This is the question that The Guardian, the British newspaper, asked in an article in June 2017. Has Italy been lucky in recent years? Or are there other factors that have made the country relatively safe so far?
Italy has had its share of political violence in recent decades, including the murders of Falcone and Borsellino, two prominent anti-mafia judges, in the early 1990s. But unlike almost all of its European neighbors, it has not witnessed a major terrorist attack on its soil since the 1980s.
One theory is that Italy has been able to combat the threat of Isis domestically through the experience and tools developed in mafia investigations. These, in turn, were born out the the so-called “years of lead,” the period between the 1960s and 1980s marked by acts of political terrorism by left- and right-wing militants.
One example is the importance of constant dialogue at the operating level between intelligence and law enforcement forces. It was no secret in Italy that Youssef Zaghba, the 22-year old Moroccan-born Italian, was under close surveillance. He was greeted every time he landed in Bologna, and the police checked on him several times a day. He was one of the three terrorists behind the London Bridge attack. But he was never stopped at the airport or interrogated in London, even though Italian officials had warned British counterparts that he was a threat.
From the days of mafia investigations, Italian authorities rely on intercepted phone calls, which can be used as evidence in court, unlike in the UK. And, in cases related to the mafia and terrorism, they can be obtained on the basis of suspicious activity and not on solid evidence.
There are two factors unique to Italy may also make surveillance relatively easier. First, the absence of banlieue-like spots (suburbs) in major Italian cities and the predominance of small and medium town make it easier to monitor and control the territory.
Second, and more importantly, is the relative lack of second- and third-generation immigrants who have been radicalized or could be radicalized. This enables authorities to focus on non-citizens, who can be deported at the first signs of concern. It also means that there are fewer people to focus on, compared to France, Belgium, and the UK. It takes about 20 people to watch a terror suspect full time, which can put a lot of pressure on a country’s resources.
Much like the fight against Italian organized crime, infiltrating and disrupting terror networks requires breaking close social and family relationships. In Italy, people suspected of being jihadis are encouraged to cooperate with Italian authorities, who use residency permits and other incentives. There also is a recognition of the dangers of keeping terror suspects in jail; as with mafia bosses in the past, prison is seen as a prime territory for recruiting and networking.
Whether it’s the composition of Italy’s population, or the broad use of surveillance, or just plain luck, let’s keep our fingers crossed.