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The recent spate of extremist murders across Europe may indicate a growing European malaise where xenophobia and anti-minority hatred is becoming acceptable. Yet events in Britain, where two men have been convicted for an era-defining racist murder, could herald a change in attitudes and be an example for the rest of Europe.
Senegalese men demonstrate against the rascist killing of two men in Florence. Flickr/Lorenzoridi
By Valentina Soria, Research Analyst, RUSI
On 13 December 2011, Gianluca Casseri killed two street vendors of Senegalese descent and wounded three others before killing himself in the Italian city of Florence. The perpetrator was said to be a member of a far-right extremist group, CasaPound, which has since distanced itself from the man. The revelation has sparked off a debate about Casseri's motivations and his path to extremism but also wider questions about European social cohesion and integration.
Some have been quick to attribute his actions not to his links to the far-right but to reasons of insanity. As with the case of Anders Brevik who carried out a massacre last year in Norway, this was the work - so goes the mantra-of a psychopath, 'a terrible but random act of insanity. As illogical and incomprehensible as their actions might appear to be to the average sensible person, the meticulous preparation, deliberate target selection and systematic execution which characterised both those appalling attacks prove that they were the product of extreme, most likely distorted, yet rational mindsets.
The case of Casseri, the Italian murderer, seems to have attracted some kind of support, disturbingly expressed in disgraceful posts and messages left on social networking sites and online forums like Stormfront.org. Users on these sites, mainly right-wing extremists, praised Casseri as a 'white hero'. Although it is fair to argue that the majority of the Italian public has shared the sentiment of solidarity which was firmly asserted during an anti-racism protest in the same city the following Saturday, it would be wrong and dangerous to dismiss certain trends in Italian society. Namely, the increasing appeal of groups, at the fringe of the political scene, which are attracting an ever significant following through the language of hatred, protection of the national identity and rejection of the foreigner (the extracommunitario), typically mastered by fascist or even neo-Nazi organisations.
Even though CasaPound Italia has reportedly distanced itself from the Florence gunman, it has been alleged that he had written for its online magazine and taken part in meetings organised by the group in several locations around the country. CasaPound has roughly 2,000 members - mainly white, poor, unemployed youths - attracted by its trendy and unconventional character as a neo-fascist organisation. It is capable of blending essential aspects of the most traditional fascist ideology with modern forms of political activism (eg. street protests, squatting and the running of a student organisation).
Another group, Militia, is known more as a secretive sect than an organisation. Militia is limited in both the number of its active members (less than one hundred) and its geographical influence (it is confined to a small local borough just outside Rome). Yet, compared with CasaPound, the latter embraces and promotes a far more militant ideology which leaves very little space, if any, for political confrontation and compromise. Its extremist propaganda - playing on the idea of the purity of the race - draws from, and glorifies, the Nazi tradition, making no mystery of its subversive character. On 14 December, five of its most prominent members were arrested for threatening Italy's democratic institutions; together with expanding their support base (through the production and distribution of their propaganda magazine, Insurrection), their primary objective was to connect and coordinate other far-right extremist organisations in the country with the aim of waging a 'revolutionary war'.
A resurgence of extremism in Italy's political discourse
The resurgence of fascist and national-socialist doctrines in Italy springs from the ability of those groups who champion them to reformulate and propose old fundamental tenets - xenophobia, national identity and race purity among them. These are repackaged with reference to existing economic concerns that resonate very well among the unemployed, poor and alienated in Italian society. Yet, the current economic difficulties and social resentment have only exacerbated an existing aggressive political narrative which, over the years, has steadily exposed the unease with which the Italian public views and perceives foreigners, particularly when they come from outside the 'European house'. What was a taboo until a few years ago - racism - appears today profoundly embedded in sections of Italian society. This explains the political relevance, in recent years, of more radical and populist parties like Forza Nuova and more prominently the Northern League, which have been able to capitalise and further fuel the public's fears, frustration and misperceptions for relevant electoral gains.
Thus, the extreme tone of the political debate in the country is both cause and consequence of a state of profound malaise of a society which remains one of the most conservative in Europe. Social cohesion, and most crucially, integration, are often hampered, almost discouraged, at a government level. One has just to point out that children of immigrants - even if born in Italy - are still legally and culturally considered foreigners, while the waiting period for a foreigner married to an Italian to become eligible for citizenship now stands at two years. The latter disposition was part of a broader 'security package', introduced by former Prime Minister Berlusconi's government in 2009 and strongly promoted by then coalition party Northern League. The package aimed at significantly halting immigration fluxes towards the country.
In some respects, the situation in Italy is reflective of the situation in other parts of Europe where economic hardship and growing unease toward the 'culturally different' are pushing societies inwards. The inward reaction is an effort to rediscover and protect national identities and assets against 'threatening' external factors and forces. This explains why political parties that have been able to capitalise on anti-immigration and anti-Islamic sentiments have recently seen their support basis widening significantly in countries like Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands. As in Italy, this has often meant that xenophobia has slowly entered (or re-entered) the political discourse and that a resistant, if not intolerant, attitude towards religious, cultural and ethnical diversity has steadily taken root. Such populist parties are seen to embrace - and fight for - ideas that resonate powerfully among a public that is mostly concerned about immigration, anxious about Muslim communities and Islam and dissatisfied with the solutions offered by mainstream parties. By using rhetoric that presents immigrants as criminals and as a threat to national culture and values, they are able to exploit underlying preconceptions and, in so doing, they further exacerbate existing tensions.
An escalation in right-wing extremism across Europe?
Across Europe, there is the possibility that whenever existing radical and populist positions (and actors) are not viewed as being extreme enough, violent extremist groups are presented with an opportunity to step in and fill the gap with a language of utter hatred and violence. More sophisticated propaganda structures - substantially empowered by the use of social media tools - means that such groups have nowadays the potential to spread their ideology among a specific target audience (younger generations) which would appear to be more receptive to their message. There is the hope, however, that the extremist murders across Europe could spark more societal self-reflection on why people turn to extremism. The recent conviction of two men in the UK for the racial murder of a black teenager in 1993 - a murder that redefined race relations in Britain - has shown the possibilities of fundamental societal changes after a period of deep self-reflection on race and ethnicity. Of course the self-reflection continues, with the Institute of Race Relations recording ninety-six racist murders since Stephen Lawrence's death.
In a report on the state of the terrorist threat to EU countries in 2010, Europol assessed the threat from right-wing extremism as being on the wane. The assessment for 2011 is likely to be somewhat different, especially when one takes into account the enlarged support basis these organisations can now count on. In Germany, for instance, security services are aware of 9,800 violent far-right wing extremists, many associated with neo-Nazi groups such as 'Free Forces' and 'Autonomous Nationalists'. If the number of supporters of a Facebook group set up after the Florence massacre and entitled 'Gianluca died for us' is anything to go by, there well may be more than 6,000 right-wing extremists in Italy. In all likelihood, only a very small minority of these individuals would be ready to commit such extreme acts of violence. But the threat they pose to the prospects of social cohesion and integration represents an equally severe threat to national security in the longer term.
Valentina Soria is a research analyst at RUSI where she works in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Programme.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI
 Simon Jenkins, 'The Last Thing Norway Needs is Illiberal Britain's Patronising', in The Guardian, 26 July 2011
 Annette Langer, 'Italy Killings Underscore European Extremism Problem', in Spiegel Online, 15 December 2011
 Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler, The New Face of Digital Populism, London, Demos, 2011
 Carlo Bonini, 'Dall'Assalto dei Rom alla Furia Omicida, l'Italia Riscopre la Polveriera Nera', in La Repubblica, 15 December 2011
 'Blitz dei Ros Contro Militia: 5 Arresti. Volevano Guerra Rivoluzionaria', in Il Corriere della Sera, 14 December 2011
 'Marsilio: "I Figli degli Immigrati Nati in Italia non Sono Italiani"', in Il Corriere della Sera, 16 September 2010
 Tracy Wilkinson, 'Italy's Right Targets Gypsies, Migrants', in Los Angeles Times, 24 May 2008
 David Charter, 'Weapons Abound as Neo-Nazi Groups Step out from the Shadows', in The Times, 10 December 2011
 Matthew Goodwin, 'Right Response. Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe', Chatham House Report, September 2011, p. 22
 Ibid., p.9
 'TE-SAT 2011. EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report', Europol, 2011, p.30
 TE-SAT 2011. EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report', Europol, 2011, p.30
 David Charter, 'Weapons Abound as Neo-Nazi Groups Step out from the Shadows', op.cit.