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Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 1: Military and Energy Aspects

July 4, 2016


By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

In this, the first part of’s series on Italian security challenges in the MENA and Balkan theaters, we examine Italy’s key role within the NATO alliance, and its cooperation within the EU on migration-related, maritime security affairs. This analysis will show that Italian capacities and orientations are marked both by a historic inclination and by its geographic location- stretching as it does from the Alps to the Adriatic and Central Mediterranean.

It will also reveal how Italian security and intelligence affairs are intricately linked with larger politics, illegal migration and the influence of Italian business on directing political change in Libya.

“We Are Overstretched:” Engagement Restrictions and Need for Forward Planning

The current state of affairs is presenting many challenges for Italy. According to Marco Giulio Barone, an Italian security and defense expert with Il Caffé Geopolitico, the country’s far-flung obligations are having their effect.

“We are overstretched,” said Barone, in a recent interview for “We have a lot of countries where we are taking part in missions, from Afghanistan and the Middle East to North Africa and the Balkans. We need to plan in advance for the needs of our military forces.”

A lack of proper planning, the analyst adds, explains why Italy is now “in deep crisis on security issues. This is due in part, he attests, to misplaced priorities: “when the intelligence community was warning in advance about the possible effects of the Arab Spring, the EU was so busy with the economic crisis that they didn’t pay attention.”

The results of a lack of preparation, Barone adds, appeared when all pressing security concerns erupted at the same time. The Arab Spring was followed by the conflicts in Syria and Libya, spawning unchecked illegal migration and radicalization. These trends “all came together, when we were unprepared,” Barone attests. “The government did not recognize change, and the need to act in advance. We had to establish what our defense would have to provide in future, and take policy steps in advance… [the security forces] were well aware that without a wide range of efforts in advance, these problems would be knocking at our door.”

Historical Context: the Postwar ‘Policy of Friendship’

For how long have security challenges been knocking at Italy’s door, and what policies have been taken to address them? One might say since the glorious days of the ancient empire, when the Mediterranean was known as a ‘Roman lake.’ But in the more modern context, Italian state security and defense is a byproduct of the post-WWII Euro-Atlantic order.

Modern Italy took a double approach, diplomatically and militarily. Firstly, leaders sought to reinforce the links with the war-devastated trans-Mediterranean states, presenting the newborn Italian Republic as a peace-broker willing to help promote Arab self-determination. Italy thus developed enduring diplomatic and economic relations with most MENA countries bordering the Mediterranean.

This policy, known as the ‘diplomacy of friendship,’ was developed during the 1960s and 1970s (during the center-left governments guided by Amintore Fanfani and Aldo Moro, who was also Italian foreign minister in some governments). This policy was meant to be a model for common living based on bilateral and multilateral relations between Mediterranean countries. In some ways, it balanced the contemporaneous pro-European effort in CECA and then the EEC.  The policy was generally shared across the whole spectrum of Italian politics.

In more recent times, this policy manifested in 2006, when the Prodi government decided to activate and send, under UN command, a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon, on the eve of civil war. Similarly, but with more long-term implications, was the Friendship Treaty with Libya. Signed in Benghazi on 30 August 2008 by the Berlusconi government and the late Moammar Gaddafi, it reaffirmed both countries’ economic and energy-sector interests and inaugurated new technical and cultural cooperation programs.

Gaddafi had already been the guarantor of Mediterranean stability for Italy, guaranteeing that illegal migration from his territory would largely be blocked. But the Libyan leader’s murder in 2011 would result in anarchy and the development of terrorism and mass migration- causing a new headache for Italy.

Historical Context: New Identity as a Pillar of NATO

The post-WWII security role of Italy was defined from early on. When the Marshall Plan evolved into a military alliance, Italy became a cornerstone in the project of common defense between NATO members. Thus, successive Italian governments officially supported the diplomacy of friendship with the MENA, while the military aspect was mostly managed through NATO, especially during the Cold War. The perceived ‘Communist threat’ to Europe also gave Italy a leading role in observing any hostile developments from the Eastern Adriatic (Yugoslavia and Albania) as well as from North Africa, where Yugoslavia and the USSR both had cooperation going on too. This historic role has to a large extent been inherited today.

The most infamous historical episode in this cooperation was Operation Gladio (‘short sword,’ in ancient Italian) was the name given to the Italian branch of NATO’s secret anti-communist networks, which operated from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War. Its existence was first revealed in 1990, after an inquiry led by Italian magistrate Felice Casson.

The prime minister, Giulio Andreotti gave Judge Cassone permission to search the archives of the Italian military secret service, Servizio informazioni sicurezza Militare (SISMI)- an organization that would be disbanded and reorganized in 2007. On 3 August 1990, Andreotti confirmed the existence of Gladio to the parliament, but claimed that it had ceased operating in 1972. This was however proven false by the press. Andreotti then admitted the existence of the Gladio networks and their NATO connection (as reported in the conclusion of the parliamentary commission report about Gladio).

After the Cold War, Italy supported the 1991 Gulf War, and took part in NATO’s first Mediterranean engagement: 1992’s Maritime Monitor, created to impose an arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia. Italy also joined NATO’s first offensive engagement with 54 aircraft in 1994, when Operation Deny Flight hit sensitive targets in Bosnia. Finally, during the 1999 NATO Kosovo bombing, Italy provided airplanes and ships, and granted Allies access to 19 airports on its territory.

An interesting MENA development occurred in 1995, when NATO created the Mediterranean Dialogue Agreement with six MENA countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. To these states, Algeria was added in 2000. The goals of this agreement were the creation of good relations between members, the maintenance of reciprocal comprehension and the promotion of regional security and stability. Officials of the member countries were invited to classes, at Obermmergau in Germany and at the NATO Defense College in Rome. Most of these states still provide good cooperation with NATO countries, despite – and perhaps because of – the turmoil of recent years.

A New Security Doctrine and Italy-based NATO Bases and Facilities

However, real-world events would restrict Italy’s ‘diplomacy of friendship’ tradition. Italian participation in the 2011 bombing of Libya signaled the importance of maintaining a central role in NATO operations across the Mediterranean. (Of  course, other factors certainly played a role in Italy’s participation, such as commercial concerns for preserving ENI’s presence on the energy scene there, as we will see below).

The year 2015 saw the release of a major new defense doctrine publication- the Italian Defense Ministry’s White Book. According to the new doctrine, Italy has two main targets in the Mediterranean: the defense of Italian borders and national interests, and the parallel defense of the Euro-Mediterranean and Euro-Atlantic spaces. The White Book also isolates the major threat of terrorist attacks, which tend to go beyond the traditional distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare.

The southern Italian city of Naples has hosted various incarnations of major NATO commands since the alliance’s inception. The Allied Maritime Command Naples was disbanded on 27 March 2013, during a program to streamline general command structure. (Allied Maritime Command, at Northwood in Britain, took over the role). But Naples still hosts the Allied Joint Force Command, in Lago Patria (the other JFC is in Brunssum, Netherlands). Both have to be prepared to plan, conduct and support NATO operations of different sizes and scope, combining land, sea and air forces. The Joint Force command in Naples is officially kept on a stand-by status, with 2,000 men ready to engage at any time.

Another important Italian base is the Combined Air Operations Center, subordinate to Allied Air Command, that conducts the day-to-day running of the Alliance’s air activities, including air policing and exercises. NATO has two CAOCs, and a Deployable Air Command and Control Centre (DACCC) in Poggio Renatico, in the northern province of Ferrara. The second Combined Air Operation Centre is located in Torrejon, Spain. NATO describes the DACCC as a “hybrid entity,” which comprises the Deployable Air Control Centre, Recognized Air Picture Production Centre/Sensor Fusion Post (DARS), the Deployable Sensor Section (DSS) and the Deployable Air Operations Centre personnel.

The airports of Trapani-Birgi and Aviano are also important pieces in NATO’s Italian defense structure. In total, the Italian/NATO security architecture includes approximately 30 facilities spanning the country. They include everything from ammunition depots and experimental research facilities to telecommunications and radar stations.

Maritime Security and Terrorism: Operation Active Endeavour

Under NATO command, three multinational integrated naval groups currently operate in the Mediterranean Sea. These are the two Permanent Naval Groups and the Standing Naval Mine Countermeasures Group. These all operate under the Maritime Command in Northwood in the United Kingdom.

NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour started in 2002, with the goal of maintaining an active counter-terrorism force in the Mediterranean. It is essentially a network-based operation designed to support maritime situational awareness and rapid-intervention forces, which includes protecting commercial shipping. The Italian navy has participated in Active Endeavour with submarines, helicopters and frigates in NATO Standing Naval Forces. Active Endeavour also involves forces from non-NATO states, including some Mediterranean Dialogue countries.

According to NATO, “the experience accrued through Active Endeavour has given NATO unparalleled expertise in deterring maritime terrorist activity in the Mediterranean, especially with regard to the proliferation and smuggling of weapons of mass destruction and cooperation with non-NATO countries and civilian agencies.”

Italy’s Role in the anti-Migrant Smuggling and Humanitarian Maritime Operations: from Mare Nostrum to Operation SOPHIA

Fighting terrorism and protecting shipping lanes have been overtaken now by migration concerns. In the last three years the European Union’s attitude towards its southern maritime border has changed deeply: if in 2013 it was considered solely an Italian, Greek or Spanish problem, the consequences of the Arab Spring, the rekindled migrant crisis and the appointment of an Italian, Federica Mogherini, as EU Commissioner managed to make the issue a higher common priority.

The massive increase in illegal migration from Libya after the 2011 NATO’s intervention there has influenced the other major maritime operations. The deterioration of the situation is attested by official statistics. Around 170,000 migrants arrived in 2014, mostly in the summer, and 7,882 in the first two months of 2015 – before the epic migration crisis of 2015 began – while in the whole of 2013, the total number of migrants smuggled by sea was around 34,000 people. In the same period, the migrants (and the asylum seekers) hosted in Italian temporary shelters was around 66,000, meaning that almost 110,000 migrants used Italy only as their first step, seeking asylum or simply disappearing further on in Europe.

The strain from this influx resulted in new maritime military operations, first national in character and later under EU control. The recent history of this operational trend indicates an Italian military that is capable and equipped to carry out missions. However, the increasing scale of the migration problem has meant political recalibrations that have also made these Mediterranean missions much more multinational in scope.

Italy first understood the problem as a national one. Thus following the tragic sinking of a migrant ship coming from Misrata, Libya near Lampedusa on 3 October s 2013, the Italian government authorized a special maritime humanitarian operation, dubbed Mare Nostrum. Coincidentally, it should be remembered that Pope Francis, who has a certain moral authority and thus political influence, had already criticized the world for ‘humanitarian’ failings earlier that year, while visiting migrants in Lampedusa.

The operation, meant to patrol the Sicilian Channel, took place from 18 October 2013 to 31 October 2014 and was operated solely by the Italian Navy and Air Force, with a contribution from Slovenia, which lent the battleship Triglav.

According to the Italian Navy, the deployed naval units included ships, helicopters, aircrafts and UAVs, a coastal radar network and Italian Navy AIS (Automatic Identification System) shore stations. Both Italian Naval servicemen and Carabinieri were involved, for purposes of humanitarian assistance and criminal investigation of traffickers. Operation Mare Nostrum covered a wide area in the Straits of Sicily (about 70,000 sq. km).

However, as the great expense of Mare Nostrum started to affect the government’s cohesion, a new and broader solution was needed. The mission was costing Italian taxpayers 9.5 million euros per month, and – as with all similar humanitarian missions – it only seemed to be increasing, not decreasing the number of migrants, as people realized they had a better chance of being rescued at sea.

Thus, from 1 November 2014, Mare Nostrum was substituted by a Frontex operation, codenamed Triton or Frontex Plus. Operating under the European Union, the mission had a third of the budget and more limited ambitions. Indeed, even from the outset, no one was expecting miracles. As Corriere della Sera wrote, Triton would “last only sixty days… the new operation does not push, however, beyond the Italian border (Mare Nostrum pushed near the border with Libya), and the intercepted ships will be brought to Italy, as required by European legislation, given that Italy is the host country of the operation.”

Although an EU mission, overall command was granted to Italy. (In the Mediterranean, Frontex had already led the Nautilus I, II and III missions between 2006 and 2008). Participant countries included Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Malta.

Despite this larger participation, Triton was a failure. Operating with a fraction of the budget, and in restricted waters, it both encouraged more migrants to come and was not working far enough out on the high seas to save them in time. Thus, the number of people drowned at sea constantly grew.

The massive increase in illegal migration in early 2015 proved that Triton/Frontex Plus needed to be enhanced. Citing IOM data, the New York Times reported that “as of April 20, there have been about 18 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year.” Also in April 2015 a massive sinking caused more than 700 deaths. The many critics included Amnesty International.

Thus, EU foreign and defense ministers agreed on 18 May 2015 to create a more offensive-oriented maritime mission. Triton was replaced by the most sophisticated EU military maritime engagement to date, Operation SOPHIA. It would be led by the Italian Navy, and complimented by a new Italian mission, Mare Sicuro, which itself operated five ships carrying helicopters, and two submarines. Of course, the role of EU Commissioner Federica Mogherini was crucial in highlighting the urgency of the problem, and making these things happen.

The activities of Operation SOPHIA – officially named European Union Naval Force Mediterranean and recognized as EUNAVFOR Med – were partially revealed earlier this year in a document published by Wikileaks. The document (an internal review of actions taken from May 2015 to January 2016) also cited a secret plan to enforce a stable government in Libya- one that would then ‘invite’ the EU to start a military operation against traffickers in its territorial waters.

The operation’s main task is to neutralize the maritime migrant smuggling routes, according to official documentation. Mogherini herself emphasized the humanitarian aspect as well, when she said that “fighting the smuggler and the criminal networks is a way of protecting human life.”

However, Mare Sicuro has a more defensive and commercial role: to protect Italy’s southern coasts from threats coming from North Africa, and the surveillance and protection of ENI’s petrol platform. As we will see later in this analysis, the Italian energy giant actually has had an influential role in shaping the political – and thus, security – approaches of the EU and UN towards restoring order in Libya.

Italian Trends towards Mission Integration, but a Territorial Extension for Operation SOPHIA Unlikely

As stated on the Italian Defence Ministry website, Operation SOPHIA was extended, on 23 May 2016, for another year. The nascent Libyan Coastal Guard is also to be trained. In the near future, the operation may however also involve an actual armed intervention in Libyan national waters.

Collaboration also continues between SOPHIA officials and the Italian National Judiciary Authority against Organized Crime (Direzione Nazionale Antimafia e Antiterrorismo, or DNAA). The DNAA has issued very useful guidelines, clarifying the Italian legal framework applicable to the operation on the apprehension and collection of evidence against traffickers, and the criteria to be met in order to exercise Italian jurisdiction.

Like Greece, Italy has tried to call for European ‘solidarity’ in the migrant crisis, and does not wish to be left alone to deal with the migrant deluge. The evolution of maritime operations since 2002 shows that Italy seeks to integrate its military cooperation within both NATO and EU structures. This may be due both to the exigencies of the migrant crisis, as well as to the centralization trend in the Central Mediterranean indicated by Operation Active Endeavour, Trition/Frontex Plus and Operation SOPHIA.

Indeed, during a meeting of European Defense Ministers in Brussels on 15 June 2016, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti pressed for more concrete coordination between NATO and the European Union: “with the operation Active Endeavour being reconfigured as a sea security operation, the cooperation in the Aegean Sea fruitfully continuing and EU operation SOPHIA, we have the possibility to create a strategic coordination for the security of the Mediterranean.”

The recent entry of Egypt into the migrant-smuggling game has caused alarm in the EU. However, not all agree over a possible extension of SOPHIA in geographic terms, as some would like, to an area extending east of Crete. Greece is especially concerned, as all previous maritime missions have merely encouraged more migrants to come. The precarious position of Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza-led government would be even more at risk in the case of an expanded mission.

The Cretans, who voted heavily for Syriza, are an independent-minded and well-armed bunch. Their island is also relatively wealthy, a major tourism hub and a key agricultural producer. With several Eastern Aegean islands since last year harmed by migration from Turkey, Cretans would not appreciate new migrant waves that would disrupt their tourism and way of life. Cretan politicians and tycoons have influence in media and other major political parties as well.

Nevertheless, some in the European Union see places like Crete as mere dots on the map of a wider possible engagement, as they are ambitious about projecting EU power across the Mediterranean to the Middle East. Thus, during the May meeting of European Foreign Ministers in Brussels, there was also a focus on the Middle East, and the coming talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials. On 6 June, Federica Mogherini asked the United Nations to approve the resolution adopted by the FMs council.

However, as a senior Carabinieri official told recently, “it is unlikely that future operations – even rescue missions – in the Eastern Mediterranean would be left to the European Union, a civilian institution, instead of NATO, especially with the current crises in Syria and Iraq and new measures to fight ISIS.” NATO also enjoys more effective logistic and strategic support through member countries like Greece and Turkey, which also has the ground headquarters in Izmir on the Eastern Aegean coast.

NATO is already operating in the Aegean Sea, following a request by Greek, German and Turkish authorities, through the Standing Maritime Group 2. The current lack of cooperation between European and NATO officials, denounced also by Italian Defense Minister Pinotti, could also impede any hopes for extending EUNAVFOR MED areas of action.

So, whether or not there will ever be a ground operation in Syria or Libya, the odds are that EUNAVFOR operations will not be extended into the waters between Egypt, Israel and Syria.

Intelligence Sharing, Migration and Terrorism: More Challenges

As has been seen in terrorist attacks over the past year in Europe, ISIS fighters have used the refugee streams to their benefit. The fact that some have applied for asylum in the EU also raises concerns over the system itself. Akhmed Chataev, the Chechen suspected mastermind of the Istanbul airport bombing, had been granted asylum by Austria and chronically protected from extradition to Russia, despite known terrorist affiliations. “The question is whether Russia will agree to help Turkey find the Russian-speaking ISIS operatives,” Haaretz recently reported. “This will be an important test of the value of last week’s reconciliation agreement between them.” The fact that Chataev exploited Austria’s asylum system is likely to also benefit Austrian Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer in a mandated electoral re-run.

The entirely preventable Chataev case indicates the grave danger to European security posed by intelligence failures and internal conflicts that prevent intelligence sharing. When it comes to Italy, identifying potential terrorists among MENA migrants on Italian soil will be a top priority.

Some experts, like Marco Giulio Barone, believe that Italy has a relatively easier job of identifying and arresting Islamic terrorists entering via migrant streams, compared to some of its European partners. “Italy has been quite proficient in arresting people,” he stated for “On the one hand, this means we are doing a good job, on the other is the fact that [Muslim migrants] tend to follow the same routes and stay within the same communities.”

While taking care to say that the task is not “easy,” Barone adds that it is feasible: “if you compare the problem with countries like France of Belgium, where the size of the communities is much larger, then you need a narrow set of indicators. In Italy, the community is rather small. Another issue is how they could gather weapons. This is rather difficult in Italy unless you have ties with criminal organizations. On the Balkan route, they have more opportunities to get weapons than in Italy. So, cooperation with Balkans wll be fundamental.”

Italian intelligence operations in the MENA, and international cooperation, have been noted critically recently.  On 8 June, a man claimed to be Eritrean national Medhanie Yehdego Mered was extradited from Khartoum to Rome, accused being the mastermind of a vast migrant-smuggling ring operating from North Africa. The New York Times reported that the man’s 24 May arrest had “followed an investigation that involved the Sudanese, Italian and British authorities, [and] was a rare instance in which a person has faced direct criminal charges for the human trafficking that has made the Mediterranean one of the world’s deadliest migration routes.”

While the authorities were originally ecstatic, even making the rare disclosure that Britain’s SIGINT agency, GCHQ, had played a key role, the mood soon soured when family members of the arrested Eritrean claimed that police had got the wrong man. His Italian lawyer, Michele Calantropo said that the arrested man was actually an Eritrean refugee named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. “He is another man, stated Calantropo on 10 June. “[He] doesn’t understand the meaning of this arrest.”

Currently, the case is going to a Palermo court, and former smuggling victims of the real Mered are coming to testify that the identity is indeed mistaken. Their revelations have forced the Italians and British to double down on their original claims. According to The Guardian on 3 July, “if the judge accepts their testimony, the case will be a considerable embarrassment for Italian investigators, Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) and the British embassy in Sudan, who all claimed to have played a crucial role in the arrest and extradition of the man from Khartoum last month.”

From the cases of the real terrorist mastermind who escaped in the European system and the potentially mistaken migrant trafficker captured in Sudan, it is clear that there is a greater need than ever for proper intelligence sharing where migration, crime and terrorism converge. But this is hampered by traditional factors, and also because the unconventional nature of the migrant crisis means new methods have to be used and new relationships have to be formed. Working with a murky regime like Sudan, for example, is rather a step into uncharted waters for European countries that increasingly are seeking a North Africa foothold. Mistakes can easily be made.

According to Barone, intelligence agencies in Europe do not cooperate enough: “they are worried to cooperate. Each service at a national level has requests and restraints. The kind and quality that individual countries can provide depends on these issues. The framework is so complicated, whether a specific service is allowed or not allowed to share information with another can be determined on a case-by-case basis.”

A License Revoked…

Frontex recently released an estimate identifying Egypt as a new springboard for illegal migration to Italy. intelligence accurately predicted this scenario, first in February and again in May of 2016. In the latter article, reported that “since Italy has stepped up criticisms of Egyptian democracy and secret services, Egypt has started allowing use of five ports to hit 23 Italian destinations with long-haul migrant ships.”

We can now explain why this low-intensity war began. First, Egypt carefully observed the concessions that Turkey won from the EU, by simply being a migrant-exporter ; secondly, and more specifically, was a mysterious murder that involved secret services, cutting-edge technology, and diplomatic reprisals.

On 31 March 2016, the Italian Ministry for Economic Development (MISE) revoked the global authorization export license of the Milanese tech company Hacking Team. Now, the company needs specific authorization to deal with non-EU countries, and the Italian government may veto any HT negotiations in specific deals.

As we will see later in this series, the company is no stranger to controversies, including in the Balkans. But the 31 March decision was made regarding Italian-Egyptian relations. The document issued by MISE explicitly mentions “mutated political conditions” as a reason for its license revocation.

Hacking Team specializes in producing sophisticated spyware and malware for governmental use. According to the International Business Times, the company had “lobbied hard” for the global authorization license from the Italian government, in order “to collaborate with Boeing on putting Hacking Team’s Galileo spyware onto drones, effectively developing a method by which to infect public Wi-Fi networks with its spyware.”

In April 2016, the Italian newspaper Il fatto quotidiano claimed clear evidence exists to prove that Hacking Team sold its Galileo technology to Egypt, even if the government originally dismissed the possibility. The document related to this sale was reportedly received by MISE on 30 December 2015. (According to the report, the software was sold on 26 June 2015, under contract 20140812.070-10.ES)

…and a Mysterious Murder in Cairo

All might have been well and good, had it not been for a mysterious murder in early 2016. The body of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni was found alongside a highway on the outskirts of Cairo on 3 February. Regeni had been a Cambridge PhD student, and was in Egypt allegedly to research trade unions. An investigation was immediately begun, including separate autopsies by Egyptian and Italian forensics experts.

Western media fingered Egyptian intelligence in the death of Regeni, whose corpse showed signs of torture. On 17 February, The Economist wrote that “suspicions are growing that Egypt’s security services had a role in the death of Mr Regeni, whose research on labour movements in Egypt and occasional writing for Il Manifesto, a left-wing Italian newspaper, may have put him in contact with groups considered enemies of the state, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.” The magazine added that Regeni had disappeared on 25 January- the fifth anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow, and thus a date with obvious connotations.

Although the case remains unresolved, Egyptian intelligence may have thought – rightly or wrongly – that Regeni was working for MI6 or Italy’s External Intelligence and Security Agency (Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna, or AISE). In response to frenzied media speculation, on 16 February the Regeni family stated that it “categorically and unequivocally” denied any possibility that the murdered researcher could have been “an agent or collaborator of any secret service, Italian or foreign.”

The truth of this claim is not as important as the perception: for surely it would be the mother of all ironies if the Egyptian government had used Italian-made spy software to track the movements of an Italian citizen who they suspected of being an Italian spy. This is the real reason why Hacking Team was targeted with the non-EU sales restrictions.

Indeed, two parliamentary points of order presented on 4 March asked whether Hacking Team’s RCS Galileo software, allegedly able to search even the deep web for secret information, could also have been used to spy on Giulio Regeni.

Both MISE and the MFA were asked the following by parliamentarians: whether “the selling of the software to the Egyptian services had been authorized by MISE; which controls were operated before granting this authorization; whether the MISE had discovered to which Egyptian governmental organization it was destined, and whether there were sufficient elements to exclude that the software was used, by any means, against Regeni.”

Moreover, parliamentarians asked “which research and which elements of evaluations of the respect of human rights were taken into account before granting the authorization of dual-use spy technologies from the MISE itself.”

The cumulative implication of this internal interest was that the relevant government bodies were also guilty in some way, since they had approved Hacking Team’s equipment sales. This has effectively widened greatly the number of people who have to protect their images in the Italian public eye.

Thus, as reported, the government has denied that the revocation of Hacking Team’s global authorization had anything to do with the Regeni case. A senior official at an Italian regional cooperation organization, with long experience in Egypt, told that “it could be that it was important to cover up anything [that might have happened] in the hope nobody would wish to stir up dust. But in this story, a young life was taken.”

More recent governmental decisions are unclear. For example, MISE announced on 28 June that the ministry has reassigned companies’ general right to sell spy software to Egypt, but not cancelled it altogether. Instead of Hacking Team, another Italian company will be allowed to do business: Area Spa, a cyber-security company headquartered in Vizzolo Ticino in Varese. Area Spa specializes in less aggressive, but still intrusive signals interception systems. In a November 2011 interview, the company CEO revealed that they had almost started to work in 2008 with Syria – another ‘friendly’ country at the time – but that the SIGINT system was never used.

It does not seem from the MISE decision that Italy is trying to punish the Egyptian state over the murder, but rather to keep Hacking Team’s former client state open to working with Italy- after all, there are many competitors in this lucrative, high-end market.

However, other official decisions have been made that appear to take a more punitive approach. On 29 June, an Italian parliamentary decree stopped an existing support program servicing Egyptian F-16 aircraft, after a fierce discussion at the Italian Senate. expects that in the coming months certain political and media sides will try to galvanize public opinion against the rights allocation to Area Spa too, again over the Regeni murder and Egyptian human rights failings.

Egypt vs. Italy: Revenge through Migration?

The Regeni murder caused predictable diplomatic problems. Italy recalled its ambassador amidst bilateral complaints, while the Regeni family brought the issue to Brussels, speaking with Mogherini herself. But the pressure has failed to damage the world position of Egypt, which ironically recently won a place on the UN Human Rights Commission for 2017-2021. Egypt forms the cornerstone of whatever MENA security remains, safeguards the Suez Canal, and maintains good ties with Israel and Greece. Italian public opinion of a terrible murder cannot compete with these factors.

As has predicted, Egypt can exact its revenge on Italy for cancelled security deals and human-rights accusations simply by allowing the migrant flow to increase. This would pose obvious problems for Italian and general EU military strategies and even political cohesion in an already tense environment.

Italian newspapers seem less aware of this scenario. They did not cover the 22 June blocked attempt of 70 migrants – mostly from Sudan, Djibouti and Sub-Saharan Africa – trying to get to Italy from Alexandria. The smuggler was an Egyptian from the Kaft El Sheikh province in the Nile Delta, who took 30,000 Egyptian lira (almost 3,000 euros) for each migrant, as reported by SwissInfo.

The Italian military, however, is keenly aware of the situation. In the Operation SOPHIA report published by Wikileaks this February, Italian Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino reported that “with a significant increase over the past three months, Egyptian smuggling has returned on the central Mediterranean Route. Generally, this makes use of mother ships starting from Egypt, picking up additional migrants along the way past western Egypt and eastern Libya, before crossing the Mediterranean towards Europe and Italy. Sometimes the mother ship, most often an old fishing vessel, is used to complete the journey. Other times migrants are transshipped to smaller vessels for the final part.”

Further, Credendino correctly noted that, while used throughout 2014, this route was gradually abandoned in 2015. But in the following months the number started to grow again, and some sinkings have occurred due to the difficulty of the journey: the trip from the western areas of Egypt takes 7 to 9 days, and the constant stops and further boardings of new migrants in the staging ports expose the ships to overloading and poor hygienic conditions.

Most people following this route are coming from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. In 2014 and 2015, smugglers had two viable paths to bring them to Europe: the eastern way, longer and less used, from Egypt to conflict-torn Syria and then through Turkey, and the famous Balkan route; and the western way, through anarchic Libya, with two governments and thousands conflicting groups, IS fighters included. Here the waters were guarded by Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue mission and to a lesser extent, Frontex’s Triton, which as discussed has been replaced by Operation SOPHIA.

But the presence of that operation and recent legitimization of the Al-Sarraj government have complicated travel to ports of departure west of Tobruk. Thus, signs of success in Libya may be helping the Egyptian traffickers.

An Ethiopian activist in Sweden, Meron Estifanos, claimed on Twitter that fellow Ethiopians, together with Eritrean and Sudanese migrants, currently prefer the route towards Egypt; this route is being recommended by word-of-mouth. Also, a young Sudanese refugee interviewed by the journalist Stefano Liberti for Internazionale, stated that “many are leaving my country to embark from Egypt. Libya is too dangerous.” As reported by the Italian magazine “he claims to have paid 2,500 dollars to cross the Mediterranean.”

The increasing Egyptian role as a migrant exporter worries the European Union too. As reported by Reuters on 29 February, “the European Union fears Mediterranean migrant smuggling gangs are reviving a route from Egypt… ‘It’s an increasing issue’, an EU official said of increased activity after a quiet year among smugglers around Alexandria that has raised particular concerns in Europe about Islamist militants from Sinai using the route to reach Greece or Italy.… Brussels, engaged in delicate bargaining with Turkey to try and stem the flow of migrants from there, is concerned that the Egyptian authorities are not stopping smugglers. But it is reluctant to use aid and trade ties to pressure Cairo to do more when Egypt remains an ally in an increasingly troubled region.”

The Energy Factor and Italian Diplomacy in Libya

One final factor contributing to the security and diplomatic role of Italy in the MENA now is the geostrategic power of energy diplomacy.

The Italian oil company ENI began operations in Libya in 1959, and is one of the only foreign corporations to have continued work through the recent chaos. The company’s oil exports back to Italy have always been an important factor for Italian energy security, which has given the company some influence in foreign policy.

At the time of Gaddafi’s fall, ENI was extracting 10% of all Libyan internal oil production, and enjoyed a near-monopoly on its natural gas. After the 2008 friendship treaty between Berlusconi and Gaddafi, Italy had been reassured of economic and security stability. This is largely why it took a cautious attitude at the outset of the NATO bombing three years later; there was widespread speculation that Italy only joined the military adventure because France’s Total might threaten to dislodge ENI in a post-Gaddafi Libya

Even though this danger was avoided, the instability in Libya has affected Italian energy and economic security. Investments in Libyan sovereign funds came back to Italy through the participation of major Italian companies like FIAT, Unicredit and Mediobanca. And in 2010, some 22% of Italian oil demand, and 35% of Italian gas needs came from Libya, today, these percentage have fallen to 12% and 6 % respectively.

Even though ENI is the only international company to actively produce in Libya, the instability has damaged its capacities. ENI reports now that oil production in Libya is around 300,000 barrels per day. The Green Stream Pipeline still provides gas supplies from Mellitah to Gela, in Sicily, via the seabed, moving 8 billion sm3 per year.

Thus the current Italian priority is to help the institution of a stable and recognized government, and so to maximize the assets ENI maintained, with some difficulties in recent years.

These needs, and the historic activity of Italian diplomacy and economy in the region explain why the country is so heavily involved in the management of negotiations between Libya’s conflicting sides. And this too has a military aspect: the most delicate part of the talks that created the current al-Sarraj government was given from the UN to the Italian general Paolo Serra.

The Italian Air Force provided the planes that brought the Libyan delegate to the peace conferences. Without any doubt, whatever the future of Libya might be, Italy will have a leading role in both law enforcement and state-building- and in any eventual military intervention.

ENI: Steering Political Transition behind the Scenes?

It is notable that both the Central Libyan Bank and the National Oil Corporation officially backed the new government. NOC started talks with international counterparts well before the government was established- thus leading some observer to indicate in the company itself the real broker of al-Sarraj.

In January, National Oil Company officials met in Istanbul with representatives of the main international players in Libya: the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, ENI, Tatneft Company, Total E & P, Statoil, Deutsche Erdoel AG, British Petroleum, Sipex and Medco International. They were betting on the possibility that a unity government (at that time still to come) would re-establish oil and gas supplies.

As reported by Nena News, during these years of great disequilibrium in Libya, ENI has been one of the few companies still active in the Tripoli area, concentrating its activities in the terminal in Mellitah and in the offshore oilfields in Bouri.

Nevertheless, security concerns and the ongoing attacks by the Islamic State in Libya have led the Italian company to pressure the government and the National Oil Company to find a solution. A meeting between ENI and NOC was held on 12 March 2016 in Tripoli- just a few days before Sarraj’s arrive in the capitol. The meeting had been organized to approve the 2016 budget.

What is ENI plotting? It is unknown, but some tantalizing clues have been put out there. In a recent interview for Corriere della Sera, former ENI CEO 1Paolo Scaroni stated that the only viable situation for Libya – considering that a complete unification is utopian – could be the division of influence by areas. In this scenario, exclusive rights would be divided up for extraction of natural resources in different parts of the country.

An administrative division might be formed, according to the former CEO. It would follow the borders of the major regions – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – and the spheres of influence of the foreign oil companies, with Italy and ENI protecting the first one. The reference to a division according to these provinces hearkens back to Italian colonial and previously Ottoman times; Scaroni is hardly the first Westerner in recent years to suggest some sort of division of the country according to historic provincial lines.

If ENI has an inordinate influence in Libya, Italian politicians are bound to welcome that if it suits their diplomatic initiatives. There is no question that the company’s historic position in the country and its overall importance for national energy security have made it a key player, even though this is often overlooked by foreign media.

Indirectly, ENI definitely plays a security role as well, by using its leverage to bring Libyan political and financial interests to the negotiating table. The ability of the Italian government, augmented by its military, intelligence and commercial assets, to de-escalate tensions and fight illegal migration in North Africa will be crucial not only for Italy, but the entire EU as well. Indeed, as the senior Italian cooperation official told, the resolution of the MENA crises “remains a fundamental task for Italy’s diplomatic and energy future, and for the European Union as well.”

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