Italian Security and Potential Terrorist Targets

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 18

The terror alert level in Italy rose this summer, as a result of the terrorist attacks in London in July. Although Rome has been repeatedly threatened by al-Qaeda for years, and has been consistently spotlighted as a legitimate target, the London bombings have certainly had a powerful psychological and political impact in Italy [1].

The Italian government has reacted by implementing new measures against the activities of potential terror cells on its soil. Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu proposed in July a set of laws (DL 144, approved by the Italian Senate on July 29) designed to enhance the government’s capability to counter terrorist activities. The laws are intended, among other things, to deploy the army to patrol public buildings, to allow the military to search and arrest suspected individuals, and to strictly monitor internet café users. The core of Rome’s strategy is based upon the enhancement and the effectiveness of its human intelligence resources.

Explicit threats against Italy were published on the Internet on July 18 by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, the same group that claimed responsibility for the London bombings [3]. The group announced its determination to carry out devastating attacks in Rome and other Italian cities if Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government did not withdraw its troops from Iraq. The same group issued a second warning on July 25, in which it stated that Rome would be transformed into a graveyard if Italian troops were not withdrawn by August 15. In a videotape transmitted by the Qatar-based television network al-Jazeera on September 1, al-Qaeda official Ayman al-Zawahiri also warned all European governments that took part in military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to withdraw their military forces if they wanted to avoid terrorist attacks.

Potential Targets and Counter-Strategies

The London bombings and the repeated threats against Italy immediately raised the question of which potential targets are the most likely to be attacked by Islamic terrorists. Apparently over 13,000 potential targets are being monitored daily after the reinforcement of anti-terrorist strategies. Due to Italy’s history—as the heart of European Christianity and the place where one-third of the world’s artistic masterpieces are located—analysts believe that terrorists could strike unconventional targets, such as churches and historical monuments.

In Bologna, the church of San Petronio is considered by analysts to be a likely target because one of its most famous frescos is said to show Prophet Mohammed in Hell. In 2002, five people (one Italian and four North Africans) were arrested as they were allegedly conducting “hostile surveillance” around the church.

In general, museums, churches and historical monuments are increasingly monitored by the police. Analysts believe car bombs and/or suicide bombers to be the most likely method of assault against buildings. In this respect, an immediate physical counter-strategy implemented by Pisanu and military intelligence has been to erect protective barriers around the potential target, so that it would be impossible to park a car bomb near it, and to enhance the use of metal-detector devices at the entrance of museums and churches to prevent armed people from entering them.

Notwithstanding the possibility of attacks on historic buildings, the public transportation system—both its infrastructure and vehicles—is on top of the target list. Airports, train stations, underground trains and major ports like Civitavecchia near Rome represent the first set of potential targets.

The most important airports are obviously international hubs such as Milan’s Malpensa and Linate, Rome’s Fiumicino and airports in big cities such as Naples, Turin and Florence. Here, terrorists could carry out classical attacks with explosives, or could try to hijack a plane. However, both the intensity of patrolling and the massive use by the police of high-tech devices to monitor these facilities (including cameras, metal-detectors and other electronic equipment) make such targets harder to strike than before.

Underground trains in Rome and Milan recently moved to the top of the intelligence short-list, especially after the London bombings. Five million euros have been raised in order to install new television cameras in the underground, which is now constantly patrolled by private security firms and guards. Analysts believe that—like in London—the underground could be attacked by suicide bombers or by bombs placed in the trains, or in a station. Moreover, the structure of underground lines may lead terrorists to use chemical or bacteriological agents (such as sarin gas or anthrax), which is why anti-WMD specialists are on high alert.

In the summer of 2005, Italian authorities ordered Milan and Rome, but also other big cities, to prepare themselves for possible attacks by engaging in public exercises and evacuation plans. Il Corriere della Sera reported on August 26 that thousands of security operators are scheduled to hold a counter-terror exercise in Milan’s main train stations (Centrale, Garibaldi), airports (Linate) and possibly a supermarket, in late September. Details unveiled by the authorities show that special units against chemical and biological attacks will also take part in the exercises.

In Rome, the city’s authorities ordered the Coliseum to be cordoned off with barriers which will keep people and vehicles 100 meters away from the monument, apart from the entrances. Although, according to the authorities, there is not a specific threat against the ancient Roman building, the measures will help to better coordinate the security effort, such as during special events like the Elton John concert of September 3.

Apart from traditional and culturally sensitive targets and transportation hubs, Italy also offers terrorists other possible—although less likely—targets. For instance, U.S. military bases and facilities are prevalent throughout the country, and they present obvious high-value targets.

Some of the most important U.S. bases in the country are those of Aviano, Vicenza (both in the northeast), Camp Darby (Pisa), Sigonella (Sicily), and the naval facilities of Gaeta (Naples) and La Maddalena (Sardinia). In 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, sources quoted by the journal Analisi Difesa said that the alert level was raised in Sigonella [2]. Not only do the U.S. bases symbolize unrivalled high-value targets to Islamic militants, but by attacking such facilities terrorists would be sending a message to all enemies of the U.S. military presence in the world. In the recent past, al-Qaeda has explicitly warned all Muslims to keep away from American civil and military installations [3].

It would nevertheless be extremely difficult to effectively strike a U.S. military base. Air traffic around these areas is constantly monitored, whereas attempting a guerrilla-type operation with rocket launchers or similar weapons would probably not succeed, and the terror cell would likely be rapidly overwhelmed and liquidated.

Perhaps the most viable option would be to attack U.S. warships as they navigate near the base. That could be done by suicide bombers driving motorboats loaded with explosives. This is why monitoring naval traffic and the theft of boats and explosives has become a decisive element in preventing possible attacks.

Aqueducts have also been mentioned by analysts as possible targets, particularly in relation to the use of chemical or biological agents. On February 19, 2002, four Moroccan citizens were arrested in Rome as police found them in possession of a cyanide compound, allegedly destined to be released in the aqueducts running in the U.S. Embassy’s area—of which the four individuals had a detailed map.

Geopolitical and Cultural Issues

Due to its key geographic position among Western Europe, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, and North Africa, Italy is the landing place for millions of immigrants. Over 700,000 Muslims (of which more than 140,000 are Moroccan) live in Italy. While this figure is still lower than in France and the U.K., the Muslim cultural identity is particularly sensitive and controversial in Italian society.

Italian intelligence agencies increasingly worry about extremist activities in mosques. In fact, a recent study by the Executive Committee for Security and Information Services (C.E.S.I.S.) [4] explains how anti-integrationist and fundamentalist ideologies are spreading in the Muslim community due to radical preaching in Italian mosques ( According to these sources, radical imams are selected by terror networks and periodically sent to fundamentalist madrassas in the Indian sub-continent to be indoctrinated. By doing this, radical Islamists are allegedly trying to ensure that jihadist activities and propaganda will continue even after the stabilization of Iraq. This has prompted the Italian authorities to expel from the country some imams who were suspected of encouraging or justifying extremist actions. In particular, in November 2003 the imam of Carmagnola (in Lombardy) was deported, and the imam of Turin was deported in September 2005.

In addition, sources show that Islamist networks are active in the Balkan regions of Bosnia, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. A SISMI-led operation uncovered weapons and C4 explosives smuggled in Bosnia (Gornja Maoca) and Croatia (Zagreb) with the final destination being Italy [5]. Allegedly, an Islamist commando was preparing to attack Pope Karol Wojtiła’s funeral in Rome last April with rocket launchers and C4 explosives (Il Corriere della Sera, August 26).


In confronting the terrorist threat, the Italian intelligence community is wagering on Human Intelligence more than anything else. It is the belief of both political decision-makers and intelligence officials that terrorist networks can be more effectively fought by intercepting their communications, smuggling activities, traveling plans, propaganda and logistic tactics much more than countering them with highly sophisticated high-tech devices. Analytical work, communication monitoring and timing will be decisive, together with Rome’s intense collaboration with other countries’ intelligence agencies.


1. In August 2004, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades threatened to carry out terrorist attacks against Italy it if the government did not pull out its troops from Iraq.


3. See La Repubblica, online edition, April 27, 2004.

4. This special committee collects sensitive information from Italian intelligence agencies and compiles reports for the Prime Minister.

5. S.I.S.Mi.: Military security and information service, the Italian military intelligence agency. See also