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THE TERROR THREAT

MAFIA

Could mafia keep Isis out of Italy? Maybe, but…

An ex-spy has claimed mafia control of parts of the country could prevent terror attacks. But relying on one murderous mob to defeat another would be a dangerous game, an expert tells us.

Could mafia keep Isis out of Italy? Maybe, but...
Italian soldiers patrol the San Giovanni Basilica in Rome. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

For over a year, Italy has received persistent threats from the Isis militant group, particularly against symbolic targets such as the Vatican.

Those threats started to be taken far more seriously in January, after the deadly attacks at the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, and even more so since Friday's attacks in the French capital.

Just hours after the indiscriminate killings, Isis supporters took to Twitter to gloat about the atrocity, claiming that “London, Washington DC and Rome” were next on the list.

Since then Italy has been on extra high alert: 700 more soldiers have been deployed to patrol the streets, while security at borders, airports and areas deemed vulnerable has been tightened. 

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said police were hunting five jihadists, suspected of plotting attacks at sites including St Peter's Square, Milan's Duomo and the famous La Scala theatre, following a tip-off from the FBI. 

All this comes just a week after Italy announced a swoop on a jihadist network, which included an arrest in the northern city of Merano. 

Despite the threats, Italy has so far remained safe, and on Saturday, premier Matteo Renzi told a press conference that the country would support France in its efforts to defeat Isis.

“Like all Italians, I know that the terrorists won't win,” Renzi declared.

Matteo Renzi with France's Laurent Fabius. Photo: Faith Aktas/Pool/AFP

However, there are worries that the government's efforts are not enough to keep the country safe from jihadists, especially following deep cuts to its military and defence budgets in recent years.

So what will protect Italy against terrorists? The mafia, at least in the organized crime group's southern strongholds, according to an ex-secret services agent.

In an interview with the magazine Panorama, the ex-agent, known by the code name Edera, said: “The presence of the criminal organizations which control the territory will not allow terrorists to permeate their zones.”

This stance seems surprising; after all, the migrant boats which some in Italy have claimed could be infiltrated by terrorists arrive mostly in Sicily, and particularly the island of Lampedusa. (This link is disputed by those who point to the fact that most attacks in Europe have been carried out by homegrown terrorists).

He also pointed out that both so-called ‘lone wolf’ attackers and organized terrorist cells tend to avoid attacking large, well-known monuments. Instead, they target public places with no police presence, choosing the time and location of the attacks seemingly at random – which makes it almost impossible for authorities to protect every possible target. The Bataclan concert hall and the restaurants and bars targeted in the Paris attacks are perfect examples.

Andrea Di Nicola, an assistant professor in criminology at the University of Trento, admitted that the mafia could well deter terrorists.

“Terrorists will always check out any territory before attacks,” he told The Local.

“Unfortunately, the mafia does control territory in Italy, it has power.”

The power and reach of the organization – or rather, the many different organizations across the south – must not be underestimated. Moreover, they are not restricted by the legal and moral difficulties democratic governments face when trying to enter the fight against terrorism. Mafia bosses are known for their ruthlessness, and this is likely to scare Isis fighters.

That's not to say that Italian authorities would or should consider actively cooperating with the mafia. Di Nicola said he “totally disagrees” with the idea that Italy should in any way cooperate with the mafia.

“There are many more cons, and whatever the effectiveness, we must not be blind because of fear. We must keep in mind that organized crime in Italy has killed many more people than terrorism across all of Europe; democracy must not collaborate with terrorism.”

“Even if the hypothesis may be correct, it is counterproductive,” he added. Collaboration with the criminal underworld has a precedent: in 1943, the US allegedly used mafia boss Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano to assist with the Allied invasion of Sicily, aiming to destroy Benito Mussolini’s regime.

But Di Nicola argued that the two situations are “not comparable”.

“That was a huge war with millions killed, and they used the mafia to help with intelligence. Using the mafia today would give power to terrorists. If we want freedom, we cannot support organized crime.”

“We have fought for certain rights and liberties,” he continued, adding that collaborating with the mafia would be disrespectful to those who lost their lives fighting organized crime.”

Whatever efforts the mafia make, for their own reasons, to keep Isis out, di Nicola says they won't get any support from the Italian government. They wouldn't agree to give funding or support to criminals, much less release mobsters from jail in order to fight Isis. Instead, he said the government must “carry on doing what it's doing”.

“Terrorists want us to lose our rationality. Having effective intelligence services is key; we need to look at it from the point of view of prevention.”

Di Nicola also pointed to the fact that most of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks were born in France.

“The problem is bigger,” he added.

“You cannot win everything like a war; we can win with integration, by welcoming, by not losing our heads.

“It's also connected to the problem of migration, so we can win with policies which have nothing to do with repression. We can win with integration, with building relationships with other cultures.”

SEE ALSO: Could Isis terrorists really invade Italy?

MAFIA

‘We mustn’t bow to violence’: Italy’s Covid-hit businesses battle to resist mafia

Mafia hunters warns that the pressure on Italian businesses will only increase as the economic fall-out from Covid-19 and a national lockdown bites.

'We mustn't bow to violence': Italy's Covid-hit businesses battle to resist mafia
Italian businesses are more vulnerable than ever to mafia infiltration amid the Covid-19 emergency. File photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Italian entrepreneur Gabriele Menotti Lippolis can still hear the threat ringing in his ears: “Pay up, or we'll slit you from gullet to gizzard.”

He has had to fight off extortion attempts not once, but twice. Speaking about it openly is “not easy”, he told AFP, but increasingly urgent, as the mafia feasts on companies weakened by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was approached and told to cough up a certain sum,” said Lippolis, who runs an events company, as well as owning restaurants and one of the biggest beach clubs in the southern region of Puglia.

“I didn't say no immediately,” he said about the 2017 incident. “I went to the police station half an hour later to file a complaint.

“They were very difficult moments. I thought of my family, of my colleagues…. The threats were clear,” he added.

READ ALSO:

Italy has a long history of extortion by its mafias, from the Cosa Nostra in Sicily to the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Campania, with rackets run from the country's southern beaches to its bustling northern cities.

Lippolis, 43, insists that the only thing to do in such situations is to report it. His aggressor was arrested.

“We mustn't bow to violence or threats, but make people understand that the state is the strongest. Only together will we beat the mafias,” he said.

He is not the only one rebelling: a revolt by shopkeepers in Palermo in Sicily against demands for “pizzo” protection money lead to 20 arrests last week.

But mafia hunters warn that the pressure on businesses will only increase as the economic fall-out from the virus — and nationwide lockdown — is fully felt.

“The lockdown has left many companies in difficulty and brought some to their knees,” said Enzo Ciconte, the author of numerous books on Italian organised crime.

“The mafia try to take advantage of that to infiltrate [businesses]. One of their strategies is to lend money; when it is not returned, they take over the companies,” he said.

Often the rates offered to business owners on the verge of bankruptcy — who are unable to get the necessary bank loans — are exorbitant, sometimes topping 500 percent. The pressure to repay gradually increases, with phone calls or visits.

Once the business owner is cornered, “the mafia may leave him or her in place, but the profits go into their pockets. It's a good technique because it makes police investigations more complicated,” Ciconte said.

READ ALSO: 

Cosa Nostra may be Italy's most famous mafia, thanks to films like The Godfather series, but its efforts to infiltrate the rich, industrial north pale into comparison with its fellow organised crime groups.

The influence of the Sicilian mob waned following a fierce crackdown by the authorities after the 1992 bombings that killed top anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, Ciconte said.

Conversely, the wealthy 'Ndrangheta is all powerful in Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont, having settled there in the 1950s. It also has a large presence in Veneto and Lazio, along with the Camorra, he added.

Infiltrating a company can be an easy way to launder huge amounts of dirty money from drugs or prostitution.

But it can also prove a cash cow. Experts have warned the mob will be quick to not only infiltrate but also create new companies to benefit from the billions of euros soon to be available under the EU recovery plan.

“The history of organised crime has taught us that whenever there are large flows of money, there is a risk of infiltration,” Marco Valentini, who is Naples' prefect or security chief, told AFP.

“We are certain that there will be attempts, and we are implementing all preventive measures to ward them off.”


Police in Ostia, a hub for the Rome mafia. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Valentini said fraud investigators look closely at who is on company boards — and how that make-up may change — as well as whether there are ties to known crime families or suspicious transfers of holdings or headquarters.

Like his counterparts across the country, this year he is making extensive use of “anti-mafia bans”, administrative measures that blacklist companies from bidding for public contracts.

Italian prefects have issued more than 1,600 such bans since the start of the year, the interior ministry said, some 25 percent compared to 2019, according to the Repubblica daily.

Two southern regions — Campania and Calabria — account for half of them, but the north is also affected, with over 200 slapped on businesses in Emilia-Romagna.

“The most affected sectors are the catering industry — restaurants, pizzerias, bars — and construction and the health sectors,” Valentini said.

Anyone being approached by someone suspicious “must have the courage to report them”, he urged.

READ ALSO: 

Lippolis, who is also head of the Confindustria organisation for young entrepreneurs in Puglia, knows from personal experience how hard it is to find that courage.

“Historically, business owners have been proud creatures, with difficulty confiding in people when problems arise. But that's changing,” he said.

Southern Italy may sometimes have a bad reputation, but he refuses to see it as a “no-man's land” where the mob has free rein, insisting instead that it has “enormous potential” for investments in the region.

Italy may have entrepreneurs ready to speak out and world-class mob hunters on high alert for the risks of increased mafia activity due to the pandemic — but do others?

“I am very concerned that other European countries underestimate the risks, and have not put in place preventive measures,” Ciconte said.

“If an Italian company infiltrated by the mafia moves to work in France or Germany, it's the Italian mafia that emerges stronger.”

By AFP's Céline Cornu

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