The Mafia-ISIS connection: Partners in crime or perfect strangers?

Francesca Astorri
Francesca Astorri - Special to Al Arabiya English
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The Mafia and the ISIS militant group seem to have a lot in common.

International terrorism finances itself with criminal activities that are typical of the Mafia, according to Italy’s anti-terrorism and anti-the Mafia chief Franco Roberti.

He lists activities such as drug trafficking, smuggling commercial goods, smuggling oil, smuggling archaeological relics and art, kidnapping for ransom and extortion.

But are these similarities between the the Mafia and ISIS making them competitors in the illegal business or partners in crime?
In an 100-page ISIS propaganda e-book titled Black flags from Rome, the Mafia support is presented as key to ISIS penetration in Italy.

“The the Mafia has a strong presence in Italy. The the Mafia has the strongest militia and takes advantage of the Italian government’s weakness. Beside this, the the Mafia has access to the drug and weapons’ black market,” page 79 of the e-book reads.

isis rome
isis rome

If ISIS identifies the Mafia as a key factor in its activities in Italy, the Mafia perhaps has no interest in allowing another criminal organization to access its area of influence. For this reason, there are those who believes that the Mafia has antagonized ISIS’s penetration in the Italian peninsula.

“The true protection from terrorism is through the indirect protection exercised by criminal organizations,” a former Intelligence agent said in an interview published by Italian magazine Panorama.

According to this theory, the two organizations see each other as competitors. But this scheme seems to be full of flaws, starting from the very idea that the Mafia controls and protects Italy.

“The idea that the Mafia plays a positive role in protecting from ISIS attacks is dangerous and simplistic,” Lorenzo Kamel, Associate Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, told Al Arabiya English.

isis rome
isis rome

“London is in many respects the Mafia’s trafficking center, particularly for money laundering, but this didn’t prevent terror attacks from occurring there,” added Kamel, who is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Rome-based Institute for International Affairs.

The idea of a Mafia-ruled State protecting its territory from ISIS is not very convincing, according to Enzo Ciconte, Professor of History of Organized Crime at University Roma Tre and author of many publications on the subject.

According to Ciconte, the Mafia has never controlled entire regions of Italy, not even when it was at its peak expansion, so it is not correct to consider it capable of exercising such wide control and being a protective measure from terrorist attacks.

Ciconte believes the opposite is true. When it comes to Mafia relations with terrorist groups the word to use is “convergence” more than “hostility,” Ciconte said in an interview with Vice News.

The Tax Police of the Italian Finance Guard of Venice have arrested so-called “Neapolitans from ISIS” with the allegation of international illegal trade of weapons and of dual-use material with countries under embargo as Iran and Libya.

The main concern is also related to a suspected mediation that sees members of the Camorra clan of Casalesi helping ISIS to pass through the South of Italy to reach other European countries.

That passage could represent a potential lucrative business for local the Mafia clans.

But the initiative of a handful of small criminals doesn’t represent the position of the whole group.

“ISIS is not a good client for the Mafia,” said Cristian Barbieri who works at Institute for International Affairs’ Security and Defense Program.

“First of all because ISIS-affiliated terrorists are highly monitored by the Intelligence, and the Mafia doesn’t want to attract the attention of the police. Second of all, because the Mafia and ISIS profit from different businesses: the Mafia from drugs and weapons, ISIS from oil and ransoms,” Barbieri said to Al Arabiya.

Police in Italy have found evidence that mobsters, who have long-controlled most of the country's illegal drug supplies, have had to work with ISIS to get through its territory in Libya along the main North African smuggling route.

The route for North African hashish - compressed cannabis resin - now runs from Morocco, through Algeria, Tunisia to Tobruk in eastern Libya. The Italian Mafia was forced to strike a deal to pass through the increasingly lawless coastal city of Sirte, where ISIS controls the ports.

Despite this, experts don’t believe that the Mafia and ISIS are partners in crime.

“Mafia clans could have concluded deals with terrorists, but there is no joint strategy or alliance between the Mafia and ISIS,” said Alessandro Orsini, Professor of Sociology of Terrorism and Director of International Security Observatory at LUISS University in Rome.

“Mafia clans have no interest in establishing relations with terrorist groups for more than one reason. First of all, terrorists are the greatest enemy of the Italian state, and the Mafia doesn’t want the Italian police to monitor its illicit activities beyond measure.

“Second of all, an alliance between the Mafia and ISIS will eventually result in the end of the Mafia because then the Italian State, the international community, including the United States, would intervene to stop this phenomenon,” Orsini told Al Arabiya English.

While seems that the Mafia and ISIS are not real competitors and not true partners in crime, perhaps they can be described as two perfect strangers whose interests are sometimes aligned.

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