China, Russia, energy and the cybersphere. On Monday the Italian intelligence agency (DIS) released its all-encompassing annual report, which details the biggest issues it worked on in the past 12 months. The document is a wide and multilayered scan on the state of the world and the key trends that are shaping it, with focus on how they may impact national (and international) security.
The driving forces of today include the pandemic, which is still reverberating across several layers, impacting geopolitical crises, international relations and areas of economic competition. The economic recovery also features prominently worldwide. Climate change, too, is a major factor, along with migrations.
The cyber domain
The authors noted how tech innovation and the digital transition are an increasingly sensitive area, especially when it comes to cyber threats and their ever-growing potential to disrupt security. The document takes special care to note the birth of Italy’s brand new National Cybersecurity Agency (read Decode39’s interviews with the NCA’s leader and overseer).
Throughout the year, the intelligence focused mainly on securing the national infrastructures essential to contrasting the pandemic. The Italian 007s noted a sizeable rise in cybercrime, especially ransomware attacks, along with an increase in State-sponsored activities and an ebb in hacktivist actions. DIS remains focussed on expanding its arsenal to counter hybrid threats.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought Europe’s dependency on the Kremlin’s gas under the spotlight. 007s focussed on gathering information to ensure the reliability of energy supply, to identify the issues of restructuring the national energy system, and note the risks of possible future technological dependence on non-European suppliers (especially China) which come with the switch to renewables.
Africa, Russia and China
The African continent has been DIS’ primary external focus. The Libyan stabilisation process is front and centre of Italy’s monitoring activities, along with degrading security conditions across the Sahelian area. 007s also zeroed in on the Eastern Mediterranean basin, characterised by ample energy resources and commercial opportunities – so much so, that it attracted the attention of international players such as Russia and China.
The two autocratic regimes were closely followed by DIS. As is painfully evident in these days, Russia has been intent on increasing its influence in the post-Soviet space and its international stature. China remains committed to its national recovery strategy up to 2049, and is mainly focussed on its immediate vicinity, chiefly its territorial aims on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
This field came back into focus after the birth of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State have been reorganising their assets and decentralising their command and control structures. DIS fears the Taliban model could become a blueprint for other groups in other nations where conditions for a similarly styled coup are favourable.
Jihadi propaganda increased after the fall of Kabul, especially from the al-Qaeda network; the web remains the principal vehicle to reach potential proselytes. Europe is still exposed to jihadist attacks by the hands of microgroups or even ampler international circuits, which everage online radicalisation. Concerns in Italy are mostly relevant to the possible return of foreign fighters and in-prison radicalisation.
Political instability, armed conflicts, population growth, climate change, precarious socio-economic conditions and the effects of the Covid-19 health crisis all contributed to increase migrations fluxes in 2021. DIS explored the links between criminal activities and human trafficking and increased synergies between Libyan networks, Tunisian groups and criminal actors from the countries of origin. Libya remains the first departure country, Tunisia and Turkey follow.
DIS noted that online-bred fake news and conspiracy theories had fuelled anti-government protests, in Italy and beyond, and had also proved a fertile ground for more extremist actors to infiltrate. 007s monitored exponents of marxist-leninist and even militant ecological groups, but remarked that the words and actions of the radical right often overlapped with the anti-government, anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown sentiment – and that Italian far-right groups were consolidating supra-national contacts with their foreign equivalents.
The main risk in Italy has been that of criminal groups obtaining access to funds given out under the EU-bankrolled National Resilience and Recovery Plan. DIS noted clues pointing towards the convergence of the criminal world and entrepreneurs, public administrators and professional figures.
The main mafia groups proved able to reorganise and adopt different MOs to better counter the authorities’ contrasting actions, sharing money-making opportunities and increasing their ability to work under the radar.
Also, 007s noticed the extensive capability of foreign actors in Italy to conduct “classic” narcotrafficking and human trafficking, as well as sprawling and complex schemes of money laundering and fiscal evasion, including through newer techno-financial means.