At lunch the other day, a smart man asked me how come there hadn’t been terrorism in Italy, even though Islamic State keeps promising to attack the Vatican.
You’ve undoubtedly been asking yourself the same question, so I’m going to give you the answers. Answers, plural, because hardly anything happens for a simple reason, especially in a country as tricky and complicated as Italy. So there are several reasons.
First, Italian intelligence, especially domestic intelligence, is a lot better than you might imagine. They are exceptionally good snoopers, since the state knows that the citizens don’t much like the powers-that-be, and so the agents of the state are forever peeking and listening. Sometimes I have believed that the snoopers listen in on every telephone conversation and even face-to-face chats. I’ve spent a lot of time reading Italian court records, in which I’ve found transcripts of conversations in bars, in restaurants, and even in taxi cabs.
Keep in mind that the Italian word for “privacy” is “privacy.” They lifted ours because the concept isn’t in the native language. Wittgenstein, along with Bill Clinton, will tell you if there is no word for it, it doesn’t exist.
The system is most famously used by the Treasury police, and they’re trying to catch tax evaders, but all are grist for their mill, so they identify all manner of criminals, including terrorists. And, contrary to the stereotype most of us have of the Italians—sweet, gentle souls—they are actually tough guys. Italy has the longest uninterrupted tradition of political assassination in the West, and possibly globally. Moreover, the complicated legal code makes it possible to arrest most anyone, and hold him under preventive detention for many years. Or to expel most any non-citizen. The Italians have thrown out many an imam in the past few years.
Second, Italian authorities have a lot of experience dealing with clandestine criminal organizations. Think mafias. Terrorists have long been in cahoots with drug smugglers—which in Italy means mafias, especially the big three based in Sicily, Calabria and Naples. The Sicilian Mafia has been considerably weakened in recent decades, and while the same cannot be seriously maintained for the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra, there have been plenty of arrests. That tells us that the state has infiltrated the networks, and that there are traitors within them.
The terrorist groups do plenty of business with the drug/mafia network, and you can be sure that the locals prefer turning over the Arab thugs to surrendering their own. So when it comes to counter-terrorism, the organized Italian criminal organizations provide the state with invaluable information. And the Mafiosi don’t want tens of thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants moving into their territory, another catalyst to cooperation with the Feds.
Third, there’s a religious dimension to Italian counter-terrorism. Although Italians are much less observant than they were one or two generations ago, the pope still matters a lot, and Francis, the third consecutive pro-Jewish pope (he even seems to like kosher food), is very popular. Vatican intelligence is superb (priests operate with a degree of freedom unknown to the agents of the central government) and is happy to help Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a devout Catholic who is a well-known friend of the country’s Jewish communities. And the Jews themselves understandably have their eyes on radical Muslims. This is especially true in Rome, where there is an excellent Jewish self-defense organization, which in turn can count on warnings from Israel.
So it’s not so easy for al Qaeda and ISIS to devastate Italy. You can leave Italy on your vacation list. Especially the south.