evolves at a rapid pace.

Anina Schwarzenbach, a researcher into counterterrorism, said the 2015 attack on Paris, in which 137 people died, marked a clear change in France’s strategy towards radicalisation, particularly given that a number of the attackers were French citizens.

“Islamist radicalisation suddenly became more than a mere security threat but also a social problem. In the aftermath of the attacks, the French government implemented a variety of pre-emptive and reactive measures to counter Islamist extremism and radicalisation,” said the section of the report on France, written by Schwarzenbach, of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Germany.

In line with France’s centralised tradition, the government implemented a “top-down management system,” supervised by the Ministry of Interior and including other government agencies, to counter radicalisation and terrorism, she said.

The government introduced popular campaigns to target people believed to be at risk of falling for extremism ideologies, particularly in prisons and schools, while simultaneously seeking to promote a specific French Islamic identity.

The report stated that the comprehensive approach favoured by France has seen the involvement of 20 ministerial departments and government agencies, seeking variously to prevent radicalisation and increase detection.

This is a policy that France continues to add to today. French President Emmanuel Macron recently told parliamentarians they could expect another round of changes this year, including an ambitious plan to “reorganise” Islam in France.

Italy might be in need of a national de-radicalisation strategy but it is not clear that the wide-ranging strategy pursued in France is the answer, particularly given that radicalisation and terrorism remain such a threat.

“France has implemented a wide variety of measures and securitised its social politics. However, little knowledge on the legitimacy and effectiveness of these initiatives exists,” the report concluded.