In Italy, there’s a very important difference between the words anti-terrorism and counterterrorism. Anti-terrorism is the work of intelligence and investigation, set up by employees of the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Defense. Counterterrorism is when the threat is in place; there is already an action directed against a target. This is where operative units, civilian and military, become available to the Italian state. Operational forces engaged in counterterrorism act on three levels.

The first is that law enforcement: police, Carabinieri, and Guardia di Finanza (customs service) perform daily service to combat organized crime of any kind. Some terrorists have been arrested during simple law enforcement patrols. The fight against the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) was won primarily by the police, Carabinieri, and Guardia di Finanza under the leadership of Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, general of the Carabinieri.

The second level is much more specific and involves the special intervention forces within the police (civilian) and the Carabinieri (military): the NOCS (Nucleo Operativo Centrale di Sicurezza – Central Core Operating Security) and GIS (Gruppo Intervento Speciale – Special Intervention Groups). Even the Guardia di Finanza (customs service) has special units: the GICO (Gruppo di Investigazione Criminalità Organizzata – investigation group for organized crime) and ATPI (Anti Terrorismo e Pronto Impiego – anti-terrorism and emergency unit) can be committed against terrorists within the national borders, but also in missions abroad. The operating range of the Italian police rarely extends outside the national territory, while the GIS operate intermittently abroad and are available to the COFS (Special Operations Command).

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The third level includes Army, Navy, and Air Force special forces: the 9th Parachute Assault Regiment Col Moschin, the Navy GOI Comsubin, and the Air Force’s Raiders of the 17th Squadron. The Global War On Terror has pushed these units to an extraordinary operational level.

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Law enforcement units: GIS and NOCS

Before the GIS was formally created in 1978, the Italian Ministry of Interior had already organized the nation’s first anti-terrorist unit, the Compagnia Speciale Anti-terrorismo (Anti-terrorism Special Company), established within the 7th Carabinieri’s Battalion. In this small special unit merged elements of Tuscania battalion, the Sabotatori Paracadutisti (the Parachute Saboteurs, part of the 9th Col Moschin Regiment) and the Guardia di Finanza (custom service agents).

The job of the Compagnia Speciale Anti-terrorismo was to thwart the actions of South Tyrol separatists, authors of several bombing plans including the terrible Cima Vallona attack in which Carabinieri paratrooper, Captain Francesco Gentile, and two Sabotatori Paracadutisti, Lieutenant Mario Di Lecce and Sergeant Olivio Dordi were killed. (Sergeant of Sabotatori, Marcello Fagnani, was seriously injured and received a medal for valor.)

NOCS unit in action

In 1978, Interior Minister Francesco Cossiga pushed to create special units to fight terrorism. The minister spoke to leaders of foreign special operations units, in particular the legendary British SAS, whose instructors arrived in Italy to identify the best units suited to fight terrorists.

Obviously, the best-trained were the commandos of the Italian Navy and the 9th Col Moschin Regiment, but they also indicated the Carabinieri would make for an excellent special intervention group. Today in Italy, the GIS, together with their colleagues in the NOCS (police), comprise the main force for national counterterrorism operations. The involvement of the GIS may be required by the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior, whose ministers can activate the unit without a judge’s approval.