On 1 March 2021, Italy’s intelligence systempublished its Report to Parliament on security information policy for the year 2020. As every year, since its first edition in 2007, this unclassified 120-page document in Italian offers an overview of the international scene and of the most important security threats to Italy, obviously without going into details. The Report represents a valuable source for scholars, experts, and interested readers alike.
The publication of this annual report is required by the key law that reformed Italian intelligence in 2017 (Law No. 124/2007) and is the responsibility of the Italian Community Intelligence (CI), namely three bodies: the DIS (Italian acronym for Security Intelligence Department) that ensures a unified approach to intelligence collection, analysis and operations; the AISE (External Intelligence and Security Agency) that is responsible for safeguarding national security against threats originating abroad, and the AISI (Internal Intelligence and Security Agency) that is responsible for safeguarding national security from threats originating within Italy’s borders.
With some changes from previous editions, the document is divided into eight chapters. The first examines “regional crises and influence projections” on the international scene, while the following seven chapters offer thematic insights concerning, respectively: “threats to the national economy”; the “cyber threat”; the “hybrid threat” (with reference to disinformation and/or influence activities); “jihadist terrorism” of transnational scope; “illegal immigration”; “organized crime”; “subversion and extremisms” (eversione ed estremismi) at the domestic level. Finally, the Report also includes the “National Security Document” on cyber security as an attachment.
It is not surprising to note that the spread of Covid-19 and the measures taken to counter this danger form a sort of common thread that appears throughout the various sections of the Report. In general, as stated in the document’s Premise, the global health emergency has made the threat landscape “wider, more complex and more variable”.
This article intends to provide a concise presentation of the Report’s assessment of national and transnational risks associated with terrorism and political extremism. As in previous editions, the importance of these issues is also indirectly proved by two graphs that illustrate the distribution by topic of the “Information documents of immediate concern [Informative] / Analyses sent to Institutional Bodies and Police Forces in 2020” by the two operative agencies: for the AISE 34% of the total information documents and analyses concerned international terrorism and 4% subversion (eversione e antagonismo); for the AISI these percentages rise to 52% and 15% respectively (the absolute values are not available).
The jihadi threat
Overall, the activity of the Italian Intelligence Community on the jihadist threat in the country and abroad, in collaboration with the national police forces and partner foreign intelligence services (Servizi esteri collegati), has highlighted an “increasingly dynamic and polymorphic phenomenon with regard to actors, operational areas and offensive strategies”.
According to the Report, in 2020 the so-called Islamic State (referred as DAESH in the document), after its annus horribilis in 2019 – marked by the territorial collapse of the self-styled caliphate and the death of its historic leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi –, attempted to reorganize along three lines: revitalization of insurgent activities in Iraq and Syria; decentralization in favor of regional branches in Africa and in Asia; re-launch of asymmetric conflict in crisis areas and theatres of jihad. DAESH also showed renewed media activism in response to the Covid-19 emergency.
Al-Qaida, for its part, continued the fight against the supposed “enemies of Islam”, combining the efforts of its command and control center, based “in the area between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan”, with the contributions of regional subsidiaries, especially in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Nigeria, and the Arabian Peninsula. The loss of historical leaders of regional branches, such as Abdelmalek Droukdel, head of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Qasim al Raymi, leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), did not substantially weaken the organization founded by Osama Bin Laden. Furthermore, al-Qaeda’s efforts in 2020 were amplified by a “skillful communication strategy”. Incidentally, the Report does not refer to possiblechanges at the top of the central organization that were reported by media in the last few months.
As far as Europe is concerned, the terrorist attacks committed during 2020, increased from the previous year, confirm that the jihadist terrorist threat typically takes the form of acts of violence planned and carried out independently, with rudimentary tactics and weapons, by individuals simply influenced or inspired from a distance by terrorist organizations, especially DAESH.
Importantly, the Italian Intelligence Community, also referring to the perpetrator of the November 2020 Vienna shootings, highlights the salient role of the Western Balkan region as “continental epicenter of proselytism” and “potential incubator of the terrorist threat towards European countries”.
The counterterrorism operations conducted in Europe during 2020 also confirm the risk of activation of formerforeignfighters and “frustrated travelers”, as well as the danger of combatants who may decide to leave the Middle East on their own and return to Europe. Furthermore, the aspiration of DAESH’s leadership to conduct attacks in Europe has not disappeared, as also reported by foreign intelligence services.
On the national territory, the efforts of Italian intelligence continued to focus, “as a priority”, on the processes of radicalization, often rapid and little visible. The Report identifies three main environments in which such pathways can develop. First, the document confirms the importance of the web, where jihadists can disseminate extremist material (even, in the case of non-original products, inItalian) and proselytize. Secondly, prisons still play a major role, as demonstrated, among other things, by the deportation, at the end of their term, of people detained for common crimes who joined the jihadist cause during their imprisonment. Finally, it should be noted that in some “Islamic gathering places” there has been no lack of initiatives of proselytism by radical individuals.
In general, the national authorities’ intense activity of deporting nforeign nationals suspected of supporting jihadists continued in 2020, despite a period of suspension of returns from March to June due to the coronavirus emergency. According to the “open-source” data included in the report, in the period 2018-2020, 283 foreign citizens were deported from Italy; most of them were from Tunisia, Morocco, and other North African countries.
With regard to illegal migratory flows, Italian intelligence confirms in general terms the danger of terrorist infiltration and the risks of radicalization in immigrant reception centers. On the other hand, the information collected and analyzed by the national Intelligence Community still rules out the possibility of a “systematic use” of illegal immigration channels for the transfer of jihadists. Finally, attention should be paid to the area of falsification of documents in which criminal and terrorist networks can interact.
In relation to organized crime, the Report also mentions the danger of terrorism financing, especially in the absence of stable and effective mechanisms for cooperation and exchange of information at the international level.
Extremism at the domestic level
The Report points out that the emergency of theCovid-19pandemic also affected domestic phenomena of political extremism: in general, while it limited the potential of physical mobilization, on the other hand, it encouraged propaganda activities, especially on the Internet.
As in previous editions, the document identifies four forms of domestic “subversion and extremisms”: “anarcho-insurrectionism”, radical “Marxist-Leninist networks”, the “antagonistic movement”, and the “radical right”.
Anarcho-insurrectionism remains the “most vital domestic subversive [eversiva] component”. During 2020, on the one hand, there were online campaigns, in growing numbers, and protests, even with the use of violence – especially against technologies (including the 5G network), against the prison system, in an anti-militarist key, and also in opposition to measures adopted to contain the spread of the virus. On the other , despite a decrease from previous years, there was no lack of operational initiatives, mostly consisting of vandalism and/or incendiary acts and sabotage. The Report also mentions important police operations and judicial developments that took place in 2020, and the shipment, in September, of two explosive parcels, that fortunately did not detonate .
According to the Report, the activity of small hardline Marxist-Leninist networks is still marked by the traditional effort to recover the memory of the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) and also to modernize its message, including through an interpretation of the social and economic consequences of the health emergency from the perspective of “class conflict”. If, on the one hand, these networks showed openness toward other radical actors (such as far-left anti-system activists), on the other , their attempts to exploit in a radical way issues and grievances of the working world appeared to be impracticable.
According to the Italian Intelligence Community, the health crisis and its management by the Italian government were also central themes of the debate that involved different sectors of the composite “antagonistic movement” (movimento antagonista, essentially made up of anti-system social movements and activists), committed to re-launching traditional campaigns of struggle, starting with radical grievances in an environmentalist key.
Finally, “full attention” was paid to the networks of the radical right. The main groups, traditionally unstable and divided among themselves, promoted public mobilization initiatives against the management of the health crisis, also trying to involve spontaneous protest groups and sectors of ultras groups. Moreover, on the web, disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories including the well-known “Qanon” theory, proliferated, also in relation to the pandemic, along with ultranationalist and racist rhetoric. The Report also notes that the intensification of this extremist propaganda could influence the action of small groups or even individuals, with effects that are difficult to predict.