Italian anti-terror police seized an 11-foot air-to-air missile, rocket launchers, and machine guns during raids on a far-right cell Monday. The raids also uncovered a trove of neo-Nazi propaganda and Hitler memorabilia.
Police touted the raids, conducted across northern Italy, as a success in their effort to root out extremists, saying they'd been triggered by an investigation into the involvement of Italian right-wing extremists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But the startling operation, which included the arrest of a former far-right politician from the neo-fascist Forza Nuova party, has raised fresh questions from politicians and analysts about the growing dangers posed by Italy’s rising far-right.
“The far-right in this country traffics weapons of war, and even missiles. It's an incredible, very serious event,” said Maurizio Martina, former head of the opposition center-left Democratic Party.
Many focused their ire at populist Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, whose harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric has been blamed for unleashing a wave of xenophobia and emboldening the country’s far-right.
After keeping quiet about the affair for a day, Salvini broke his silence Tuesday with a sensational claim: that it was he who had alerted the police to the existence of the arsenal, which he said was in the hands of a far-right Ukrainian group planning an attempt on his life.
“I flagged it up myself,” Salvini told Italy’s state news agency ANSA. “The secret services spoke of a Ukrainian group that was planning an attempt on my life. I'm happy it served to uncover the arsenal of some madmen.”
But Salvini was immediately refuted by the law enforcement agency and public prosecutor’s office, which both said there was no evidence the politician was targeted for assassination.
Instead, police said the weapons were likely intended as part of an arms deal by the far-right cell. Three men, including Fabio Del Bergiolo, 50, a former customs official and candidate for the pro-Kremlin Forza Nuova party, were arrested for allegedly attempting to sell the French-made missile, previously owned by the Qatari military. According to Italian media reports, the group had sought an asking price of 470,000 euros ($529,000), and potential buyers included an official from an unspecified foreign government.
Salvini wasn’t the only one to sow confusion around the shocking haul, however. Italy’s state police too stirred some controversy after changing crucial wording on its press release over the raids without explanation.
On Monday, police said the arrests had resulted from an investigation into far-right groups “who have fought in Ukraine's Donbass region against the [Russian-backed] separatists.” On Tuesday, police amended the statement to a more ambiguous wording that didn’t specify which side the radicals backed, saying the raid had resulted from an investigation into Italian extremist fighters who had “taken part in the armed conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine.”
Italy’s state police, who fall under Salvini’s authority as Interior Minister, declined to answer VICE News' requests to clarify its position.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has become a surprising preoccupation for many of Italy’s right-wing extremists, the most hardcore of whom have supported neo-Nazi groups fighting on both the Ukrainian and Russian-backed sides of the conflict.
But Alberto Testa, an expert on far-right radicalization at the University of West London, said Italy’s right-wing extremists were predominantly pro-Kremlin, and the arrested men were linked to neo-fascist groups that were pro-Russian. He told VICE News that Salvini’s account of events was “improbable.”
Testa said Russian President Vladimir Putin had become a kind of figurehead for many of Europe’s radical right networks, representing their traditionalist, right-wing values: staunchly anti-globalization, illiberal, pro-national identity and sovereignty. The only men convicted by Italian courts for fighting in Ukraine to date have been linked to pro-Russian neo-Nazi militias.
Chris Hawkins, senior analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, told VICE News that Italy's far-right appeared to have sympathies on both sides. While three pro-Russian extremists had been convicted earlier this month, an Italian extremist had also been identified as a recruiter for Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Batallion.
Salvini's Russia Problem
The missile affair is yet another Russia-related scandal on Salvini’s plate. The controversial populist is already facing heat over an explosive BuzzFeed report earlier this month that revealed that a close aide, Gianluca Savoini, was caught on tape apparently soliciting millions in illicit funding for his Lega party from three Russians in a Moscow hotel. Milan prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into possible Russian funds paid to the League, and opposition politicians have continued to call for Salvini to step down, holding up pictures in parliament Tuesday of Salvini standing alongside one of the alleged Russian emissaries.
Salvini, Italy’s most powerful politician, has been heavily courted by Moscow for years, and posed for a photograph wearing a T-shirt bearing Putin’s face during a visit to Moscow in 2014. His Lega party has signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia, has recognized Moscow’s annexation of Crimea as legitimate, and has repeatedly called for the lifting of European sanctions against Russia.
Cover: Police stand by a missile seized at an airport hangar near Pavia, northern Italy, following an investigation into Italians who took part in the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, in Turin, Italy, Monday, July 15, 2019. (Tino Romano/ANSA via AP)