Hostage Debacle Highlights Italy's Crisis of Confidence

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Emmanuel Arewa / AFP / Getty Images

A bullet stained wall of an building where kidnappers attempted to escape during the failed rescue operation of a pair of British and Italian hostages by Nigerian special forces in the Mabera Area in Sokoto on March 9, 2012.

For a country growing increasingly insecure about its international image, news of Thursday's failed hostage rescue attempt added insult to Italy's injury. Hours after it emerged that one of their countrymen had been killed when British commandos launched a raid that failed to free a pair of hostages held for 14 months in Nigeria, Italians learned that their government hadn't even been consulted by London about the operation. "The behaviour of the British government in not informing Italy is inexplicable," Italian president Giorgio Napolitano told reporters on Friday. "A political and diplomatic clarification is necessary."

A fury is sweeping Italy over the miserable end to a hostage drama that began last May, when Islamist gunmen allied with al-Qaeda kidnapped Chris McManus, a 28-year-old Englishman and Italian Franco Lamolinara, 48, from a compound in northern Nigeria. The men, who had been working for an Italian construction firm on the Central Bank of Nigeria's headquarters, were held hostage for nine months before the U.K. launched a daylight rescue operation on Thursday morning. The operation failed, and McManus and Lamolinara were shot dead by their captors before they could be saved.

Later that day, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti announced that Rome had been informed of the raid only once it was underway, kicking off a firestorm of recriminations amongst Italian politicians and the press. The British government has moved quickly to defuse the situation, voluntarily dispatching its ministers and diplomats to meet with Italian officials and explain that it had only a very short window of opportunity in which to attempt a rescue. So far, Italian outrage has not been placated, and that country's legislators have demanded an explanation. "Between allies, this sort of mission is usually talked about beforehand," complained Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior official in former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's People of Liberty party, in a television interview. "The British government bypassed and completely ignored us."

The Italians aren't just angry, however. They're also embarrassed. Underlying the vitriol is the burning sense that Italy is no longer taken seriously by its allies. Senator Giuseppe Esposito, deputy chief of his chamber's security and safety committee, complained in a Facebook message Friday that the Italians had been treated as "schoolboys" by British intelligence. On Friday, Italy's biggest daily, Corriere della Sera, ran an editorial across its front page declaring Britain's unilateral action "an unacceptable slap in the face." Italians feel a "sense of humiliation" following the incident, wrote Italian diplomat Antonio Puri Purini. Yet despite lashing out at the British "sense of superiority," Purini also asked if Italy might bear some of the responsibility for that humiliation.

It's not an unreasonable question. The country has suffered a series of mishaps in recent months that seem to point to some underlying pathosis. The behavior of Captain Francesco Schettino during January's sinking of the Costa Concordia ocean liner sparked a round of Italian soul-searching about the national character. More recently, the arrest in India of two Italian marines accused of shooting two Indian fishermen whom they mistook for pirates — and the failure of Italian diplomacy to secure their return to Italy — has raised questions about the country's international clout. And then, of course, there is Italy's floundering economy and the all-too-recent memories of Berlusconi's bunga-bunga antics.

It's not yet clear why the British failed to inform Italy of the hostage rescue mission. It could, as the British claim, simply be a matter of timing. One British pundit suggested that the decision reflects suspicion that Italy's counterterrorism machinery may be vulnerable to bribery. For Italy itself, the affair may be a bit like a Rorschach test, an incident interpreted according to pre-existing pathologies. Of those, unfortunately, there are not a few.