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Lone Wolves Pack stalks Milan

29/10/2009

A couple of weeks have passed since 35-year old Libyan Mohamed Game attempted, in an alleged  revenge for Italian involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, to carry out a suicide attack on the Santa Barbara army barracks in Milan, where forces going to Afghanistan are based.

Using a fertilizer-based explosive concealed in a tool box, Game detonated his bomb in the morning of October 12, apparently as a reference to 12 November 2003 when a suicide bomber blew up an Italian military police base in Iraq killing 19 Italians. The bomb failed to completely explode, mutilating Game (his hand was amputated, he was blinded by shrapnel and remains on life support), while only injuring one guard at the base.

The attack raised speculation about possible connections with other extremists in Italy. Game had apparently been a congregant at the infamous Viale Jenner Mosque in Milan and the barracks he targeted where on the list of possible targets of a cell arrested in Milan last December. However, the President of the Milan Islamic Institute in Viale Jenner, Abdel Hamid Shaari (also of Libyan extraction), said he had only seen Game a couple of times at the Mosque and police rapidly dismissed these connections saying Game had not been on their radar before.

The next day, however the police arrested two men in connection with the attack: 52 year-old Egyptian engineer Abdel Haziz Mahmoud Kol and 33-year old Libyan electrician, Mohammed Imbaeya Israfel. The day before his arrest Israfel had been interviewed about Game, and had said that Game had been “talking about jihad generally in the last month,” that “it was likely suicide” was his intention, and “he probably wanted to end his life and go to paradise” (rough translation of mine).

None of the men had appeared in any serious way on police radars before ( even though Israfel’s home had been searched in July) and Italian security services continue to call the group an independent cell with no connections to a wider terror network or to Italian radical milieu’s.

And this is most alarming: all three men are apparently below any radar. All three had their papers in order, two were employed (Game had lost his business a couple of years ago), and Kol and Game were both married with children. According to the security services, the three men self-radicalized and formed a cell, they set up a bomb factory (in a flat rented by Kol, went to nearby Corvetta to buy 120kgs of fertilizer and other reagents then used a recipe taken off the internet to mix the explosive. Kol apparently drove Game to the scene of the attack.

It seems to me that other details should be investigated: in the flat, 40 more kilos of fertilizer were found; there was a fridge full of food which could indicate that more than just three men were present and a mysterious “list of important people’s families” was found. It also seems unclear where their money came from given all three were living in rather tough circumstances (some reports suggest that Kol and Game were squatters). Game and his wife were even interviewed in August by alocal news show to show the plight of poor families in Milan.

It is perfectly likely that this group will turn out to be a cell of lone wolves who, aggrieved at their downtrodden situation in Italy and stirred up by the nation’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, concluded that a path of violence was their only option left.

This is not the first time such incidents have occurred in Italy – on September 11th, 2003, Jordanian Mohammed Al Khatib tried to blow himself up outside a synagogue in Modena, while on March 29th, 2004, Moroccan Moustafà Chaouki attempted a similar action outside a McDonald’s in Brescia. In both instances, the wannabe-suicide bombers and their cars were the only victims, though they both left letters behind explaining what they were doing, something Game has not done. The only hint of a rationale behind his action is the disputed allegation that he shouted something about Italian involvement in Afghanistan before blowing himself up.

All of which suggests that the combination of dissatisfaction and Al Qaeda’s single narrative is one that appeals to a growing constituency in Italy. It is still too early to dismiss possible connections between the cell and others but the seeming surprise with which the police were caught and the relatively amateurish nature of the attempt all suggest that none may be uncovered.

Italian investigators should be alarmed as this could suggest that the problem of radicalization in Italy has moved beyond the traditional networks of North Africans providing support for fighters going to Afghanistan or Iraq (which in some cases stems from previous networks sending support to Bosnia), to a domestic problem which is refusing to go away and is a source of violent anger amongst the community of Muslims in Italy.

The call by Interior Minister (and Lega Nord member) Roberto Maroni who called for a profiling of Muslim communities based on the radicalization model of Game to identify possible threats in the future and the hawkish statements aimed at the Viale Jenner mosque by Defence Minister Ignazio la Russa suggest that the social aspect of the problem will most likely not be addressed.

What is worrying is how many more cells alike may be operating beneath the radar and how long it will be before one of them gets their explosive blend right.

 

UPDATE:

Since publishing this, a friend has pointed out to me that the Viale Jenner link may be stronger than Shaari indicated in his telling. Stories in the respected Corriere della Sera and more right-leaning Il Giornale, show photographic evidence that he was involved in a Ramadan event being held near (and organized by) the Mosque in September of this year. The Giornale report goes so far as to say he served as security at the event, suggesting a possible closer link.