The recent death of three French soldiers in Libya has finally compelled President Francois Hollande to publicly acknowledge the long-suspected presence of his Special Forces in the Southern Mediterranean country (Stephen, 2016). This reminds us that in Libya, while combating or tolerating Daesh, foreign actors are playing an important geopolitical game. This should also remind us that Italian Special Forces could well be in Rome’s former colony doing more or less what their French counterparts are doing: gathering intelligence, tracking and targeting terrorists, training of and liaising with local militias, in other words, covert action.
Indeed, since last December, Italy’s Prime Minister can authorize the External Intelligence and Security Agency (AISE) to resort to Special Forces personnel and equipment whenever such a support is deemed necessary (Parliament, 2015). Libya, with three governments, hundreds of armed militias and several terrorist groups, such as Daesh and Ansar al-Sharia seems a very good fit. In the past months, there have been many rumors about the alleged presence of Italian Special Forces in the country but Rome never confirmed, and the truth is that we simply don’t know. But, if so, what tasks Italy’s “Special Intelligence Teams” are reasonably conducting? What tasks are they instead best suited for? And, lastly, is there the political will to use these teams to the best of their potential?
First and foremost, we could expect Italian Special Forces, be them “Comsubin” (Navy), “9° Reggimento Col Moschin” (Army) or “17° Stormo Areonautica” (Air Force), to be escorting AISE officers so as to guarantee the latter a certain degree of safety and therefore operability. AISE and Special Forces would have thus formed small and light equipped teams (equipment may include radios, assault rifles, night vision googles, jeeps etc.) that, while meant to pass unnoticed and operate undercover, can in extraordinary circumstances resort to heavy fire power; such circumstances would surely include those where Italian teams fear for their lives. So able to move across the country, these teams would be focusing on the gathering of intelligence that relates to: the security of Italian economic operators (most notably Eni), clandestine immigration towards Italy, and the plans and locations of terrorist cells.
It is in this latter regard that Special Forces could turn from a mere escort and passive unit into a more proactive and deadly one. Indeed, in the last fifteen years, Special Forces have demonstrated to be particularly suited for counter-terrorism operations, either through well-orchestrated blitzes against terrorist harbors or by pinpointing the location of terrorists for air power to strike them (Finlan, 2008). Yet, this is hardly what Italian ones are doing or, for that matter, would be doing. Contrary to what has been written by some Italian newspaper, AISE personnel do not have license to kill and nor would have it those soldiers teaming up with them (Parliament, 2007). Italy refrained from joining airstrikes against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and it is not more likely to join those that are being conducted in Libya, as Rome sees neither strategic soundness nor domestic political gains in air raids (Herman, 2015). To be sure, in a “ticking bomb scenario”, when a blitz is seen as the last resort to foil imminent terrorist attacks or rescue Italian hostages, direct action against terrorist cells or armed gangs might well be attempted. Similarly, vital intelligence could be passed to allies, Americans in primis, for them to conduct airstrikes but, for the reasons aforementioned, these are likely to be exceptions, rather than the modus operandi of Italy’s “Special Intelligence Teams”.
Yet, besides “black operations”, Special Forces are also very well suited to carry out the so-called “white operations”, namely the training of and liaising with selected foreign forces, the other side of covert action (Finlan, 2008). According to Alastair Finlan, it is precisely the latter group that intelligence agencies value the most, particularly those, such as AISE, that do not possess paramilitary capabilities of their own. In US law, covert action is defined as activity that is meant “to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad”, where it is intended that the role of the sponsor state will not be acknowledged publicly (Kibbe, 2009). While influencing events on the ground, Special Forces create strong bonds and build precious political capital with indigenous forces. This can and has indeed been noted with regard to both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, where the political figures emerged to lead the countries in “the day after” were local military leaders who had worked and fought side by side with Western Special Forces (Finlan, 2008): in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai had liaised with Texas 12, a Green Berets unit, in the same fashion, in Iraq, Jalal Talabani had closely worked with US Special Forces. Afghan President Karzai and Iraqi President Talabani stayed uninterruptedly in power for thirteen and ten years respectively.
Arguably, through such bonds and the extensive area familiarity developed during wartime, Special Forces can make themselves very useful for intelligence services in peacetime as well. And this is even truer if they are allowed (by both the host country as well as their government) to train victorious local forces and thus remain deeply entrenched with that territory and societal fabric. In fact, only time guarantees to earn the confidence of sources and recruit valuable assets.
This brings us back to Libya: it should not come as a big surprise if, in addition to hunting down terrorists, Italy’s “Special Intelligence Teams” were spending a good amount of their time and energy building contacts with key Libyan political and military figures. Few months ago, Western intervention in the country seemed very likely, with several medias undecided only about which week that would happen (Nield, 2016). Since then, Libya has three instead of two governments, but nothing else has changed much. Widespread political instability is still threatening Western interests as well as the security and the economic wellbeing of Libyan citizens, with none of the three governments capable of reining in armed militias, controlling borders, defeating terrorism and protecting oil infrastructures. Therefore, the next fall could once again see the situation plummeting and the voices of those calling for intervention getting louder. If such a scenario were to materialize, Italians will have to make sure they are ready and they know who to trust and who not. Besides France and the United States, that have already admitted to be in the country “conducting dangerous intelligence operations” and “meeting a variety of Libyans”, other countries are likely to have Special Forces in Libya (Walsh, 2016). Most of them share intelligence regarding terrorists, but cooperation is likely to stop there, with every country hoping and seeking to benefit the most from future Libya, often to the disadvantage of others, no matter if allies.
By allowing the gathering of intelligence in dangerous environments and the conduct of covert action, Italy’s “Special Intelligence Teams” make Rome a player of the Libyan geopolitical game, on a par with other nations, and if Rome had indeed chosen to deploy such teams, for them to bear fruit it must retain the political will to stay involved even if, like Paris, were to suffer some casualties.
MA Intelligence and International Security Candidate at King’s College London
Finlan, A. (2008). Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror. New York: Routledge.
Herman, Y. (2015, December 06). Italy rules out joining Syria air strikes, says another strategy needed. Retrieved from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-italy-idUSKBN0TP0R920151206
Kibbe, J. (2009). Covert action and the Pentagon. In A. a. Andrew, Secret Intelligence: A Reader (pp. 439-454). Abingdon: Routledge.
Nield, R. (2016, January 26). Analysis: Will the West intervene in Libya? Retrieved from Aljazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/analysis-west-intervene-libya-160124072208333.html
Parliament. (2007). Law No. 124/2007. Retrieved from Sicurezzanazionale: https://www.sicurezzanazionale.gov.it/sisr.nsf/english/law-no-124-2007.html
Parliament. (2015, December 11). LEGGE 11 dicembre 2015, n. 198. Retrieved from Gazzetta Ufficiale: http://www.gazzettaufficiale.it/eli/id/2015/12/16/15G00212/sg
Stephen, C. (2016, July 20). Three French special forces soldiers die in Libya. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/20/three-french-special-forces-soldiers-die-in-libya-helicopter-crash
Walsh, N. (2016, May 26). CNN. Retrieved from U.S. Special Forces take the fight to ISIS in Libya: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/18/middleeast/libya-isis-us-special-forces/