ROME — Last weekend in Italy, as the threat of ISIS in Libya hit home with a new video addressed to “the nation signed with the blood of the cross” and the warning, “we are south of Rome,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi shuttered the Italian embassy in Tripoli and raised his fist with the threat of impending military action. Never mind that Italy has only 5,000 troops available that are even close to deployable, according to the defense ministry. Or that the military budget was cut by 40 percent two years ago, which has kept the acquisition of 90 F-35 fighter jets hanging in the balance and left the country combat-challenged to lead any mission—especially one against an enemy like the Islamic State.
In fact, Renzi didn’t specify exactly who would wield that military might, and, two days later, when no one volunteered to lead the charge, he backtracked. “It’s not the time for a military intervention,” Renzi told an Italian television station Monday night and said the United Nations had to lead the way. “Our proposal is to wait for the UN Security Council. The strength of the UN is decidedly superior to that of the radical militias.”
Whether the time is right or not, there is no question that there is a palpable tension in Italy over the ISIS threat—Libya is just 109 miles away from the island of Lampedusa and 300 miles from Sicily—made worse by a 64 percent increase in illegal migrant arrivals by sea since last year. In all of 2014, more than 170,000 people arrived from Libya and Turkey, the highest number ever recorded. Last weekend, as the embassy staff made their way to Italy on a mercantile ship, 2,164 migrants left the same Libyan shores en route to Sicily. The week before, more than 300 people were lost in the same seas as their rickety fishing boats capsized before rescuers could save them.
Anti-immigration politicians have argued for months that it would take little for jihadi fighters to infiltrate a migrant boat and effectively end up taxied into Italy by rescue ships and the Italian navy. In a biting editorial in Il Giornale newspaper, owned by the Silvio Berlusconi family, Sergio Rame hypothesized that the recent influx was an attempt by terrorists to effectively “smoke out” the Italian navy into rescuing the migrants, in an attempt to lure the boats close to Libyan shores in order to launch an attack. The Italian government, which supports the rescue of migrants fleeing war, dismissed the theory.
Meanwhile, the Italian government said it is prepared to deploy 500 special anti-terrorism police to protect sensitive tourist sites in Rome.
What is disturbing is that something is drastically changing in the migrant-shuttling business, which has led defense analysts to warn that Italy has never been so exposed to an attack. For the first time since Italy started officially rescuing migrants in 2013—first through its now-defunct Mare Nostrum program and later through the European Union’s border control Frontex Triton mission—the smugglers, who usually melt in with the migrants, are armed and dangerous. Last weekend, smugglers wielding Kalashnikovs fought the Italian coast guard rescue boat to wrestle back a smuggler ship after the human cargo had been rescued and the boat seized. They hauled the boat back towards Libya, presumably to fill it up again. The Office of Migration in Rome says there could be as many as half a million people in camps waiting to come to Italy and the unrest will push them out faster.
The other major concern for Italy is its billion-dollar oil and infrastructure investment in Libya that began during the bromance between the now deposed and deceased Muammar Gaddafi and the now deposed and still very much alive Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. At the height of their alliance, Berlusconi’s photo was emblazoned in Libyan passports as if he was a national treasure. Italy’s ENI oil company was the first to develop the oil industry in Libya when oil was discovered there in 1959. For years, Italy fought international sanctions against Libya to keep its assets protected. Even now, Italy’s foreign ministry has ordered all Italian nationals to leave Libya, but nearly 100 remain to run the oil companies.
Upon his return over the weekend, the Italian ambassador to Libya, Giuseppe Buccino, told an Italian radio station that the situation in Libya was serious, but that not all of the country was in ISIS’s hands—yet. He warned that befriending rebels in Libya who oppose ISIS was an equally dangerous game. “It is worrying that the logic that could prevail is that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’” he said, “and that is a dangerous logic that can lead to a strengthening of the extreme terrorism in Libya.”
Italy has been on ISIS’s radar for quite some time. In October, the group dedicated the cover of its Dabiq magazine to a story called “Reflections on the Final Crusade” about how it will conquer Rome, complete with a photo of a black jihadist flag flying over St. Peter’s Square. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market,” said the article in Dabiq. “Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader and kill him… And the Islamic State will remain until its banner flies over Rome.”
Mattia Toaldo, a London-based Libya analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told Europe-online magazine that because of Italy’s past colonial rule over Libya, Rome is asking for trouble and should not lead the charge lest it stir strong local hostility. “The Italians would be facing a completely different kind of enemy from those they faced in [UN-backed operations in] Afghanistan or Lebanon,” he said. “Rome intervention could turn out to be, politically and militarily, the biggest Italian suicide since the Second World War,” he said, adding that Italy “would be a wonderful target for the Islamic State.”
Italy remains caught in the balance, with a young and largely untested cabinet and government that could effectively fall at any moment, leaving a vacuum of power just as the country needs to appear stable. Even the country’s president is new, untested as well, meaning that there is no institutional knowledge to fall back on should the government hit a crisis. On Thursday, Renzi will address parliament with a plan, but no one—perhaps not even he—knows exactly what he will say. No doubt he’s hoping someone will come to the rescue first.