Monday, July 25, 2005

Intelligence Brief: Italy

Drafted By: Federico Bordonaro

On July 18, a group called Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades -- which claimed responsibility for the July 7, 2005 attacks on London's public transportation system -- threatened Italy via the Internet. The statement warned that Rome should withdraw its troops from Iraq within one month if it wants to avoid a terrorist attack similar to the ones executed in Madrid and London. The authors of the message also added that this would be Italy's last warning. The al-Masri Brigades already threatened Italy on August 29, 2004, likewise demanding the withdrawal of Italy's military contingent from Iraq.

This explicit terrorist threat (which evokes the possibility of using chemical weapons against Italian cities) comes at a time of feverish government activity to counter Islamist terror cells in Italian territory, and in the midst of a very confused political battle over new anti-terror measures proposed by Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu.

Impact of the London Bombings on the Italian Political Context

When London was attacked on July 7, Italy's main political parties already had complex stances on the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Italy is currently in the throes of a process of political disintegration, taking place inside both its right-of-center and its left-of-center alliances. Although the parties that make up the alliances are divided on many issues, the future of Italy's presence in Iraq is emerging as a decisive one, at least in the foreign policy sphere, while the measures regarding terrorism and immigration appear to be the most urgent and contentious items on Rome's domestic policy agenda.

The withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq had been planned well before the July 7 attacks. But although almost everyone in the Italian Parliament agreed on the necessity of debating the technical and political details involved with military withdrawal, the views on how and when to perform it remained very different. The right-of-center majority often stated that the date of Italy's withdrawal was to be agreed upon with the United States and the newly elected Iraqi government. Basically, this position means waiting until the Iraqi government can count on the new Iraqi forces to maintain law and order in the country; at that point, Baghdad would presumably ask foreign powers to leave its territory.

However, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently (even before July 7) hinted at the possibility of a gradual withdrawal to be initiated this fall. The problem is that Italy is heading toward an important year; elections are scheduled for spring 2006 and in June of that year there will be elections for a new head of state. Accordingly, calculations about the most politically convenient posture on the Iraq issue are permanently on the forefront of Italy's fragmented political landscape.

The left-of-center opposition, for its part, is showing even more acute signs of disunion. As the Left Democrats of the former Communist Party compete with the Margherita party (a left-oriented centrist Christian Democrat party) to conquer the moderate votes, they are internally torn by the split between pacifist hardliners on one hand and more pro-Atlanticist pragmatists on the other. The former incline toward a common anti-war front with the neo-communist and green parties; the latter are already working to revive dialogue with the U.S. and its allies after its (expected) win in next year's political elections. Romano Prodi, the opposition's leadership candidate for next year's political vote, is therefore trying to find a viable compromise between the two "souls" of the Italian Left. Even if such a task is accomplished, it will not be sufficient to assure a truly common foreign policy for the left-of-center federation.

As far as Italian domestic policy is concerned, one of the right-of-center ruling coalition's member parties, the Northern League (a federalist and sometimes separatist party), is attacking Pisanu because it considers his proposals for the enhancement of intelligence and precautionary measures to be inadequate, while pushing its own agenda for a far stricter policy on immigration. This issue of immigration has triggered an intense debate over the Schengen Treaty -- i.e. over the free movement of citizens within the European Union -- in reaction to France's decision to suspend the treaty as a means of more effectively countering terrorist cell activities. The Northern League, already engaged in a head-on attack against the euro since the French and Dutch rejection of the E.U.'s Constitutional Treaty, is -- as expected -- now pushing for suspension of the Schengen Treaty, thus contributing to the ruling coalition's embarrassment.

On July 12, the Italian military intelligence agency S.I.S.M.I. released an alarming report where it stated that some 300 Islamist suicide fighters successfully reached Iraq from Italy. Because of this, questions are being asked as to how Italy can eliminate terrorist cells within its own country when it cannot even stop militants from leaving Italy to fight in Iraq.

As a matter of fact, Italian political parties do not share a common view of Italy's security, either in foreign or in domestic affairs. Berlusconi's government had wagered on the U.S.' ability of forging a democratic and pro-Western Middle East in 2002-2003, and is now very worried about a possible U.S. failure. Propositions to pull out troops earlier than expected go beyond the current terrorist threats and current election strategy.

In addition, the link between the Iraq conflict and the wave of terrorist attacks in Europe is all too obvious in the view of the neo-communist Left, but is in no way evident according to the more pro-American right-wing. Moreover, any real strategic vision on immigration is completely lacking, as in the last decades the issue has been analyzed in purely economic or merely cultural terms, with very little geopolitical insight. What is sure, however, is that the London bombings have had a deep impact on Italy's politics.

The Bottom Line

Faced with both economic and political crises, Italy looks vulnerable militarily, and also politically, to a possible terrorist attack. The London attacks have complicated the withdrawal from Iraq even further because the battle over the timing of the Italian troops' departure now incorporates a new variable: its perception in terms of an unacceptable yielding to terrorist threats. Concern over creating this perception is likely to be reiterated, and to gain even more prominence as the country enters a year of decisive institutional change. A gradual withdrawal from Iraq appears likely, in part because pulling out from Iraq little by little could mitigate the political significance and insight of such a move.

Widespread insecurity and political instability will hamper the government's ability to perform significant reforms in its last year before the elections. Therefore, a continuation of the country's malaise and poor economic performance is to be expected. In the event of a worsening of the Iraq conflict -- involving an early withdrawal of U.S. troops -- look for Rome to rapidly seek to reestablish closer ties with Paris and Berlin.


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