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How the Italian Marche region and the province of Ancona became a Jihadist hotbed

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Giovanni Giacalone, Analyst KEDISA

Since the breakout of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 the central Italian region of “Marche” and specifically its capital province of Ancona saw an increase in Islamist and jihadist activity; something very unusual for an area that is famous for tourism as well as for its domestic appliance, leather and shoe industries.

A plausible explanation can be found in the fact that not only Ancona has one of the busiest ports of the Adriatic coast with plenty of connections to the Balkans and Turkey, but also in the fact that it is right in the center of the Italian Adriatic side and it is a major transit point for vehicle and train connections travelling north/south and with an important connection to Rome.

Ancona

As Islamist terrorism became more dynamic, it now tends to take advantage of major transit hubs, as evidence shows in other recent cases throughout Europe. However the best tool is to examine some of the cases that took place in the this specific Italian area in the last few years.

Nourredine Chouchane

The most notorious case is the one involving 36 year-old Tunisian terror mastermind Nourreddine Chouchane. A member of Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, he helped plan the two attacks that shocked Tunisia in the spring of 2015: a mass shooting at a beach front hotel in Sousse that caused the death of 38 people and the attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis where 22 people were murdered. Additionally he was also involved in the kidnapping of four Italian citizens in Libya.

Nourreddine Chouchane
Nourreddine Chouchane

Chouchane was killed in February 2016 in a US airstrike against a Tunisian jihadist training camp in Sabratha, Libya.

According to investigations, Nourreddine Chouchane reached Italy in 2011 and went straight to the Ancona province, precisely in Fabriano and Cerreto d’Esi where he relied on some relatives living there.

The terrorist picked up a residency permit from authorities in Ancona and he then moved up north. His presence was detected in the cities of Milan, Genoa (where he seems to have collected a passport), Novara and Gallarate.

However investigators followed Chouchane all the way to Porto Recanati, another Marche town right next to Ancona but in the Macerata province, specifically in the so called “Hotel House”, a slum mainly inhabited by immigrants and notorious for having hosted Pakistani Islamist extremists involved in previous investigations. One of them had links to al-Qaeda and was involved in a Peshawar market bombing.

The “Hotel House” is a huge building in the outskirts of Porto Recanati that is also known for being a safe hideout for drug dealers and for Islamist extremists. The place is frequently on local news for crime-related events.

“Hotel House”, Porto Recanati
“Hotel House”, Porto Recanati
Searches taking place in Porto Recanati
Searches taking place in Porto Recanati

The other cases

Moving on to other known cases, Giuliano “Ibrahim” Delnevo was an Italian convert to Islam who embraced jihadist ideology and joined Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, where he died in battle in 2013.

Investigations revealed that Giuliano’s conversion and plausible radicalization occurred in Ancona, precisely in the port of the city, where he had been working for some time.

That’s not all, on January 2017 in the seaside town of Falconara Marittima, approximately 6 miles north of Ancona, a Police patrol stopped 32 year-old Tunisian citizen Sami Chebli, already known to authorities for armed robbery and assault.

Chebli had shared jihadist content on his Facebook profile and he turned out to be in touch with Saif Abdawi, another Tunisian jihadist and member of ISIS who had been communicating with Anis Amri, the Berlin Christmas market attacker.

A few months later, in May 2017, Italian authorities deported 41 year-old Tunisian citizen Ridha el-Gharbi, aka “Hasan Maroini”, who was being held in Ancona’s penitentiary where he manifested support for ISIS on several occasions.

El-Gharbi had also expressed the will to join jihad and had cheered after the Bruxelles March 22nd 2016 attacks.

Reliable Albanian sources have pointed out that Ancona is considered one of the logistic bases used by Islamist extremists due to its important port connections towards the East. “An easier door of entrance to Italy if compared to the port of Bari”.

The Albanian investigative journalist Gjergj Thanasi, an expert on illegal trafficking and smuggling, recalls the role of Enkeledja Zace, the French-Albanian who, together with her companion Artan, provided a 7.65 handgun to Mohamed Lahaouiej Bouhlel, the author of the Nice massacre on July 14th 2016.

These are some major cases that have occurred in the province since 2011 and they are strictly related to jihadism.

Now, if the investigation would eventually expand its target to Islamist activism (not directly related to jihad) in the region, an activism that could include the support to the Syrian revolt through NGO activities in the port of Ancona as well as pro-Morsy and anti-Assad activities, then the picture could get much wider. Indeed that would eventually be a further step of analysis.