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MacGyver Syndrome: a Jihadist with a laptop and fertilizer

MacGyver, a popular character from the American television series of the 1980s, was an exceptionally resourceful secret agent. The high profile character was known for his ability to create improbable explosives and problem-solving devices from extremely common items: plugging a sulfuric acid leak with chocolate, repairing a blown fuse with a chewing gum wrapper, or creating bombs out of gelatin cold capsules. Recent developments in European-based Jihadism seem to be moving in a similar direction, suggesting a new MacGyver-inspired trend in terrorist methods. Instead of purchasing traditional explosives, self-indoctrinated and self-trained Jihadi operatives are increasingly relying on household chemicals and the Internet. The arrests in Italy this past summer demonstrate this phenomenon.

On July 21, 2007, a joint Italian security force operation codenamed “Hamam”, succeeded in capturing the Imam of Ponte Felcino, a small and quiet village near Perugia, along with two of his closest collaborators.

The investigations were conducted by several different Italian police units: UGICOS (Unit for Special Operations and Special Investigations), the Central Directorate for Anti-Terrorism, based in Rome, and the Postal and Communications Police for Rome and Umbria.

The following suspects were arrested in the sweep: Mostapha El Korchi, the Imam of Ponte Felcino; Ljari Mohamed, El Korchi’s close confidante; and Safika Dris, the mosque’s caretaker[1] . Noureddine Oumaadane [2], El Korchi’s cousin, who was expelled from Italy in March 2007, is still being pursued by the police and is believed to be hiding in his native Morocco. In the days following July 21, the police expanded their investigations. Mohamed El Absi, the Imam of Pierantonio, another small village in the area, was placed under formal investigation, as were 20 other men.

Operation “Hamam” started about two years ago, after a cellular phone was found in Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad, by Italian troops serving in Iraq. The cell phone was apparently used by Abdelaziz Ouechtati, a Tunisian citizen living in Naples, who is currently not traceable. Belgian police presume that Ouechtati is also the owner of another cell phone used by a Syrian terrorist linked to the Gruppo Islamico Combattente Marocchino (GICM), the organization involved in the 2004 Madrid bombings. Mostapha El Korchi was apparently in contact with Ouechtati, presumably through one of the associates of Ponte Felcino Mosque. The suspected contact was made with Ouechatati abroad, perhaps in Iraq [3].

Focusing on the possibility of a meeting abroad, investigators looked at the movements of El Korchi and his associates. They noticed that El Korchi went to Morocco at the beginning of this year and came back to Italy two weeks later on 20 January. “Il Corriere della Sera”, an esteemed Italian newspaper, reported that El Korchi left Perugia on a scheduled bus in order to fly from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport. On the way back the Imam met another Moroccan, Mohcine Abouda, and a third non-EU immigrant who took seven photographs of the airport that the police later found posted on El Korchi’s website[4] . The internet publication of these photos is of extreme importance in light of the high number of people who would have had access to the pictures, as well as in terms of the methodological approach they imply.

The documents attached to the arrest warrant by prosecuting magistrate Nicola Miriano and public prosecutor Alessandro Cannevale allow us a better understanding of the charges against Mostapha El Korchi and his suspected activities.

At the beginning of October 2006 the police began to monitor the mosque, Mostapha El Korchi, his family, and 23 of his closest collaborators[5] . Using wiretaps they collected information which gave them a comprehensive picture of the activities in the mosque during and after prayer time. Thanks to these wiretaps, the UGICOS police unit was able to reconstruct the suspect activities taking place in the mosque[6] .

“Il Corriere della Sera” reported that on some occasions Mostapha El Korchi expressed words of support about various suicide attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya, and encouraged the pursuit of Global Jihad. Apparently the Imam also taught intolerance of Italian custom, and encouraged children to beat-up Italian classmates as a show of Muslim supremacy [7].

In order to get a comprehensive picture of his activities, a special unit of the postal police monitored Mostapha El Korchi’s computer for several months. They found that he was continuously viewing web pages relating to Jihad, and in particular websites with instructions on how to create explosives and chemical weapons, as well as active recruitment of mujahideen to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya. The records show that El Korchi actively participated in several forums.

The name of operation “Hamam” comes from the codename that Mostapha El Korchi was using to enter into the online forum and other web pages, which instigated and instructed on Jihad. For example, on some of these sites urban guerrilla warfare was taught using audiovisual tools. This assiduous use of computers assumes even greater importance considering that during the hours spent downloading these documents on Jihadist strategic plans and related issues, the self-appointed mujahid was participating in the global game of Jihad despite his geographical location. This internet dimension allows potential mujahideen to get actively involved in global Jihad and to feel like they are members of a community with a strong sense of belonging no different to any other internet community based on common interests and discussions.
In addition to preaching intolerance the police also claim that Mostapha El Korchi organized training sessions in the Mosque. The charges involve combat training – with and without arms-, training involving the use and preparation of poisons and explosives, the seizure of secure targets, and methods of encryption. All lessons were backed-up with films and computer files downloaded from protected web pages. In addition, it seems that minors were actively involved in these training sessions[8] . According to the information collected by wiretaps, these lessons were real training for suicide missions, and were intended as military preparation for Jihad.

Regarding the structure of the Global Jihad, the chief of the Polizia di Stato, Antonio Manganelli, declared in a hearing of the Commission for Constitutional Affairs on July 26, that it was the lack of a central operational system that characterizes Al Qaeda- as opposed to Cosa Nostra, for example, which was a highly centralized system with branches all over the world. According to Manganelli Al Qaeda’s structure is its trademark: the ideology of Global Jihad suffices in encouraging terrorist acts [9].

A peculiar aspect in the recruitment and training activity is the attention given to auto-didacticism. Indeed, Mostapha El Korchi can be considered a self-trained jihadi. Thanks to a fairly good understanding of the internet, and thanks to the aid of a computer technician, he was able to collect a sufficient amount of information and material to train himself, recruit others, and, in turn, train them[10] . The fact that El Korchi was self-taught suggests that individuals can plausibly take up the call of Global Jihad with virtually no centralized instruction. Any individuals can find their motivation and material on the internet and internet forums, which simultaneously provide jihadis with a virtual community. The new reality is that recruitment, ideology and methodology can be passed through internet forums and web pages, without a central command structure.

El Korchi was using similar training techniques with his followers. He was teaching them how to train themselves, bringing the recruitment dimension a step forward, not based on a never-ending repetition of purposes and goals, but rather on the ability of finding one’s own way into Global Jihad. El Korchi based his recruiting activities on ideology, which allowed for the spreading of the message of Global Jihad by his followers.

The evidence of the training undertaken and of the speeches encouraging Global Jihad, collected through wiretaps and surveillance, were sufficient for the prosecuting magistrate Nicola Miriano and public prosecutor Alessandro Cannevale to issue an arrest warrant against El Korchi and his fellows. The legal authorization came from the application of the newly introduced amendments to Law 270 of the Italian Criminal Code.

First implementation of the ‘270-quinquies’ law of the Italian Criminal Code
Looking at the legal justification for these arrests, it is important to underline the singularity of this event. Indeed the legal justification was provided for the first time by quinquies, the recently introduced amendments to Law 270 of the Italian Criminal Code. The purpose of the law is to prevent terrorism by acting against incitement. The amendments to law 270 of the Italian Criminal Code were introduced by the former minister of the Interior, Pisanu, under a comprehensive review which was undertaken in response to the 2005 London bombings. The amendments took effect on July 31, 2005, n.155.

The amendments explicitly aim to punish training – and any associated activities – that can lead to, or encourage, domestic or international terrorism («addestramento ad attività con finalità di terrorismo anche internazionale»)[11]. 270-quinquies states that the maximum penalty is 5-10 years imprisonment for distributing information about the use and preparation of arms, or any other kind of information about “violent combat or the sabotaging of essential public services with terrorist intent, even if that act were to be aimed at a foreign country or an international institution or organization” (“per il compimento di atti di violenza ovvero di sabotaggio di servizi pubblici essenziali, con finalità di terrorismo, anche se rivolti contro uno Stato estero, , un’istituzione o un organismo internazionale”) .

270-quinquies regards the recruitment of people with the intention of advancing domestic or international terrorism (Arruolamento con finalita di terrorismo anche internazionale) as a criminal offence[12] , stipulating a term of imprisonment ranging from 7 to 15 years if an individual “recruits one or more persons with the intent of committing violent acts, either through the sabotage of essential public services or with terrorist intent, even if aimed at a foreign country or an international institution or organization” (“per chi arruola una o piu persone per il compimento di atti di violenza ovvero di sabotaggio di servizi pubblici essenziali, con finalità di terrorismo, anche se rivolti contro uno Stato estero, un’istituzione o un organismo internazionale”)[13].

Furthermore 270-tertius sets out terms of imprisonment decreeing a maximum of four years to those whom “out of direct implication in the crime by aiding and abetting, providing haven or board, hospitality, transportation, or means of communication” (“fuori dei casi di concorso nel reato e di favoreggiamento, dà rifugio o fornisca vitto, ospitalità, mezzi di trasporto, strumenti di comunicazione”) [14].

This comprehensive law is an attempt to fill the legislative gap dealing with international terrorism. Based on a series of international conventions that identify and define violent behavior, as well as damage to the freedom of the individual, the law tries to preempt the dangers of legislating “the day after” a terrorist attack. After the events of September 11th, the formulation of law 270 criminalizes ideological support, the funding, the participation in and association with an act considered domestic or international terrorism or an attempt to subvert the democratic order [15]. However, it is interesting to note that article 270-bis does not include the aim of subverting the democratic structure of a foreign country within the legal paradigm of conspiracy aimed at international terrorism and, therefore, such offenders cannot, at present, be prosecuted under Italian law [16].

Notwithstanding the amendment to this article, the lack of a legal definition of an act of terrorism continues to create problems in the implementation of the law, as defense attorneys rely upon the difficulty of defining a “terrorist act” and/ or “terrorist offence”.

Therefore the definition of a terrorist act given in Article 270 sexties, of the Criminal Code, assumes especial importance. The definition of a terrorist act is interpreted as encompassing violent activities that – in view of their nature or context – might cause serious harm to a country or international organization and are intended to intimidate the population or constrain state powers or an international organization to carry out or refrain from carrying out any activity; or to destabilize or to destroy the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or of an international organization (“che, per la loro natura o contesto, possono arrecare grave danno ad un Paese o ad un’organizzazione internazionale e sono compiute allo scopo di intimidire la popolazione o costringere i poteri pubblici o un’organizzazione internazionale a compiere o astenersi dal compiere un qualsiasi atto o destabilizzare o distruggere le strutture politiche fondamentali, costituzionali, economiche e sociali di un Paese o di un’organizzazione internazionale”) [17]. This definition is clearly inspired by Article 1 of the Framework Decision of the EU Council on Combating Terrorism of 13 June 2002.

MacGyver syndrome

While searching El Korchi’s home, police found around 60 different types of chemicals. These chemicals were, for the most part, easily available, others were taken from the laboratories of the nearby University of Perugia[18] . Amongst these chemicals were fertilisers, household chemicals, an anti-rust acid, laxatives and narcotics. Currently forensic experts are set to start testing these chemicals in order to verify if their mix could produce an explosive reaction[19] .
Assuming that these chemical elements – correctly mixed – could generate an explosive mixture, we can conclude that an important change in the behavior of jihadists has taken place, as already seen in the recent terror attacks in the UK. As underlined by Antonio Manganelli, the Italian Chief of Police in a hearing in front of the Camera dei Deputati, last July 26, the new frontier in jihadism techniques does not seem to be the use of traditional explosives, like Trinitrotoluene or Dynamite[20] , which are more difficult to find and easier to intercept. Instead there is a new ‘MacGyver syndrome,’ whereby the new jihadists seem to prefer to mix common and easy-to-find chemical elements, elements that can be found in most homes.


When we look at the investigations, and at all the tenuous international links related to the cell, we get a real idea of the difficulty of getting a clear picture as to the activities of this group. Living an integrated community life, making no frequent trips abroad, especially not to countries considered suspicious, apart from their native ones, it is extremely difficult to predict the behavior of specific persons. In addition there is the privacy of internet encrypted searches and connections. As for the chemical elements needed to make explosives- these are widely available. Indeed what we consider the stereotype of the European Jihadi seems to have changed recently. No longer based on trips to a country where a centralized command might exist, and with nothing more than ideology and the internet, these self-trained and self-motivated persons can commit acts of terror with nothing more than household chemicals.
The Muslim community needs to help in the struggle against Global Jihad. Yet few parliamentarians have spoken of the necessary steps needed to facilitate this. There is a vital need for an institutionalized Imam training school to counter the ideology of Imams that are currently appointed from outside Italy. The State also needs to officially recognize Islam as an official religion in Italy, facilitating the transparency and the visibility of the activities of Muslim communities. Having no official recognition, there is a serious lack of governmental control on spaces used as Mosques, as Islamic cultural centers or as schools. The implications are both an uncomfortable situation for the people that can hardly meet and pray in proper spaces, and the facility of spreading and preaching radical ideas.
Finally regarding the legal aspect, the application of law 270-quinquies, allowed the police to arrest the people under investigation at the very early stages of what constituted a very real threat; this effective anticipation prevented serious damage and/or loss of life. The law allows the security services significant freedom of operation, and will potentially be a major and progressive instrument in countering terrorism. In the case of El Korchi and his associates, no charges have yet been brought.
Perhaps it is possible to observe a clear tendency towards disproportion between prevention of a terrorist act and judicial legal requirements, in favor of the former. The latest developments in legislation have lead to the strengthening of powers aimed at collecting and using any information that could be of help in prosecuting potential terrorist-linked offences. However, the increase in police powers could lead to the limitation of personal freedoms [21]. Emphasizing the function of risk prevention aimed at ensuring state security, implies, as a consequence, the risk of weakening judicial control and safeguards[22] . Consequently the debate about the convenience of such a limitation of personal freedom will continue.