TUNIS, Tunisia — On July 15, after Hosni Hachemi Ben Hassen had spent more than three years in an Italian prison on accusations of leading a terrorist cell, a guard handed him a single piece of paper that suggested freedom was at hand. Italy’s Supreme Court had overturned his conviction, clearing him of all terrorism-related charges.
Hachemi, a 49-year-old Tunisian imam who had lived in southern Italy for more than 20 years, was never released. He was transferred to a detention center for illegal immigrants and, less than a month later, three Italian police officers took him to Rome’s Fiumicino airport and put him on a plane to Tunis.
“I thought our battle was over, the truth is out there and all our grief will come to an end,” said Anna Di Modugno, Hachemi’s wife, an Italian from Apulia. “But clearly I was wrong. Despite the ruling, they kept inflicting pain on us, and they keep doing so.”
Hachemi’s journey — from southern Italy to Tunisia, via Belgium and a long stint in the Italian prison system — is an illustration of an Italian approach to counterterrorism that emphasizes prevention at the expense, to its critics, of protecting civil liberties.
Italy stands out in Europe. Laws on its books originally intended to battle the mafia give law enforcement authorities broad powers, and have been repurposed and aggressively implemented for the age of terrorism. And no country has been more willing to deport terrorism suspects who aren’t citizens than Italy.
Hachemi is one of nine Muslim clerics and 48 other immigrants deported from Italy this year, in a program officials credit for keeping the country safe. During the last two years, Islamic militants have carried out deadly attacks in France, Belgium, Turkey, Denmark, and across the Middle East and North Africa. Italy, with its porous borders and a population of nearly two million Muslims, has remained free of terrorist violence.
Theater of operations
Italian authorities first took aim at Hachemi in January 2008, when the military police force, the Carabinieri, placed him under surveillance, fearing he was planning an attack in the country. Hachemi was living in Andria, a city of about 100,000 residents on the heel of the Italian boot. He owned a shop offering immigrants a place to make international calls, and he ran the Cultural Islamic Center Ennour, a mosque located in the city center, about 500 meters from a 12th-century Norman cathedral.
Ten Carabinieri agents from the Special Operations Group (ROS) were assigned to the effort, which they named “Operation Masrah.”
“Masrah means theater in Arabic,” one of the Carabinieri agents involved in the operation recalled. “We gave the investigation that name because the way we saw it, Andria was turning into a jihadi scene.”
In addition to putting Hachemi’s mosque and shop under observation, the agents tapped his phone and installed monitoring software on all the computers he used for his business. Surveillance cameras were placed inside and outside the store.
The taps allowed the Carabinieri to connect Hachemi to high-profile members of the Italian branch of Al Qaeda. Calls were made from his phone to people running Milan’s Islamic Cultural Institute, a mosque that the United States had once described as “the main Al Qaeda station house in Europe.” The prayer center made headlines after CIA operatives abducted its imam, an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar, in 2003, with the complicity of Italy’s security services.
The agents were particularly alarmed by Hachemi’s long friendship with Essid Sami Ben Khemais, the purported head of Al Qaeda in Italy who had been accused of planning an attack on the U.S. embassy in Rome and was then in prison in Tunisia.
In phone calls recorded between Hachemi and his mother, the imam expressed his respect for Osama Bin Laden and declared he wanted to join the holy war. He also expressed hatred toward the U.S., the West and Jews. “I was watching the news on Al Jazeera and they showed the Americans,” he said in one phone call. “Those bastards. May God let them die and punish them for bombarding Afghanistan.”
In a different call, he asked his mother to pray against the Jews. “We are praying against them and we pray to God to accept our prayers for Gaza,” she replied, according to transcripts of the phone call.
He was particularly incensed by the conflict between Israel and Palestinians in 2008 and 2009, in which 13 Israelis and more than 1,000 residents of Gaza were killed. “When you watch TV, you have to keep your kids close to you, and show them what the Jews are doing,” he told a woman in Tunisia in 2008, according to a report produced by the investigators. “They have to understand that they have to hate the Jews and love their religion,” he said. “We don’t want our children to become Christian or atheist.”
‘God take my blood’
The surveillance went on for more than two years, during which the monitoring was extended to two other Tunisians, a Moroccan, a Palestinian and an Italian of Tunisian descent who were regulars at Hachemi’s shop. It was clear, said the agents, that Hachemi was the cell’s leader. The other men called him “sheikh” and sought his guidance on a range of issues, from how to get a job to the correct interpretation of a passage from the Quran.
Software installed on Hachemi’s computers logged the videos watched in the shop. They included videos titled “The Two Towers – WTC911,” “Al-Qaeda training,” “Somali Al Shabab,” as well one that illustrated how to use an AK-47. Several of them featured terrorist training camps.
At times, Hachemi and the others used language that seemed to imply they were planning an attack. At one point in 2009, one of the other men under investigation sent a text message to Hachemi and two other numbers that said, “God take my blood as you wish and spread my body according to your design. Amen.”
“He had recruited and trained those guys,” one of the Carabinieri told POLITICO. “They would be watching online jihadist propaganda for months and months. And then one day we could hear them saying that they were ready to do something. They mentioned a military target or an Israeli target or an American target.”
The findings were alarming, but the wheels of the Italian justice system turn slowly. By 2011, the Carabinieri had collected hundreds of hours of conversations. Once transcribed and collected with video logs and photographs taken inside and outside of Hachemi’s shop, the material amounted to more than 5,000 pages, which they presented to two prosecuting magistrates who spent more than a year reviewing it.
In October 2012, the magistrates concluded that Hachemi presented an imminent threat to national security and recommended he be arrested. Five months later a third judge, Maria Scamarcio, issued an order for cautionary detention ahead of an eventual trial.
“The results of the investigation and, more generally, all the material offered for judge’s deliberation, attests that the imam from Andria HOSNI HACHEMI had set up a sort of ‘school of terrorism,’ that … was certainly set up and intended to provide training in ideology and military theory,” read one passage of the 140-page request.
The trouble was that Hachemi had left the country.
Apartment in Molenbeek
Shortly before the Carabinieri handed over the results of their investigation, Hachemi had moved with his wife and two children to Belgium, settling in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood that would later become famous as the home of terrorists who carried out the 2015 and 2016 bombings in Paris and Brussels.
He was still living there in February 2013, when Scamarcio finished her review of the case and declared there was enough evidence to charge him with “association aiming at terrorism and the elimination of democratic order” and “incitement to hatred and racial violence.”
In an 11-page European arrest warrant sent by Italian authorities to their Belgian counterparts, Hachemi is described as “the head of an Islamic terrorist cell aimed at perpetrating an attack on Italian and international soil.”
The Italian investigators tracked Hachemi to an apartment in Molenbeek, some 400 meters away from where the Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam would be arrested in March 2016. Belgian law normally prohibits police from conducting house searches between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., but after difficult negotiations, approval was given to carry out the arrest on the night of April 30, 2013.
The imam and his family were asleep when a team of Belgian special forces joined by two Italian agents broke down the door of his apartment. “Hachemi was wearing just his underwear and undershirt and sleeping with his kids,” said one of the agents involved in the operation. “We grabbed him and threw him on the floor and then used tie wraps to block his hands and feet. The kids started crying and the wife was screaming.”
A search of the apartment uncovered a picture of Hachemi holding two AK-47s. Both rifles had the flag of Libyan rebels on their stock.
Agents involved in the operation say that they received congratulations from several countries, including the U.S., for the way they handled the investigation. Hachemi was detained in Belgium for five weeks, while the details of his extradition to Italy were worked out.
Then, on June 5, accompanied by Italian agents, he boarded an Alitalia flight, landing in Rome at 2:10 p.m.
Hachemi’s trial began shortly after his extradition, and in September 2014, he was convicted on two counts, and sentenced to five years and three months in prison. He spent most of the 22 months between his sentencing and his eventual acquittal in Italy’s notorious “Casa di Reclusione Rossano,” known as Italy’s Guantanamo, where some 50 suspects accused or convicted of terrorism charges are detained.
Then, in July, the Italian Supreme Court overturned all of Hachemi’s terrorism convictions for lack of evidence. It left standing one count of “inciting racial hatred,” but sent the conviction back to the appeals court to be reconsidered.
Minister of expulsions
On August 13, the day Hachemi was put on a plane to Tunis, Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, tweeted, “On my orders, expelled #imam of #Andria for hatred and racial violence. Since 2015, 9 imams expelled.”
Since taking his current office in April 2013, Alfano has made counterterrorism — and, more recently, Italy’s expulsion program — his signature policy issue. In the decade between 2004 and 2014, Italy expelled an average of 14 people it suspected of posing a threat to national security. In the past two years, it has deported 123 people, 57 of them in 2016. The deportees include 48 Moroccans, 32 Tunisians, eight Macedonians, seven Pakistanis, and one Syrian.
“We have had to lower the threshold of tolerance, and at the same time we increased the threshold for [the] severity [of our response],” Alfano, who is 45, said in an interview in his offices in the Viminale, the interior ministry’s palatial headquarters named after one of the seven hills of ancient Rome.
The turning point, he said, came in December 2014, just weeks before Islamic militants killed 12 people in the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Earlier that year, the Islamic State in Syria had declared itself to be a caliphate and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared his followers would “conquer Rome.”
“Today, it’s enough to praise the attacks in Brussels and in Paris to be kicked out,” said Alfano. “Because we think this qualifies as an alarm bell that might lead someone to commit something similar in Italy.”
Italy’s approach to counterterrorism has its roots in the country’s long battle against organized crime, in which civil liberties has sometimes taken a back seat to enforcement and prevention.
In 1982, for example, after two top anti-mafia officials were assassinated in Palermo, Italy introduced a law against “mafia conspiracy,” making membership in an organized crime group a crime in itself, and allowing prosecutors to confiscate the property of suspected Mafiosi and their families.
Wiretaps are commonly deployed, and those convicted of participating in organized crime are held in a so-called hard prison, where visits from family members are limited (and recorded) and contact with other prisoners is prohibited. Those held under this regime are allowed to receive just two parcels a month and are banned from purchasing sweets at the prison kiosk.
It is this approach, said Alfano — who grew up in Sicily at a time of raging Mafia violence — that has informed Italy’s approach to counterterrorism. “Personal preventive measures that we applied to mafia suspects have been transposed into our counterterrorism laws,” he said. “The key words here are ‘suspect’ and ‘preventive measures,’ because what happens is not the outcome of a trial and a conviction but [something that precedes both].”
Each time a suspect is expelled, Alfano sends out a tweet marking the occasion to his 475,000 followers. Often, he ends the tweet with the hashtag #senzasosta — “unrelenting.”
“Between a correctable violation of civil liberties and an irreparable risk of a massacre, I prefer running the risk of a correctable violation,” he said.
Dark red Fiat
Half an hour after Hachemi’s lawyer received a phone call informing him that his client’s sentence had been overturned, a 31-year-old Tunisian man drove a large, white cargo truck into the crowded seaside promenade of the French city of Nice, killing more than 80 people.
The next morning, Hachemi recalled, a prison guard handed him a one-page summary of the judge’s ruling. “He told me that I should be freed, according to the piece of paper, but considering what happened yesterday night, I will never be released,” Hachemi said.
Hachemi now lives with his mother in a dingy ground-floor apartment in one of Tunis’ poorer neighborhoods. Bare bulbs dangle from the ceiling and cheap, lacquered furniture crowds the white-tile floor.
Hachemi traces his trouble to a period he says took place sometime between 2003 and 2005, when a man who identified himself as working for the interior ministry began paying weekly visits to his mosque. The man would question Hachemi about religious matters, as if he were testing his knowledge of Islam. And one day he showed up in front of his shop driving a dark red Fiat.
“The seats were still wrapped up in cellophane, and the man told me it was my car,” Hachemi told the judge during his trial, according to the transcript of the hearing. “He said ‘yes, you work with us, you take this and you also take a house, since you don’t have a house.’” In exchange, Hachemi told POLITICO, the man wanted him to move to Afghanistan and work as an informant for Italian intelligence. He says he refused.
But his trouble truly began, he says, after he wired €200 to the sister of Essid Sami Ben Khemais, his friend who had become the head of Al Qaeda Italy and was then imprisoned in Tunisia. “I had no idea he had been deported on terrorism charges,” said Hachemi. “I thought he had been arrested for robbery of a motorbike. That’s what put me on the [Italian authorities’] radar.”
In 2008, police began paying visits to his shop, at first infrequently and then more and more often. “It increased to the point that they would visit me even twice a day,” said Hachemi. “They would come put me into a car and tell me I should be ashamed. I replied that they should be, for disrupting my business with all these inspections that were pushing away all my clients.”
Hachemi dismissed the violent words caught by the wiretaps as just that: words. He and his friends, he said, were angry at images of children being killed in Gaza. Any hostility he expressed toward Americans or Jews was aimed at the U.S. and Israeli government, not individual people. “All the problems in the world are the fault of five governments,” he said — the British government under former prime minister Tony Blair, the American government, the Israeli government, the Saudi Arabian government, and the Russians.
Once, he says, he was fined because the license to run the shop was hanging crooked on the wall. “I felt persecuted,” he said. “I would have never expected this from Italy. At the beginning I even thought that the Tunisian government orchestrated it all because I was a religious man.”
Generation of jihadists
The program under which Hachemi was expelled is not without its critics, including some counterterrorism experts who point out that deportations are not subject to due process. “It is an effective way of getting rid of people, one other countries are looking at jealously,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. “The question is, ‘How long will it be effective for?’ If you have powers like that used in indiscriminate fashion you start to threaten the model you are trying to protect.”
“The practice could spawn a generation of jihadists seeking revenge for the way their parents are treated,” said Magnus Ranstorp, an expert in militant Islamic movements at the EU’s Radicalization Awareness Network. “I wouldn’t call it prevention,” he said. “It’s repression.” It also reinforces the narrative of persecution used by militants to attract new adherents to their cause. “It is time for Italy to have a healthy debate about it and assess, when it comes to expulsions, if there are enough safeguards in the process,” said Ranstorp.
It was pressure from the police, Hachemi said, that caused him to move to Belgium. Thanks to an old Moroccan connection, he obtained a residence card and found a job as a truck driver for a Syrian businessman. He traveled to France, Germany and other parts of Belgium to buy old trucks and drive them to the ports of Marseille, Antwerp or Trieste, where they would be shipped to Jordan, Turkey, Syria or Saudi Arabia.
Life seemed to have returned to normal. His kids were enrolled in a public school in Molenbeek. Hachemi had found a new mosque. And his wife, Di Modugno, was studying French.
When the police broke down the door of their apartment, their arrival was “completely unexpected,” said Hachemi and Di Modugno, who now lives with their children in Andria. “The kids were terrified,” said Di Modugno. “My older son wet himself. My husband was treated worse than an animal. They behaved like real terrorists, the way they broke in — not my husband. They seized everything, computers, the phones of my husband, my older son, and mine.”
“I am angry with Italy,” said Hachemi. “It is dictatorial toward religious Muslims.” He condemned the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, noting that one of the targets was a metro station he passed through regularly. Religious Muslims in Italy are being squeezed, he said, between terrorists who accuse them of being false to their faith and politicians fanning the flames of xenophobia. “You will see, the next attack will be on a mosque.”
Hachemi intends to file a complaint about his treatment to the European Court of Justice. Last week, he visited the Italian embassy in Tunis to complain about being separated from his family, only to be sent away and threatened with arrest if he returned. In Apulia, his wife requested an Italian passport in order to visit him, he said, only to be told that because the couple has minor children, her application couldn’t be considered without Hachemi’s signature, which would have to be authenticated by the embassy.
“I am still hoping to go back, not to Italy but to my family,” he said, adding that he would move back to Belgium. “Being with my family is my right, and Italy took it away from me.”