The Terrorist Threat to the Turin Olympic Games

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 2

After Rome’s decision to take part in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Italy has been repeatedly threatened by Islamist terrorist networks. In an effort to single out the terrorists’ most likely targets and to effectively organize counter-terrorist strategies and pre-emptive actions, analysts and senior Italian authorities have long focused on the city of Turin as a high-risk target during the Winter Olympic Games, scheduled from February 10 to 26 (See Terrorism Monitor, Volume III, Issue 18).

If an attack is to take place, it is more likely that the city itself—rather than the actual Olympic event and its facilities—will be the target. In fact, it is hard to imagine that large-scale terrorist attacks could be directed against the sport facilities and in the areas where the competition takes place since these areas will be under intense surveillance. Indeed, terrorists could take advantage of the massive redeployment of military and police forces to protect the Olympic Games to strike other targets located in the heart of the city or nearby.

Why Turin is a Likely Target for a Terrorist Attack

There are essentially three factors that make Turin a high-value target. First, from a timing perspective, it makes sense to target the city during the Olympics. During the games, the city will be under intense global media coverage, with the attention of millions worldwide focused on the competition. This provides terrorists with the opportunity to maximize media coverage and humiliate Italy in front of the whole world. Although the events will be held in towns and arenas several miles from Turin, the city itself provides the name and organizational hub for the games; therefore, an attack against it would constitute a direct assault on the Olympics.

In addition, February is close to the Italian general elections, which are to be held in May. At the time of the Olympics, the electoral campaign will be starting up, and the emotional manipulation of voters by terrorists would likely have appreciable political consequences. From the terrorists’ perspective, an attack on Italian soil would prove how counter-productive the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have been in terms of national security. Terrorists would aim to encourage Italian voters to oust the ruling right-of-center coalition, which aligned itself with the United States in 2003. Italy continues to maintain troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Second, Turin presents a range of attractive targets for Islamic terrorists. Sensitive targets in the city of Turin include the extensive railway system, which literally encircles the town, and the main railway stations (Porta Nuova and Porta Susa), the underground railway, Caselle airport, the public transportation system, religious centers—in particular the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist—and the business district in the city center.

In the light of previous modus operandi, it is unlikely that a terrorist strike in Turin would be directed at symbolic targets such as churches or historical monuments. If—as many expect—attackers follow the operational patterns of Madrid and London by targeting the public transportation system, Turin would be an ideal target. The town has an extensive local railway system used daily by vast numbers of workers employed in the region’s industries. If a regional train or important railway hub was attacked during the morning rush-hour, the terrorist strike would inflict extensive casualties, and also deal a severe blow to the economy of the surrounding region—one of Italy’s key industrial areas. The time required for post-attack reactivation of the rail routes would be sufficient to cause significant economic damage, especially if coupled with subsequent commuter tardiness in reverting to train use as a “safe” alternative to private cars.

Despite the police’s already ongoing efforts, it is extremely difficult to secure Turin’s railway stations and the heavy flows of commuters from the smaller towns in the Piedmont region (La Repubblica, July 24, 2005).

Terrorists would probably opt to use suicide bombers to strike the public transportation system; therefore, the most effective counter-terrorist tactic would involve the interception of suicide bombers before they set foot on Italian soil. It appears unlikely that long-term Muslim residents would be ready to act as suicide bombers. In fact, Italy still lacks the third and fourth generation Muslim immigrants that live in France or the UK. Moreover, Italy’s young Muslim population does not seem to be experiencing the identity crisis of other Muslim citizens in Western European countries; they appear to be less prone to Islamist propaganda and recruitment by international terrorist networks.

Nevertheless, Turin has one of the largest Muslim populations in Italy, and it is possible that individuals could provide logistical support to terrorists and help with reconnaissance of potential targets. These activities would likely be carried out by non-specialized units before al-Qaeda or affiliated operatives enter the country to execute the attacks.

If any local Muslims assist the terrorists, they will most likely belong to the group of newly-arrived immigrants. It is important to note that 15% of Italy’s Moroccan community and 7% of its Senegalese immigrants live in Turin and its surroundings (Caritas, Annual Report on Immigration, 2004). The volatility of Turin’s Muslim community is confirmed by the recent expulsion from Italy of Bouqta Bourichi, an imam working in the multi-ethnic district of the town (Il Messaggero, September 7, 2005). Bourichi is the fifth religious leader to have been deported from Italy in the last two years. His expulsion has spread unease and fear among the Maghrebi immigrants in Turin who feel that they are being systematically targeted by the police (Corriere della Sera, December 3, 2005).

Thirdly, Turn holds important symbolic value for Islamic militants. While Rome is Italy’s political heart and Milan its primary financial center, Turin is the economic capital of the country. FIAT, the most prominent Italian industrial corporation, and other major companies are located in the city or its hinterland. An attack against Turin would represent an assault on the economic powerhouse of the country and inflict a massive symbolic, if not actual, blow to its entire economic system.

It is important to note that 19th century Turin was the first capital in the history of the modern Italian state. It is widely viewed by Italians as the most industrious part of the country, and the most advanced in terms of manufacturing industries and technological development. Although a terrorist attack against Rome would have greater political and symbolic value, the capital is extensively garrisoned by police and security forces that are constantly on the alert against terrorist attacks. Furthermore, the Muslim community in Rome is smaller than those located in important northern cities such as Bologna, Milan and Turin.

Deterrence and its Limits

The Italian government has been aware for some time that the winter Olympic Games in Turin are a likely target for Islamic militants (Il Giornale, July 29, 2005). There are essentially four counter-terrorist tactics that can be implemented before, during and after the sports events: deterrence, prevention, detention of suspected terrorists and protection of targets.

Counter-terrorist measures for the Turin Olympics stress the importance of deterrent and preventive measures. Italian security forces have already displayed the ability to identify and completely disrupt the operations of experienced Islamic militants backed up by extensive local logistical support. A recent example of this is the November 2005 Carabinieri-led operation in Naples and Brescia, which resulted in the arrest of three “potentially operative” Algerian GSPC terrorists (Corriere della Sera, December 12, 2005). Yet, with the Olympic Games fast approaching, it is unlikely that cell and network disruptions of this kind can be expected in the run-up to the competition.

Moreover, deterrence is inherently limited insofar as it only works if it succeeds in frightening off terrorists engaged in the latter stages of the planning cycle. Therefore, prevention constitutes the most useful means for Italian security to protect the Olympics and Turin from terrorist attacks. In conclusion, Italian counter-terrorism forces can, essentially, use three approaches to prevent terrorist attacks in Turin:

a) Monitor groups and individuals already known to police for their subversive attitudes and surveillance of potentially dangerous groups and individuals. The recent expulsion of the imam of the Porta Palazzo mosque in Turin can be situated in this framework;

b) Obstruct the capability of terrorist cells to obtain the necessary information needed to carry out suicide attacks;

c) Closely monitor outlets that sell chemicals, fertilizer and other equipment and materials needed by terrorists to construct explosive devices.