Individual terror attacks in Italy, how to read them

On February 19th, 2021, a 23-years-old Somali refugee in an altered psychological state boarded tram number 5 in Rome’s Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, near the city’s Termini train station.

Armed with an iron bar and two fire extinguishers, and with his face covered by a garment, the individual began to threaten the passengers in a broken Italian and shouted several times the words “Allahu akbar”.

After numerous requests for intervention by the passengers and the driver, the police reached the scene and tried to calm the attacker down. The agents also noticed that the individual, who was in an increasing state of agitation, was also hiding unidentified objects under his jacket. At that point, the law enforcers decided to tackle and disarm the individual, who was immediately placed under arrest on charges of aggravated threat, receiving stolen goods, interruption of public service, and carrying abusive weapons. The individual was found in possession of several IDs belonging to other people, all probably stolen. [1] [2]

However, Italian authorities have indicated that, while the individual had a criminal record, he was not known for acts of terrorism or for radicalization.

Cases like this one have already occurred on Italian soil, for instance, on September 19th, 2019, Yemeni refugee Mahamed Fathe yelled “Allahu akbar” and attacked a soldier patrolling Milan’s “Stazione Centrale” train station, seriously wounding him to the throat with a pair of scissors, before being taken down by a brave 52-years-old Senegalese citizen who was passing by. [3] [4]

In May 2017, 21-years-old Italian/Tunisian Tommaso Hosni attacked an army patrol unit inside Milan’s “Stazione Centrale”. Police agents and military personnel managed to take away his two knives and place him under arrest. Once again, the attacker yelled “Allahu akbar” during the attack. [5]

On August 12th, 2020, a 26 years-old Egyptian immigrant legally resident on Italian soil was spotted while sitting on the stairs of Milan’s central Duomo cathedral by private security operators and police; the man attracted attention after behaving nervously and suspiciously. As the officers approached him for a check, the individual pulled out a knife and rushed towards the entrance of the Duomo, chased by a private security officer. The situation quickly deteriorated, with the attacker holding a knife against the guard. As more police agents reached the scene, the attacker went on for over 20 minutes threatening to behead the guard, before the law enforcers intervened with an adventurous initiative that fortunately turned out successful, as the individual was placed under arrest. [6] It is yet unclear if the Egyptian individual made any consistent ideological claims, however, the dynamics of the attack, the symbolism (the victim kneeling with a knife pointed at his throat), and the location (the city’s main Cathedral) are all elements that are worth pondering on.

A few thoughts

In relation to the February 19th 2021 attack in Rome, the assailant boarded the bus near the train station, while the two attacks in Milan also occurred at the train station. This could be due to the fact that train stations in Italy are usually areas where desperate individuals, street thugs, drug dealers, and other deviant individuals tend to gather; however, it is also true that such profiles can easily and quickly fall into the radicalization trap, no matter if the input comes from outside or if it’s the result of personal initiative.

At this point, the question is: can such an act be considered terrorism? The fact that there is no claim of responsibility by a known terrorist organization can be sufficient to exclude the ideological motivation? Are the words “Allahu akbar” accompanied by an act of violence directed against civilians, law enforcers or military personnel a combination that is strong enough to support the terrorist motive? Does the fact that an attacker is mentally unstable rule out the terrorist motive? (As it often happens) Would this mean that all terrorists are mentally stable and rational?

It surely isn’t an easy issue. One thing is for sure, terrorism has changed since 2011 with the arrival of Isis. Professor Marco Lombardi, director of the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies-Catholic University of Milan defined the Isis terrorist modus operandi as “terror franchising”, which is an extremely brilliant term that sharply explains a new way of conducting terror attacks. Basically, anyone today can wake up one morning, decide to perpetrate an attack with whatever everyday tool they can find, such as a knife, a screwdriver, a car used as a ram (a modus operandi already encouraged by both Al Qaeda and Isis) and then claim it on behalf of Isis. This is a win-win situation for both, the terror organization, and the individual because, while the first one gains great publicity from the attack, the second one can hit the media headlines and become “famous” (an important input for many marginalized, and unstable individuals who aspire to notoriety, no matter if positive or negative, or who simply want their voice to be heard).

In some cases, the claim of responsibility doesn’t even require to be done in the name of a terror organization, but the attacker can simply relate to an ideology, and that’s where the words “Allahu akbar” come in; stolen from their religious context by the Islamist extremists and turned into a slogan that, unfortunately, has become an expression of terror and violence, as used by the jihadists.

Additionally, taking note that terrorism has changed, it might be helpful to cite the definition of “terrorism” exposed by the director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Boaz Ganor: “a politically motivated act of violence against civilian targets”.

It doesn’t matter if behind the attack there is an organization, an independent and autonomous cell, or if it is the result of individual action. The objective of the terrorist is to generate terror among the population, in the name of an ideology, to obtain a political goal. Plain and simple. So yes, such acts as the ones seen in Rome and Milan could be classified as terrorist attacks, because they were perpetrated against civilians and representatives of the State, because there were no economic objectives (stealing), and because ideological elements are present. It doesn’t matter if the attacker was mentally unstable or not, because such a view would imply that all terrorists are mentally healthy, something quite hard to believe. It doesn’t even matter if the attacker meant what he said, because what really counts is the action and its objective, generating terror, and we define terrorism by the effects that it generates, and by its “motor”.


[1] https://www.ilgiornale.it/news/roma/sale-armato-sul-tram-e-urla-allah-u-akbar-arrestato-1925442.html

[2] https://www.ilmessaggero.it/roma/news/piazza_vittorio_minaccia_passeggeri_tram_spranga_estintore_roma-5777435.html

[3] https://www.milanotoday.it/cronaca/ambrogino-samba-diagne.html

[4]https://www.ilmessaggero.it/italia/terrorismo_feri_militare_davati_alla_stazione_centrale_chiesti_14_anni_di_carcere_per_fathe-5565655.html

[5]https://milano.repubblica.it/cronaca/2018/12/04/news/milano_hosni_aggressione_polizia_stazione_centrale_pena_ridotta_appello-213398308/

[6] https://www.ilgiornale.it/news/cronache/esclusiva-ecco-video-dellaggressione-duomo-1883163.html

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