5 ‘Foreign Fighters’ Arrested in Italian-Albanian Counterterrorist Blitz

AP Photo/Luca Bruno
AP Photo/Luca Bruno

In a coordinated blitz early Wednesday morning, the Italian counterterrorism police (“Digos”) arrested three Italian Islamists and an Albanian in three different northern Italian cities as special units of the Albanian police made a connected arrest in Albania.

The anti-terrorist operation, called “Martese,” took place in the provinces of Milan, Bergamo, Grosseto, and Lushnje, Albania. All of the five arrests involve charges of conspiracy and travel for the purpose of terrorism.

Among those arrested were the parents and sister of Maria Giulia Sergio, alias “Fatima,” an Italian jihadist who traveled to join the Islamic State in Syria in September 2014, along with her Albanian husband and mother-in-law. The woman’s family lives in Inzago, in the province of Milan.

An intercepted message from Maria Giulia, now a member of ISIS, praised the January Paris killings and in particular the massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. “What a joy for the faithful!!! God is great! Two Mujahideen have killed the cartoonists, who have insulted the Prophet of Islam in France. We pray to God to save them from their hands,” she wrote in the message.

At the same time as the Italian arrests, special units of the Albanian police apprehended 40-year-old Baki Coku, the uncle of Maria Giulia Sergio’s husband Aldo Kobuzi, in the Albanian city of Lushnje, located some 50 miles south of Tirana.

Coku, a resident of the Italian province of Grosseto, was visiting his hometown looking for his family of origin. After the necessary legal procedures, the Albanian is expected to be extradited to Italy.

Digos still has five outstanding arrest warrants for suspected jihadists including Maria Giulia herself, a Canadian citizen named Haik Bushura, and three more Albanians.

Counterterrorist investigations have focused essentially on two families. The Sergio family are Italian citizens who converted to Islam several years ago while the other family are Albanian citizens residing in the province of Grosseto, in western Tuscany. The link between the two families is the young couple who married last September and subsequently transferred to Syria.

Milan prosecutor Maurizio Romanelli said that the investigation culminating on Wednesday with the five arrests was “the first investigation into the Islamic State in Italy, and among the first in Europe.”

According to the findings from the investigation into the Italian terrorist cell linked to ISIS, those arrested “were not planning attacks in Italy” but were preparing to travel to Syria, said Romanelli.

In a separate operation in Rome, however, the Italian Carabinieri arrested two North Africans Wednesday on charges of international terrorism. The suspects, tied to al-Qaeda, allegedly were planning an attack within Italy.

According to Arduino Paniccia, director of the School of International Economic Competition in Venice, the phenomenon of foreign fighters will continue in the coming years, “mostly because the West and its defense organizations such as NATO, has shown little ability and desire to truly take on ISIS.”

Moreover, he said, “given the mass of second- or third-generation immigrants now in Europe, it is inevitable that at least a very small percentage of these be attracted by ISIS propaganda and the idea of ​​the Caliphate.”

Paniccia said that “the antidote is intelligence, and also coordination among European countries—especially the most vulnerable ones—which is, unfortunately, sorely lacking.”

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.