ROME—Italian police say they knew they were onto something big when they caught two Neo-Nazi sympathizers discussing the latest weapon in their arsenal on a tapped WhatsApp thread. And when the cops started seeing chatter the group was moving the weapon close to an airport near the northern city of Turin, they pounced.
They found a massive French-made Matra Super 530 F air-to-air missile originally purchased by the military of Qatar, a rich little emirate on the Arabian Peninsula. “During the operation, an air-to-air missile in perfect working order and used by the Qatari army was seized,” Italian police said in a statement. They also confirmed that they stumbled upon the find when they were investigating far-right Italians “who have fought in Ukraine’s Donbass region against the [pro-Russian] separatists.”
But the situation is murky, to say the least, and it now seems possible those fighting alongside the pro-Russian forces in the Ukraine were the ones who actually hoped to get their hands on the missile. Under the same investigation in the same area of Italy on July 3, two Italians and a Moldovan who had been picked up earlier this summer were convicted on terrorism charges. The three had recently returned from fighting on the pro-Russian side in Ukraine. It seems unlikely this was pure coincidence.
At the time of the discovery on Monday, authorities said they had no clear idea just what the Matra Super 530 F or any of the many other weapons in the cache would be used for. Those arrested this week— two Italians and a Swiss national—said they were not part of any political party despite one of them having run for office as a member of Forza Nuova, Italy’s most extreme far-right group.
Then on Tuesday, Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who is on the far right himself and has become Italy’s more prominent politician, said the weapons were meant to be used against him, and that he had tipped off the police after his secret service detail alerted him to the threat.
“I signaled it,” he said on Tuesday. “It was one of the many threats on my life that I get every day. The secret service spoke of a Ukrainian group that threatened my life. I am happy that it served to discover the arsenal of someone demented.”
The police, who work under the Interior Minister and, effectively, for Salvini, could not confirm or deny the claim. “Salvini is the head of the police, so he speaks for the force,” a Turin police spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
It is certainly convenient for Salvini to say that neo-Nazis want him dead. After all, the far-right leader has lately been under heavy scrutiny for his anti-immigration and nationalist rhetoric in an ongoing battle with those who want to save migrants at sea. His closed-port policy has seen a massive reduction in arrivals of Africans and Middle Easterners into the country, though it has put him the sights of human rights campaigners who liken his policy to Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims and racist rants laced with promises to keep people of color out of the country.
Salvini has long distanced himself from the most extreme alt-right factions of the Italian political spectrum including the Forza Nuova caught up in Monday's weapons find. But the group has been a vocal supporter of Salvini, and often is represented in his rallies. Such an outright threat–albeit a convenient one—muddies that point.
Before Salvini claimed to be the target of the weapons cache, which included 800 bullets, 26 guns, 20 bayonets, and more than 300 weapons parts like silencers and long-range scopes from Austria, Germany and the United States, police had a different motive in mind.
A source with Turin’s anti-terrorism arm called DIGOS told The Daily Beast that they thought perhaps the weapons were on the market to support Russian-backed forces fighting in the Ukraine. One of the men arrested, a 42-year-old Swiss national the Italian press named as Alessandro Monti, had a business buying and selling aircraft parts in Bissone, Switzerland, and he had been overheard trying to peddle the air-to-air missile for around half a million dollars to buyers supporting pro-Russian troops. “We only moved now rather than wait to find more because they moved the bigger weapon near an airport,” the source said.
Salvini and his Lega party are currently tied up in a scandal involving allegations that they are receiving money from Russia to bolster their political party and the European Parliament with those sympathetic to lifting sanctions on Russia.
As The Daily Beast reported earlier this year an Italian exposé claimed that Vladimir Putin funneled around $65 million to Salvini via a Russian company to the Italian state company, Eni, which Salvini helps manage in his role as interior minister. A tape that turned up earlier this month seems to prove at least some of that is true. On Monday, his close associate Gianluca Savoini testified in front of prosecutors looking into the matter.
If the Neo-Nazi weapons were actually meant for the pro-Russia fighters in the Ukraine, as the investigation originally suggested before Salvini said they were directed at him, it could spell even more trouble for Salvini.
And while they may well have been mentioned in death threats to the divisive leader, it is now impossible to confirm since, as the Turin police official suggested, Salvini controls the message.