Italy has been through a lot in the past three months but now the country is dealing with a big post-coronavirus news story and people on all sides are angry. The story involves a 24-year-old woman named Silvia Romano. Romano was kidnapped back November 2018 while working in Kenya with an aid organization. Her kidnappers were part of a Somali terrorist group called Al Shabab. After she was taken, she was marched to Somalia by the group and then moved around several times. Her whereabouts and condition remained unknown for 18-months until last weekend when reports indicated she had been released by her captors.
There was some early celebration of the news in Italy. And that’s when the story took a couple of sharp turns that many Italians didn’t expect and some really didn’t like. Sunday, Romano arrived back in Italy but came off the plane wearing a green hijab. She had converted to Islam, the religion of her kidnappers, during her captivity. She had also changed her name from Silvia to Aisha.
Italian news outlets, which said she had changed her first name to Aisha, reported this week that Ms. Romano had told prosecutors that she freely converted to Islam during her abduction. She denied rumors that she had been forced to marry one of her abductors and that she was pregnant, the reports said…
Ms. Romano’s conversion to Islam — and whether it was voluntary — held sway in the Italian news media for days. Parallels were drawn to the television series “Homeland,” in which Sgt. Nicholas Brody, a U.S. Marine held captive by Al Qaeda, converts to Islam and returns to the United States as a possible enemy agent.
“Converting after spending so many months under the pressure of mercenaries that use Islam as a cover to extort money from a state is a choice that opens a debate,” the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Muslim, wrote in an opinion piece in the newspaper La Repubblica on Tuesday.
Romano’s conversion has prompted an angry reaction among some. Police are now guarding the street where she lives in Italy after threats were made against her and some glass bottles where thrown at her apartment. The issue reached a boiling point yesterday in Italy’s parliament when a right-wing politician referred to her as a “neo-terrorist” prompting a backlash from other lawmakers:
Allesandro Pagano of the far-right anti-immigrant Lega party said Mr Conte and and his Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio were motivated to embrace Ms Romano more than Italy’s emergency workers and referred to the former hostage as a “neo-terrorist”. The right-wing politician was shouted down and reprimanded for the comments and has subsequently apologised.
In a statement on Facebook, Mr Pagano expressed solidarity with Ms Romano and said he was criticising the Italian government, rather than the kidnapping victim, because it had delivered a propaganda victory to the Somali-based extremists.
And that brings us to the other thing that many Italians are angry about. There are reports that the government paid a substantial ransom to secure Romano’s release. According to a spokesman for the group, some of that money would be used to fund the group’s jihad:
Mr. Pagano then cited an article published Tuesday in La Repubblica, in which Ali Dehere, identified as a Shabab spokesman, said that a ransom payment would be used for schools, food and medicine, and to buy weapons, “which we increasingly need for the jihad, our holy war.”
Mr. Dehere did not specify the amount of the ransom that he said had been paid for Ms. Romano’s release. Unsubstantiated news reports used figures as high as 4 million euro, about $4.3 million.
To be clear, the Italian government denies paying a ransom but even the NY Times reports that Italy has a “purported propensity — which it has consistently denied — to pay ransom for the release of kidnapped Italians, a practice that is common elsewhere in Europe.”
The whole story reminds me a bit of the return of Bowe Berghdal, a deserter who became a Taliban captive for five years. Berghdal was eventually released as part of a deal which included the release of five Gitmo captives, leading a lot of Americans, including some of those who had served with Berghdal, to question whether the deal had been worthwhile.