Italian investigators say Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization is moving deep into the Mediterranean peninsula’s underworld of organized crime.
Italian media recently revealed that hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives coming from North Africa are being sent to Northern Europe though a maze of safe houses belonging to the Neapolitan Camorra, a Naples-based criminal network akin to the Mafia.
The internationally connected Camorra organization specializes in drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling and human and arms trafficking. Historically, the Camorra has worked with terrorist groups from all latitudes and political persuasions.
According to Italian investigative sources, the Camorra could help Al Qaeda obtain forged documents and weapons for its operatives, who disembark almost daily from ships connecting Italy to the Arab countries of North Africa. In addition, in exchange for substantial cargoes of narcotics, these operatives are moved through Camorra’s connections from Naples to Rome, Bologna, Milan and eventually to other major European cities such as Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid.
"The connections are there and real," says Michele del Prete, a district attorney investigating the Algerian Islamic Brotherhood in Italy, "and the exchange currency cementing those trades is drugs."
The new Al Qaeda arrivals are swallowed by Naples’ intricate network of alleys called vicoli, where traditional craft shops and street-level houses mix with computer stores, Chinese bazaars, pizzerias, merchant stalls, illegal casinos, antique boutiques, churches and museums.
Structurally and socially similar to a Middle Eastern souk, this urban architecture and its social milieu provide familiar territory and an impenetrable refuge for Al-Qaeda. Boroughs like il Vasto, la Maddalena, il Pendino and i Quartieri Spagnoli, which border the railroad and port, also offer easy escape routes.
"Should any trouble arise at any time, the Camorra’s soldiers will see them off on one of the many trains leaving hourly from the city’s main station, or via speed-boat — the same vessels the Camorra uses to traffic cigarettes, drugs and illegal aliens," says Dario Del Porto, a reporter for Il Mattino, Naples’s major daily.
According to a report by DIGOS, Italy’s political crime unit, the number of Al Qaeda operatives who have chosen to seek refuge in Naples or have passed through the city on their way to Northern Europe may exceed 1,000. Many of them come from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Il Roma, Naples’s second-largest daily, estimates their numbers could be as high as 5,000.
"Nothing new here," affirms Giacomo Serafini, a Neapolitan political consultant. "The usefulness of these escape routes was tested during the years when the Camorra collaborated with domestic terrorists, red and black (Communist and Fascist) alike. Al-Qaeda doesn’t even have to sweat.
"Not even the apparent absentmindedness of the police when it comes to apprehending Al Qaeda operatives should surprise," Serafini says. "In the end it was a covert agreement between the state and the terrorists that spared Italy most of the carnage that was taking place in Europe during the 1970s."
Serafini refers to a secret pact during the 1970s forged by Giulio Andreotti, one of modern Italy’s founding fathers. In exchange for the safe passage of operatives and weapons, Arab terrorist groups — mainly the Palestinian group Al Fatah — agreed to refrain from attacking Italy.
The evolution of Al Qaeda into a criminal-terrorist group is not unusual, and does not necessarily signal an abandonment of its goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa. Instead, it may mark a skillful adaptation to the new environment created by the attacks against the organization since the start of the war on terror.
"Something similar happened to Italian terrorist organizations once the Italian state stepped up its war on terror," Serafini says. Though they are not so powerful and deeply rooted as they were in the 1970s, domestic terrorist organizations like the Red Brigades still hit Italian political targets.
According to the Italian daily La Repubblica, the magnitude of this convergence has been recognized also by the United States, which recently moved the western headquarters of the Foreign Counter Intelligence — the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s office for counter-espionage and counter-terrorism — to Aversa, Italy.
A town outside Naples with a large blue collar and underemployed population, Aversa in the past has been prime recruiting ground for Italian "terroristi" and political hotheads. From Aversa, FCI now scrutinizes terrorist activities from Scandinavia to South Africa.
Italians, in the meantime, are drawing lessons from their fight against the Mafia to devise new ways to combat Al Qaeda in Italy. "We should improve the way district attorneys, judges, investigators and intelligence operatives interact with one another, and exchange information," Franco Roberti, head of antiterrorism for Naples’ Federal Court, told La Repubblica recently. "We need to create a National Antiterrorism Directorate with local ramifications, because terrorist cells are interwoven with local criminal networks."
Roberti, who leads the Neapolitan Court, has taken the helm in pushing for the institution of such a directorate. The creation of a central commission to fight crimes of a political nature is an admission that investigators take the Al Qaeda threat very seriously. Italy did not take such steps even during the "Years of Lead" in the 1970s and ’80s, when domestic terrorism raged.
PNS contributor Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Focus, Italy’s leading monthly magazine.