Italy’s Trouble With Terrorists

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly warns more terrorists are heading to Europe. Will they feel safe in Italy? Many who’ve carried out attacks across Europe have ties there.

ROME—On October 7, Anis Hannachi seemed to feel perfectly at ease riding his bicycle through the center of the quaint northern Italian city of Ferrara. In fact, police had been on his trail since he entered Italy from France through the border town of Ventimiglia three days earlier and were watching him closely. He was the brother the 25-year-old brother of Ahmed Hannachi, 30, the knife-wielding murderer who took the lives of two young women in Marseilles on October 1 before a French soldier on patrol shot him dead.

Anis, the younger brother, had come to Italy originally in 2014 on a migrant boat from Tunisia and was promptly kicked out of the country. Italian authorities know he then went straight to Syria and later Iraq and suspected he fought there supporting the so-called Islamic State for two years before moving to France illegally in 2016. His Italian phone was tapped and his personal contacts under surveillance. “Anis was flagged as a dangerous individual who probably had been a foreign fighter,” the director of Italy’s anti-terrorism forces Claudio Galzerano said in a statement this week.

Concerns that ISIS terrorists are heading to Europe was bolstered by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in a press briefing on Thursday. “ We see them trying to escape from Iraq and get into Europe and places like that, which should cause Europeans much concern,” he said.

Ahmed Hannachi’s killing spree has not been proven to be ISIS-inspired, but his movements follow a familiar path taken by other terrorists. He came  to Italy from France in 2006 and settled into the city of Aprilia south of Rome, which has earned the dubious nickname the “Molenbeek of Italy” after the Brussels suburb at the center of a number of terrorism arrests. During his time there Ahmed was arrested for theft, drugs, and an armed robbery. He married a local woman and then separated before returning to France in 2014. He had never been tied to terror organizations or ideology.

Franco Roberti, Italy’s chief anti-terrorism prosecutor says the younger brother was responsible for the alleged radicalization of the older brother, going so far as to help him plan the gory details of the knife attack. “Ahmed never showed any signs of radicalization in Italy,” Roberti said. “The investigative hypothesis we’re working on is that the younger brother radicalized the older one.”

The Ahmed brothers are two of at least 12 alleged terrorists who have carried out attacks across Europe in recent years who have either lived in or passed through Italy before being caught or killed.

Anis Amri, the Berlin Christmas market killer, also lived in Aprilia before hijacking a truck and carrying out his carnage.  He was fatally shot in Milan in December 2016 presumably making his way back to the area which is close to Naples and has become a hub where terrorism and mafias increasingly intersect. Dozens of houses are under constant watch there by local authorities who monitor who comes and goes, trying to determine why.

Anis Hannachi, the bicycling suspect, was arrested not far from Bologna, which was the maternal home of Youssef Zaghba, the 22-year-old Moroccan-Italian who was killed as part of the gang that mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge in June 2016. His mother Valeria told The Daily Beast in an interview in her home that her son had been radicalized on the Internet, had been caught in Italy with ISIS propaganda on his phone, and had been stopped for trying to fly to Syria via Turkey, but had not been formally arrested.

The list goes on.

Salah Abdeslam, one of the attackers involved in the killing spree on the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015, arrived in Bari in the southern Region in Puglia earlier that year, according to ferry records unearthed during a police investigation.

Chokri Chafroud, an alleged terrorist who also lived in Puglia was known by Italy’s anti-terrorism forces to have connections to  Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the driver of the truck that slaughtered more than 80 people on Bastille Day in Nice, France, last year.  Bari anti-terrorism prosecutor Roberto Rossi helped French investigators arrest Chafroud, who was seen in the truck Bouhlel used prior to the attack.

Then there are those who live in and around Brescia in northern Italy, where at least two plots to attack local establishments have been thwarted. Mohamed Lahlaoui, a 28-year-old Moroccan who was arrested in Glissen, Germany, in March 2016 had been expelled from Brescia in 2014 for planning one of those attacks against a shopping mall. He never left Europe and was the last person Khalid el Bakraoui, one of the suicide bombing brothers who detonated themselves in Brussels in March 2016, messaged before blowing himself up. "Fin,” he wrote. The end.

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Why Italy has not so far experienced the same terrorist threats and attacks as many other European countries is the subject of great debate. Police credit their surveillance and zero tolerance approach, pointing to the fact that they have expelled more than 200 suspected terrorists since 2015. Others suggest that Italy’s organized crime syndicates just won’t allow the development of active terrorist cells on their territory. But Roberti says that there is at least superficial collaboration between terrorists and mobsters, especially around Naples where the trade in drugs and arms is thriving.

“Campania [Naples province] is one of the main gateways into Europe for those who want to become a terrorist,” he said. “It has been demonstrated by numerous investigations. On this now there are no doubts.”

The only thing most experts agree on is that it certainly isn’t down to luck.

"Every story is a separate case," said Lamberto Giannini, director of Italy’s anti-terrorism police, which also oversees anti-mafia investigations. "The anti-terrorism investigations show that the radicalization of these subjects has taken place in Italy,” he told a press conference after Anis Hannachi’s arrest in Ferrara. “It's like having the chemical components: taken alone, they remain neutral, but if they are mixed with other items can become explosive.”