The biggest fear is the blowback effect, namely the possibility that once they return to their countries of origin, they may decide to take action.
Of about 129 foreign fighters with ties in Italy by virtue of citizenship or residence permits, who left to join IS in Syria and Iraq, about a dozen have come back. The figures are much lower than those for France and Belgium, or for Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom, where the number of those returning is close to 50%.
The returnees, as they are called in jargon, are easily monitored in Italy. Among them is Lara Bombonati, 26, sent to trial for conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. “Our country has one of the highest death rates,” commented Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University, the former coordinator of the Italian commission for the study of radicalization. This is something that even experts find it difficult to explain, but it should be interpreted in the light of other factors. The first is their lack of training, often due to their youth, such as the Genoese Giuliano Delnevo, who died in Syria at the age of 20, or Anas El Abboubik, with Moroccan origins, who was sentenced a few days ago in absentia to six years’ imprisonment, but has not been heard of for some time. Finally, there is the fact that fighters from Italy have almost never occupied important positions in the ranks of the Caliphate. And many failed to escape injuries, raids, settling of scores, hunger or disease.
Women may however represent an exception. Cases in point are Maria Giulia Sergio, considered the first Italian IS jihadist, and Alice Brignoli, a 39-year-old from Lombardy, who left to fight with her children. And while it is easier for a woman to escape border checks, this does not mean that women foreign fighters were manipulated or forced to leave for Syria and Iraq. Indeed, some of them may have remained faithful to jihadist ideology, which is why Italian intelligence services are monitoring them with particular attention.
In the recent months of fighting, a large number of IS veterans have been captured by Syrian Democratic Forces. But seeing as they lack a state apparatus, the Syrian Kurdish forces are unable and unwilling to try prisoners who are citizens of another country. This is why the US is pressuring European governments to take back their “own” jihadists. London, Paris and Brussels have always tried to avoid such a move, until last week, when the French foreign ministry ordered the repatriation of 130 fighters and their families.
Not many Italians are currently thought to be in Syria. They include Samir Bougana, a 24-year-old from Brescia, and two women, one of whom is Meriem Rehaily, a 23-year-old from Padova who gave birth to two children in the Caliphate. But others may re-emerge from the rubble of war.
What happens in the event of repatriation? For adults suspected of links with IS – although almost all claim that they are repentant or worked as “cooks” in an attempt to play down their involvement –, prison awaits. However, the problem is preventing new recruitment campaigns inside the prison walls. In Italy, according to prison authorities, there are already 242 subjects considered at risk, distributed among the four prisons of Bancali (Sassari), Nuoro, Rossano Calabro (Cosenza) and Asti. However – unlike in other European countries – de-radicalization and prevention programmes in Italy are still at an embryonic phase, since funds have not been allocated to implement them. This has resulted in a situation of vulnerability for which, sooner or later, Italy may have to pay the price.
This is not the only problem, however. One of the biggest concerns is represented by the “lion cubs of the Caliphate”, children taken by their parents to Syria and Iraq or born under the black flag of IS, who may now be on their way back to Italy. “These children have suffered serious trauma and risk being subjected to further trauma if they are separated from their families,” underlined Cristina Caparesi, psychologist and pedagogist at the Radicalisation Awareness Network of the European Commission, which has dealt with various cases of radicalized minors in Italy. Medical and psychological support becomes fundamental in their case, Caparesi explained, “since these children have not only seen evil with their own eyes, but have also been brainwashed”.
English translation by Simon Tanner