As Europe struggles to find relative peace during a tense summer of terror, Italy has remained oddly outside the fray.
But Italians are now afraid that’s about to change, and with reason.
For years now, the country has been one of the most threatened targets on the so-called Islamic State’s published target lists. As far back as 2014, on the cover of its propaganda magazine Dabiq, ISIS featured St. Peter’s Square with its black jihadi flag flying atop the obelisk there. And last month, ISIS again featured Italy in one of its propaganda videos, with a photo of Piazza Navona in Rome and other Italian tourist attractions, renewing its threats of conquest.
Many terrorism analysts saw those threats as primarily symbolic, however, since ISIS likes to style itself as an army of holy Muslim warriors dialing back the clock a millennium or so to re-fight the Crusades against the infidel infidels of “Rome,” meaning all of Christendom. ISIS’s main targets, in fact, were countries that are waging war against it on the air and the ground in the here and now, most notably France.
But as the United States pursues it’s 30-day campaign against ISIS in Libya, concerns, if not panic, is running high across the country. And they ratcheted up when the Italian government said it would “positively consider” any requests by the United States to use Italian airspace and American bases on Italian soil to launch anti-ISIS strikes.
So far, the raids have been conducted from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, but that de facto go-ahead from the Italians, it is almost certain that as the campaign continues, the use of Sigonella airbase in Sicily will become the most logical launching pad for sustained attacks due south across the Med.
To make matters more unnerving, over the last several months Italy has expelled 106 people for terrorist intent and arrested countless others, including a Tunisian man named Khemiri Mohamed Kamel Edine in Caserta last week, where he is alleged to have been involved in a racket that smuggles men on terrorist watch lists into the country among the hordes of legitimate refugees trying to escape war and famine. Among his possessions when he was arrested was a sort of “how to” manual for lone-wolf terrorists that he was allegedly using as a recruitment tool for fighters.
“He’s a highly dangerous individual, because he’s smart and knows how to make people listen to him,” Giuseppe Governale, a general with Italy’s counterterrorism division said. “He did not carry out concrete actions, but our investigations have found evidence he could strike at any time.”
Eight others were arrested as part of Edine’s circle, but authorities fear that there could be dozens more who managed to stay under the radar. He reportedly pledged his allegiance to ISIS on a recent secret Facebook recruitment page. “I will be an ISIS man as long as I live,” he wrote, according to Italian police reports. “And if I die, I exhort you to join.”
Italians worry that arrests like Edine’s, along with the combined threat of violence directly from ISIS and what could be considered a motive for retaliation if ISIS in Libya is attacked from Italian soil, will make them even more vulnerable than they already feel.
The government is trying to take proactive measures, but the effect is not altogether consoling. In Rome, what amounts to high security rings with heavily armed and uniformed soldiers now circle the Coliseum and St. Peter’s Square. Nicolò D’Angelo, Rome’s police chief, said the city is under the highest level of security ever enacted in its modern history.
There are also armed military police in the shopping malls and along the busy pedestrian thoroughfares in most major Italian cities, trying to stop knife and machete attacks like those that have claimed victims in Germany, France, Britain, and Belgium. There are sharpshooters hovering on the rooftops during busy summer festivals to try to avoid the type of massacre that took place in Nice, France, during Bastille Day celebrations.
There is even a constant buzz of military helicopters patrolling above the beaches, no doubt trying to thwart attacks like those that happened on the pristine seaside resort in Tunisia. Museums are barricaded, airports are like fortresses, and there is such a sense of preparedness for something dreadful, one can find it hard to remember that the country is a vacation destination.
What we have seen of the so-called Islamic State so far is that it’s full of surprises, and always looking for soft targets. When it finds difficulty arming its volunteer terrorists in Europe it bids them used kitchen knives, axes, machetes, or to drive cars and trucks through crowds. But it is also hungry for more high-tech means of spreading terror, and Libya offers at least one disturbing precedent.
Back in 1986, when the United States conducted aggressive air raids over Libya in a building confrontation that culminated in a thunderous night of bombing that targeted Tripoli and Benghazi, then-strongman Muammar Gaddafi fired a couple of long-range Scud missiles towards the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in retaliation. Two years later to the day, his agents set off a car bomb outside a USO club in Naples, killing five people.
What munitions ISIS may have seized from Gaddafi’s old stockpile is a matter of conjecture. Might the “caliphate” have a better class of Scud than Gaddafi did?
The fact is, Italy is fewer than 300 miles from the Libyan coast and no one really knows what ISIS has in its arsenal, but there is a definite, palpable fear any sophisticated weaponry the terrorists might have will be set to home in on Italian territory.
Whatever happens—or hopefully doesn’t happen—it could be argued that much of the damage already is done, since terror works best when it keeps people on edge, which is certainly where Italians are right now.