Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: the present article follows the developments that have occurred since the 12 November arrests of ISIS-linked suspects across Europe, and led by Italy. These events have been documented already in our analyses by Elisa Sguaitamatti on 18 November and by Chris Deliso and Matteo Albertini on 23 November. The current developments indicate the continued manifestation of jihadist activity in the Balkans we have predicted over the past 13 years- while most media was ignoring or discrediting the possibility of a security problem with which Europe is unfortunately now grappling.
Four Kosovo citizens have been arrested by the Italian Police after the so-called “Van Damme” investigation that sought to end the activities of an organization allegedly involved in jihadist propaganda in Italy and abroad.
According to the inquiry, the group had “direct links with Syrian jihadist networks, and worked under the guidance of the notorious kosovar terrorist Lavdrim Muhaxheri,” according to the Brescia Procura’s statement at a 30 November press conference.
A Focus on Social Media and Extremism
The investigation began in 2014, after the discovery on Facebook of a group titled “With you or without you the Caliphate has returned.” Its members were assumed to be mostly in Syria. According to Giovanni De Stavola of DIGOS, the Italian police’s division for general investigations and special operations, “the group was directing its Daesh propaganda towards people coming from the Balkan region and residing in Italy. The four arrested were member of the group and have documented contacts with jihadist networks in the Balkans guided by Lavdrim Muhaxheri,” who has become the main point of reference for the foreign fighters coming from this geographic area. “We intervened in a phase of propaganda before problems could appear on the territory“ concluded De Stavola.
How the Jihadists Named the Police Investigation, and Who They Threatened
Amusingly enough, the name of the police operation derives from a conversational anecdote recorded by a phone tap of the suspects: “we are not Rambo neither Van Damme, we do the real thing,” one of the suspects reportedly boasted.
Most of the investigation was focused on Samet Imishti, allegedly the head of the group, and arrested in the eastern Kosovo village of Hani I Helezit. He took part in “armed conflict outside of Kosovo’s borders,” and reportedly specifically threatened on Facebook the former US ambassador to Kosovo, Tracy Ann Jacobson, whose term expired in August 2015. She had been in Kosovo during the time when it (and other Balkan countries) were drafting laws against foreign fighters, and starting to make large-scale roundups of radicalized locals.
According to the investigation, the aspiring jihadist referred to the US diplomat as “the American Jew” who “says that the new government will fight corruption (…) I say to this lady that as long as they stay in Kosovo there will be no justice (…) this unfaithful [woman] deserves the punishment of the sharia.”
The Rural Italian Bases of the Kosovar Cell
According to Italian police, Imishti used for his Italian headquarter the little town of Chiari, in the province of Brescia. In this house police also captured the second of the arrested men, his brother Ismail, who was later expelled under the charge of international terrorism. Along with him was arrested a third Kosovar, in the Italian province of Savona. This man was expelled following a decision from the Brescia public prosecutor.
The last Albanian Islamist arrested is a native of Macedonian Albanian residing in Vicenza province.
The Significance of the Special Surveillance Order
Very interestingly, this last individual had been subject of a special surveillance order: in fact, the decision to use this specific measure tells us that Italian investigators are now considering the members of international jihadist networks as similar to members of organized crime groups. Indeed, it was not by chance that this order was directly promulgated by Franco Roberti, Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor.
The special surveillance order is a debated and very specific kind of detention order envisaged in the Italian Penal Code, in Law 1423/56 and following modifications. It lays out the rules for pre-trial arrests, and it has frequently been called before the European Commission; lawyers have argued that it violates the European Convention on Human Rights, since it can be applied on the basis of sole suspects and without concrete proof of actual crime.
It is worth noting that this is hardly the first time a DIGOS investigation of suspected Balkan Islamic radicals has employed wiretapping techniques. For example, as Balkanalysis.com reported back in February 2007, a long-term DIGOS surveillance operation resulted in 29 arrests of Balkan Muslims in the Trento-Treviso area (the episode is discussed in detail in Chris Deliso’s The Coming Balkan Caliphate, also from 2007).
Other Aspects of the Investigation
The police commissioner in Brescia, Carmine Esposito, also ordered searches of the homes and workplaces of other people connected with the network in Brescia, Vicenza and Perugia, as well as in Kosovo with the cooperation of the police there. The commissioner also gave an order to check the web material confiscated during the investigation.
As he recalled during the political talk show Agorà on RaiTre last Monday, “in the houses searched in Kosovo we also found arms during a police operation, jointly organized by Italian and Kosovar police, which began contemporaneously in some Italian and Kosovar towns. [The arrested] represent profiles of high risk according to the characterization of Islamic terrorism, and specifically for their action of propaganda, recruitment, and financing of the so-called Islamic State. The crimes these people are charged with… are thus support for terrorism and incitement to racial hatred.”
Most of the investigation was conducted on the web, after the arrested men published on their social profiles photos of themselves holding guns. They also made comments supporting the propaganda of the Islamic State. In their chat groups were also found written threats to the Pope who, in their words, would soon “be visited by terrorists coming from the Middle East.” They warned that Francis would be “the last Pope.”
Balkan Jihadists Provide a New Media Fascination in Italy
As seems evident after last week’s arrests, Italy’s north-eastern regions show the recurring presence of foreign jihadists, as has been documented in Balkanalysis.com coverage of the investigations in recent years. Among them we recall the case of the Bosnian Imam Bosnić, who reportedly enrolled fighters for the jihad in Pordenone and Belluno, and more recently that of the Rawti Shax members in Merano and Trento in November of this year.
The last month of Balkan-related arrests has been covered extensively by Italian media, which seems to be getting more and more interested in international terrorist networks existing in Kosovo, and their possible relations with the Balkan migration route.
The Italian media attention has also been fuelled by reports in the Kosovo press. For example, the Pristina daily Koha Ditore – quoting anonymous sources – recently reported that seven Kosovar Muslims, allegedly supporters of the Islamic State and currently in villages near the Macedonian capital of Skopje, may be planning terrorist attacks against Kosovo. Similarly, a different Kosovar daily, Zeri, also wrote that in the northern section of Kosovska Mitrovica – inhabited by Orthodox Serb minority – threatening graffiti praising the Islamic State has been noticed.
Incidents like this and increasing media attention indicate that ISIS-related activities involving the Balkans in some way are unfortunately going to become more regularly noted in European media in the new year.