July 29, 2016
This, the fourth installment in our present series, concentrates on the most crucial country in Italy’s Adriatic near-abroad, Albania. It also covers Italian security and intelligence in Kosovo- a country with a much less significant historical relationship with Italy, but nonetheless an increasingly important one since the 1999 NATO intervention.
This analysis will reveal not only the working operations of Italian diplomacy and security in these neighboring countries, but also address how security events in the recent past and near future are affecting the trans-Adriatic relationship- and increasing Italy’s opportunities in the process.
Albania: a Diplomatic and Intelligence Priority for Italy
Italy’s historic relationship with Albania is apparent from its diplomatic relations there. Italy maintains by far the most robust diplomatic and intelligence presence of any outside power in the country.
In addition to the embassy in Tirana, Italy runs a trade agency, development agency and a consulate in Vlora. The total Italian diplomatic presence amounts to 44 persons, with a rather large number of unspecified “attachés.” As we have noted, this gives good opportunity for AISE operatives to lurk under diplomatic cover, while military, police and anti-mafia liaisons are present as well. As we discussed in Part 2 of this series, Tirana is the base for AISE’s crucial station for Albanian-speaking officers, with some coverage of these populations in neighboring countries.
By comparison to Italy’s 44 accredited diplomats in Albania, the only other foreign diplomatic presences that even come close are those of the European Union, with 32 persons (of whom, however, almost one-third are Italian), and Greece, which has 30 diplomats. This discrepancy is particularly remarkable considering that for Greece, Albania is a neighboring state, with a land border (unlike the case with Italy), and has an ethnic Greek minority to go with many common interests, both negative and positive.
Indeed, the United States – the world superpower, and widely considered to be Albania’s ‘best friend’ – has only 26 accredited diplomats. Turkey, which also has major interests in the country, has only 17 representatives, while Russia has just 13 and the UK, merely 10 diplomats.
This is another reason why the massive Italian presence in Albania is so valuable to its key Western allies, from the intelligence perspective. These allies are able to delegate tasks to AISE and related agencies, as they have superior skills and connections locally. The Italian intelligence capacities in Albanian lands indicate to a large extent why Italy is considered by many insiders to have the best HUMINT capacities of any Western power in the Balkans.
The Catholic Church’s Complimentary Role
As with Croatia, Italian power is complimented by Vatican-related entities and individuals, which provide additional benefit in a complex web of Italian interests. The Catholic Church (and especially the Jesuits) played a key role in preparing the ground for Albanian independence in 1912 (as covered in our book, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans). Most recently, Pope Francis visited Albania in summer 2014, reaffirming the Church’s interests in a country made up of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim populations.
Covert Intelligence Controversies and Internal Albanian Politics
In addition to HUMINT, SIGINT represents one of the most important intelligence methods useful for Italian services abroad, as repeatedly testified during this series. Thanks to its experience, Italy provides technical devices and trainings for many partner services in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans as well.
Italy also has private sector ELINT producers of note, which have been involved in various scandals. The first installment of this series, for example, discussed Milan-based Hacking Team, and its possible role in the diplomatic clash with Egypt over a mysterious murder in Cairo earlier this year.
Today, intrusive cyber and wiretapping instruments are gaining a primary role in intelligence activities, and also make a very profitable business and an asset for diplomatic leverage.
But this kind of commerce always brings some side-scandal with it. One of the most significant in the last months took place in Albania, a country in which the eavesdropping of political enemies had previously hit the headlines of newspapers and newscasts.
It all started in October 2015, when President Bujar Nishani declared on public television that the Rama government had been spying on him and his family. In November 2015, he claimed to have found a bug in his office and officially requested an investigation to be led by the prosecutor general’s office.
More recently, a news report of 17 May 2016 noted President Nishani’s continuing dissatisfaction with the government and prosecutor for allegedly “blocking” an investigation into the case. According to Nishani, the government has been trying to deceive the public about “the cooperation agreement with the Italian authorities and the “excellent cooperation” between the two countries in the fight against organized crime.
Nishani, who also claimed the case of the mysterious listening device was proof of malfeasance within the interior ministry, was himself reacting to a charge made then by Rama’s interior minister, Saimir Tahiri. The latter had accused the president himself of having brought the device in from Italy in 2007.
Nishani, elected in 2012, had been interior minister under Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party government and was nominated by that party. Thus the recent intrigue and war of words with the Social Democrat government of Edi Rama was obviously not simply a ‘technical’ matter.
Later on, as the surveillance scandal was widening in scope, the prosecutor general’s office announced that the Chief of Albanian National Police, Haki Cako, would be suspended from his duties on 7 June 2016. It was announced that he was being investigated for illegally using wiretapping equipment, in an investigation which also involves possible wiretapping of foreign embassies and diplomats, still to be confirmed.
The Catcher Scandal
In all this drama, the role played by Italy remains quite murky. On 11 March 2016, a car with Italian diplomatic plates disembarked at the port of Durres, carrying in its trunk a black suitcase containing an IMSI Catcher, model Vortex Aircube, an electronic short-range wiretapping device. The Catcher is produced in Israel, imported into Europe by French company Ercom, and marketed in Italy by Italarms.
This device was discovered by the Albanian police and was about to be seized by the authorities, when Cako stopped the requisition saying that “any items that leave an embassy or are destined for a diplomatic post have diplomatic immunity, and cannot be inspected.”
This decision led to an inquiry from the Chief Prosecutor in Tirana for abuse of power, since such equipment had never received any proper authorization from the Attorney General’s Office, as is regulated by Albanian law.
As stated by Adriatik Llalla, Albanian Attorney General after three months of investigations in order to find the origins of the black suitcase, the sentence was issued since “this device was illegally introduced into Albania.”
As was reported, the alert was given by the Albanian Intelligence Service (SHISH). The investigation also involved two other top officials from the Albanian Police: Artion Duka, a former director of the Operational Unit, and his deputy, Ention Hhelilaj, allegedly the man who had driven the car with the device out of Durres port to the Italian Embassy.
Embarrassment in Italy
This internal political crisis brought some embarrassment to Italian Police and MOI officials as well. Not by chance, a few weeks after the scandal broke, the (outgoing) Italian Police Chief, Giampaolo Pansa, sent a letter to the Albanian Prosecutor explaining the situation.
The letter explained the features of the device and underlined that it was to be used for “on the job training” in the framework of inter-force actions between Italian and Albanian police: “this device was configured in such a way as to be disabled for eavesdropping activity, both vocal communication and text messages.”
Moreover, according to Panza, the equipment had always remained “under the responsibility of Italian operators and was kept, while not being used for training and formative activities, at the Italian Liaison office in Albania, in the Italian Embassy of Tirana.” That is the reason why Cako avoided the requisition: being a diplomatic item, it should enjoy diplomatic immunity. “The Italian operators’ tasks were directed to formation and assistance for the correct usage of the instruments”, continued the letter.
As explained in this article by Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, a question arises. If the device was intended to help train local forces within the framework of police cooperation, why were the Albanian authorities not informed of it?
The answer could lie in the conflict between Albanian political forces, with the opposition Democratic Party contesting the usage of wiretapping instruments by the police to spy on politicians and common people. The former prime minister and DP leader, Sali Berisha, published on the party’s Facebook page the names of 375 people who were allegedly spied on by Albanian forces.
At the time the scandal emerged, other DP figures were speaking out. In comments for Balkanalysis.com on 19 May 2016 (and published now for the first time) DP politician and Security Affairs advisor Avenir Peka stated that “the affair is currently being investigated by prosecution office and many details are shady at best, but a few elements are public: the affair started with a tipping off by the Intelligence Service to the Prosecutor General that an interception device has entered the country illegally and that it was being used by the police. When the scandal became public, and parliament started a hearing on the matter, it became known that the device had really entered the country, not declared at customs service, the prosecutor general was not informed of its existence, and that the police had no authority to use it.”
Peka, who is a lawyer, former deputy interior minister and national security advisor to Berisha, stated that the device “was not bought by the police, but as they claim borrowed from Italian police mission in Albania, Interforce. The police have turned down the prosecutor’s request to have access to the device, with the argument that it was being used merely for training purposes.”
Continuing on with the opposition’s argument, Peka stated that “the police have so far failed to produce any documents proving a legal transfer of such a device. Furthermore, the police’s argument that it was being used only for training purposes is false, because i) police was being trained for a device that it does not possess and use; ii) police is not authorized to conduct interceptions by law; the judicial police officers that are in charge of carrying out interceptions were not actually trained; anything dealing with interceptions has to get approval and be over seen by the prosecutor general (which did not happen).”
In May, at the time of the parliamentary hearings, Minister of Interior Samir Tahiri rejected every accusation. As we have seen, the government claimed that the device’s interception capacities had been disabled, though the opposition has clearly stated otherwise. It remains unknown what actually happened in this curious case, with three exceptions: that it was politicized, damaged Italian interests, and was used as a political catalyst for action.
Reactions to the Scandal- and How It Differs from the Macedonia Case
At first glance, resemblances with the ‘wiretapping scandal’ accusations of Macedonia’s SDSM (which were discussed in Part 3 of this series) seem striking. Yet while it might seem that the latest Balkan ‘wiretap scandal’ was a simple cut-and-paste version of the Macedonian case, this is not exactly true.
One clear indicator of a difference has been media coverage. Whereas the mainstream media jumped immediately on the Macedonia story, and kept it going while the Western powers intervened, the establishment press took only a glancing notice of the Albania scandal. This owes partly to the differences in scale between the two cases, and partly due to political distinctions.
“Rama is pro-Soros, unlike Gruevski in Macedonia,” said one European intelligence official with knowledge of the cases for Balkanalysis.com. “In Albania, unlike Macedonia, no one is seeking to overthrow the government- only to use this rumored scandal as a point of pressure, so that they will pass constitutional changes. Albania needs to do this by the end of 2016 to keep the EU momentum. This is the reason for finding advance pressure mechanisms.”
While this claim cannot be proven, it does seem that both the opposition DP and SHISH have been making the same criticisms, that would lend support to the idea that politicization and outside influence is behind the wiretap case’s potential use as a pressure mechanism. Aside from President Nishani’s earlier comments, as Avenir Peka noted, SHISH head Visho Ajazo stated before a parliamentary committee in May that “this device could be a risk for national security if it has the capacity to intercept communications. Then all the heads of the state could be vulnerable to wiretapping.”
“The Constitutional amendments are part of a wider package which aims at a total reform of the judicial system, in efforts to root out corruption in the judiciary and political class,” stated Avenir Peka in further comments for Balkanalysis.com on 19 May 2016. “If and when the reform really materializes, it will constitute the biggest judicial reform in Albania since the fall of communism. International factors in Tirana are strongly behind this reform.”
The judicial reform chapter is key for Albania’s EU membership bid, and it was interesting indeed to hear an opposition politician’s views on the reforms in context of the wiretap device affair. What else emerged is that – unlike in politically divided Macedonia – there was some broad agreement between the Albanian sides, but that the perception that one side would win or lose has slowed passage of a common-interest reform.
“What should have been a consensual reform started off as an initiative of the government, which with very good reason was seen by the opposition as an effort of the government to control the Prosecution and the court system,” stated Peka. “The non-consensual draft was then sent to the Venice Commission for expert opinion twice, and it came back with 100+ amendments and suggestions, which in general satisfied the opposition’s concerns and objections.
Apart from the rhetoric, a few elements are worthy of note: the government having its draft turned down, is not as eager about passing it in the current form; on the other side, having failed to produce better governance, economy, finances, public order, etc, it is likely that the government will use the passing of this reform in next year’s election campaign. On the other side, the opposition in principle supports this reform on the condition that it satisfies judicial and prosecutorial independence and keeps the government from interference.”
From this testimony and other sources, we can thus conclude that the case of the “mysterious device” in Albania will probably remain a mystery- but that its appearance in political discourse has been instrumentalized. However, it still remains unclear (in comparison to the Macedonian case) whether the local parties alone, or some foreign factor, are responsible for stirring up controversy.
For the purposes of the current article, it is more important to assess the extent of potential damage that the affair has caused for Italy, in the larger context of its bilateral interactions with the country.
Rumors, and Results of the Albania Wiretap Scandal for Italian Intelligence
But firstly, it is important to note that this is not the only case in which Italy has subcontracted the selling of wiretapping-capable devices abroad. Since 2013, the Italian Ministry of Interior has issued many public tenders to assign the management and the selling of such items to private companies (as in this case to Italarms srl).
In the background of the Albanian political struggle, the central focus of the investigation is the above-mentioned Interforce Mission between Italian and Albanian police forces. Interforce involves, from the Italian side, the Polizia di Stato, Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza.
The current Chief of Mission is Michele Grillo. On 10 June 2016 Albanian news site Lapsi.al wrote about the possible involvement of Grillo’s wife in the selling of the Aircube Vortex device to the Albanian Interior Ministry. This was also reported as a rumor by Il Fatto Quotidiano, in an article by Lorenzo Bagnoli on 26 June. The same sources from Tirana also claimed that Michele Grillo was recalled back to Rome by the Italian government, but this claim was not confirmed by any Italian official or journalistic source.
One interesting historical feature, however, is that before Grillo the role of Head of Mission in Tirana was held by Anna Poggi. An inspector at the Polizia di Stato, Poggi had been amongst those condemned for alleged police violence against demonstrators in Genoa, during the G8 in 2001. Italian media later reported that Poggi was sent to Albania after that, as a promotion to a ‘quieter place.’
Her departure from the office in 2015 (to Slovenia) coincided with another major spy-story between Italy and Albania. Last year, a policeman from Vlore, Dritan Zagani, applied for political asylum in Switzerland, where he arrived clandestinely. In his words, Zagani was fleeing from possible attempts on his life.
However, after spending his career as Chief Officer at Vlore border control, he had been accused by Albanian officials of corruption involving mobster and traffickers, marketing drugs and selling information to Italian Guardia di Finanza.
Zagani’s version of events was completely different. He claimed that he discovered a new drug trafficking route between Albania and Italy by plane, which was managed by an Albanian cartel. The problem was, in his words, that this organization involved also some of the Albanian Interior Minister’s cousins and was allowed to use state vehicles to hide the shipments. In October 2015, Zagani told Italian newspaper il Secolo XIX, that Italian police had also confirmed the allegation against him, through a letter sent to Albanian inquirers that raised doubts on Zagani’s activities.
The story was disclosed by journalist Basir Collaku and had some consequences also in Italy, even though the Italian Interior Ministry quickly underlined that Anna Poggi’s transfer to Slovenia was “routine”, and that her substitution with Michele Grillo had been decided months before.
But whatever the case, both the stories need answers from Italian officials: on the Albanian officials’ side, why should the Italian Guardia di Finanza have bought undercover information from Zagani? Is there mistrust between them and their Albanian counterparts? On the other side, if Zagani is right, why should Anna Poggi have been removed, if he was just lying about Rome’s involvement?
Military and Police Cooperation between Italy and Albania
Despite such occasional affairs, Italy maintains good cooperation with Albania both in the defense and in the police sector. Since 1997 – the year in which Albania fell temporarily into anarchy – Italy has led “Italian Delegations of Experts” (DIE) whose goal has been to assist the Albanian Armed Forces in achieving NATO standards. The Italian delegation, composed of 27 officials and non-commissioned officials, conducts peacekeeping trainings for Albanian Army units deployed a
In the last few years, the improvement of Albanian operative capacities has allowed a steady and progressive decrease of the Italian military presence. For example, in February 2009, the Italian 28th Naval Group, based in Vlora, was recalled and replaced by local forces in fighting smuggling across the Adriatic.
As reported in the 2015 Italian financial law, the total economic involvement of Italy in these mission amounts to almost 25.6mn euros.
Bilateral police cooperation has a long history as well. Most recently, soon after President Nishani’s initial complaints of his office being bugged, Italian police officials paid a visit to Tirana. In December 2015, Minister of Justice Andrea Orlando and National Anti-mafia and Anti-terrorism Prosecutor Franco Roberti visited the Albanian capital to participate in a meeting with Albanian government and security officials.
The purpose of this meeting was to reinforce judicial cooperation between Italy and Albania. The fact that two top representatives of Italian institutions took the trip to Albania shows quite well the strategic importance Italy recognizes in Albania. Italy’s historic role in Albanian affairs would also help explain why their officials are taking the lead on justice reforms- which, as we have discussed above, remain crucial to Albania’s EU hopes and may have some relation with this year’s ‘’mysterious device” scandal.
Albania’s Role in the Future of Balkan Counter-terrorism
Two subjects were on the table in the December visit: counter-terrorism and the fight against illegal trafficking. Here we must remember that a notable number of Albanians have fought in the Syria conflict in recent years while, by December, European leaders were already trying to make plans for possible deterioration along the ‘Balkan Route’ that had begun operating six months earlier.
The two Italian officials met with Prime Minister Edi Rama and some members of his government, such as Minister of Justice Ylli Manjani and Minister of Interior Saimir Tahiri. They noted the central role Albania should play in counter-radicalization in the Balkans: a cooperation that will not only involve the exchange of information and investigative experiences, but also the activities of prevention of the radicalism in prisons, which is frequently the place where jihadists enter into contact with potential recruits.
“The radicalization phenomenon”, said the Italian Minister of Justice in a press conference at the end of the talks, “is more and more connected with jails: that is the reason why we decided to work on the prevention of similar events that could happen in Italian and Albanian institutions. The Web itself, also an important place of radicalization, will be monitored. […]. We need to face this eventuality as if we were a single state,” declared Orlando.
He added that “these are shared enemies and our ability to react must also be shared. In order to make our connections faster and more effective, we decided to nominate a liaison magistrate with experience in similar inquiries, to support the cooperation on the ground. […] Moreover, we offered to Albanian authorities our willingness to help the formation of magistrates and detectives on the matter, and to provide technologies for the databases.”
Specific attention was also given to the theme of human trafficking and to the prevention of the phenomenon from reaching the Albanian coast. As Balkanalysis.com has frequently reported in the past, Italian national security depends on the ability to divert the migrant flow from Greece, Albania and other Adriatic ports, seeing that it already has more than enough to deal with in terms of the North Africa migration patterns.
From all of this, we can conclude that Italy is proving ‘useful’ again to its trans-Atlantic partners in its own Adriatic near-abroad. As Balkanalysis.com has reported, Albania was chosen by the Obama Administration for hosting a regional center against countering extremism. Part of this is due to the fact that, numerically speaking, most of the ISIS and Al Nusra fighters from the Balkans are ethnically Albanian. But there is also a political element.
Essentially, for ideological and other interests, Edi Rama was selected as ‘the chosen one’ among Balkan leaders, even getting to meet Obama and Biden together in the White House, in April 2016. Two months earlier, John Kerry had visited Tirana to press for – you guessed it – judicial reforms. Few other Balkan leaders could get such a lavish reception as Rama did.
However, the latter’s claim from Washington that the counter-radicalization center plan was only a few months old is untrue. Balkanalysis.com has known since 2014 that Albania would be given this honor over other interested regional countries, as part of the general US strategy of using Albania as its bulwark and base of power projection in the Balkans. This attention naturally benefits Italy and will enhance the Italian role in all security matters in Albania in coming years.
Still, while Washington favors and uses the Rama government, the “mystery device” scandal erupted into a full parliamentary and media issue barely a month after he returned from Washington. We would bet on the possibility that the US and EU have seen in the affair a way of keeping the Albanian leader on a short leash, and push through the reforms before the end of 2016 and subsequent elections.
Kosovo: a New Diplomatic and Intelligence Area of Interest for Italy
In comparison to Italy’s centuries-old relationship with Albania, its more recent one with Albanian-dominated Kosovo has quite different characteristics. The legal status of the province-turned-country and the multi-national institutional aspect of governance there since 1999 have influenced the operations of Italy in Kosovo.
For example, whereas Italy has a massive diplomatic presence in Tirana, diplomatic sources note that the Italians had “to build the embassy from the ground up” in Pristina. The relative lack of personnel and the uncertainty of overlapping competencies with UN, EU and NATO missions there has meant the Italian state has had to rely, more so than in other regional countries, on members in these bodies as well as NGOs and international cooperation bodies.
Further, as in Albania, the Catholic Church is playing a major role, though there are relatively fewer Catholics. But the Church is presently gearing up for major celebrations in barely over a month’s time, with the canonization of Mother Theresa to occur on 4 September at the Vatican. Catholic leaders have announced that this will be followed by weeks of events in Kosovo and, while it is likely that they will pass peacefully, certainly Vatican and Italian security officials are keeping watch for any Islamic terrorists or others who might try and damage the national events. There is already a religiously-inspired debate going on over Mother Theresa’s rightful place in history and national consciousness among Albanians, as we will discuss at a future time.
Italy’s Diplomatic Role in EULEX and Other Multinational Institutions
In Kosovo, Italian efforts are also relevant in the EU mission. With almost 36 units, Italy participates to the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which began on 16 February 2008 and was confirmed until the end of 2016.
Following the long-running UNMIK, EULEX is the most important civilian mission between those inserted in the European Security Policy and Common Defense agenda; it underwent a strategic revision in Spring 2014, and is now divided in three different sectors: Police, Justice and Customs.
Since 15 October 2014 and until the end of June 2016, the Commander of the mission was Italian Diplomat Gabriele Meucci. He has since been replaced as acting Head of Mission by German Police Brigadier General Bernd Thran. Meucci is an expert in the area: he was Italian Consul to Croatia from 1995-1999, legation counselor in Albania from 2001-2003 and later, the first Italian Ambassador to Montenegro in the period 2006-2009.
When Meucci was appointed, many commentators saw in him an expert diplomat chosen to “liquidate” the mission. The perception was confirmed a few days later, when EULEX was involved in a corruption scandal. Even if it resulted in nothing, the scandal undermined the credibility of the entire mission for a while. For the details, one can read this brilliant article from the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso. The case involved another Italian official of the Mission, Francesco Florit, who has been the President of EULEX Judges Assembly.
Meucci steered the mission out of troubled waters, and managed, just a few days before leaving, to convince the EU Commission that it should be extended for the period June 2016-June 2018. As he told Prishtina Insight, “until last summer, in 2015, we were all working for a definitive handover, final conclusion of the mission and a handover of all cases to Kosovo’s judicial system, […] Then, in the summer and autumn of 2015, there were many incidents. All these came alight and the member states started to rethink if it’s premature [to leave].”
Meucci referred to five incidents. One involved three people in prison serving a definitive sentence for many years for war crimes, who were set free for humanitarian reasons by the Ministry of Justice. Amongst them was Sabit Geci, put on home arrests by EULEX and then granted a three-month release for medical treatment abroad.
The second incident regarded the mayor of Skenderaj, Sami Lushtaku, who had been jailed for war crimes and was temporarily released for health reasons also, before being arrested by EULEX in an alleged attempt to flee. The third involved two former KLA fighters, Rrustem Mustafa and Latif Gashi, who were serving in parliament, despite their jail sentences for war crimes.
Interestingly enough, KLA-related power players like Geci and Lushtaku had long been on the international authorities’ radar, though in the early days of UN administration, there was considerable disagreement over whether to arrest them or not (see Balkanalysis.com’s January 2006 interview with the first UNMIK Serious Crimes Unit chief, Canadian detective Stu Kellock for much enlightening details on these cases).
Then there were Lutfi and Arban Dervishi, who had been sentenced to eight years each for organized crime and people trafficking. Yet they fled Kosovo by passing the border with their passports the day after the sentencing, and remain at large.
These cases were highlighted to emphasize that rule of law in Kosovo is far from matching the EULEX goals. Thus was its mandate renewed.
Aside from Meucci and Florit, another Italian Judge, Silvio Bonfigli, has served as head of the Justice sector of EULEX. Italy had since the beginning been very active in UNMIK, which was led between 2008-2011 by a career Italian diplomat, Lamberto Zannier. The latter’s unanimous election in 2011 to his present post – OSCE Secretary General – can also be considered a victory for Italian diplomacy, with a Balkan connection.
Military and Police Aspects of the Italian Role in Kosovo
The strong military presence of Italy in the region includes being a major contributor to the EULEX and EUFOR missions in Kosovo and Bosnia. That participation began during the NATO 1999 intervention, when Aviano Air Force Base was the crucial base used for bombing runs, and continued in the immediate aftermath of the war, when Italy was given its own chunk of Western Kosovo to overlook as part of the general KFOR division of powers.
Although the international missions have dramatically scaled down since then, Italy retains a position. As reported on the Italian Defense Ministry website, Italy has a forward military role in Kosovo. In 2014 (the last year with official data), Italy was the third-largest contributor country to KFOR, with almost 600 operative units. Since September 2013, Italy has also held the position of Mission Commander (COMKFOR). The current commander, appointed in September 2014, is Lieutenant General Francesco Paolo Figliulo.
The presence of KFOR entailed a progressive diminution of violent episodes and its work is officially recognized by both Pristina and Belgrade. The Brussels Agreement, signed after trilateral talks between the EU, Serbia and Kosovo in Spring 2013, identifies KFOR as a crucial guarantor of security in the country and a deterrent against possible violence.
According to Italian security expert and Il Caffè Geopolitico columnist Marco Gulio Barone, Italian military intelligence has been tasked in 2016 with new duties by the government. “A few months ago, the Italian parliament issued a request for a SITREP from the military in the Balkans,” Barone stated for Balkanalysis.com. “Our units went and provided the reports. KFOR and EUFOR are reshaping, and some of our mission capability is going to be more about supporting local governments in countering radicalism.”
This reconfiguration is occurring as the threat matrix changes and Kosovo is less at risk of inter-ethnic conflict, and more at risk of religious violence. With their dedicated presence, the Italians have a better view than most countries of the situation on the ground, from the military intelligence perspective. As we have reported in past, the US has long since outsourced some of its capacities to allies like Romania, and only 600-800 soldiers are believed to remain at Camp Bondsteel.
It is thus likely that Italy – with its strong foothold on the Eastern Adriatic shores – will play a larger role in assessing security risks in future. But, we must always remember that Kosovo is a place where German interests remain strong. Indeed, it is not surprising that despite the plethora of Italian Catholic charities in Kosovo, the German Jesuits have made a strong competition with schools and NGOs here.
This is resulting in a complex division-of-labor between the Quint countries, based in Kosovo, by which the Germans believe they are trading up at the expense of the British, who intelligence sources confirm are moving their focus towards Sofia and the key Istanbul station. The German perception is likely to heighten the opportunities for Italy’s AISE to compete in Kosovo.
As with the changing tenor of bilateral military relations that experts like Barone point out in Kosovo, law enforcement too is moving away from traditional threats and towards unconventional ones, like identifying terrorist networks. The existing police cooperation between Kosovo, Albania and Italy is also attested by the results of Italian investigations of jihadist networks in the country. Balkanalysis.com has covered such operations in November 2015 and again in December 2015.
Italy’s diplomatic, security and intelligence relations with Albania and Kosovo are crucial for the country’s perspective on all Balkan affairs. Rome and Tirana share many commercial and security concerns, and we are at a fortuitous time in which the stars seem to have aligned for a stronger Italian role in Albania.
At the same time, the perceived failings in the judiciaries of both Albania and Kosovo seem to be key issues for EU membership. So, we can expect Italy to share its experience, sending many more experts over the next few years to bring these countries closer to the EU orbit.
Finally, the risk of violence from Kosovo (and to a lesser extent, Albania) has been attested in the recent past and will remain a concern for Italian intelligence, as some of the threats (such as jihadist ones) are proved to have roots among the Albanian diaspora in Italy. Since much of the underlying reasons for radicalism seem to involve poor economies and low educational standards, Italy will also likely complement its ‘soft power’ role through bringing investment, training and cooperation assistance to these countries. This will involve international cooperation with the existing frameworks, as well as synergies with the Catholic Church.