Preventing Violent Radicalisation: the Italian Case Paradox

violent radicalisation
violent radicalisation


Italy has not suffered terrorist attacks like those that occurred in many other European realities, but it is also one of the few countries still lacking a national strategy to prevent and counter violent radicalization (P/CVE): those policies and programmes structured with the support of local authorities and civil society that goes beyond a strictly security perspective in facing with terrorism and extremism challenges. Is this a paradox? The article initially and briefly describes the characteristics of the counter-terrorism policy and the Italian context of radicalization phenomena to argue how Italy is in an anomalous situation but also privileged in the European scenario thanks to its past experiences of terrorism over the XX century. Faced with the limited risks that have arisen to date, the Authors propose a reflection on the medium and long-term  prospects  that would  lead the country to the optimal situation of activating policies and programs for the prevention of radicalization without the status of emergency with which they were conducted in others European states. The Authors, analyzing the activities of the European FAIR project and the piloting activities carried out until now by awareness, training and prevention in Italian prison system, identify the main critical issues. Finally, they suggest some recommendations of intervention, starting from the multi-agency approach that creates a bridge of fruitful collaboration among national and local level, law enforcement and civil society.


Table of Contents:

1. Why a paradox?

2. Italian practices in the penitentiary system, the European FAIR project

3. Recommendations


1. Why a paradox?

In recent years Italy has not suffered jihadist terrorist attacks, with the exception of the failed attack of a suicide  bomber,  Libyan immigrant  Mohammed  Game, who  attempted  to blow himself up in front of the Santa Barbarabarracks in Milan: the place from which Italian soldiers had left for ISAF missions in Afghanistan. Shouting: Out of Afghanistan, the 35- year-old Libyan engineer suffered severe injuries to his hand and eyes, and slightly wounded the young soldier guarding the barracks.

Since September 11, 2001 and the savage attacks in Europe that followed in Madrid on March 11, 2004 and in London on July 7 of the following year, our country hit the headlines only in 2016, when Italian police killed Anis Amri, in a small town near Milan, not far from where he had seized the truck with which he had carried out the massacre at the Christmas market in Berlin on December 19, killing 12 dead and injuring 56 innocent people.

By contrast, over the years there have been many arrests linked to terrorism: those carried out  by  the  Milan  Anti-mafia  Directorate  who,  six  months  before  the  horrific  events  of September 11, in 2001 arrested an Islamic cell that was preparing an attack on the Cathedral of Strasbourg; and recent arrests this spring in Bari and Turin.

Arrests and investigations that give us an insight into the terrorist threat in Italy: a real phenomenon that demonstrates, on the one hand, the highly specialized investigative skills that our country has developed from experience with domestic  terrorism  in th70s and 80s; on the other,  how Italy is used by Islamist terrorism as a logistic hub: «An area with no military operations in which there is a strong base that ensures support and subsistence for terrorist actions», as defined by journalist and historian, Ugo Maria Tassinari [1].

The above indicates that in Italy, the entire game of counteracting and preventing terrorism is exclusively in the hands of law enforcement agencies, intelligence and the judicial system.

Even from a legislative point of view, up until 2015, Parliament continued to pass laws on the matter merely from a penal standpoint, in order to extend the tools of intervention of judicial power to the new areas of terrorist groups activity: the decree no. 7 issued on 18 February 2015, converted into law no. 43 on 17 April 2015, entitled Urgent Measures for the Fight Against Terrorism, including International Terrorism. These measures have introduced a series of prodromal crimes, which bestow the definition of terrorist nature on certain activities prior to recruitment, or self-recruitment, and on the violence practiced by international terrorism, such as, for instance, the instigation and vindication of terrorism on the Internet, or preparing to travel to areas engaged in conflict where terrorist groups are active.

In Europe, however, since 2005 a new approach to countering terrorism has been advancing: the EU Strategy on Radicalisation” adopted in 2005 and revised in 2008 and 2014, while recognising that actions against radicalisation and terrorism fall mainly within the competences and the responsibilities of the Member States of the European Union, noted the importance and added value of both creating a structure at European level and developing an active role for civil society and local communities (Stockholm Programme for the period 2010-2014).

Studies on the process of violent radicalisation, on one hand, and the phenomena of homeground terrorists and foreign fighters, on the other, have prompted the European Commission  and other international  organisations,  such as the UN and OSCE, to promote policies to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE).

The premise of these policies is well summarised in the February 2015 statement at The White  House  Summit  to  Counter  Violent  Extremism.  The  Ministerial  Meeting  Statement:

«Reaffirmed  that intelligence gathering, military force, and law enforcement  alone will not solve – and when misused can in fact exacerbate – the problem of violent extremism and reiterated that comprehensive rule of law and community-based strategies are an essential part of the global effort to counter violent extremism and, like all measures aimed at addressing the terrorist threat, should be developed and implemented in full compliance with international law, in particular international human rights law, International refugee law, and international humanitarian law, as well as with the principles and purposes of the UN Charter» [2].

In place of the term terrorism, aware of its politically equivocal and exploitable meanings,

the broader notion of violent extremism has been introduced. It is recognised that the tools of hard poweralone do not work and, indeed, when used outside the Rule of Law, are counterproductive and harmful, and are flanked by those of soft power, which focus on:

-     Disseminating awareness of the processes of violent radicalisation and recruitment;

-     Countering extremist narratives, such as jihadist propaganda, with the on-line promotion of counter-narratives promoted by civil society;

-     Enhancing the efforts of the local communities involved, allowing to interrupt  the process of radicalisation before an individual engages in criminal activities.

If, starting from the United Kingdom, the governments of almost all European countries have adopted strategies to combat radicalisation, Italy is one of the very few that is still without one.

In  2011  the  European  Commission  established   RAN,  the  Radicalisation  Awareness Network, with the aim of promoting policies and programmes of prevention and contrast from a  grassroots  level,  fostering  the  resilience  of  the  communities  towards  the  phenomenon, involving thousands of operators in its working groups (grassroots practitioners) active in areas with those at the risk of violent radicalisation. Italy tried to follow suit, but failed. In fact, it was only in 2016, that the government established the Study Committee on the phenomenon of radicalisation and jihadist extremism, chaired by Prof. Lorenzo Vidino, and in Parliament the process of the Dambruoso-Manciullilaw proposal got underway – entitled Measures for the Prevention of Jihadist Radicalisation and Extremism (act 3558) – which was approved in the House on July 19, 2017 but not in the Senate and then consequently lapsed at the end of the latest legislation at the end of last year.

In our country, therefore, as Lorenzo Vidino reiterated in a recent interview: «We still have a predominantly repressive system, most certainly effective, which has also undergone refinement but we still have a long way to go on the issue of prevention. Few programmes have been developed, including some projects in the prison system, but they do not have the required effectiveness. More effort on the part of the legislator and the executive is needed. Massive and effective repression should be accompanied by a more effective preventive system».

The radicalisation concept, as a process towards terrorist activity, has been adopted by the Italian Ministry of Justice since 2010, but only for monitoring  activities in prisons; in the context of intelligence activity where the prison administration has been equipped with risk assessment tools and has begun training its internal staff.

Italys risk level, as shown by the Vidino Commissions report, is low, especially compared to many other European countries. A hundred foreign fighters have left Italy to join ISIS, and there are a few hundred prisoners in the Italian penitentiary system considered at high risk of radicalisation. Furthermore, an urban policy of the non-ghettoization of migrants, the soft involvement in international war scenarios, a limited legacy on the colonial question, and the fact of having first-generation migrants’ communities and just a few second generations, are all factors that have placed Italy in a sort of advantageous and protective bubble in the European context.

The Italian paradox consists in the fact that introducing prevention policies and programmes in the national framework described, would place the country in the optimal situation to perform an effective function, in both medium and long terms, as it is not currently in the emergency status that its European neighbours find themselves in and have had to implement such policies.

The French case is a perfect example of the failure of de-radicalisation measures which were introduced  late in the day in the throes of the emergency.  In Italy, on the other hand, the activities of P/CVE, aimed at increasing the resilience of the communities with respect to the driving factors that facilitate the process of violent radicalisation,  have so far only been the subject of a few local and European pilot projects.


2. Italian practices in the penitentiary system, the European FAIR project

The story of Anis Amri recounts that his radicalisation took place in Italian prisons, when the Tunisian immigrant was sentenced to a 4-year sentence for aggravated threats, bodily injury and arson; as previously occurred in the Years of Lead, a period of turmoil that marked incidents of political terrorism, when many small-time criminals were recruited in prison to the ranks of the terrorist groups. Cesare Battisti, of the Armed Proletarians for Communism (PAC), to cite the most famous case.

In addition to the Internet, another trigger site of violent radicalisation, which researchers and political decision-makers have paid great attention to, is prisons. In fact, the Vidino report, in indicating CVE measures, states that: «two places, one physical and one virtual, have in recent years assumed particular importance in the diffusion and absorption of the jihadist ideology, in Italy as in other countries: prisons and the web».

Below we will observe how the Italian penitentiary system is exemplary of what we have called the Italian paradox. The pilot projects carried out, and those underway, describe a diversified situation in which a widespread security conception of the radicalisation problem is still reluctant to embrace a multi-agency” approach based on more advanced prevention strategies; those where law enforcement, penitentiary administration and magistracy involve local institutions and civil society.

One of the first objectives of the FAIR project was to analyse the training needs, the tools available to civil society operating within the prison against the phenomenon of violent radicalisation. The nine European partners involved in the project by means of questionnaires, semi-structured interviews with open questions and round tables, have tried to obtain a snapshot of the actual situation through a representative sample.

In Italy, the needs analysis focused on the Lorusso-Cutugno prison in Turin and the Forlì prison, specifically on the civil society operators providing voluntary or training services within the prison: teachers, spiritual assistants such as chaplains, imams, health workers, intercultural mediators, trainers, volunteers, interacting with people deprived of their freedom. A first sign of poor collaboration with the central offices of the Prison Administration in Rome emerged in the letter of reply to the Villaggio del Fanciullo Foundation, expressing no interest in a synergistic collaboration on the training activities that the FAIR project proposed for internal staff at the two prisons. Specifically, penitentiary agents and staff in the educational-treatment area. Although there was interest in the project from the two local prisons, the central administrations refusal forced us to redirect the target of training actions to external civilian personnel, and to proceed in further activities without any official coordination.

However, every cloud has a silver lining. The civilian staff external to the administration, in fact,  actually  enjoys  a  privileged  relationship  with  the  prisoners,  unlike  the  sometimes conflicting one that inmates have with the prison guards, for the role they play, or the rather non-existent relationship with educators because of their small number compared to the Italian prison population.

The staff of the Villaggio del Fanciullo Foundation however, as project leader, sent a report of the results of our inquiry to the prison directors and the PRAP3 of the Piedmont, Liguria and Val dAosta region to promote and accustom our country to a multi-agency approach. We also shared some of the deliverables of the FAIR project with the local prisons Administration and with RAN, such as, for example, the Inspiring Practices manual which contains a description of the national context and of the pilot practices on the prevention of violent radicalisation that we will briefly illustrate here.

The Inspiring Practices manual includes three practices developed within the penitentiary system. After sending a request to inform us of their practices to all the prisons, in response to the hundreds of requests, we received only one reply, which stated that it could not release this information. A second sign of poor collaboration. The only strategy remaining was to analyze the material we found online and, above all, our direct and indirect personal knowledge.

The first practice is called Dustur, the Arabic translation of the term constitution. It was implemented  in the Dozza”  prison in Bologna  and conceived  by Fr. Ignazio  of the Don Dossetti community and coordinated by Yassine Lafram, cultural mediator and in 2016 coordinator of the Islamic Community of Bologna.

The project, which also saw the creation of the homonymous documentary by the director Marco Santarelli3, included laboratories in the presence of Arabic-speaking jurists to begin an exchange between the inmates on the values on which an ideal constitution was founded. Dustur has created a laboratory of active citizenship in spite of the cultural, political and religious prejudices that a prisoner can have against one another, or the host society. A new dustur, a constitution based on non-violence and respect for the other was the outcome of this project.

The second inspiring practice was carried out in nine institutes in the Lombardy region with the collaboration of various religious organisations: from the Jewish community to the Buddhist union, from the Islamic community to the Catholic one. The aim of the project was to counter religious illiteracy, to deconstruct prejudices by promoting adequate knowledge and management of religious pluralism that offers prison officers greater cognitive tools, and to prisoners it offers the vision of a new sense of citizenship within a re-educational process to non-violence, the true value of all spiritual practices.

Lastly, the third practice promoted greater and regular spiritual assistance to Muslim prisoners inside the prisons. This pilot experience was carried out by the will of the director of the Lorusso-Cutugno prison in Turin. After one year, his follow-up was a national agreement signed between the DAP and the UCOIIconcerning eight Italian prisons.

This agreement has tried to fill the need of Muslim prisoners to carry out the Friday prayer in a proper place and conducted by an external imam accredited by the Ministry of the Interior, thus countering the phenomenon of self-proclaimed imams within the prisons, those inmates who assume the role of conducting the salat3, the so-called DIY imams that obviously can prove to be dangerous leaders inside the prisons and convey a politicized  and conflicting  Islam towards Western society.

These practices arose from the intuition of individual prison administration officials or civil society, the first attempts at a multi-agency approach without having the prevention of radicalisation as its main objective.

Despite their effectiveness, the Italian paradox is expressed in the difficulty of setting up the system from local to national level to become a national strategy that enhances the professional, organisational and methodological skills that have emerged locally. The principle of vertical subsidiarity, which should now be an established principle of modus operandi in European public administration, unfortunately in Italy is not yet very operational, creating yet another paradoxical situation.

That of having financial resources provided by the EU available to a project like FAIR, and at the same time finding it difficult to use them in strategic synergy with the other players of the Italian prison system.


3. Recommendations

The  strong  demand  for  training  question  on  thphenomenon  of  violent  radicalisation emerged from our survey in Italy; the lack of a body that coordinates the prison administration and the external civilian staff when the latter comes into contact with radicalised inmates or those undergoing radicalisation; the need for cognitive tools to understand a complex phenomenon that requires a multidisciplinary and geopolitical framework of the national and international context; the absence of specialist staff and practical tools that allow to deal with practices already implemented in European and international contexts are just some of the shortcomings to be filled urgently in order to support and flank the wo rk of Italian intelligence that has been evolving and refining since the Years of Lead.

It would therefore be necessary to take important steps in synergy with the subjects of civil society and the educational-treatment area of administration to implement and disseminate the concept, the practice and the methodology of dynamic surveillance [3] that is already bringing about good results in other European countries in a profitable collaboration between prison officers and treatment areas. it is a consolidated fact that it is not enough to imprison and isolate the Violent Extremism Offender (VEO) to counter violent radicalisation, but it is necessary to develop, through a multi-agency and multi-professional approach, individual or group programmes aimed at preventing a distorted political reading of Islam in the case of jihadist radicalisation, and at preventing radicalised prisoners from reinforcing their opinions during their detention period and/or persuading other inmates to join in violent actions.

In this regard, the European Union has understood the importance of financing such prevention or disengagement projects with a wide range of actions: from education in schools to youth policies, from online counter-narratives to programmes for systems penitentiaries. The EUs support to member states in their fight against violent radicalisation is financed, in fact, by various funds, such as the Internal Security Fund, Horizon 2020, DG Justice, Erasmus+ and the European Social Fund. Given these huge European investments, we cannot fail to point out, however, the recommendations that emerged in the recent special report no. 13/2018, entitled Countering the radicalisation that leads to terrorism: the Commission has addressed the needs of the Member States, but there are some shortcomings in the coordination and evaluationpublished by the European Court of Auditors.

There emerges a European paradox: since too many similar actions are funded, it is highlighted that it is more necessary and urgent to promote a virtuous network between the various European projects, to share the results obtained and to avoid unnecessary overlapping of activities, thus optimising the resources available and increasing the impact on the safety and rehabilitation of inmates. It is therefore also very desirable  for us to set up a European  coordination  hub that promotes  a virtuous dialogue between current European projects, perhaps in collaboration with RAN and its Prison & Probationworking group.

Likewise, at the Italian level, similar coordination between the various European projects, both  national  and  local,  on  preventing  the  fight  against  violent  radicalisation  would  be necessary, as already underway in many European countries, and as provided for by the aforementioned legislative proposal and by the final report of the Vidino Commission.

To avoid the paradox of the multiplication of actions that have the same objective but do not dialogue with each other, the only solution is represented by the multi-agency dimension that would allow our country to reconcile the security vision of the phenomenon with that of prevention, contrast  and  disengagement,  in  general,  and  in particular in the penitentiary system.  

We therefore believe that it is crucial for the challenges that international crises place before us, especially in perspective, that the framework of experiences, initiatives and tools described abovare classified, collected, analysed, re-elaborated and re-proposed, where necessary, within the framework a multi-agency collaboration that shares languages, methods and approaches.

Lastly, we sincerely hope that before the FAIR project comes to an end, in a years time, there will be less paradoxical situations and more organisation and coherence in the Italian P/CVE policies, and that, despite the sensitivity and confidentiality necessary on such a delicate subject, there will always be greater trust and bridges to develop dialogue, coordination and common work between the Italian penitentiary system and professional social workers, local authorities and civil society.


Contributo selezionato da Filodiritto tra quelli pubblicati nei Proceedings “7th SPECTO 2018”

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “7th SPECTO 2018”

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