More for Free Rad!cals, this time returning to my previous theme of Lone Wolves in Italy. It covers a bit more ground around the theme, and the trials will be worth watching as they go forwards as they present a possible irritant that security services will be having to watch for a while. It has also given me some more thoughts for a longer piece I continue to trudge through on the theme.
My first substantive post to this blog was on the topic of terrorism in Italy and the attempt by Mohammed Game to blow himself up at a barracks in Milan. Fortunately, no-one was killed in Game’s attempt and he remains in custody along with two alleged accomplices – the three are going on trial (in two separate cases) May 12 and June 26.
While undoubtedly more information will come out during the trials, it would appear from what is already in the public domain as though Game and his contacts were a relatively free-standing “Lone Wolf” terror cell. A phenomenon which appears to be increasingly common in Italy, where details have just been revealed about the reasons behind the expulsion of a couple of Moroccan students from Perugia University towards the end of April. The two students, now apparently living freely in Rabat, were thrown out of Italy following an assessment that they were a threat to public safety.
It has now been revealed that Mohammed Hlal, 27, was overheard saying that he wanted to kill the Pope in order to guarantee himself a place in paradise, part of a regular digest of anger apparently directed at the Catholic Church. It is unclear what role his accomplice 22-year old Ahmed Errahmouni had in the plot, though a wide array of images of famous Italian locations were found in their possession, alongside numerous maps, and an instruction manual on how to build bombs. No actual weapons or explosives were located, though apparently confiscated computers had encryption programs installed.
Italian services had been alerted to the two in October of last year, following unspecified leads about concerns being expressed of radical views heard amongst some Moroccan students in Perugia. An investigation was launched, and in late April a series of arrests were made, allegedly because the group was becoming more isolated and radical and there were concerns that some action might be on the horizon. In the initial sweep another four Moroccans, a Tunisian and a Palestinian with an Israeli passport were also picked up: the group apparently used to attend the same mosque in Perugia.
Reporting to have emerged from the cell appears to point to the fact that it was a largely self-contained group who self-radicalized – much like the narrative being painted around Mohammed Game and his cell. This is a phenomenon which Italian investigators are seeing an increasing amount, including in the case further north of Abdelkader Ghafir, 44, and Rachid Ilhami, 31, two Moroccan laborers accused by security head Bruno Megale of being in a cell like Game’s atlthough in an earlier phase (two others stand charged of immigration offences alongside them). Those men’s trial is currently ongoing. And Game’s cell has been repeatedly referred to in the context of the Perugia cell that threatened the Pope.
In all cases, the groups appear to be self-contained and have (according to reporting) no connections to Al Qaeda core or a regional affiliate. The individuals involved appear to be mostly of North African extraction (like most Muslim migrants in Italy) and male, but aside from this they tend to defy uniform classification. Their radicalization appears for the most part to be self-generated, though they appear to also operate on the fringes of known networks. In the case with the Game group who were also linked to the radical Viale Jenner mosque in Milan, a former Imam of which was incarcerated last month, while Ghafir and Ilhami were also apparently helping run a local Islamic center. According to the press, the other students involved in the Perugia sweep are being looked into for connections.
In my earlier post on Game I described the group as a Lone Wolf Pack – something I have been exploring in greater detail in a longer paper that I am currently working on. The phenomenon is not in fact isolated to Italy, both the Fort Dix group in the United States from 2007 and Jihad Hamad and Youssef el Hajdib, who in July 2006 left a set of suitcase bombs on a Cologne train, have elements similar to the Italian groups. What is interesting, however, is the apparent high instance of these sorts of groups in Italy – I have yet to see any analysis as to exactly why this is (of course, it has to be said that all of these Italian groups are being tried or are on trial (or have not been tried and simply ejected from the country) – so they are in fact still innocent until proven guilty. Only Game would appear to be conclusively guilty of something).
What is not clear is to me yet is whether these sorts of groups coming together is something which needs to be analyzed within the context of Al Qaeda plots or if it should be analyzed within the context of trying to understand the impact of the internet as an accelerant of the ideology. Or maybe it is something which is a social phenomenon which needs to be understood using the sort of social network analysis that Marc Sageman deploys. Whichever is the case, it would not surprise me if this sort of phenomenon in one way or another becomes an increasingly important element of counter-terrorism in the West that will require deeper understanding and research.