Salafi-jihadi extremism has been considered a security threat in Europe for a long time, but Shia radical groups have shockingly been underestimated by many Western countries. The main organizations are the Lebanese Hezbollah party, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and several Shia militias from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries.
Among the countries that have been the most decisive about Hezbollah’s nature are the US, the UK, The Netherlands, Japan and Canada who have all blacklisted the group. The United States designated Hezbollah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997. In 2008, the UK added the group’s military wing to the terrorism list, and later in 2019, the entire organization. Recently, Serbia also blacklisted Hezbollah, as a concession to Israel and the US within the framework of negotiations with Kosovo mediated by Washington. In April 2020, Germany declared the entire group a terrorist organization and police subsequently carried out raids on mosques linked to the group.
Other countries have been more reserved. In 2013, the European Union blacklisted the military wing of Hezbollah, but various EU member states have determined their own individual classifications. For example, France designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group, but it is still undecided about how to classify the entire organization. In Spain, the centrist liberal party Ciudadanos pushed for the terrorism designation, but it has yet to be approved. In September 2020, a Bulgarian court sentenced in absentia two Hezbollah operatives to life imprisonment for blowing up a tour bus in July 2012 in Burgas, killing five Israelis and their Bulgarian-Muslim bus driver, but the state prosecutor decided not to charge Hezbollah as an organization.
Shia presence in Italy
Italy, due to the sensitive relations with Lebanon and Iran, has left Hezbollah’s designation in a gray zone. When the then-Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini visited Israel in 2018, he called Hezbollah “Islamic terrorists”, sparking a heated political debate in Italy because the country deploys more than one thousand troops in South Lebanon as a part of the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission, which acts as a buffer between Hezbollah forces and Israel.
There are far more Sunnis than Shias in Italy. The majority of Shias are concentrated in Rome, Milan, Brescia, Mestre, Como, Legnano, Novara and Carpi, where significant immigrant communities live. The Assirat Association based in Como is made up of the Lebanese Shia diaspora and is headed by Abdul Aziz Hamze. The association’s Facebook page regularly shares videos from Sheikh Bassam Qarut and the Italian Shia convert Sheikh Abbas Di Palma. The online content is almost exclusively religious and apolitical. The association established a dialogue and cooperation with the local Catholic community.
Meanwhile, Shia groups in Carpi as well as in Legnano, Novara and Palermo consist of immigrants from Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent. These groups are very active in social events and religious rituals, such as the large Ashura ceremony in front of the Milan central station, but less involved in political activism, although the Jafaria Organization from Legnano-Novara shared posts in solidarity with the slain Iranian Revolutionary Guard Chief General Qassem Soleimani.
The Imam Mahdi Islamic Center in Rome is mainly composed of Iranians, Afghans and Pakistanis, rather than Arabs. The center is led by the Italian convert cleric Abbas Di Palma, who studied theology in Damascus and Qom, and organized events in the past to celebrate the “liberation of Lebanon from Israeli occupation”. In 2015, the center also hosted Nawar al-Sahili, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament, as well as Iranian clerics and officials.
Growing Role of Italian Shia Converts
An increasing number of Italian converts are emerging in the country’s small Shia community and are often even more politically active than immigrants. Edoardo Agnelli, the son of the Italian FIAT industrialist Gianni Agnelli, converted to Shia Islam after meeting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran. In 2000, he allegedly committed suicide in Turin. Ammar Luigi De Martino was an evangelical preacher and far-right militant from Naples who converted to Shia Islam and is considered to be the founder of the organized Shia community in Italy. He founded the Ahl-al-Bait association and a magazine called “The pure Islam”.
Di Palma is also a major Shia activist in Italy. Di Palma used his Facebook page to commend the statements and initiatives of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and the Iranian regime. He repeatedly shared content about the role of Shia foreign fighters in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, celebrating the fight against the Islamic State and other Sunni factions. For instance, in 2016 he praised the Zeinabiyun brigade made up of Pakistani Shia volunteers and the Hezbollah military wing in Syria, as well as the Iran-backed Al Houthi militia fighting in Yemen. In 2015, he also slammed the killing of Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, who murdered a four-year-old Israeli girl. On his personal website, the sheikh gives religious advice to his followers. He has radical social views, banning dance, music, promiscuity and movies with sex scenes. He also advocates strict restrictions on women’s behavior.
Hanieh Tarkian is another Italo-Iranian activist with strong political views in favor of the Iranian regime, the Al Assad regime, Hezbollah and Shia groups in general. She is involved in seminars organized by far-right platforms such as “Il Primato Nazionale” and neofascist groups, but also with the pro-Putin magazine Eurasia. She is invited to speak at Shia community events relating to the political situation in the Middle East. Tarkian uses her Facebook and Telegram accounts to share official videos from Hezbollah and Hamas celebrating terrorist attacks in Israel and propaganda of Iranian preachers. She also shared radical and aggressive views on the US, Gulf countries and Western governments. She is associated with the Imam Ali Cultural Center of Milan, which is very active on Telegram. The Center organized a commemoration ceremony in front of the Milan central train station for Soleimani after his killing and shared an interview by Imam Ali Faeznia where he called for revenge over the Iranian general’s assassination.
Shia Terrorist Attacks in Italy
It is unclear at this stage whether extremist Shia propaganda in Italy has radicalized any community member to the point of joining militant groups or even to fight abroad among the ranks of Hezbollah, Liwa Zainebiyoun, Liwa Fatemiyoun, Liwa Husaynyun, Ansar Allah-Houthi or other units. However, both Hezbollah and Iran’s apparatus have been active in Italy, carrying out covert operations, terrorist attacks and assassinations. Over the past few decades, Italy has experienced a series of attacks by Shia militants.
On 12 January 1987, 26-year-old Lebanese Hezbollah operative Bechir Khodr landed in Milan’s Linate airport, arriving from Beirut. He was searched by police and was found to be carrying 11 kg of plastic explosives hidden in his luggage. The explosives were supposed to be used against the Jewish community in Rome, which was previously targeted in 1982 by the Palestinian Abu Nidal’s group, killing a two-year-old Jewish child. Khodr was sentenced to 17 years in prison on terrorism charges, but was deported back to Lebanon after only five years.
In another instance, on 3 July 1991 — after the publication of Iranian author Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and the subsequent fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death issued by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini — a man who claimed to work at the Iranian embassy in Italy showed up at the Milan house of the novel’s translator Ettore Capriolo, inquiring about Rushdie’s address and inviting him to visit Iran. Following Capriolo’s reluctance to provide information about Rushdie’s whereabouts, the Iranian man stabbed him multiple times and ran away.
On 16 March 1993, Iranian dissident Mohammad Hossein Naghdi was assassinated with a Skorpion machine gun by a commando of the Iranian intelligence unit Vevak led by the operative Assl Mansur Amir Bozorgian in Rome, where he was living in exile. Naghdi — a former Iranian diplomat in Rome who became a representative of the opposition National Council of Resistance — had become a vocal critic of Khomeini’s regime.
In 2006, a Lebanese Shia man gave a fabricated tip to Italian intelligence claiming that a Sunni Syrian immigrant was plotting a terrorist attack in Milan. The Hezbollah supporter had fled the country by the time intelligence agents realized it. More recently, an investigation led by the American Drug Enforcement Agency uncovered a Hezbollah money laundering network, which included five Shia brothers based in northern Italy, Turin and Liguria, who were selling cars and industrial machinery to African clients as a cover-up for illicit transactions. Also, during the 2019 uprising against the Lebanese government and the deteriorating economic situation in the country, a group of Lebanese expats protesting in front of their embassy in Rome were allegedly threatened and harassed by a Hezbollah militant.
While the Italian government’s failure to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist designation could be seen as a weakness, it could be a calculated decision to take a neutral position in order to avoid violence. Indeed, there is a real risk that radical elements of the Shia community in Italy can turn to violent extremism. This possibility is only bolstered by radical propaganda spewed by preachers in Italy. While it is unlikely that this will pose a direct threat to national security, this could motivate Shia immigrants to be more politically active in international causes, giving logistical or financial support to foreign terrorist groups, or even become foreign fighters in Middle East wars.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.