TURIN — "Ibrahim and Mounir are spies."
Before long, everyone was talking about the two men. In an Italian town of just 10,000 residents, the duo's frequent visits to the local police station did not go unnoticed.
More than 10 years later, Ibrahim and Mounir are no longer seen the same way.
With the rise of jihadist terrorism and bloodshed, the community now views the two men as de-facto law enforcement officers.
After Sept. 11, 2001, and particularly with the growing threat of the ISIS jihadist group in recent years, a large information sharing network has developed in Italy that has deep ties to the country's Muslim community.
"I've lived in Italy for 45 years," says Mohamed, a shopkeeper and the first Moroccan to live in a small town in Italy's Po Valley. "After the attack on the Twin Towers, I was approached by agents from Digos [a special Italian law enforcement branch focused on political security] because they knew me very well. They wanted me to act as an intermediary by reporting on some new arrivals in town. I gave my help then, and today I understand why it's important to do so. This [terrorist] threat aims to destabilize our coexistence."
Over time, locals have grown accustomed to having plainclothes police officers present at major events.
"No one says so in so many words, but in the hundreds of mosques spread across our country, leaders and imams know how risky it would be to have a bad apple among the faithful," says a source who is active in Islamic organizations and prefers to remain anonymous. "That's why no one balks at information requests. A few hotheads who were deported had been flagged by us, very discreetly, to the police."
Perhaps this was what was lacking in France. After the latest attack on a priest near the northern town of Rouen, the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, acknowledged that the government needed to improve relations with the Islamic community to allow better monitoring of mosques.
Of course, France's Islamic community has a different backstory to the highly diverse group of Muslims now living in Italy. But the unpredictability of terrorism requires caution. Despite more than 1.5 million practicing Muslims in the country, Italy has no law establishing an official relationship between mosques and the government.
This is particularly important to develop since not all Muslim residents come to authorities with information.
"We know for sure that not everyone is flagging suspicious cases to the authorities because they fear the repercussion," says the leader of an Italian Islamic center. "Unfortunately, there is still a lot of ignorance and a limited perception of the danger we are facing as a community. Then again, it's also true that the authorities need to do a better job of monitoring information circulating online as recruitment has moved from mosques to the web."
It's important for the government to work across various fronts in addition to security. The real antidote to extremism is education, culture and development. For many years, Morocco has invested in these three areas in Italy and other places by financing various initiatives and cultural centers that follow a reformist Islamic model in an effort to counter radicalization.
On its own dime, Morocco is sending imams and female spiritual guides to Italy to meet, listen, and offer advice to community members during the holy month of Ramadan. By doing so, Morocco is covering a gap in Italian policy concerning Islam — a gap that terrorists will not allow to remain open for long.