Giovanni Giacalone, a senior analyst for the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies/Catholic University of Milan, and for the Britain-based think-tank Islamic Theology of Counter-Terrorism. He is the team coordinator for the “Latin America Group” of the International Institute for the Study of Security.
On January 31, 2023, Italian authorities detained two Tunisian citizens identified as Nabil Gharsellaoui, 51, and Nabil Baazaoui, 28, following an investigation by the DIA of Ancona in coordination with the Macerata Public Prosecutor’s Office and conducted by the DIGOS of Rome and Macerata. A third Tunisian citizen wanted by the authorities is still at large.
The operation called Wet Shoes led to 44 searches of 18 suspects for various crimes and 26 other people found to be linked in various capacities to the criminal organization. The arrested individuals are accused of criminal association aimed at facilitating illegal immigration.
According to investigators, the three suspects, thanks to a robust network of accomplices (which includes business owners and public officials both foreign and domestic), had formed a criminal association involved in the illegal immigration of foreigners — mainly North Africans — landing on the Sicilian coasts. The network provided the necessary logistical support and cover to obtain the required documentation to facilitate their movement throughout the Schengen area.
The investigation comes after a previous operation launched in 2018 named “Mosaico” conducted by the Digos of Rome in the aftermath of the December 19 2016 terrorist attack in Berlin carried out by the Tunisian terrorist Anis Amri. At the time, Italian authorities had arrested four other Tunisian citizens who also belonged to the Baazaoui family clan — all of which were accused of forging IDs to facilitate illegal immigration into Europe, including the ones that were used by Anis Amri.
Interestingly enough, court documents related to the Wet Shoes operation show that the names of five other members of the Baazaoui clan, all residing in Italy, came up during the investigation.
It is also important to recall that the central Italian provinces of Ancona and Macerata had already been the subject of jihadist-related investigations. For example, Tunisian citizen Nourreddine Chouchane, a member of Ansar al-Sharia who had helped plan the shooting at Sousse beach and the attack on the Bardo museum in 2015, lived in the Ancona province between 2011 and 2012 before obtaining a residency permit and moving to the north of the country.
During that time, investigators followed Chouchane to Porto Recanati in the Macerata province, where he stayed at the Hotel House — a dilapidated building (also called “the vertical ghetto”) already known to authorities for having hosted individuals involved in jihadist activity. Chouchane was killed in February 2016 in a US airstrike on a Tunisian jihadist training camp in Sabratha, Libya.
Many other jihadists managed to enter Europe by exploiting the flow of illegal immigrants traveling from the coasts of Tunisia and Libya to Italy. For example, Brahim Aouissaoui, the Tunisian terrorist who, on October 29, 2020, killed three people (beheading one) in Nice, had arrived on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on a vessel one month before and then spent 14 days on board the Covid quarantine ship Rhapsody before being released at the port of Bari on October 9, 2020.
Prior to release, Italian authorities took a mugshot of Aouissaoui and handed him an exit slip requiring him to leave Italy within seven days. French authorities revealed that Aouissaoui did not have any identity papers on him when he was shot but was carrying a document with his name issued by the Italian Red Cross. Another Tunisian, Marouan Elkroumi, was deported from Italy over links with terrorist cells after arriving in Lampedusa by boat.
Other individuals detained for terrorism, such as Gambian citizens Sillah Ousman and Alagie Touray (who had taken part in military training in a jihadist mobile camp in Libya and were ready to carry out attacks in Europe), Mohsin Omar Ibrahim aka “Anass Khalil“ (arrested in Bari in December 2018 while planning to blow up churches during Christmas) and Zaheer Hassan Mahmoud, a Pakistani who injured four people outside the building of the old Charlie Hebdo headquarters on September 25, 2020, all passed through Italy after reaching its territory illegally.
Additionally, on August 13, 2018, Tunisian authorities had stopped a group of nine jihadists who were embarking on a rubber dinghy together with a dozen other immigrants, all headed for the Sicilian coast. Two months later, a 25-year-old Tunisian who arrived in Lampedusa in July and was a guest of a local hotspot, was recognized by a fellow countryman who reported him to the authorities as a former ISIS fighter in Syria.
Three years before, in May 2015, Libyan authorities had warned that ISIS used the illegal flow of immigrants from North African coasts to smuggle jihadists into Europe as the police wouldn’t be able to distinguish a terrorist from a refugee. The Minister of Information of the Tobruk government, Omar al-Gawari, had warned that Italy would experience the arrival, not only of refugees from Africa but also of terrorists.
Just a few days after these declarations, former Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni had claimed that the Italian Intelligence had underestimated the risk of jihadist infiltration through illegal boats, stating that authorities in Libya (Tripoli and Tobruk) were exploiting the illegal immigration phenomenon to pressure Europe. Unfortunately, Libyan authorities were correct, and a significant number of jihadists managed to infiltrate Europe through the flow of illegals.
Strangely enough, despite all the jihadist networks that used Italy as a hub and despite the country often being targeted by jihadist organizations due to the Vatican representing the center of Catholicism, it was never targeted like the attacks that occurred in Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and the UK.
According to some analysts, this is due, in part, to the fact that Italy is used as a bridge between Africa and Europe, which means that carrying out attacks on Italian soil would jeopardize this critical passageway. While the same rule should be applied to Spain as well, it was attacked, nonetheless.
The absence of terror attacks on Italian soil is not an indication of a superior preventative strategy by the security services. No matter how effective they may be, there is always a chance of something slipping through. Those who work in the counterterrorism field know this extremely well. Take Israel as an example. Despite the small size of the country and its strong and comprehensive security apparatus, terrorists still manage to carry out attacks. Therefore, Italy’s unique situation deserves further study.
New Strategies Needed
Immediately after the October 29, 2020 attack in Nice, The Guardian published an article indicating how Europol had stated in a report published earlier that year that there were no signs of systematic use of “irregular migration” by terrorist organizations.
However, such statements do not seem to reflect reality. What does “systematic” mean? According to a fixed plan or system? Methodical? If yes, how many cases are required to classify the phenomenon as “systematic”? Haven’t there been enough cases of jihadists illegally reaching Europe and carrying out attacks to label the phenomenon a serious risk to security?
Terrorism has changed. It’s a dynamic phenomenon that adapts to new situations and environments and the advent of ISIS clearly showed this. In early January, Christian Ricós Sevilla, a Spanish specialist in insurgence and jihadist organizations, brilliantly explained how terrorist organizations exploit the vulnerability of African immigrants, either by recruiting individuals in Africa and facilitating their entry into Europe, or by radicalizing those who are already on European soil. The article was republished by the Jerusalem Post.
Italy and Spain are indeed on the frontline, and they are the first bastions of defense for Europe from jihadist infiltration. On March 4, 2023 ISPI President Giampiero Massolo issued an alert regarding the infiltration of jihadists from Tunisia through the flow of illegals: “Tunisia is increasingly perceived as a point of weakness and, therefore, both human trafficking and the possible phenomena of jihadist terrorism are channeled from there. And this is unacceptable to us because it has a direct impact on the security of our country and not just our country.”
In the last few months, the flow of illegals from the African coasts towards Italy drastically increased and, so far, the newly-elected Italian government led by Giorgia Meloni has done little to curb the crisis. When she was still an opposition leader, Meloni often called for a naval blockade of African coasts, but such strong measures have yet to be adopted. Illegal migrants continue to get through, giving terrorists more opportunities to slip into Europe. The growing presence of jihadists in Sub-Saharan Africa only exacerbates concerns. Additionally, there are no reliable statistics on just how many jihadists have already entered Europe.
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