Italian police on Monday announced they had seized a bizarre and terrifying weapons cache — including assault rifles, handguns, and an air-to-air missile — from a group as part of an investigation into far-right extremism.
The raids were carried out across the north of Italy and stemmed from a previous investigation into far-right groups, specifically Italian nationals who had taken part in fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Police discovered hunting rifles, sub-machine guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and Nazi memorabilia. By far the most unexpected discovery was a French-made Matra air-to-air missile, which was unarmed at the time but according to police could have been reactivated.
#Digos Torino con Milano, Varese, Pavia, Novara e Forlì coordinate da Polizia Prevenzione #Ucigos hanno sequestrato un arsenale di armi da guerra nel Nord Italia a soggetti dell'estrema destra oltranzista che in passato hanno preso parte a conflitto nella regione ucraina Donbass pic.twitter.com/i7ONjV5RqN
— Polizia di Stato (@poliziadistato) July 15, 2019
“During the [previous investigation], telephone contacts were found between a militiaman and an arms expert who proposed the purchase of a missile,” Carlo Ambra, director of the Turin Digos counterterrorism unit, told Sky Italia. “The investigations led to the discovery of a considerable arsenal, with a high offensive capacity. We will retrace the chain backwards, to understand where it leads us.”
Giuseppe De Matteis, Turin’s chief of police, added that it was a seizure “of weapons of war with few precedents in Italy.”
Counterterrorism police in Turin arrested three men in connection with the raids, named by Italian media as Fabio Del Bergiolo, Alessandro Monti, and Fabio Bernardi. The latter two were allegedly trying to find a buyer for the missile. Del Bergiolo is a former Italian customs officer and former Senate candidate for the far-right Italian political party Forza Nuova.
The party told the Italian newspaper La Republica it had “absolutely nothing to do” with the raids.
While the men’s ties to Ukraine are still being investigated, the continued fighting in the east of the country between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military has provided ample opportunity for far-right groups to gain combat experience and connections on both sides of the conflict.
Members of a U.S. far-right street fighting group, the Rise Above Movement, have traveled to Ukraine previously to train with the neo-Nazi, pro-Ukranian Azov Battalion. On the side of the separatists, former far-right leader Matthew Heimbach has pledged his support, while other pro-Kremlin activists active throughout Europe have also traveled to the region.
Like many countries in Europe, Italy has experienced a renewed rise in far-right extremism in recent years. In Feburary 2018, a 28-year-old was arrested after allegedly driving around the town of Macerata shooting at African immigrants, injuring six. When police took him into custody he reportedly gave a fascist salute and was draped in the Italian flag.
Similarly, this past February, Italian intelligence officials said that the far-right had seen “pronounced vitality” and warned of an increase in racially motivated attacks, which tripled between 2017 and 2018. This anti-immigrant attitude has been abetted by the electoral success of Italian populists, who have pushed hardline anti-migration policies in recent years.