Italy: The Threat to the General Elections

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 4

SISMI head warns of terrorist threat

The upcoming general elections in Italy, scheduled for April 9, present a perfect opportunity for Islamic militants to disrupt the Italian political process and destabilize a key U.S. ally by staging a massive terrorist attack.

On January 24, the director of Italy’s Military Intelligence and Security Service (SISMI), Nicolò Pollari, officially addressed the issue of possible terrorist attacks against Italy at a hearing before the parliamentary committee for oversight of secret services (COPACO). The government’s key figure, Deputy Secretary Gianni Letta, also attended the conference. Moreover, on February 17, Rome’s secret services stated in their six-month report to parliament that the riskiest time for an attack would be either during the Winter Olympic Games (February 10-26) or just before the elections.

Although worries about terrorist threats to Turin’s Winter Olympic Games have attracted the most global media attention, Pollari said that the upcoming April 9 legislative elections (followed by the election for a new head of state) are also a high-risk event in light of information collected by the Italian intelligence community. Pollari added that pro-active monitoring of extremist activities will have to be stepped up during the electoral campaign that started on February 11 (RAI, January 24).

Sources and Analyses

COPACO’s director, Enzo Bianco, told the press after the hearing that “information from various sources collected both in Italy and abroad indicate particular exposure to risk in the coming months” as the elections approach. “There is concrete evidence, as well as analyses, which confirm the need for high alert in Italy,” Bianco added, before calling for the avoidance of scaremongering in relation to this news (La Repubblica, January 25).

Although Italy’s secret services have avoided disclosing the sources of their information, the Italian media has identified some elements that may well be among those scrutinized closely by intelligence analysts.

The first dates back to January 24, when a Lombardy-based private TV Channel, Odeon-Telereporter, broadcast an interview with Abdul Qadir Fall Mamour, a Senegalese imam deported to his home country by Italian authorities in November 2003 after he had been branded a national security threat due to his praise for Osama bin Laden. Mamour, the former imam of Carmagnola (Lombardy), said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other key political figures in the country “will be attacked in the vicinity of the elections” (La Padania, January 25).

Mamour, whose trustworthiness is questioned by many counter-terrorism specialists, had told journalists that he had “personally heard bin Laden ordering the punishment of Berlusconi and Blair.” Despite Mamour’s dubious reliability, his declarations remain of obvious interest to analysts for two reasons. First of all, he had been living and preaching in Italy, and had therefore been able to make direct contact with Italy’s Islamist circles. Secondly, he allegedly has close connections with al-Qaeda-related Islamist groups and is said to be personally acquainted with some prominent extremist leaders.

Mamour had already warned Italy last July, immediately after the London bombings, that terrorist attacks were likely to be attempted in 2006 since Italy was “next in line” among the supporters of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Furthermore, he even claimed that militants would strike with “weapons of mass destruction” in major Italian cities. In his recent interview, he explained to Odeon-Telereporter journalists that Rome, Milan, Turin, Bologna and Venice are the most probable targets of the planned attacks.

A second source was highlighted by the Italian daily La Repubblica on January 27, which gave more precise and alarming information. Journalist Claudia Fusani extensively described the contents of a confidential document issued by Rome’s Interior Ministry, which referred to “articulated information,” carefully analyzed by the Anti-Terrorism Strategic Analysis Committee (CASA). CASA is based in the Interior Ministry and formed by officials of the Italian police, the Carabinieri, and the financial police, in addition to Italian and foreign intelligence analysts.

The information in question consists of intelligence reports regarding a planned terrorist attack targeting Milan’s main railway station (Milano Centrale) to be perpetrated “in the first half of March 2006, so as to strike the Italian government near the elections in order to condition the outcome.” Further investigation, the article states, has confirmed the attack was conceived so as to coincide with the key political event.

The intelligence reported by La Repubblica even specifies the operational method of the planned strike. Two powerful explosives would be detonated in the railway station, with an interval of one-half-hour between the two blasts. The idea is to target passengers first and then the rescue services quickly thereafter.

Interestingly, the document reveals that the basic information had been provided to intelligence agencies by a “Middle Eastern man who has been living in Italy for a year” and collaborates with Italy’s secret services. The man provided details, the document states, about a meeting he had with “four foreigners.” One of them, called “A.M.” in the report, is said to have described the planning of terrorist attacks against both the Olympic Games and the elections. In addition, “A.M.” has reportedly spoken about a “bag,” presumably containing explosives, that is supposed to arrive in Milan from Romania.

It is unclear, however, whether the contents of this “bag” were intended for the “three aspiring Syrian suicide bombers,” alleged to be planning to attack the Turin Olympic Games and who were identified in Milan in January and deported to Syria, or instead for the possible attack on Milan’s railway station.

Eavesdropping—disclosed during the aforementioned hearing of January 24—has added further evidence to those preliminary indications, confirmed also by intelligence material collected by SISMI and analyzed by CASA on January 20 at the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs (La Repubblica, January 27).

On February 2, after another hearing, COPACO’s Director Enzo Bianco said that Dr. Mario Mori, the chief of Italy’s SISDE (Secret Services for Democratic Security), had highlighted Italy’s “high exposure” to terrorism during the interval between the Olympic Games and the elections. He also said, however, that Mori did not reveal any concrete evidence of plans to carry out specific attacks (ANSA Press Agency, February 2).

Professor Arduino Paniccia, a strategic studies expert at Trieste University and a specialist on terrorism, told Terrorism Monitor that “a terror attack shortly before the elections is probably more likely to occur than one against the Olympic Games.” Several elements, Paniccia said, suggest the coming political event will be a critical moment. “There are signals indicating a resurgence of al-Qaeda,” he stated, “as the recent tapes by Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden seem to indicate.” There is likely to be a “connection between such messages and the planning of new attacks in Western countries,” he said, insisting that “today’s context is very similar to those of previous attacks in Europe.” In fact, Paniccia said, it is impossible to overlook the reality that the Madrid bombings of 2004 coincided with general elections, and that London was struck during the G-8 summit at Gleneagles.

Moreover, the Italian specialist added, “the danger in Italy today is in fact greater than some months ago, given the furious anger unleashed by the irreverent cartoons of Prophet Mohammed and also because new key Islamist militant figures appear to have less respect for Rome and Italy as symbols of worldwide Christianity.”

Italian magistrate Armando Spataro recently told the media that Islamist terrorism cells had changed their strategic use of European territory. “Before the Madrid attacks,” he said, “European countries were considered mainly as a logistics base,” but “this situation has changed, and every EU country is now at risk” (Famiglia Cristiana, January 22).

Possible Targets and Political Implications

As with all intelligence analysis on terrorist activities, a crucial element is the identification of the most likely targets. Rome and the Vatican City are obviously exposed near election time due to their political and religious significance. Italy, however, is full of places of high symbolic value. For instance, Venice is a sensitive target for many reasons. One of Europe’s major tourist destinations and a city unique in the world, it was once a powerful republic that successfully fought against the chief Muslim power in the 16th century: in the Gulf of Lepanto (Western Greece), Venice, allied with Spain, defeated a powerful Ottoman fleet.

Apart from that historical memory, Venice is also a possible target because of its extensive chemical-industry site at Porto Marghera. “A massive strike against the chemical facilities in that area,” according to Paniccia, “would be simply devastating.” Similarly, “a suicide attack against the city carried out with boats would combine maximum damage with the greatest possible impact,” he said.

A high-casualty attack linked to the elections would prove “profoundly destabilizing for Italy,” and could also be a heavy blow for the U.S. since “Washington’s capability as a security provider would be severely damaged,” Paniccia concluded.

Commenting on the terrorism threat, Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu told the press that Italy’s strategy of enhanced human intelligence and strategic cooperation with foreign secret services has already produced encouraging results and helped to prevent several terrorist attacks (Famiglia Cristiana, January 22). It is to be expected, therefore, that this strategy will be steadfastly pursued by Italy in the crucial weeks ahead.