China and Russia response to NATO’s increased attention to the Pacific ocean

by Andrea Molle.

The Sino-Russian response to NATO diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific, including the recent Italian efforts, was not long in coming. After the rumors of a new liaison office of the Alliance opening in Japan were confirmed, a hypothesis deliberately omitted from the official statement following Vilnius, the two countries have announced the beginning of a joint naval exercise in the Sea of Japan. The Sea of Japan is a crucial strategic theater for China and Russia. In particular, the Straits of Soya, Tsushima, and Tsugaru have essential implications for the national security of Beijing and Moscow. On Saturday, China’s Defense Minister said that Russian naval and air forces would participate in the “Northern/Interaction” military exercises organized by the Northern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

It should be noted that military relations between the two countries are nothing but new; for example, since 2018, China has regularly participated in major Russian exercises, including “Vostok 2018”, “Tsentr-2019,” and “Kavkaz-2020”. In August 2021, Russia also participated in the “Western/Interaction” exercises conducted in northwestern China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the first in which China invited foreign militaries. In 2022, Beijing sent contingents of its land, naval, and air forces to Russia to participate in the “Vostok 2022” exercises, which took place in 13 Russian sites and various areas of interest in the Sea of Japan.

However, this latest joint training campaign, which adds to the joint patrol activity of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea by the two Armed Forces, which began last June, seems a leap towards a fully committed strategic partnership. The Chinese Ministry of Defense stressed that while these joint exercises have an operational purpose, i.e., to improve the necessary capabilities to secure strategic sea routes, the development of closer military imposes China and Russia as the absolute guarantors of peace and stability in the region.

Several military experts also predict that these training activities will increase in the future, also thanks to a rotation between all five PLA commands, which could affect different strategic theaters and conflict scenarios, among which, of course, Taiwan.

Details about the Russian naval contingent are not yet known, but the Chinese squad includes the Qiqihar and Guiyang missile destroyers, the Zaozhuang and Rizhao missile frigates, and the supply ship Taihu, which set sail from the port of Qingdao, located in the Shandong province in eastern China.

#ReaCT2023, n. 4: the annual Report on Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe.

As Director of the Observatory on Radicalization and Counterterrorism in Europe (ReaCT), I am pleased to introduce our fourth annual Report – #ReaCT2023, which provides a comprehensive analysis of the evolving threat represented by terrorism in Europe.

This report is conceived as a unique combination of both a scientific journal and a book, with contributions from various authors and researchers who devoted their time, expertise, and insights into making this report a reality. I am grateful to all of them for their important contributions and tireless efforts.

I also want to thank the Italian Ministry of Defense, for their esteem and renewed trust in the Observatory I lead, and for granting their sponsorship on the occasion of the official presentation of this report, and the Centre for Defense Higher Studies – Centro Alti Studi per la Difesa (CASD) in Rome. My gratitude also extends to the Italian Ministry of the Interior which, thanks to the contribution of the Central Directorate for Prevention Police – Direzione Centrale della Polizia di Prevenzione (DCPP) to this publication, allowed us to add further insight into the comprehension and definition of the contemporary threat that ideological radicalisation and violent terrorism represent at the moment.

In Europe there were 50 attacks in 2022, compared to 73 in 2021 – including in the UK and in Switzerland. Over the past three years, from a quantitative perspective, the frequency of terrorist attacks remained linear. According to GTI 2023, Europe is ranked as the third region most hit by terrorism, following Russia and Eurasia, and Central America and the Caribbean.

The report highlights the ever-changing nature of Jihadism which, while spreading and radicalizing, has undergone multiple transformations since its inception in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Al Qa’ida was the embodiment of the globalized and radicalized movement until the so-called Islamic State terror group surfaced in 2014, espousing a more extreme approach. The defeat of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria in 2017-18 marked the first tangible defeat for the jihadist movement. National jihadist movements, mostly nurtured by global jihadists, are now back in fashion, with the Sahel region at the epicenter of Jihadism.

The report also highlights the threat represented by right-wing extremism, left-wing and anarchist terrorism, disinformation, conspiracy theories and white supremacism, which requires urgent attention; developing risk assessment tools that take into account vetting practices in extreme right-wing radicalization processes is crucial.

In light of a changing world and of the conflict playing out on the threshold of Europe, it is essential that we adapt our interpretative paradigms of the threat, and that we question the definition of terrorism, the approach to countering radicalization processes, and the relocation of terrorism itself in the new conflict scenario. Crisis management in the 21st century presents unique challenges due to interconnected and interdependent contexts, making prediction difficult.

The report also highlights the danger of jihadist terrorism in the Balkan region, which remains a threat to Italian and European security. Italy has implemented various initiatives to counter this threat, particularly at the level of international peacekeeping missions. Civil society organizations play a crucial role in preventing and countering violent extremism, but they also face sensitive challenges in their relationships with counter-terrorism actors.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to a recent publication which looks at “where the fight against radicalisation and international terrorism by means of criminal law is going”, and a research project which offers “an empirical study of Spanish jurisprudence dealing with jihadist terrorism over the past 21 years”. The project, focused on the Spanish system, offers constructive proposals aimed at combining the challenges posed by this criminal phenomenon with the granting of fundamental human rights and explores the potential of Restorative Justice.

In conclusion, this year’s report is a testament to the strength and dedication of our community of scholars and practitioners within the ongoing fight against radicalisation and terrorism. I hope that the insights presented in this report will contribute to a better understanding of the evolving threat of terrorism in Europe and serve as a call to action for all stakeholders to work together to prevent and counter violent extremism.

I’d like to thank all the authors: with their commendable work, they have once again contributed to the successful realization of our annual Report, #ReaCT2023. A special thanks for their support also goes to Chapman University in Orange, California, Università della Svizzera italiana – USI in Lugano and Piattaforma cantonale di prevenzione della radicalizzazione e dell’estremismo violento (Canton of Ticino, Switzerland). Last but not least, as usual, to the Editor – START InSight, for making this publication possible and for its contribution to the international distribution.

Claudio Bertolotti, Observatory ReaCt – The Executive Director

Hard copy available (via Amazon)

Go to the Index and download #ReaCT2023

Ukraine (D+95) Struggle for the Donbas: how the Russians are learning from their errors. By General Mick Ryan.

by Mick Ryan, AM, Strategist, Leader & Author, Retired Army Major General


In the 95 days since Russia invaded #Ukraine, I have explored adaptation and how military institutions learn during war. Today I examine what the last couple of weeks in the Donbas tells us about how the Russians are learning in the ongoing #adaptation battle.

Sir Michael Howard wrote in “The Uses and Abuses of Military History” that military institutions normally get the next war wrong, mostly for reasons beyond their control. As such, an important virtue for military organizations must be adaptability to unexpected events.

In March I explored the concept of adaptation in war, as well as how Russian transformation efforts since 2008 appear to have paid minimal dividends for them at the tactical and strategic levels. In the last few weeks, the Russians have made steady, if slow, progress in the conduct of its eastern offensive in the Donbas. The Russian advances is an indication that they are learning from their earlier failures.

Before exploring this in detail, a short detour is necessary to define a framework for exploring where the Russians have learned. I will use some of the principles of war.Military organisations use these principles to instruct soldiers, develop common tactics, and to organise combat & support formations. The principles are, in effect, maxims that represent essential truths about the practice of successful wars, military campaigns & operations. In the context of this exploration of Russian learning, three principles of war in particular stand out. These are: selection and maintenance of the aim; concentration of force; and cooperation.

In any military action, the aim must be simple, widely understood and within the means of the forces available. The initial Russian war aims were broad ranging and did not count on massive western military aid to Ukraine. It quickly became clear that these aims were beyond Russian military capacity. The Russians were using an invading military that was smaller than that of the state it was attacking, and it failed. More recently, the Russians – as highlighted in briefings by senior Russian officers – have consolidated their aims to narrower objectives in the east. And they have shifted their forces to give themselves a better chance at achieving these tighter strategic goals.

Concentration of effort. Success in war often depends on achieving a concentration of military force at the most time and place. This should then be supported by efforts such as information operations and diplomacy to magnify the impact of the concentrated military forces. And at the higher level, the Russians have appointed a senior Russian general as the overall commander of the Ukrainian campaign. He has overseen a brutal and destructive approach in the east, but the Russians are likely to see their limited gains as major successes.

But sustaining tactical learning to generate an operational advantage will be a significant challenge given other Russian leadership shortfalls. And is it too little, too late?

This begs a larger question: what might be the impact of this Russian tactical learning be on the overall conduct of the war? And given the intensity of Russia’s eastern operations, will they remain capable of offensive operations after the next few weeks?

This depends on Russian logistics, Ukrainian defensive strategy, the inflow of western aid, and the conduct of Ukrainian offensives elsewhere that might draw away Russian forces. And short-term tactical adaptation (though hard) is simpler than long term strategic adaptation. Murray, Knox and Bernstein have written “it is more important to make correct decisions at the political and strategic level than at the tactical level. Mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.”

Russia has demonstrated some capacity to learn from its tactical failures. But its national ability learn and adapt to the economic, diplomatic, informational and other impacts of its flawed strategy to invade Ukraine remains to be seen. This will probably prolong the war.

Editor Claudio Bertolotti, Director START InSight, @cbertolotti1

#ReaCT2022: The 3rd Report on Terrorism and Radicalisation in Europe

Available to download from 24th February in Italian and English on www.osservatorioreact.it and info@startinsight.eu

#ReaCT2022 includes 15 contributions on jihadism and other forms of violent extremism characterising the current threat landscape, which acquired further strength and visibility throughout the pandemic. This Report aims at fostering long-term dialogue and collaboration with institutional and academic actors who are concerned with the issue of radicalisation. #ReaCT2022 is addressed to security personnel, social workers, the media, students, researchers and last but not least, the general audience.

Violent extremism, radicalization and case studies.  The contents of the Report.  The overall contents of the 2022 Report ranges from numbers and profiles of jihadist terrorists in Europe, to a discussion of New Insurrectional Terrorism (NIT), which draws renewed strength and motivation from the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan; from an analysis of the sub-Saharan context where jihadist organisations are characterised by globalist rhetoric but remain deeply connected to local dynamics, to European commitment in helping the Western Balkans prevent violent radicalisation; from an overview of the terrorism cases tried by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court since 9/11 to the dynamics of online jihadist communities; from the new horizons of radicalization, which broadened during the pandemic and require that more attention be paid to group dynamics and social problems linked to violence; to several articles focussing on the far-right, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, the NoVax movement; to case studies on the social reintegration of radicalized minors and deradicalization within the neo-Nazi context, which highlight the approach and the work carried out by Italian authorities. Finally, the Report includes considerations on the updating of Terrorism Risk Assessment Instruments (TRA-I), which are developed with the aim of being able to better assess the threat posed by radicalization processes and related activities; reflections on future war scenarios; a review of the recent book titled “Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy”.

ReaCT – National Observatory on Radicalisation and Counterterrorism (Rome) was founded by a team of experts and professionals from START InSight – Strategic Analysts and Research Team, a research and editorial production company based in Lugano (Switzerland); ITSTIME – Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues & Managing Emergencies, a research center within the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (Milan); CEMAS – Centro interdipartimentale per la ricerca scientifica e la cooperazione con l’Eurasia, il Mediterraneo e l’Africa Subsahariana, La Sapienza University (Rome); SIOIThe Italian Society for International Organization (Rome).

Europa Atlantica and Gruppo Italiano Studio Terrorismo (GRIST) also joined ReaCT as partners.

The Observatory includes a Board of Directors, a Steering Scientific Committee, a Parliamentary Committee and a Permanent Working Group.

All information on the website www.osservatorioreact.it info@startinsight.eu

After the fall of Kabul: what’s next? The threat evolves into “New Insurrectional Terrorism” (NIT)

by Claudio Bertolotti

The ideological and territorial spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has triggered a latent global jihadist violence. The Taliban triumph in Afghanistan has given new vital impetus to international jihadism and it is now presented by jihadist propaganda as the victory of Islam over the West and its corrupt values. This happens in contrast with the Taliban approach to jihad, which is limited to bless their national success: a national liberation war, in opposition to the IS-K and other groups who are looking for a global triumph.

But regardless of this, the victory of the Taliban and the opposition to the post-Islamic state terrorist galaxy it’s already having direct effects on the will and on the operational capacity of jihadist terrorist groups and individuals at a global level: from the communicative-propaganda aspect to the tactical and operational one.

Over the past 20 years terror groups, cells and individual jihadi fighters alike have begun to increasingly display new tactics, which they exported to, and adapted for, the contemporary and the future jihadi war. A first, bitter taste of things to come were the Mumbai attacks of 2008, when a group of ten terrorists divided into smaller groups mounted a siege which lasted for almost three days. Western cities have since occasionally become the set of complex suicide attacks and team-raids, and more often of individual assaults where the perpetrator efficiently exploits techniques learned in Middle Eastern war theaters. “Islamic State” or al-Qaeda militants and sympathizers have proven widely capable of carrying out deadly attacks and to pose a direct threat to the security of citizens and national institutions. As such, contemporary terrorism can be described and must be recognized as a phenomenon with military characteristics or inspiration, particularly since IS with its external operations came onto the stage.

“New Insurrectional Terrorism” (NIT): is revolutionary, subversive and utopian[1]

Today, after the fall of Kabul and the success gained by the Taliban, the specter of terrorism hangs over the space of the Afghan, or Syrian, or Libyan, or Sahel battlefields. Can we claim that the significant increase in jihadi-terror-linked violence recorded in the world and in Europe in the last 20 years is consistent with the classical concept of terrorism?

Terrorist attacks occurring between 2015 and 2018 in Europe, United States, as well as in North African or Middle Eastern countries do confirm the effective operational capability of the terror groups, in particular the Islamic state, whose nature shifted over time from a proto-state reality with territorial control, to what we can deem a de-nationalized, borderless phenomenon. “Leaderless jihad”, which anticipates IS, was perfected by the latter, as “aspiring” fighters were prevented from travelling and therefore chose to strike their home countries. What we are facing today has already been dubbed “New Insurrectional Terrorism” (NIT),[2] a concept which essentially includes all attempts at disrupting the national and/or international political order through violence. NIT is revolutionary and utopian, and whereas terrorism is functional, insurrectional terrorism continuously evolves. The aim of this new “breed” does not consist in instigating the masses with a view to overthrowing governments, rather in persuading a large number of Muslims all over the world to join the fight against the “infidels” insisting on a narrative supported by the victory of [their interpretation of] Islam in Afghanistan and at the same time presenting that victory as a reason to avoid any compromise with western countries.

This emerging “New Insurrectional Terrorism” has therefore nothing to do with the political terrorism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It surfaced in the Middle East following the US invasion of Iraq (2003) and developed in the mid-2000s. It attracted world attention in 2014, due to its battlefield victories in Iraq and Syria (and then in Afghanistan). Today, however, IS – which main affiliate group is still fighting in (and possibly from) Afghanistan – has lost most of what it conquered over the past ten years: territories, energy resources, access to trade and finance channels. Its media appeal, though, is still strong and will utilize the Afghan success and the ongoing campaign as a “clear example”, also directed against the Taliban described as corrupted.

The loss of “territory” forced IS to concentrate, on the one hand, on its franchise activities abroad, especially in areas of crisis, with a new social approach which includes outsourcing of violence based on the reciprocal recognition between the IS central organization and local groups and opposition movements. Its message tries to turn thousands of radicalized individuals and dozens of young people and armed opposition groups into smart and ready “proximity weapons” prepared to “kill and die” in the name of the Caliphate.

In brief, “New Insurrectional Terrorism” consists in the use of violence, or threatened use of intentional, calculated, rational, self-justified violence in order to achieve political, religious and ideological goals. NIT is defined by characterizing elements. The nature of the terrorist activity consists in using (or threatening to use) violence in order to reach a political objective. It is complex and, above all, unpredictable, revolutionary, subversive and with a view to establish a proto-state aiming to obtain the “monopoly of force” within a geographical area. Furthermore, it contains political, socio-economic and religious aspects (justified on religious and apocalyptic grounds) and can be described as “stra-ctical” because of its strategic nature is being conveyed through tactics which must not necessarily be interconnected. Its nature is “glo-cal”, transnational, borderless and based on “flexibility and adaptability”. Its targets are represented by political, civilian, military, religious and symbolic combatants, as well as non-combatants. It is symbiotic: it “outsources” violence supported by emulative effects, and as a response to the “call to jihad”.

We can find all these elements in the (re)emerging phenomenon of the Islamic state which is findings new energies in the defeat of the United States in Afghanistan. What emerges from this description, is a threat to security represented by a contemporary, new form of terrorism: a phenomenon which adapts and evolves without a temporal or geographically-defined goal. NIT simply wants to impose a new societal model (the Caliphate) by tearing down alternatives and will use the symbolism associated with the Afghan war to exalt the “victory of Islam” obtained thanks to the sacrifice of “martyrs” and the “divine blessing”.

[1] Bertolotti C., Sulmoni C. (2021), How the Twenty-Year Afghanistan War Paved the Way for New Insurrectional Terrorism, in Carenzi S., Bertolotti C. (2021) “Charting Jihadism Twenty Years After 9/11”, Dossier ISPI, 11 settembre 2021

[2] Bertolotti C. (2015), NIT: Il ‘Nuovo Terrorismo Insurrezionale’. Dalla ‘5+5 Defense Initiative 2015’ il cambio di approccio alla minaccia dello Stato islamico, Analysis ISPI n. 292. In https://www.ispionline.it/sites/default/files/pubblicazioni/analisi292_bertolotti_16.12.2015.pdf.

News analysis: G20 aid to Afghanistan first step on a long journey (Xinhua)

Claudio Bertolotti comments on the results of the G20 on Afghanistan: Xinhua

Original article by Eric J. Lyman, “The Saxon” 14 October 2021

Rome (Italy), October 14: The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country in mid-August has sparked a series of problems in the country of nearly 40 million people and beyond, but for the Group of 20 (G20) countries the top priority now is to manage the brewing humanitarian crisis there.

Concerns abound over abuses of human rights (especially for women and girls); the spread of coronavirus; the migration of fleeing Afghans to other countries; the danger of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for transnational terrorists again; and the recognition of the Taliban as the country’s legitimate authority.

Speaking after the conclusion of an extraordinary one-day meeting of the G20 leaders on Tuesday, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the G20 had an “enormous responsibility” to foster stability in the country.

“What we have is a growing humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan and that is something we must tackle immediately,” he told reporters.

The G20’s focus on humanitarian challenges is a significant first step toward dealing with the challenges in Afghanistan

According to Claudio Bertolotti, a researcher with the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), a think tank, and co-founder of the Observatory of Radicalization and Counter-Terrorism, the G20’s focus on humanitarian challenges is a significant first step toward dealing with the challenges in Afghanistan.

“If the G20’s first step had been to reach a consensus on whether or not to recognize the Taliban or to insist on human rights, that would have been too divisive and the talks could have fallen apart,” Bertolotti told Xinhua. “But focusing on what Draghi called the ‘growing humanitarian catastrophe’ was something everyone could agree on.”

That is a point Draghi stressed even while stating that other topics remained important. “There has basically been a convergence of views on the need to address the humanitarian emergency,” Draghi said. “This is how we can hope to overcome inevitable differences when it comes to foreign policy.”

The task at hand requires a series of concrete actions from the G20 member states. On Tuesday, for example, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the European Union (EU) would spend one billion euros (1.15 billion U.S. dollars) on humanitarian assistance in the country.

Draghi said that the priorities include propping up Afghanistan’s fragile banking system and keeping the airport in the capital of Kabul operational as these were essential for delivering humanitarian aid. He said it was equally important to continue the fight against the spread of coronavirus in the country.

focusing on humanitarian issues now does not prevent the G20 and other multilateral groups from addressing the other prickly issues in the coming months or years.

Much of the aid to Afghanistan will be funneled through the United Nations (UN), but multiple news reports said some countries would still provide direct country-to-country aid, even though most states have not recognized the Taliban government. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will also play key roles, Draghi said.

According to Bertolotti, focusing on humanitarian issues now does not prevent the G20 and other multilateral groups from addressing the other prickly issues in the coming months or years.

“Finding agreement on humanitarian issues was important but not terribly surprising,” Bertolotti said. “Those issues will be addressed later, either in the G20 or in other contexts or even by individual countries.”

Source: Xinhua

Afghanistan: the G20 wants shared and comprehensive action (EuroNews)

Claudio Bertolotti, START InSight Director and ISPI Associate Researcher, comments on the outcomes and perspectives of the G20 on Afghanistan.

The G20’s focus on humanitarian challenges is a significant first step toward dealing with the challenges in Afghanistan. If the G20’s first step had been to reach a consensus on whether or not to recognize the Taliban or to insist on human rights, that would have been too divisive and the talks could have fallen apart. But focusing on what Draghi called the ‘growing humanitarian catastrophe’ was something everyone could agree on.

C. Bertolotti, START InSight Director

Focusing on humanitarian issues now does not prevent the G20 and other multilateral groups from addressing the other prickly issues in the coming months or years.
“Finding agreement on humanitarian issues was important but not terribly surprising. Those issues will be addressed later, either in the G20 or in other contexts or even by individual countries.

C. Bertolotti, START InSight Director

Report #ReaCT2021 – Director’s note: terrorism in the time of Covid-19

In my role as Executive Director of the ReaCT Observatory, I am honoured to introduce #ReaCT2021, the 2nd Report on Radicalisation and Counter-Terrorism in Europe.

This report offers a concise analysis on the evolution of radical ideologies and terrorist threats in accordance with the European Union directive 2017/541 on the fight against terrorism and is meant as a useful contribution, within the wider public debate, to the harmonisation of member States’ discrepancies around what should be defined and treated as terrorism.

The Observatory mainly focuses on jihadism; however, we make sure to afford enough room and support for studies on other forms of terrorism, ideological radicalisation and social deviance, as well as “conspiracy theories” leading to violent outcomes.

In their assessments, the authors who submitted their work for this issue of #ReaCT2021 took into account the repercussions of new social and conflict dynamics brought about by COVID-19.

Due to other priorities, the pandemic seemed to have sidelined terrorism when, all of a sudden, October 2020 revived the threat which had apparently been overcome. From early September to early November, a successive chain of events clearly highlighted a dramatic and articulated scenario. Those sixty days of fear tell us that terrorism is now a “normal” rather than an ‘exceptional’ phenomenon, as an instrument of the ongoing conflict.

2019-2020: the evolution of European jihadist terrorism

In 2019 according to Europol there were 119 successful, failed or thwarted attacks: 56 of these were carried out by ethno-nationalist and separatist groups; 26 by extreme left radical and anarchist groups; 6 by far right groups; 24 were jihadist, of which 3 were successful and 4 unsuccessful. In the same year, START InSight’s database listed 19 jihadist actions / events (as compared to the 7 reported by Europol); in 2020, the number goes up to 25.

In 2019, jihadists were responsible for all deaths from terrorism in Europe: according to Europol, 10 people lost their lives and 26 were injured (1 person was injured in a far-right attack). START InSight recorded a higher number of people with injuries (48), who were mostly victims of marginal and emulative attacks. In 2020 there was a significant increase in deaths: 16 people were killed and 55 were injured.

The long wave of terrorism which hit Europe following the emergence of the “Islamic State” phenomenon recorded 146 jihadist attacks from 2014 to 2020: 188 terrorists took part in these attacks (59 among them died in action); 406 people lost their lives; 2,421 were injured (START InSight’s database).

Cases of recidivism are on the rise: 3 out of 10 in 2020. START InSight also spotted an increase in actions carried out by terrorists already known to European police forces or intelligence services: 54% of the total in 2020.

An increase in the number of irregular migrants heightens the potential risk of terrorism: 20% of terrorists are irregular immigrants. In France, the number of irregular immigrants involved in terrorist attacks is growing. Until 2017, no attack had seen the participation of irregular immigrants; in 2018, 15% of terrorists were irregular immigrants: in 2020, they reached 40%.

Islamic State and al-Qaeda online terrorist propaganda during the Covid-19 emergency

Propaganda activities carried out during the Covid-19 pandemic and the attacks which took place in Paris, Nice and Vienna, recall how dynamic terrorism associated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda remains, especially through the Internet. In particular, the Islamic State confirmed its aggressive narrative, identifying the Coronavirus as a “soldier of Allah”. An ally, set out to punish the “infidels”, above all the military and police forces.

The concepts and importance of preventing and countering violent extremism (PVE/CVE)

PVE and CVE gradually became an integral part of the global counter-terrorism architecture. In order to be long-term and effective, these policies and projects require a constant dialogue among researchers, practitioners, law enforcement agencies and legislators which also sets out priorities and expectations. Measuring the results of these activities remains a difficult task but several European think tanks are already bent on the issue.

Countering radicalisation and terrorism via criminal law: problems and perspectives

By its very nature, counterterrorism criminal law does not affect the causes of radicalisation and terrorism. An overarching and disproportionate resort to criminal law may even produce crime-inducing side effects: radicalisation shall be addressed as a reversible process. Counterterrorism criminal law in Europe is generally prison-based, even with regard to facts that arguably do not harm legal goods or interests.

The terror threat in the UK. The challenge: identify, define, arrest and convict

The complexity of the terror threat picture faced by the UK was recently highlighted through court cases which have frustrated the efforts of the security and intelligence forces. The cases that are now emerging are so disconnected from terrorist networks, are planning such random acts and the tools of terrorism are becoming so banal that it has become almost impossible to entirely shield yourself from the threat. But it has also become almost impossible to prove who might be going in this direction. This is creating a new generation of radicals that authorities struggle to identify, define, arrest and convict.

A look at the Balkan gate to Europe

The attack which took place in Vienna in November 2020 drew attention to the issue of terrorism in Europe, especially in the Balkan Area. It also focused such attention on jihadist presence in the Balkan countries, which could become a potential logistical hub for jihadism towards Europe.

Lessons learned from Kosovo’s experience in repatriating former foreign fighters: the small Western Balkan nation of Kosovo repatriated 110 citizens, including men, women, and children, in April 2019, making it one of a very small number of countries that has actively repatriated citizens involved with the Islamic State. The paper also includes what lessons can be learned by EU countries in handling the complex issue of how to manage the return of foreign fighters and their families.

The other terrorisms: far-right, extreme left and the new QAnon phenomenon in pandemic times

The pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus has also had significant effects on the relational and communicative strategies and methodologies typical of both far-right and extreme left-wing environments. Right-wing violent extremism, a phenomenon in expansion in the West, appears to be acquiring a transnational character and has an emerging symbiotic, mutually-reinforcing interdependent relationship with Islamist extremism. This interdependence poses additional threats to European security.

A threat to democracy is QAnon, a conspiracy theory movement active in more than 70 countries and that presents a high risk of radicalization in Europe. It should be closely monitored because of its potential for violent actions.

Thanks to all of the authors who contributed to this Report. My gratitude also goes to the two co-editors who have given their fundamental input: Chiara Sulmoni, President of START InSight, and Flavia Giacobbe, Director of Airpress and Formiche.

Claudio Bertolotti – Executive Director




#ReaCT2021 – The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda online terrorist propaganda during the Covid-19 emergency. Comparing strategies

by Stefano Mele, President of the Cybernetics Security Commission of the Italian Atlantic Committee [1]

Al Baghdadi’s death in October 2019 has determined the definitive collapse of the Caliphate and the defeat of the so-called Islamic State, at least concerning the territories. However, the multiple and continuous propaganda activities carried out during the health emergency linked to Covid-19 and, particularly, the recent terrorist attacks of Paris, Nice and Wien served as a memento that this terrorist organization is far from being considered as a threat to be filed in history books, but is, in fact, in a mere phase of descent and reorganization. This is proved by the largely stable number of attacks in the last twelve months, as well as the high number of arrests made by the Police.

At the same time, Al-Qaeda is also experiencing a period of strong disorientation linked, among other things, to the death of three of its leaders during 2020: Hamza Bin Laden, heir of Osama Bin Laden, killed in July during a Navy Seal’s raid between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Abu Muhamamd Al-Masri, killed in August by the Mossad, in the streets of Teheran, and  Ayman Al-Zawahiri, died in Afghanistan in November, for natural causes.

Nevertheless, both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have continued to assert their identities in order to maintain strong ties with the militants, focusing first and foremost on propaganda and proselytism through Internet and new technologies. If, on the one hand, the overall analysis of their online activities during the pandemic shows a considerable intensification of these activities, on the other hand it confirms the pre-existing narratives and their broader communication strategy, mainly dictated by the different positions of strength currently exercised by these two terrorist organizations.

In this sense, the Islamic State has continued along its well-known path, linked to a narrative that is always particularly aggressive and confrontational, identifying the Coronavirus as a real “Allah’s soldier”.  An ally, able to offer to their network –as reported in some press releases – a unique opportunity to strike infidels without mercy and when they least expect it. Their attention was particularly focused on the Military and the Police who, according to the Islamic State’s proclamations, would have been an even easier target, given their deployment in the streets and alleys due to the health emergency.

On the other hand, Al-Qaeda’s propaganda during the pandemic stood in stark contrast with the messages of the Islamic State. It relied on much more “persuasive” and unusually conciliatory narratives towards non-Muslims, aimed first and foremost at continuing to pursue the policy of “heart and mind”, which is long aimed to appeal ordinary Muslims and casual Westerners alike. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that almost all their statements during this period have focused on a general invitation to Western nations to join Islam, after that – as they say – Coronavirus has rendered strong economies, armies and governments impotent. A clear example of what is being said here is the six-page document of March 2020, entitled “The Way Forward: A Word of Advice on the Coronavirus Pandemic”. Clearly addressed to a Western audience, the Al-Qaeda message focuses on highlighting the role of the Coronavirus as a divine punishment for the alleged moral and intellectual decadence of the West. “We invite you to reflect on the phenomenon that is Covid-19 and carefully consider its deeper causes” Al-Qaeda’s senior executives write – “The truth remains, whether we like it or not, that this pandemic is a punishment from the Lord of the Worlds for the injustice and oppression committed against Muslims specifically and mankind generally by governments you elect”. After that an “invisible soldier” [COVID-19, NdA] revealed the intrinsic weakness of West’s materialistic ways, the press release continues with a “General appeal for the masses in the western world to embrace Islam”. “We would like to share with you our desire that you should be our partners in the Heavens the expanse of which is far greater than the earth and the sky” – as said in this Al-Qaeda’s statement – “It is in this spirit that we would like to introduce you to Islam and invite you to enter into peace, for this is the only path that leads to prosperity in this world and deliverance in the Hereafter”.

A point of contact in the propaganda activities of these two terrorist organizations can be found, however, in relation to their communications concerning precautions to be taken in order to avoid infections. Al-Qaeda, for example, has widely promoted Islam as a hygiene-oriented religion that encourages cleanliness and personal hygiene, also through the regular ablutions to perform prayers, thus making an implicit reference to hygiene as a way to avoid being affected by the Coronavirus.

On the other hand, the Islamic State has propagated in general terms the of health and safety measures derived from religious literature and health advice dictated by Islam, especially through the al-Naba’ newsletter. However, this “sensitivity” towards their own network has not prevented them from strongly criticizing the policies of closing mosques or limiting communal prayers. In particular, the Islamic State released a large number of images in May, showing its militants enjoying Ramadan meals and community prayer without any trace of social distancing.

The short-term effects of this strategy can be seen in the recent attacks in Paris, Nice and Wien, where – at least according to the information currently available – the attacks seem to have been carried out by cells who were inspired by the messages of the Islamic State, even if not actually coordinated by them. Foreseeing medium to long-term effects is more complex and less predictable. As a matter of facts, if it is true that the persistence of the health crisis, increasingly combined with the economic one, the continuous fueling and channeling of social anger towards hostile actions and the persistent “call to action” of the Islamic State, may represent the perfect mix for be forced to look at the near future with concern, the final result can’t be so obvious and clearly delineated for all States. In fact, the same pandemic that has so far represented the key element for the strengthening of online propaganda activities, could also constitute – at least in Europe – a brake to violent radicalization, especially as long as the so-called “lockdown” measures continue. However, as the health crisis recedes the situation will have to be analyzed on a case-by-case and country-by-country basis, in order to highlight those online and offline indicators that may presage an imminent and violent drift.


[1] Stefano Mele is Partner of Carnelutti Law Firm, where he is the Head of the Technology, Privacy and Cybersecurity Law Department. He deals at national and international level with the political, strategic and legal aspects of the impact of technologies on citizens’ lives, businesses and national security. He is also the President of the Authority for Information and Communication Technologies of the Republic of San Marino. Among the many positions held, he is also the President of the Cybernetics Security Commission of the Italian Atlantic Committee and the President of the “Working Group on Cybersecurity” of the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy (AMCHAM). In 2020 he participated in the prestigious International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) of the US State Department.

#ReaCT2021 – Sixty days of fear: the lesson learned

by Marco Lombardi, ITSTIME, Catholic University.

The pandemic seemed to have sidelined terrorism when, suddenly, October 2020 revived the threat that seemed to be overcome. In fact, between the first days of September and the beginning of November there is a chain of events that, listed in its succession, clearly highlights a dramatic and articulated scenario.

1 , Charlie Hebdo magazine republishes the caricatures of Muhammad that made it the target of jihadist terrorism in 2015.

2 , the trial of 14 supporters of the perpetrators of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket opens in Paris.

25 , Zaheer Hassan Mahmoud attacks two Employees of Premières Lignes TV with a knife in front of the former Charlie Hebdo headquarters.

27 Sept., the “Second Nagorn-Karabakh War” begins, with the Turks supporting Azerbaijan. The war ends on November 9 with the Azerbaijani victory.

2nd Oct., French President Emmanuel Macron strongly attacks “Islamist separatism”.

5 Oct., Nikol Pashinyan, Prime Minister of Armenia, declares that Europe will soon see Turkey on the outskirts of Vienna.

16 Oct., teacher Samuel Paty is beheaded by Abdoullakh Abuyezidvich Anzorov because he discussed Muhammad caricatures with his students. Paty is the victim of an intense social media campaign and three students have given information to his killer.

22 Oct., a woman with a burqa threatens to blow herself up at Lyon station, stopped she had no explosives: the event is one of the imitative behaviors that highlight the sedimentation of the jihadist threat in the western society.

24 Oct., Turkish President Erdogan responded to the question of separatism by stating that Macron, would need “psychiatric care“, then called for a boycott of French products and presents himself as the champion of offended Islam.

29 Oct., in the cathedral of Nice, three people were killed by a Tunisian terrorist, Brahim Aouissaoui, who landed in Lampedusa on 20 Sept., quarantined on the ship ‘Rhapsody’, identified and informed of his expulsion on 9 Oct. Aouissaoui loses his tracks and on the 26th goes from Palermo to Rome by bus, on the 27th from Rome to Genoa by train: the 28th is in Nice.

On 29 Oct., Vienna, fifty young people of Turkish origin broke into St Anthony’s Church to the cry of “Allah Akbar”. The episode is part of the climate of Erdogan’s statements.

2nd Nov., just few hours before the lockdown began, 4 people were killed in Vienna and 23 were injured by Kujtim Fejzulai in the city centre, in about nine minutes of six-point fire along a mile-long route. Kujtim, who was jailed for trying to reach Syria and join islamists, was released after 22 months for not being dangerous. Slovak intelligence informed Austrian colleagues of his attempt to purchase ammunition for AK-47 in July 2020.

2 Nov., France banned the Grey Wolves, a Turkish ultranationalist group after clashes with the Armenian community. Earlier, in June, Austrian Chancellor Kurz had ordered the closure of 7 mosques linked to Turkish associations following demonstrations for the re-enactment of the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli. Turkey accuses Austria of anti-Islamism and racism.

Listing the events that have punctuated these weeks is a fundamental lesson learned to draw some conclusions to place terrorism in the right perspective: a threat destined to persist in different and new organizational forms that will be able to adapt to the different scenarios.

The general climate of widespread violence found an ally in the virus

It was feared that Covid-19 was an opportunity that could be exploited by terrorism which, in its immediate propaganda, called for action its symphatizers because a possible relaxation in the police guard. This was not the case, proving that home-grown terrorists share as much fear for their health as the “kuffars” they want to strike. However, the virus, like every critical event, has been a booster of processes already underway and, above all, the leaven of a culture and a climate of widespread and pervasive violence that characterizes our society in recent years (from the Gilets Jaunes in France to Hong Kong, from Santiago to Lebanon): recent history shows how society has lost over time the intermediate bodies capable of mediating tensions and that the pandemic is an effective incubator of violent behavior. This context has given a good game to the sowers of violence to do their job more effectively and quickly: the processes of radicalization have become much faster, the transition to select, indoctrinate, convince people to turn to violence has now been reduced over time and the profound reasons for the choice have been lost confusing themselves with the immediate violent manifestation of their personal anger, which has far outweighed the ideological and religious motivations of terrorism.

In this cultural context, Islamist terrorism is now rooted and infiltrated in everyday life: in France one can lose its head for a cartoon and the “Caliphate” survives in families, in circles of friends, in its “clans”, where radicalization is no longer an ongoing process but a result achieved and stabilizing identities. And terrorism itself finds unexpected and unconscious allies in the denigrating of the victims, which feed the distinctions not comprehensible in the radical vision of “everything is or right or wrong“, as in the incitement interventions against the teacher who appeared on Social Media.

The political and cultural delay in responding to the threat of terrorism

The “lone wolf” narrative, used in recent weeks, is an example of the inability to overcome comfortable and dangerous stereotypes. The attacks in Paris, Nice and Vienna found support by  friendly circuits who are not necessarily ideologized but certainly unable to express their anger outside the extreme violence that characterizes the widespread culture we have described. This means that the “lone wolf” narrative is extremely dangerous if, as it often emerges, it explains a threat for this less relevant. On the contrary, the loneliness of the “wolf” is such only compared to an absent formal organization, but not compared to an informal supporting circuit, first emotional and then logistical: the result is that terrorist action becomes unpredictable. Even when the signs are manifested in the biography of terrorists and actions, the lack of procedures that allow information to be “exchanged” at least for the mutual benefit of the agencies, rather than “shared” for free on the basis of a common project, generates vulnerabilities that are no longer tolerable. But even operational delays in Vienna allow for the mobility of a man who is on fire in six different places are not tolerable either. Nor does it underestimate the infiltration of “radicalized” individuals through the paths of illegal immigration, which feeds on bureaucratic procedures that generate vulnerabilities. None of this is compatible with the desire to counter the threat of terrorism.

Terrorism is a weapon of hybrid warfare.

As with the virus, for which there is no evidence that it was voluntarily launched into the world as a weapon, but which was exploited by everyone as a weapon once it was spread, so for the terrorist attacks, of which there is no evidence that they were directly activated by national agencies, it can be said that they were exploited as a weapon in the ongoing hybrid conflict. On the other hand, the organizational collapse of Daesh provided the militancy of terrorists deployed from the Syrian front to the North African front, to the Azerbaijani front as a weapon of rapid use, and the “Charlie Hebdo” trial provided the communicative context to drive dormant terrorism, giving new horizons for the defense of the Umma offended. If there is no evidence of tactical activation, however, it is clear the inspiration for the series of attacks, useful to national interests in the wider context of the conflict. In this sense, we have to consider the legacy of Daesh, which has promoted, legitimized and trained too many wanna be terrorists to behave easily, and the use of this labour force in an increasingly structured way also by state entities.

In conclusion, these sixty days of fear tell us that terrorism is now a ‘normal’ rather than an ‘exceptional’ phenomenon, as an instrument of the ongoing and continuing conflict. It is important to associate this vision with the awareness of a world in which threats intersect, overlap and feed but certainly never evade each other, so as not to fall into the error of considering a sequential time, as in September when the pandemic seemed to coagulate all concerns, making us forget the circular plurality of threats: terrorism among them.