Italian Cops Raid Neo-Fascists And Find Air-To-Air Missile That France Had Sold To Qatar

The operation targeted individuals over links to the conflict in Ukraine and also netted various guns and Nazi memorabilia.

Tino Romano/ANSA via AP

Italian police have seized a French-made Matra Super 530F air-to-air missile in the course of raids to arrest multiple individuals allegedly linked to far-right extremist groups who had provided aid to groups fighting Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. Authorities also uncovered a large cache of automatic rifles, submachine guns, and other small arms, as well as Nazi paraphernalia, during one of the arrests involving an individual linked to Italy's neo-fascist Forza Nuova political party.

A regional special police force, also known by the Italian acronym DIGOS, in the Northern Italian city of Turin headed up the operation on July 15, 2019, but authorities in the cities of Milan, Varese, Forli, and Novara also took part. Police found the Matra missile, which is reportedly live, in a hangar at Forli airport. Fabio Del Bergiolo, one of three individuals that Italian authorities arrested, was a former customs official and had run for a seat in Italy's Senate as a member of Forza Nuova in 2001. Alessandro Monti, a Swiss national, runs the company that owns the hangar where the missile was located. There do not appear to be any additional details on Fabio Bernardi, another Italian, who was the third individuals swept up in the raids.

Pictures and video that authorities released of the items seized show a wide array of contemporary and more dated European, American, and Eastern European small arms, including AK- and AR-15/M16-type rifles of unknown origins, Austrian and Czech submachine guns, and more. This is "a seizure with few precedents for the quality of the weapons and their violent potential," Turin Police Chief Giuseppe De Matteis said, according to Italian newspaper la Repubblica.

But, by far, the most curious item was the Super 530F. Matra first introduced the medium-range, semi-active radar-seeking Super 530F in 1979 specifically for the Dassault Mirage F1 fighter jet. The missile was an evolution of the short-range R.530, which first entered French service in 1962 and used a mix of infrared and semi-active radar guidance.

The missile's transit case has markings that say it was originally sold to Qatar as part of a contract signed in 1980. It's not clear when Matra manufactured this particular missile or where and how the arrested individuals acquired it.

Qatar bought 14 F1s, along with weapons to go with them, in 1980. The missile reportedly remains in Qatari inventory, along with the Super 530D, though the country's newer Mirage 2000 fighter jets, which it obtained in the 1990s, now primarily carry newer MICA missiles from European missile consortium MBDA.

DOD

Personnel prepare a Qatari Mirage F1 for a mission during the first Gulf War in 1991.

There's no indication that the arrested individuals intended to use the missile in any way. La Repubblica reported that police had been tipped off the weapon after intercepting calls to and from Del Bergiolo about selling it. The group reportedly was offering it for 470,000 Euros – just over $529,100 at the rate of exchange at the time of writing – and that one of the buyers included "a foreign government official."

It's not clear what government entity might be in the market for a single air-to-air missile that is compatible only with a limited number of aircraft. After 40 years and numerous export sales around the world, the Super 530F is likely of diminished intelligence value. 

One possibility might be Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA), the internationally recognized government in that country, which operates a very small number of Mirage F1s. The GNA has been in desperate need of weapons and other military equipment to stave off the advances of rogue General Khalifa Haftar, who, along with his Libyan National Army (LNA), is trying to seize control of the country. 

In May 2019, the LNA shot down one of the GNA's F1s near Tripoli and captured its pilot, who turned out to be a U.S. Air Force veteran. The details about how Jamie Sponaugle, who had been a maintainer during his service, but earned a private pilots license after leaving the Air Force, came to be an apparent mercenary pilot in Libya remain murky. Haftar's forces released him in June 2019 as part of a deal that Saudi Arabia reportedly helped broker.

Another potential customer might be Iran, which also has a small fleet of Mirage F1s it captured as they fled Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. The Iranians have a noted history of acquiring missiles and other weaponry on the black market and then reverse-engineering them for their own use or for export to regional proxies. Iran, as well as its regional allies, have also repurposed locally-built clones of various missiles for new roles, including as land-based surface-to-air weapons, and could potentially do the same to the Super 530F design. 

There could be secondary market beyond foreign governments for the missile, including certain specific components, such as its radar seeker. The weapon does also contain a roughly 70-pound high-explosive warhead.

Beyond the missile and the guns, Italian police also put various Nazi paraphernalia on display, including various items that appear to be artifacts from Nazi Germany. Italy's parliament tried to ban fascist symbols, as well as the Roman salute, in 2017, but faced opposition from various political parties, including the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which is now part of the country's governing coalition.

Far-right neo-fascist political parties in Italy are a small, but still notable force in Italian politics. They have also seen something of a resurgence in recent years, latching onto popular discontent surrounding various issues, particularly immigration and a growing influx of refugees, especially from North Africa and the Middle East.

There have also been concerns about increasing links between Russia and right-wing groups with similar agendas across Europe. Recently, a tape recording emerged of Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini during a visit to Moscow in 2018 discussing ways to secretly funnel Russian oil money into the coffers of his own right-wing Lega Nord party.

For years already, Italian authorities have also been investigating far-right groups for sending individuals to fight alongside Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, as well as other aid. Just on July 3, 2019, Italian authorities jailed three other men after a court in Genoa found them guilty of fighting in Ukraine. 

However, in this case, Italian police said that the individuals arrested had been linked to groups fighting against the Russian-supported forces in Ukraine. There have been accusations that forces fighting on the side of the Ukrainian government, most notably the Azov Battalion, also have ties to neo-fascist elements, both in the country and elsewhere.

Separate reports suggested this latest series of raids may have also stemmed from searches of Forza Nuovo's offices in Turin in June, which led to the arrest of the party's top regional official, Luigi Cortese, on charges of "apologizing for fascism," that is to say publicly lauding the World War II-era regime of Benito Mussolini, which is banned under Italian law. DIGOS raided the homes of other Forza Nuovo members last week.

It's unclear what will happen now to any of the items Italian authorities seized. So far, there are no reports that Qatar has asked for its missile back.

Correction: Though it has been widely reported that the arrests that led to the seizure of the Super 530F missile were the result of an investigation into groups tied to Russian-back separatists in Ukraine, the actual official press release regarding the raids says they were the product of monitoring far-right Italian groups supporting the other side. 

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com