World Review | Italian intelligence faces new challenges in Libya and Iraq

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Italian intelligence faces new challenges in Libya and Iraq

Italian intelligence faces new challenges in Libya and Iraq
Tripoli, March 4, 2013: the Libyan army flashing victory signs keep watch outside the Mellitah Oil and Gas complex (source: dpa)

WHEN Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi took office in 2014, he had to appoint an undersecretary for intelligence. Marco Minniti, already in that position during the previous administration, was sworn in. Despite being an old friend of former PM Massimo D’Alema (1998-2000), Mr. Renzi acknowledged his reliability. That is why in February 2015, Mr. Renzi chose Mr. Minniti to deliver a confidential message to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo, regarding the strategy against Daesh (Islamic State) in North Africa, writes World Review Have Your Say contributor Matteo Pugliese.

Another position to be filled was the director of the foreign intelligence agency (AISE). Prime Minister Renzi nominated Alberto Manenti, a senior officer from the organization’s human intelligence and operations division. It is well-known that the Italian intelligence service, due to its historical connection, is probably the most experienced in Libya. In fact, Mr. Manenti was even born in Tarhuna near Tripoli (where his parents moved during the Italian colonization) and lived there for 17 years, until Colonel Gaddafi took power. Mr. Manenti knows the current scenario pretty well.

Critical interests
Italian interests in Libya are critical, especially due to Eni oil plants, the migrant crisis and the Daesh presence in proximity to Sicily. Eni, the Italian oil and gas company, has much to lose in the Libyan chaos. It holds there 3,500 square miles (8,951 square kilometers) of developed oil fields, which produce 300,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day; more than the company produced before the revolution in 2011. Eni also continues to make significant gas discoveries in Libya and Egypt.

During a meeting at the NATO base of Sigonella, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter asked Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti to increase Rome’s commitment in Libya and Iraq, with frontline troops and airstrikes against the terrorists. But the Italian government remains cautious and prefers to deploy only instructors. The urgency to support foreign intelligence with operatives pushed Mr. Renzi to order new provisions, which allow the military abroad to act occasionally under the direct command of the intelligence, with the legal immunity guaranteed to spies.

Some sources report the presence of the British Special Air Service (SAS) near the city of Derna, French commandos in the Brak al-Shati airfield (Fezzan desert) and American Delta Force in the al-Wattiyah military airbase as well. Since February 2016, three operative teams from AISE, each numbering a dozen men, have been deployed in the Tripoli and Fezzan regions.

According to Daniele Raineri, a journalist at daily newspaper Il Foglio, a small unit of Italian special forces from the 9th Parachutist Assault Regiment Col Moschin was committed in reconnaissance operations close to the Tunisian border, between the towns of Zuwara and Sabratha. The reason is that the Mellitah Oil and Gas Complex stands in the middle. It is the main Eni facility in Western Libya.

Here, on July 20, 2015, four Italian employees of the company Bonatti were kidnapped. On March 3, 2016, two of them were killed in Sabratha, during a shootout between the local militia and a Tunisian jihadist group. A day later, the other two escaped and reached Tripoli. Meanwhile, Mr. Renzi formally authorized the deployment of 50 commandos from the Col Moschin and Tuscania special forces.

Another Italian, the arms dealer Franco Giorgi, 72, was imprisoned one year ago, while delivering $28.5 million of weapons to the Zintan militia, a violation of the UN embargo. Mr. Giorgi is probably being held in the village of Gharyan, near Tripoli.

Terrorist activity
What is more, this short coastal section is also the hub for human trafficking to Europe. The Mellitah Complex has been attacked several times, most recently on January 12, 2016, by trucks with machine guns. Back in March 2015, during heavy clashes among rival militias, the warship San Giorgio was nearby, carrying Italian marines from the Comsubin special forces, ready to defend the facility.

Daesh is expanding from the city of Sirte, but also at the crossroads of Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, the area under Italian surveillance. Abu Yusuf al-Anabi, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), threatened the West and “the Italian general who now rules in Tripoli,? referring to General Paolo Serra, the UN military advisor, in charge of planning a safety zone around Tripoli, which will be protected by Italian and British troops.

In the next six months, many Italian top officers will conclude their mandates, such as the director of the domestic intelligence agency (AISI) and the chiefs of the navy and air force staff. Prime Minister Renzi and Mr. Manenti already started to dismiss other senior officials from their agencies. There is an unconfirmed report about the appointment into the foreign intelligence of Colonel Sergio De Caprio, who arrested the Mafia boss Toto Riina.

Prime Minister Renzi also plans to nominate the IT businessman Marco Carrai as responsible for cyber intelligence. It is unclear if Mr. Carrai will be appointed within the agency or as the military advisor to the presidency (a position which is currently vacant). The opposition criticized Renzi’s decisions on special forces and cyber security, denouncing what they saw as a concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Bridges and dams
Iraq is another critical theater for Italian intelligence. Trevi, an Italian construction group, won a $296 million contract to repair the Mosul Dam. It is seriously damaged and in the event of collapse, a flood could hit Baghdad and the other cities downstream on the Tigris River, including Mosul. Mr. Renzi announced Italy will deploy 450 heavily armed troops (likely from the Folgore Brigade) to defend the dam and the workers, but, according to reports, Italian operatives are already there to pave the way for an intervention.

Counting the troops to be sent to the dam, in addition to the instructors already in Baghdad and Erbil, Italy will end up deploying more than 1,000 soldiers in Iraq. In March, Trevi estimated that it would take two months to start the renovation of the dam.

Daesh is not the only threat to Italian troops. A faction led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opposes Italian involvement in the repair of the dam. Hakim al-Zamili, chairman of the Security and Defense Committee in the Iraqi parliament, called the Italian presence unreasonable. Minister of Water Resources Mohsin Al-Shammari said there is no need for Italian forces. Both politicians are members of the Sadrist movement.

Al-Sadr said he would not accept any “occupation forces of all nationalities? on the issue of the dam. The cleric warned Italy that it would be considered blatant interference and he threatened to end it “in our own way.? This statement poses a serious threat, as in 2004, the Italian army confronted the Sadrist militias for 18 hours, in Nasiriyah, during the so-called “battle of the bridges.?

Italy faces new challenges, especially from Libya and the Mediterranean Sea. It entails new military and intelligence tools, such as a proactive role in counterterrorism with special forces and human intelligence. Italian national security concerns the common interest of EU and NATO partners, therefore Mr. Renzi will pursue the stability in the region with a leading role and a stronger intelligence effort.

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