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Italy Takes the Lead in a European Anti-terrorism Operation

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

At least 15 suspected members of an Islamist militant group called Rawti Shax were arrested by Italian police on Thursday 12 November. Italian authorities declared that Rawti Shax, which means “the New Course,” is a Kurdish-Sunni Muslim group that seeks to topple the government in the Kurdistan province of Iraq.

Further, the group had Europe-based “sleeper” and active terrorist cells with radicalized militants based in Britain, Norway, Finland, Germany, Italy, Greece and Switzerland as well as in Iran, Iraq and Syria. All of its members were either willing to become suicide bombers, or to volunteers to be trained for the anticipated future conflict in Kurdistan.

Background: A Five-Year Investigation of Web-based Jihadism

The multiple police raids were based on 17 European warrants (16 Kurds and one Kosovar). The police raids and subsequent investigations confirmed that the radical movement was allegedly planning to target and to take European diplomats hostage, whether in Europe or the Middle East. The group was also said to be responsible for logistical and financial support to fighters in Syria.

In a statement, Italian police said the arrests were the “result of complex and protracted investigations” that began in 2010 following the discovery of a “jihadi” website ideologically affiliated with al-Qaeda in the middle of Europe.

This Italian intelligence-led investigation called “JWeb” had been monitoring the group’s communications via the Internet for five years. The use of the internet allowed the suspects to erase the distance between members, who were residents of several European countries. This enabled them to maintain strong cohesion, reinforced by periodic online chats.

Italy’s national ROS Carabinieri took the lead in collaboration with security forces in Britain, Norway, Finland, Germany and Switzerland, finding out both the structure and the operations of the terrorist organization. Moreover, Italian investigators have claimed to possess documented evidence of the radical and violent ideology of Rawti Shax, which was purchasing weapons in the Netherlands and at the same time trying to establish other “sleeper cells” in Italy and the Netherlands. These were to recruit, proselytize and radicalize militants online.

Events in Norway and a Kosovo Connection

At the same time, in Norway a major role was played by the radical Iraqi preacher Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad, known as Mullah Krekar. Besides being the founder of another extremist group called Ansar Al-Islam, he was serving an 18-month term in prison after having praised the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in January 2015, and for encouraging Muslims to commit criminal acts during a television interview.

This would seem to prove that, in spite of the major rivalries between al Qaeda and the Islamic State on the Syrian and Libyan battlefields, the silent actions of small-scale “entrepreneurs of terror” like Mullah Krekar are what seem to be so alarming in Europe today. Krekar was recorded on a wiretap in November 2012 saying that “death for us is martyrdom…and we are ready against anyone who occupies Kurdistan…Americans, Russians or others.” Krekar also said that “for these (people) who have burned the Koran, at least 100 people are ready to do justice in Europe and Kurdistan.”

The final arrest warrant in the recent police operation was for a Kosovar citizen, Eldin Hodza, the only non-Kurdish involved in the terrorist network. The Italian police did not clarify immediately whether he had been arrested. All the militants were charged with fostering criminal association for international terrorism.

Italian Coordination of a Joint European Security Operation

Thanks to the constant cooperation between European police authorities, simultaneous raids in Italy, the UK and Norway were coordinated by the Italian public prosecutor, Franco Roberti, head of Italy’s anti-mafia and anti-terrorism unit. During a press conference following the police action, he praised “the professionalism of the lawyers and ROS investigators” who had to face this very complex issue by utilizing the best technological strategies to acquire all necessary information.

Additionally, Roberti underlined that “international cooperation worked really well this time,” with a series of meetings organized by the Italian investigators with their European colleagues held at Eurojust, the EU’s Judicial Cooperation Unit located in The Hague.

The success of the joint counter-terrorism operation was also confirmed by Giancarlo Pignatone, Rome’s Public Prosecutor, who explained later that the Kosovar suspect was planning to move from Switzerland (where he was stopped) to Turkey and then to Syria.

Further, Giancarlo Capaldo, Rome’s Special Public Prosecutor, clarified that the international team had been following recent geopolitical events and the movements of the suspects, who had chosen to affiliate themselves with the Islamic State: “We saw some fighters leave for Syria and die in the conflict,” he said.

For his part, the General Commander in Chief of ROS Carabinieri, Giuseppe Governale, remarked that this “JWeb” operation came to an end on 12 November- the same date that in 2003 some Italian journalists, members of the police and soldiers died in a terrorist attack in Nassiriya. He also maintained that “it is the most important police operation that has ever been achieved in Europe over the last twenty years.”

Finally, the Minister of Interior, Angelino Alfano, commented on the event. “It is a wonderful day for the Italian state and the Italian team,” he said. “In one day, ROS Carabinieri carried out one of the most important counter-terrorism operations, which shows how strong the state is and how essential the international cooperation is. We are a country exposed to the international risk of terrorism because we are part of that great international coalition that is opposed to the caliphate. Italy’s preventive measures worked, but no country is immune.”

These comments were tragically illustrated just a day after the Italian-led operations, with the massive terrorist attacks in Paris claimed by Islamic State. All of these turbulent events indicate that enhanced police cooperation across Europe is going to be more prominent – and necessary – as the struggle against terrorism continues.