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Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 5: Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina

September 4, 2016


By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

This, the fifth installment in our present series, assesses the modern relationship between Italy and Croatia, and with Bosnia in diplomatic and security affairs. While the latter countries are Balkan neighbors, their different historic relations with Italy and differing local realities mean that Italy has to take a different approach with both. At the same time, lingering terrorism concerns in the Balkans are keeping Italian security services active in a region where numerous international interests vie for power and influence.

Croatia: Diplomatic Context

Diplomatic relations between Italy and Croatia have always been close, but Italy took a more pacifistic track (as it would before the intervention in Kosovo) in the period immediately before independence declarations and war in the former Yugoslavia. After the initial attempts to save the collapsing Yugoslavia with De Michelis’s 1991 initiatives, Italy followed the German and the European decision to recognize Slovenian and Croatian independences.

As we reported in the first article in this series, in the following years Italy was marginalized in the talks for ending the war and excluded from ground-level Contact Group activities. However, it started to develop its connection with the two newborn Eastern Adriatic countries. A generic support for Slovenia and Croatia spread in the Italian population, also thanks to the good offices of the Catholic Church, especially in the first years of the conflict, before the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina reached its peak.

Occasional matters of diplomatic tensions regarded mostly the legacy of WWII and the reciprocal accusation of war crimes then. It is important to remember that these contentious subjects had previously been almost entirely expunged from the diplomatic discourse during Yugoslav years, in order to maintain good relations with an important commercial and diplomatic partner. Italy thus reemerged at a time soon after the end of the war in Croatia, when a more critical perspective was arising about the Tudjman years.

The cyclical diplomatic crisis between Rome and Zagreb peaked on two occasions: in the year 2000, when Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi decided to bestow the last Italian administration of the town of Zara, during Fascist times, with a Medal of Honor; and in the year 2007, when a dispute broke out between Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and his Croatian counterpart Stipe Mesic, caused by some harsh comments made by the Italian president during the commemoration for the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Italians in Istria and Dalmatia after WWII.

Bilateral relations improved in the following years. The Josipovic presidency opened a new era of neighborly diplomacy, when Italy constantly supported Croatian accession to the European Union.

Croatian Secret Service Shake-ups and Historic Relations with France

The current director of Croatia’s Security Intelligence Agency (SOA, Sigurnosno obavještajna agencija) is Danijel Markic, born in France, a former member of French Foreign Legion and a fighter in the Croatian special forces during the war in 1991-1995. Markic was nominated on 29 March 2016 by President Kolinda Grabar-Kitanovic and Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic. This appointment was partly a nod to Croatian nationalism, but it might also restore some old alliances that will put Italy and its closest partners on a new footing in Zagreb.

Unlike predecessor Dragan Lozančić, who was well connected in American high circles spheres (and who holds a PhD from New York University), Markic has historic military and intelligence ties at the highest levels with France, and could exploit his own relations with French intelligence. This adds an interesting new element to the general Balkan intelligence mix, since the French have largely been staying on the sidelines in recent years.

As reported by Italian magazine LookOutNews, Markic is in close contact with the retired French general Philippe Rondot, former chief of French intelligence (DGSE, Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure). Rondot, who is now 80 years old, is perhaps most famous for his role in the 1994 capture of terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (‘Carlos the Jackal’) in Sudan.

Rondot’s connections with the Croatian military and security structures during and after the war of the 1990s were revealed when he became collateral damage in a reputational dispute between rival heavyweights on the French political scene. In 2009, Britain’s Telegraph reported that it had taken investigators “two years to decipher” several handwritten notebooks that police had seized in a raid on the general’s home. “His diaries, written by hand in small writing across the square lined paper, have thrown an embarrassing light on the machinations of France’s secret services and raised concern that spymasters are operating outside of the law,” the newspaper reported.

“They will be produced as evidence in the forthcoming Clearstream trial in which the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin will be accused, along with three others, of complicity in an attempt to smear the reputation of his political rival, Nicholas Sarkozy, by means of a fake list of off-shore bank accounts,” the newspaper added.

The British and French media put most attention on this internal aspect of the case, as well as on Rondot’s propositions for targeted assassinations and relocation of senior members of Saddam Hussein’s government after 9/11, in case they might be ‘useful.’ But what is most relevant for our present study is an additional detail reaffirmed in the Rondot diaries: the role of French intelligence in Croatia, due partly to French Foreign Legion ties, and what this could mean for future intelligence activities on Balkan soil and beyond.

The diaries “appear to detail how French intelligence services protected Ante Gotovina, a Croat general who had served in the French Foreign Legion and was wanted by the International Tribunal for former Yugoslavia for alleged war crimes,” stated the same Telegraph article. Rondot’s notes “claim that a French secret service officer was with Croat soldiers when they carried out the ‘Oluja’ [Operation Storm] offensive, in which Croat forces ethnically cleansed around 200,000 Serbs from part of the Krajina region, killing at least 150 people. Gen Rondot noted: ‘General Ante Gotovina told me he would never reveal the links that existed, during the time of the war (in former Yugoslavia) between him and us,’” the British newspaper reported.

This connection is significant because, while the cumulative actions behind Gotovina’s 2005 capture on Tenerife remain opaque, Britain had been most vocal in opposing Croatian EU membership until he was caught. (Gotovina was found guilty of war crimes by the Hague, but finally acquitted on appeal, in November 2012).

The chronic antagonisms that emerged between and within partner and rival intelligence services in the post-war hunt for alleged war criminals like Gotovina took up considerable energy and time. It also caused network destruction and complicated infighting in various services.

The question now will be whether, with the appointment of war veteran Markic, the old ties will be restored, and if so what could come of it. Italy, as traditionally a close of ally of Britain with extremely effective intelligence ties in Croatia could provide a useful check on French influence.

Another Aspect of Italian-Croatian Intelligence Issues: Wikileaks and the Hacking Team Case

From the Italian point of view, what is more interesting is a controversial episode involving attempted business dealings between SOA and an Italian firm. During Lozancic’s tenure, SOA sought to acquire special hacking software from Hacking Team (this Milanese firm was discussed in the first part of this series, in regard to the Regeni case in Egypt). But Croatia was far from the only country affected when Wikileaks released one million Hacking Team emails, in July 2015.

According to Wikileaks, the emails revealed “the inner workings of the controversial global surveillance industry.” For Croatian media, however, domestic revelations proved most exciting: local media reported that the hacked emails compromised national security.

The alleged damage included revelations like budget problems, inter-agency rivalries over location of procured equipment, and even the names of intermediary companies, SOA employees and interior ministry officials in communication with the Italian company. According to an 8 February 2016 article in Croatian newspaper Jutarnij List, the hacked emails cumulatively revealed that “foreign companies easily obtain information about the functioning and problems of the Croatian intelligen0ce apparatus.”

SOA fired back the next day, denying all of these claims in a statement carried by the Croatian security blog While it confirmed that it had been in communication with Hacking Team since 2011, and operated legally through a Croatian intermediary company, SOA denied that any of the security breaches illustrated by the newspaper report had occurred. SOA added that Croatian citizens should maintain trust in the professional workings of the agency.

As with the Regeni case in Egypt, it remains unclear to what extent the embarrassing leaks have damaged or compromised links between SOA and Italy’s AISE, but it is reasonable to expect that the case was as much a headache for the latter as for the former. With the change at the top of Croatian intelligence services and the Italian government’s orientation towards Hacking Team and other Italian cyber-exporters, we should expect some decisions in the near future.

Regardless of this specific case, it will be interesting to see if the Croatian intelligence leadership change influences Italian-Croatian relations. It is possible that the strategy will change accordingly with the change of presidency. Markic’s appointment caused a political crisis for the Oreskovic government when it became clear that the new president, Grabar-Kitarović, had no trust in Lozancic.

Italian Diplomatic Structure and Recent Activity

On 12 May 2016, Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, was in Dubrovnik to attend the ministerial meeting on the Ionian and Adriatic Initiative (IAI)/EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region (EUSAIR).

As reported in the previous articles of this series and in previous publications, this initiative represents one of the pivotal strategies to reaffirm Italian diplomatic leverage in Southeast Europe. The EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region (EUSAIR) – which was launched on 18 November 2014 under the Italian Presidency of the European Council and spurred by the political impetus of Italy – aims at rationalizing resources and sectoral policies by focusing on four common “Pillars”: fishing and the ‘blue economy,’ interconnectivity of infrastructures and electricity, the environment, tourism and culture.

The partners in EUSAIR, in addition to the EU Commission, include eight countries. Four of them are EU member states (Italy, Slovenia, Greece and Croatia) and four are non-EU countries (Albania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro).

The IAI/EUSAIR Ministerial Meeting held in Dubrovnik was thus a strategic direction-setting opportunity for the EU Commission and the partner countries. The meeting was followed by the EUSAIR Forum, which will present the strategy to the public and provide an opportunity to open a debate with the region’s representatives of civil society and opinion makers.

The Italian MFA announced on this that “Minister Gentiloni’s diplomatic mission falls within the scope of Italy’s staunch and constant action to reaffirm its role as a key partner of the Balkan Countries, also in the prospect of the Italian Presidency of the Berlin Process [the summit will be held in Italy in 2017]; an assertive role that Italy is playing by leveraging all the regional cooperation instruments (EUSAIR, IAI, Trilateral meetings with Serbia and Albania, Central European Initiative – CEI).”

Italy’s historical cultural, religious and political links are reflected in a robust diplomatic presence, which also helps conceal one of its largest regional foreign intelligence outposts.

As we noted in the second part of this series, in addition to its Zagreb embassy, Italy has a cultural center and trade commission in the capital, and consulates in Dubrovnik, Rijeka, Bule, Pulja and Split. The current ambassador, Adriano Chiodini Cianfarani, was previously ambassador to Pakistan and has held numerous high-level positions both in the Rome MFA and abroad, in 2011 having been in charge of the Turkey-Cyprus portfolio.

In a 27 July 2016 interview with Croatia’s Nacional, Ambassador Cianfarani specified the above-mentioned Adriatic-Ionian Initiative and EUSAIR in regards to bilateral cooperation. According to the ambassador, both countries “are fully committed to further improve our relations, which are good not only at the political level, but also in all other areas, especially in the economic field, since Italy is among the first partner of Croatia.”

When asked about Croatian politics, the ambassador replied that a “short-term political crisis” should not be “a key influence” on the economy. “It should be noted that there are decisions that government must bring, therefore political stability is important, but in the meantime, life goes on and everyone involved in production and various services simply must work,” the ambassador said. “It is a sign of maturity of a country. In any case, after the next election, we want Croatia stable government.”

The Italian diplomat’s interview also revealed a perceptibly different approach to the political crisis in Croatia than, for example, to Macedonia’s (which is recounted in the third part of this series). Whether or not this is due to Italy’s special relationship with Croatia, the latter’s EU status, or other reasons, Italian diplomacy in Zagreb has been generally softer and less demanding.

Diplomatic Structure of Italy in Bosnia-Hercegovina

In Bosnia, Italy lacks the same depth of historical and cultural overlap as it does with Croatia. Also, Bosnia’s poor economy and complicated political and bureaucratic structure make it a ‘special case’ in the Balkans. (Readers interested in the views of several generations of Bosnians will enjoy author Lana Pasic’s ebook, 20 Years after Dayton).

Italy’s Sarajevo embassy has a fairly healthy staff of 16, according to the Bosnian MFA (though three members are based in either Serbia or Croatia). It should also be noted that, as is the case with Albania, a number of countries run their diplomatic relations with Sarajevo out of embassies in Rome, which cumulatively is advantageous for Italian intelligence and counter-intelligence operations.

Unlike his counterpart in Zagreb, who arrived from Pakistan near the end of 2015, Italian Ambassador Ruggero Corrias has been in Bosnia since 2013. He is a former Air Force officer, with diplomatic experience particularly in the US and South America, and is in frequent contact with Bosnian leaders to find ways for improving bilateral ties and promoting Bosnia’s EU path.

Italian Diplomacy’s Focus on Economic Development

However, much remains to be done. While affirming that the situation in Kosovo “is improving,” one American diplomat in Italy stated for that “the real quagmire in the Balkans is Bosnia. The situation has not changed in years and I do not have much faith in future changes.”

Since political and social progress is perceived as depending on economic growth, Italian diplomatic efforts are focusing on economic development programs. Italian diplomatic support seeks, for example, to help Bosnia-Herzegovina get a new credit program from the IMF. But the road to achieve such goals is long and hard as it relies on the reform of public administration, banking system reform, and a major privatization plan.

On 23 February 2016, Ambassador Corrias thus met with the director of the Bosnian Central Bank, Senad Softic, and affirmed Italy’s commitment to the growth of Bosnia’s economy. “Italy – which holds more than 30% of the bank market through Unicredit Group and Intesa San Paolo – has a great interest in supporting the reform process and backing Bosnia’s European future, after last week’s request of adhesion,” he stated.

These subjects were at the center of the meeting, after which both underlined that “despite a positive GDP trend and monetary stability, endemic unemployment and foreign debt growth clearly show the fragility of the Bosnian socio-economic system.”

Italy is the second-largest commercial partner of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with a total trade exchange of more than 1.5 billion euros annually, and more than 70 companies working in the country. Italy thus has a major interest in boosting Bosnia’s European accession procedures and thus exploit its dominant position. This (and other) data was reported in the latest research published by the Ministry for Economic Development, and is available here.

The Italian Military Presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia-Herzegovina, still a quasi-protectorate, hosts the second-biggest Italian military deployment. The Italian military operates inside the operation EUFOR Althea (which took the place of NATO’s SFOR) with 900 servicemen. In 2010 the United Nations enlarged its functions: aside from the original mission of maintaining security in the country, EUFOR Althea is also reinforcing and training the Bosnian Armed Forces. Italy has also participated, since 2003, in the European Union police mission (EUPM), which contributes to the creation of a multiethnic and professional police service in Bosnia.

All these missions have been recently refinanced by the Italian government for the year 2016 in the Financial Law of November 2015.

Terrorist Threats, Migration and Security Risks: the AISE 2015 Annual Report

Italian intelligence concerns about terrorism and Bosnia are expressed in the last report published by AISE about its actions during 2015. The report clearly underlines that the primary threat to Italian security is international terrorism and the ramifications of the Islamic State in Northern Africa and Europe.

Italy is now more “exposed” to terrorist attacks than ever, as the events in France and Belgium clearly showed in the last year. It does not surprise that 47% of all reports requested of AISE by Italian state institutions and police in 2015 concerned international terrorism. Also, according to the report, some 79% of these country reports were about Middle Eastern or Northern Africa countries.

Interestingly enough, and despite the heavy press coverage regarding the possible jihadist threat from the Balkans, these countries represent altogether only 3% of the total request for country reports. This low number underlines one of the introductory remarks reported in the first chapters of the present series: Italy considers terrorist threats coming from the Balkans and North Africa more a matter of security and investigation, to be conducted by police forces rather than by AISE.

Thus the Italian intelligence activities in these countries are performed, in cases where they are performed, mostly in support of police actions, even if this is not the primary goal of intelligence activities in the classic sense. But terrorism has changed in recent years too, acquiring some of the peculiarities of organized crime, and frequently coordinating its operation through online platforms and communications systems. This phenomenon thus requires tools of investigation carried out mainly through intelligence services.

During 2015, the AISE report also reveals, there were also repeated warnings about the possibility of terrorist infiltration among the migrants following the route through the Balkans, especially in countries like Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Such countries have also sent foreign fighters in Syria and been home to cells of radical Islamist groups.

As the AISE 2015 report continues, “the risk of terrorist infiltration in migratory flows […] is more concrete on the Balkan trajectory, especially in relation with an informative framework which affirms: security vulnerability due to the dimensions of the refugees’ flux from the Syrian-Iraqi battlefront; the centrality of the region as primary route for foreign fighters going to and coming back from the Middle East; the confirmed numbers of more than 900 volunteers enrolled by the Islamic State, and the presence on the ground of strengthened local extremist groups, capable of radicalizing migrants.”

Police Cooperation between Bosnia and Italy

Meanwhile, police cooperation continues: as has reported in recent years, many operations conducted jointly by Italian and Bosnian officials have uncovered parts of the jihadist webs between the two countries. The most important arrest was that, in 2014, of Bilal Bosnic, accused of being a wandering recruiter for the Islamic State, and charged with proselytism amongst the Muslim communities in Northern Italy. He was arrested with 16 others in September 2014, and later sentenced to seven years in jail for recruitment.

Italy and Bosnia both represent important hubs for foreign fighters. One of the latest reports on the subject, from early August 2016, concerns a young Pakistan national, Farook Aftab- who incidentally was also captain of Italy’s under-19 national cricket team (a detail which underlines that global jihadism can recruit also well-settled citizens of a country, as with the perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks). According to Italian website lettera43, Aftab was expelled from Italy on terrorism charges, after police learned of his allegedly plan to move in Bosnia to train to join Islamic State.


Croatia and Bosnia are neighboring countries, but obviously at different stages of development and with different defining features. For Italy, it could be said that Croatia is ‘easier’ to deal with, but then again, the rewards – and potential damage – as the Wikileaks case showed – are proportionately higher. The presence of the Catholic Church in both countries is also a force multiplier for Italian interests, as is the traditional role where Italy has felt comfortable- that of providing cultural soft power.

Thus, the news this June that Italy is providing equipment and expertise for the Sarajevo National Museum’s new center for cultural heritage restoration might be more significant than it first appears. The simple fact that Italy is offering this – as opposed to Muslim countries that have long been active, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran – may be seen as a sign to Bosnians that their country has not been completely forgotten by Europe. As originally reported in January 2012, this and other cultural landmarks had been closed due to internal bickering and a lack of budget. The current Italian project thus has an unstated but tangible value on not only the cultural but also political and socio-religious levels.

Of course, such ventures aside, Italy will be most preoccupied with commercial relations in both Croatia and Bosnia, as well as monitoring political stability and risk – from elections to possible secessionist trends – and may try to increase its intelligence activity for both internal use and allied use. Intelligence leadership changes may indicate a return to old friendships- time will tell.

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