Italian Foreign Terrorist Fighters. Numbers, features and case studies



Since the rise of the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi[ii], the foreign terrorist fighters phenomenon acquired an exceptional interest in the law enforcement, intelligence and academic communities of the countries experiencing such anomaly. This is probably due to the unprecedented dimension reached (the number of combatants having surpassed that of the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980’s) and the correlated security threat for the countries of origin of the mujahidiin[iii].

This paper analyzes the Italian situation, underlining some particular features as well as shared elements with other European realities. The Italian condition in this context is fluid and constantly evolving; the official number of mujahidiin from Italy is less than a hundred, rather low if compared to elsewhere in Europe, but the trend is significantly rising. Moreover, as some findings point out, there are significant similarities between the Italian salafi-jihadist milieu and its counterparts in other European countries, despite differences e.g. regarding the ethnic communities of origin or the societal level of integration perceived.

The last part of the paper aims at highlighting several underrated topics related to the foreign terrorist fighters phenomenon with special reference to the issue of the “returnees”. It argues that it is necessary to build up structured de-radicalization narratives and programs working in parallel to the intelligence and security services and aimed at preventing and repressing possible threats in Italy and beyond.


The Italian foreign terrorist fighters[iv] phenomenon is relatively small in its size if compared with the official figures of other Western European countries[v]. Nevertheless, the numbers and their significance are somehow different in value and quality and surely are worth some remarks due to the unique societal context of Italy.

The Italian society is historically and culturally deep-rooted in Catholicism; as a consequence, conversions to Islam in Italy are growing at a lower rate if compared to other European countries[vi], due to the huge leap of faith that a change of one‘s religious affiliation and the considerable social cost of this decision entail within the Italian context[vii].

The Muslim community amounts to around 1.8 of the 61 million inhabitants of Italy[viii] (the data are net of the illegal migrants flows); there is a steady growth in conversions, which is estimated at around 4000 per year[ix]. Just a microscopic percentage of the community embrace an extremist interpretation of Islamic principles, and an even smaller number join one of the various terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria. There are some small “strongholds” of extremism in Italy, but overall, the Italian Muslim community lives a peaceful life in accordance with democratic principles.

According to a recent NATO workshop report[x] regarding the foreign terrorist fighters phenomenon, Europe can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Countries with high participation: the number of foreign fighters may reach several hundred. They include the Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo), Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The largest number comes from France (with an estimate of more than 1550 jihadists), Germany and United Kingdom (around 700 each[xi]).
  2. Countries with medium participation: between several dozen and 100 fighters. They include Albania, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland.
  3. Countries with low participation: ten or fewer mujahidiin. They include Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia and Romania[xii].

In the same workshop context, an Italian Carabinieri representative stressed the fact that Italy consider homegrown terrorism as the terrorist activities or plots perpetrated within a country or abroad by three different categories of individuals:

  • Firstly there are Italian citizens (which comprise converts and second generation migrants); according to the most recent official report twelve fighters coming from Italy (of them, one is presumed dead and six others have double citizenship) went to Syria/Iraq.
  • The second category involves those labeled by Lorenzo Vidino as “sociological citizens”[xiii]; in this category fit another eleven fighters coming from Italy.
  • The third category includes visitors (workers or students with a temporary residence certificate) radicalized largely within the country. According to the last report to the Parliament, 64 fighters coming from Italy fall into this group, bringing the total number to 87[xiv]. To this group another 102 individuals should be added. They were arrested (45) or expelled (57) from the country from February 2014, before actively joining terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Italian features and comparison with other European Realities

The growth of the foreign fighters phenomenon in Italy follows the European trend, even though is slightly lagged in reacting to external stimuli. In May 2014 (before the establishment of the Islamic State Caliphate) there were some 30 Italian foreign fighters; in January 2015 the total was 53 (+76%); in May 2015 the number reached 74 (+39,6%) and the last estimate in September 2015 is of 87 individuals (+17,5%).

The percentage of Italians fighting in the Syrian conflict is also following the European standard; if we consider just the ethnic Italians we have a rough 14% figure of the total number, but if we include also the sociological citizens, the percentage increases to 26,4% of the total Italian foreign terrorist fighters phenomenon.

The Italian mujahidiin begun to follow the path to Syria and Iraq since 2013, rather late if compared with the rest of the European countries. This feature reflects the differences in the growth of the phenomenon in Italy. The age of the Italian foreign terrorist fighters ranges from 18 to 42 years[xv], with a majority of youngsters (18-26 years); the 29% of the fighters are converts[xvi] and the percentage of women makes up around 7% of the total.

The confirmed number of deceased combatants coming from Italy is eighteen, and there is a rough figure of ten mujahidiin who came back into the country.

The special element that raises some questions in this analysis is the foreign terrorist fighters ethnic composition, especially if related to the recent Italian history. There is an overrepresentation of ethnic mujahidiin from the Balkans, while the number of North Africans among the Italian foreign terrorist fighters is lower, an interesting fact given that Muslims with North African origin represent the historically bigger community settled in Italy and the biggest share of the recent migration wave that interested the country. The explanation for this situation is probably twofold.

The first reason is demographic; Italy’s first serious flow of North African migrants arrived in the 80’s. Many young people arrived in Italy from Maghreb countries searching for better life conditions, and their communities were mainly organized in suburbs of big metropolis like Milan, Naples and Rome[xvii]. The jihadist presence in Italy dates back to the early 90’s, with the first structured terrorist cells (GIA[xviii], SGPC[xix]) active in the country. Due to that reason, the second generation of this first flow of migrants is nowadays reaching adult age, thus delaying and influencing the rate of radicalized individuals.

Another cause for the lower rate of North Africans among the Italian fighters “battalion” is probably related to the so-called Arab Spring effect and the current tense situation experienced in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Ethnic North Africans are probably more concerned with the ongoing conflicts and tensions in their countries of origin, and there are reports of older Libyans and Tunisians who joined the conflicts there. ISIS expansion into those countries (with the establishment of “provinces[xx]” in Libya, Sinai and Tunisia) gave these individuals a “short range” trip from Italy and for some of them an opportunity to avenge the past Islamist defeats at the hand of the Ben Ali, Ghaddafi and Mubarak regimes.

For this group of radicalized men and women, the Maghreb region is easier to reach as they already have connections and facilitators; they know the environment and the political situation and they probably consider it more important to join the fight there.

The Italian jihadist landscape is a fluid and evolving situation composed of heterogeneous realities with different features. The Italian converts are still a small percentage in the Muslim community, but the phenomenon is steadily growing and it is nevertheless significant if related to the country’s role as a cradle of Christianity. The Italian society and culture is deeply entrenched with the Christian faith and the leap to reach Islam is even bigger for an ethnic (or sociologic) Italian.

Among the jihadist first generation networks established in the country[xxi], the main role of sympathizers and/or associates was to logistically and financially assist the mujahidiin passing through Italy. The country was always considered as a kind of “safe haven” since the time of the al-Qaeda European Network, due to the porous shores and borders and the possibility to obtain high quality forged documents that were very useful in the Schengen area.

Maybe the most important feature is the strict ethnic composition of the Italian radicalized milieu; People coming from Bosnia or Kosovo are not mixing up with youngsters coming from the Maghreb area; Syrians are not associated with Pakistanis and so on. This element reflects the regional variegated composition of the various Muslim communities and their different paths towards radicalization and violent behavior[xxii].

With this framework, the Italian jihadist milieu is similar to the German one, with high number of unemployed and undereducated people among its ranks, often composed of individuals with previous criminal records; quite the opposite of the British terrorist battalion, usually better educated, with more qualified jobs and socially integrated, according to the researcher Daniela Pisoiu[xxiii]. These differences are in many cases related to diverging paths of migration and social integration policies, as well as the ethnic communities of origin.

Present and future issues

Although radicalism cannot be considered terrorism, the process that drives individuals to embrace radical ideologies is of paramount importance, as it can constitute the first step towards violent extremism[xxiv]. Yet, it is undoubtedly true that there is no single path to radicalization and that every country has its own particular features in “producing” radicalized youth[xxv].

However, there are some common denominators in all known case studies, no matter the origin or residence of the mujahid: the apparent lack of contacts between wannabe foreign fighters and the traditional qaedist structures; the massive use of the internet for indoctrination, training, communication etc; the existing interaction between the lack of socio-economic integration and the radicalization process.

Moreover, some persistent features, all of them interlinked and consequential, help to create a rough identikit of a “generic” foreign terrorist fighter: their young age and short radicalization process; a rather poor knowledge of Islam (due to their young age and and often lacking education in Islamic beliefs and jurisprudence); a fragile motivation (since they didn’t have the time or education to fully comprehend and accept the jihadist ideology)[xxvi].

All those factors should be addressed by a structured strategy aimed at the disengagement from jihadist narratives once we find the right interpretation of these phenomena. Moreover, opposing this narrative will also impact on the recruitment tendency: mujahidiin possess an aura of “sanctity” and righteousness among the extremist circles. In the virtual digital world, those faceless fighters have the authority once retained only by senior jihadist scholars and are now celebrated as the model to be emulated.

Regarding Italy, one of the key elements in need of an enhanced debate is related to the so called “returnees”. As of now, there are news of around ten foreign fighters who have returned to Italy[xxvii], (without mentioning Schengen passport bearers who could possibly travel to other European countries) but there is no clear policy on how to treat them[xxviii].

Apart from a penal discourse[xxix], a returnee is a different person (from his/her pre-jihad self) with enormous difficulties to reintegrate into the society. Former combatants often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and should/must be closely monitored and counseled if further violent problems want to be avoided. Contrary to preventive investigations, where the web is the main tool, direct contact is needed when wanting to de-radicalize and rehabilitate someone[xxx]. Mentors for such individuals should be preferably Muslims, possibly young and with in-depth knowledge of youth (sub) cultural codes (it is a known fact that many jihadists come from the rap/hip-hop scene); this will help returnees to relate to someone perceived as authentic and trustworthy to open up to.

Of course, there is a relevant difference between ideologically motivated foreign fighters and people fighting in Bilad al Shams according to a perceived religious obligation. The narrative and the de-construction of extremist beliefs of such people should be tailored to their trigger motivation to become a foreign fighter.

Homegrown terrorism and violent extremism are societal phenomena where issues like belonging, identity, group dynamics and values are important elements in the collective-identity construction process. Religion, as such, plays an important role, but for some it probably rather serves as a vehicle for fulfilling other goals[xxxi].

Countering radicalization is perceived differently across the spectrum of pertinent actors (law enforcement agencies, governments, academics etc.), but it must be understood that radicalization inexorably intertwines social and ideological factors and thus should be fought in a multidisciplinary way. A recent study on countering violent extremism (CVE) showed that logic and rationality are not winning elements; when you are trying to convince people, facts do not matter[xxxii]. Appealing to an individual’s value system seems to be the most effective way to change opinions and spur people to action[xxxiii].

The longstanding debate on radicalization between security services and academics could finally find a common ground exactly on this topic. Different priorities can be harmonized in the analysis and forecast of future trend. The law enforcement agencies are too engaged in the investigation and prevention of attacks in the short term; a strategic approach coming from the academic world, pointing to future threats is surely a valuable tool. On the other hand, scholars and researchers are always struggling for up to date information to analyze; if they would be provided with desensitized data, they could produce a theoretical model pointing in the direction of future menaces.

Italy, as other European countries, should enhance its capacity to analyze and prevent further radicalization, acknowledging the simple fact that Europe, willingly or not, will be the recipient for migrants in the near future and will have to absorb and integrate at least part of them into their society in the future.

A closing remark is related to transnational terrorist activities; the current jihadists strategy (highlighted also by past and current investigations in Italy) is to nurture an extremist religious ideology through self-created internet networks that often cross national borders[xxxiv]. The foreign fighters trend is not a national problem but a worldwide issue that should be addressed as such. This is another important reason why an international, multiagency approach is needed. Investigations alone can be useful in the short term period in order to prevent attacks or the escape of more radicalized youth[xxxv], but we need to find new encompassing ways to deal with the root causes that transform troubled youngsters into violent actors in this hybrid conflict[xxxvi].

[i] Disclaimer: all the information originate from open sources and/or personal research and study. The expressed opinions as well as any mistake or inaccuracy in the text should be referred solely to the Author.

[ii] Ibrāhīm ʿAwwād Ibrāhīm ʿAlī al-Badrī al-Sāmarrāʾī, born in Fallujah (Iraq) on 28 June1971, self-proclaimed Caliph with the name Abu Bakr (the first Caliph in the Muslim history after the death of the Prophet Muhammad) al Baghdadi (he states his heritage links him directly to the Prophet’s family).

[iii] Mujahid (pl. Mujahidiin) generally refers to a fighter engaged in jihad. The author is aware of the complexity of the relating concepts in the Islamic religion and culture. In the context of this paper, the author refers to the broader salafi-jihadi interpretation of this terms.

[iv] Definition as per UN Security Council Resolution 2178/2014: “namely, individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training”. Among academics, the most cited definition is provided by D. Malet who defines them as “non-citizen of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil conflict” – D. Malet, “Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identities in Foreign Conflicts, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 9.

[v] Exhaustive data are difficult to obtain in this field due to the impossibility to ascertain how many residents left the country and effectively joined the conflict in the Bilad al-Shams (the historical Grater Syria, not limited by the Sykes-Picot agreement, encompassing territories from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Western Mesopotamia). Estimates are complex and governments encounters difficulties to update the figures. Moreover, not all the European countries are facing the same occurrence, as the official figures show us; P. Neumann, “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20.000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980’s”, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (January 26, 2015)

[vi] According to unconfirmed reports, there are some 70.000 Italian converts to Islam and the conversions rate around 4000 people every year. D. Sabaghi & J. Cimino, “Gli italiani che si convertono all’Islam” The Post Internazionale (September 18, 2014)

[vii] According to researcher M. Uhlmann, conversion does not necessarily imply a complete change of perspective and life. The idea that conversion entails a “a radical change in one‘s universe of discourse” is a widespread assumption (R. Machalek and D. A. Snow, “The Convert as a Social Type,” Sociological Theory, 1 [1983]: 259-289, 265). Uhlmann found out that “most of the time we look at a gradual development of the (future) convert‘s identity which usually entails a widening of the individual‘s perspective and thus a differentiation of his/her identity, not a retraction which would entail a rejection of the person‘s previous identity. This is different for people who do not convert for spiritual reasons, but because they want to belong to a collective identity, such as salafism or jihadism”. M. Uhlmann, email message to the Author, July 20, 2015.

[viii] Data from the IDOS Studies and Research Center 2014 Statistical Dossier on Immigration The data are also roughly confirmed by the UCOII (Union of Islamic Organizations in Italy): R. Bongiorni “Cresce il peso delle comunità Musulmane” Il Sole 24 Ore (January 8, 2015)

[ix] Generating reliable figures regarding the number of conversions is impossible, this contributing to the mentioned lack of knowledge. Since the Muslim community has no formal clergy, there is no central institution that could take up the task of registering Islam’s adherents or keeping track of the number of conversions to Islam. Furthermore, the process of converting to Islam consists of a simple ritual which requires no formal registration. In order to become Muslim, the person wanting to convert simply speaks out the šhahāda (declaration of belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet) in front of two Muslim witnesses. Therefore, estimates referring to the number of converts have to be regarded as dubious. M. Uhlmann „Home and Belonging in a Semi-Diasporic Setting: Converts to ‘Reflexive Islam’ in West European Societies“ In F. Kläger and K. Stierstorfer (ed.), Diasporic Constructions of Home and Belonging. De Gruyter: Berlin/Boston, 2015; p. 207-226, 214.

[x] NATO Centre of Excellence Defence against Terrorism “Homegrown Terrorism, causes and dimensions” (June 3-4, 2014)

[xi] The data were updated according to C. Lister August 2015 report for Brookings Doha Center

[xii] Data related to the above mentioned NATO workshop and updated from ICSR estimate as per January 2015

[xiii] According to Vidino’s definition, sociological citizens are legally permanent residents raised in a country, although originally coming from another, who absorbed the local culture, values and social perception of events. L. Vidino “Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy. Birth, development and radicalization dynamics” Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (April 29, 2014)

[xiv] The figures were updated by the Italian Defense Minister during a television interview on Sept. 20, 2015

[xv] A female minor with Italian passport but living with her family in France, was detained in Adana (Turkey) in October 2015; her identity was not disclosed and two week later she was expelled from the country. She was suspected of trying to join ISIS forces in Syria and was held in a detention center dedicated to foreign fighters.

[xvi] This is an estimate based on OSINT research and sample created by the author

[xvii] M. Groppi, “Islamization Processes in Italy” International Institute per Counter Terrorism (July 7, 2010)

[xviii] Groupe Islamique Armee aka Islamic Armed Group, the military wing of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front political party.

[xix] Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a splinter group from GIA that later became Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM

[xx] Wilayat al Barqa, Wilayat al Derna, Wilayat Al Tarabulus and Wilayat al Sina were the first provinces established outside Shams (the Greater Syria) by the Islamic State.

[xxi] The so-called “al-Qaeda European network” was established by the group leaders during the second phase of the evolution of al-Qaeda. At the end of the Afghan conflict and with the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in the country by the Taliban, the foreign fighters returned to their countries of origin to proselytize, recruit and establish terrorist cells in the Western countries.

[xxii] See the 2008 report “Radicalisation processes leading to acts of terrorism” by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008, p.16)


[xxiv] M. Lombardi, “IS 2.0 e molto altro. Il progetto di comunicazione del Califfato” in Twitter e Jihad: la comunicazione dell’ISIS edited by M. Maggioni and P. Magri for ISPI, 2015 p.93

[xxv] In this regard see O. Roy “EuroIslam: the jihad within?”, The National Interest (n.71, Spring 2003, p.63); L. Vidino and J. Brandon “counter radicalization in Europe”, International Centre for the study of Radicalization and Political Violence (2012 p.9)

[xxvi] M. Uhlmann (June 10, 2015). “Challenges and possible opportunities for developing effective counter-narrative measures to the ‘Islamic State’ movement”, In Marret, J.-L. & Tol, G. (ed.). Understanding Deradicalization: Pathways to Enhance Transatlantic Common Perception and Practices. Middle East Institute: Washington DC Uhlmann.pdf

[xxvii] G. Masini “ l’Italia è nel mirino della jihad; 10 jihadisti rimpatriati”, Il Giornale (January 15, 2015)

[xxviii] The only Italian organization known to the author which is included in the European Network  of Deradicalisation is EXIT S.C.S. Onlus, led by Cristina Caparesi

[xxix] The recent bill introduced in February 2015, regulates (among other norms) the crime of travelers (or who recruit, facilitate and finance those trips) who reach the theaters of jihad to join terrorist organizations. (see D.L. n.7, February 18, 2015)

[xxx] Dr. Kiran Sarma, leader of the Risky and Extreme Behavior Research Group at the National University of Ireland in Galway and partner of the European Commission’s Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN HEALTH) has splendidly addressed the usefulness of the instrument of de-radicalization and rehabilitation. Those, provide access to a huge amount of information, which are very useful to build resilience at community level and for the prevention of the radicalization process. K. Sarma and others, 8th Annual International Conference of the Society for Terrorism Research (September 17-19, 2014)

[xxxi] On the individual motivational factors leading to radicalization, see T. Precht, “Home grown terrorism and Islamist radicalization in Europe”, Danish Ministry of Justice (December 2007)

[xxxii] The motivated reasoning hypothesis derives from L. Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory (L. Festinger “a theory of cognitive dissonance” Stanford University Press (1957). Motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience; reasoning is actually suffused with emotions; we push threatening information away and pull friendly ones close. We apply fight or flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

[xxxiii] C. Nemr, “Countering Islamic State recruitment: you are doing it totally wrong”, War On the Rocks (July 14, 2015)

[xxxiv] The most influential ideologue of the current global jihadist architecture is surely Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, best known as Abu Mu’sab al Suri. He is the author of Da’wa al muqawamah al islamiyyah al alamiyyah (global Islamic resistance call), a 1600 pages jihadist strategic book

[xxxv] In this context, during the Italian European Union Presidency an official Network of Point of Contacts for Foreign Fighters information exchange was established. Italian EU Presidency: “Newly established network of contact points on foreign fighters” Polizia di Stato (December 16, 2014)

[xxxvi]  J. J. McCuen, “Hybrid Wars,” Military Review (March-April 2008) p. 107-113

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About Author

Alessandro Boncio

Alessandro Boncio is guest contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Mr. Boncio is Carabinieri OR9 and he is currently a counter-terrorism lecturer for the Carabinieri Corps. He was deployed in several international mission in the Middle East, the Balkans and Africa as an intelligence analyst and CT consultant. He is currently a student in Sciences of Mediterranean and Islamic countries languages, history and cultures at Naples "l'Orientale" University. Mr. Boncio is a member of the EENeT (European Expert Network on Terrorism Issues) as analyst of the foreign fighters phenomenon.


  1. Alessandro Boncio
    Alessandro Boncio on

    I highlighted the common denominators in the following sentence; however it is my idea that nowadays the younger generation weak spots are exploited by recruiters mainly through the web. they learned from past investigations and adapted their strategies. one-to-one personal interaction is too risky and you can reach a wider audience in the virtual world

  2. You write ..” radicalism cannot be considered terrorism,’ And that “there is no single path to radicalization and that every country has its own particular features in “producing” radicalized youth.”

    Yet, there is one common denominator, mosques, Islamic centers, schools and social media that call for jihad indifferent forms. Follow them and you’ll find many of their followers.

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