By Giovanni Giacalone, Analyst KEDISA
Italian volunteer Silvia Romano was released on Sunday May 10th in Somalia, where she was being held by al-Shabab terrorists and was flown back to Italy by an Italian intelligence aircraft. The woman was kidnapped by an armed gang on November 20th 2018 in a Kenyan village and was later turned to al-Shabab and transferred to Somalia.
The terrorists had demanded a ransom from the Italian government in exchange for her release and it turned out that Italy decided to comply with the terrorists and pay. According to information provided by the Somali Foreign Ministry, the Italians paid 4 million Euros for her release. The payment was furtherly confirmed by a spokesman of the terrorist organization “al-Shabab”, in a very controversial interview made by the newspaper La Repubblica.
The decision of the Italian government to pay the ransom was strongly criticized by governments of the United States and the United Kingdom and it makes sense because such initiatives create a whole set of problems; firstly, they encourage further kidnapping as the terrorists will evaluate the method as successful and they might even raise the price in future actions; secondly, it is a policy that puts at serious risk the lives of citizens abroad; thirdly, the message that might be communicated to the public when surrendering to terrorism is that “it is a winning mean”; fourthly, this policy legitimates and even promotes the terrorist organization involved in the act. Fifthly, the money handed to the terrorists will very likely be used for further attacks and bloodshed.
It is well-known that in the world of counter-terrorism there are two basic approaches to extortionist terrorism; one is the so-called “hardline” which forbids any type of negotiation with the terrorists, as expressed for instance in Israel by the “Rabin Doctrine” in the 1970s.
The second approach is known as “the flexible approach” which implies the will to negotiate with terrorists in order to obtain a quick release of hostages without any bloodshed.
As exposed by Boaz Ganor, director of Herzliya’s International School for Counter-Terrorism, there is no uniform response to extortion attacks under the flexible school. Most who advocate a flexible position emphasize the presence of a spectrum of options for action. There are in fact many possibilities between these extremes that can be found to suit the conditions and circumstances of the particular case. 
If on one hand it is important to take all the necessary steps to safeguard the lives of the hostages, on the other it is also mandatory to go after the terrorists and prevent them from obtaining their objectives.
The case of Silvia Romano, according to the information that has so-fare emerged, seems like one of the worst operations ever conducted on an international level, with political, operational, and media inappropriateness:
- The Italian government simply paid 4 million Euros to al-Shabab, something unacceptable if we want to pursue the path of deterrence in relation to terrorism.
- The Italian government, represented by PM Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, allowed a welcoming event at the airport with a heavy presence of media as Miss Romano descended the plane dressed in a greenish Islamist robe. This only contributed to more publicity to al-Shabab.
- The following day, the daily newspaper “La Repubblica” published an interview with an al-Shabab spokesperson. An enormous mistake as it boosted the image of the terrorist organization.
- The Italian government immediately presented the operation as a great success of the Italian Intelligence, however it soon emerged that the Italians had to rely on Turkish intelligence to get to Miss Romano. Additionally, the Turkish news agency Anadolu released a photo of Silvia Romano, most likely taken immediately after the release, while wearing a bulletproof vest with the logo of the Turkish armed forces. According to news provided by Tgcom, the Italian Intelligence indicated the photo as fake, but at this time no evidence has been provided.
- The fact that Turkey is heavily present in Somalia is a fact and it is clear that the Italians would have unlikely gone anywhere near Miss Romano without the involvement of the Turkish Mit and this could become a problem. In fact, it’s no secret that Turkish intelligence was caught on plenty of occasions arming and training jihadists in Syria, including the former Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda branch just like al-Shabab in Somalia; Turkey has also transferred many of these jihadists to Libya in support of the Islamist government in Tripoli. Therefore, is it acceptable that Italy relied on Mit? Not according to American political scientist and analyst Edward Luttwak, who took a heavy stance against it during an interview with Adkronos: “Ankara‘s services “are the worst part of Turkey…it is unfortunate that the Italian government has worked with them“. And again: “The Turkish services are Islamic fanatics who hate the West”. In addition, many are now wondering what did Italy offer in exchange for Turkey’s help, maybe something that has to do with the Libyan crisis?
The outcome of the Silvia Romano case seems quite far from a “flexible approach” and tends to appear more like a total surrender to terrorists. Some do hope that the Italian justice will eventually bring the kidnappers to court, but for now the damage is done and we can only hope that these 4 million Euros paid to al-Shabab will not be used to cause more victims and bloodshed, but such hope would obviously be very naive.
 Boaz Ganor, Israel’s Policy in Extortionist Terror Attacks (Abduction and Hostage Barricade Situations), Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 11, No 4 (2017)