The enemy within

For the past 12 years, Italy has been terrorised by a bomber who targets children and the elderly - and whose modus operandi recalls one of America's most notorious sociopaths. Peter Popham reports on a national manhunt
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The Independent Online

Italy's Unabomber has struck again. The unknown person who inserted a tiny, powerful bomb into a church candle in the north-east of Italy, tearing three fingers off the left hand of a six-year-old girl, was given his name by the Italian media in honour of Ted Kaczynski, the embittered, brilliant American loner who killed three people and injured 29 with parcel bombs during a career lasting 18 years. America's Unabomber was only arrested after he sent out a handwritten manifesto and his brother recognised the script. Today he is serving life in a US jail.

Italy's Unabomber has struck again. The unknown person who inserted a tiny, powerful bomb into a church candle in the north-east of Italy, tearing three fingers off the left hand of a six-year-old girl, was given his name by the Italian media in honour of Ted Kaczynski, the embittered, brilliant American loner who killed three people and injured 29 with parcel bombs during a career lasting 18 years. America's Unabomber was only arrested after he sent out a handwritten manifesto and his brother recognised the script. Today he is serving life in a US jail.

Italy's Unabomber has yet to kill anyone, but he is at least as menacing and enigmatic as the original. Arguments rage over who this man is. Is he indeed one man? Or a woman, even though the idea is scarcely imaginable? Or a gang of psychopaths, cackling away at each other's macabre and bloody jests? What is known is that he has been at work now for nearly 12 years. He is a terrorist with no literary message. If he is trying to say something through his vile deeds, he is leaving it up to his countrymen to decipher it. And the more often he strikes, the more the mood in this flat, mist-wreathed, somewhat charmless corner of Italy grows darker.

He has a hostility for many of the things that Italians hold most dear. Many of his victims have been young children. He targets them via things that they are likely to pick up, such as the plastic container inside a chocolate egg that normally holds a toy, or a tube of detergent for blowing bubbles. If it's not children then it's old ladies, via a votive candle in a cemetery. Or housewives.

He also focuses on that other Italian obsession, food. With great skill he has planted bombs in a tube of mayonnaise; a jar of chocolate spread; a box of eggs; a tube of tomato purée. He also appears to have a special animus for the church, having repeatedly struck places of worship on or just before religious festivals.

Sunday's attack was, like many before, a small masterpiece of engineering and installation, with the intention of maiming the victim and sending the name of Unabomber resounding through Italy yet again. There were a couple of dozen people at Sunday mass in the church in Motta di Livenza, near Treviso. It was 11.50, the service was practically over and the priest was reading out parish notices. Greta, aged six, had wandered away from her parents, Sergio and Sara, to an altar in a side chapel that bore a statue of the Virgin Mary, in front of which was a table covered with electric votive candles.

A parishioner called Paolo Parpinelli, a surveyor, was sitting in a pew close by with his wife Michela and their 17-month-old son Davide. They had chosen this corner of the church, Parpinelli said, because Davide is difficult to keep still. "That's why we went to the right-hand nave" he continued. "There is space there, so he could run about.

"After a while this little girl turned up - tiny, pretty. I thought to myself: 'She's fed up with sitting still, too'. Then I noticed that she was trying to put a candle in the electric chandelier. She tried and tried but the candle wouldn't light. There's often a problem with the connections - sometimes you have to try four or five before you find one that works. And as she was quite small, reaching up to the chandelier was a real effort. So my wife got up and went to help her. The little girl tried with another candle. Michela lifted her up and helped her to push it in the right direction."

At that point, a thunderous explosion rocked the church. "It was deafening," said Parpinelli. "My wife was covered in glass, and when she turned round her face was a mask of blood. Next to her, on the floor, the little girl was lying in a pool of blood. Then a man came rushing up the aisle and gathered her up in his arms and took her away." The village priest, Don Pierpaolo, came running down from the altar with his stole still on. People were fleeing in every direction. "And there was this smell, like the stink of burning plastic when you get a short circuit. That made one think straight away that it was a bomb. And right after that: 'Ah, the Unabomber'."

Italy has lived with the Unabomber for a long time now. For more than a decade he has always been there, a dark shadow over every activity, however festive or banal, a presence like the fear of death that can never be fully shaken off. But if they know that he has not gone away - prosecutors have yet to give any hint that they are close to solving the case - they have also adjusted to his peculiar rhythm and strange protocols. And, by his own habits, Sunday's attack was anomalous. It came only two months after his last, while in the past, six months or more have elapsed between bombs. And it was the first time in 12 years that he has struck in the same place twice.

If you look at a map of the Veneto and chart the Unabomber's strikes, the tightness of his area of operations is remarkable. Sunday's attack in Motta di Livenza was the thirty-second, and took place just 16 kilometres from the first, an explosion in a telephone box in December 1993 that injured no one. All the blasts have been concentrated within a radius of less than 40 kilometres. One of the many depressing things about the Unabomber for the people of the region is that they know he is living among them, probably quite unsuspected.

If a single person is to blame for all or nearly all the attacks, as the police believe, his tactics underwent a critical change five years ago. His first 19 devices were all made from short lengths of steel tubing packed with explosive that were left in phone boxes; in lay-bys; in piazzas at festival time; inside a beach umbrella. Most went off, and several of the victims were lucky to survive.

Then, in October 2000, he made an evolutionary leap, when a bomb built into a box of eggs was defused at a supermarket in Portogruaro. One more tube bomb was found the next month, but since then he has not looked back. The Unabomber was on to his "everyday household products" series. The more familiar the product, the greater appeared to be the challenge of making it blow up in an unsuspecting stranger's hands. The events he contrived were like scenes from Charlie Chaplin film or episodes of Candid Camera - with the key difference that the old lady lighting a candle, housewife squeezing mayonnaise or child playing with a felt-tip pen found on a river bank ended up seriously injured, with psychological wounds that may never heal.

And all the while the detectives have got nowhere. Under the steely eye of the prosecutor of Venice, the police now have a team focused entirely on trying to track down the Unabomber. A psychological profile suggests an expert chemist who is possibly in conflict with his or her mother (indicated by the choice of objects associated with housewives, such as candles and the jar of chocolate spread), who has a perverse sense of humour and a love-hate relationship with the church. Six suspects have been put under permanent surveillance, but all, police admitted on Monday, appear to have alibis for Sunday's attack. Several villagers from Motta di Livenza report seeing a tall man in a green trench coat inside the church on Saturday, and again on Sunday morning. But without strong forensic clues - and the Unabomber has yet to slip up in that department - the police are floundering.

With anger mounting, the Italian people have turned their fire on a convenient target: the media. In January and February, Canale 5, one of Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset TV channels, screened a 12-part drama entitled Delitti Imperfetti, ("Imperfect Crimes"), about the struggles of a Carabinieri forensic investigation team trying to track down a mysterious attacker strongly reminiscent of the Unabomber. In the next episode, a church candle lit by a priest exploded in his hands.

After Sunday's attack, the head of the Unabomber investigation, Vittorio Borraccetti, accused the programme's producers of inciting the terrorist to strike again. "[The] Unabomber is undoubtedly disturbed," he said. "Probably he feels challenged and excited by the idea that everybody is looking for him, excited when it's announced on the news that suspects are being investigated. So he has decided to come back to life again, as if to say that we are still barking up the wrong tree, that he is still alive and active. And certainly the fact that he has been the subject of a TV drama can also push him into new acts."

A colleague of Mr Borraccetti, Luca Marini, went further. "We've always said that we are dealing with a criminal who is goaded into action by media attention," he said. "The more people talk about him, the greater his incentive to strike. Now it has passed from newspaper articles to television fiction. The penultimate attack coincided with the screening of the second episode. This programme does nothing but gratify him and spur him on to new attacks."

But the producer of the series, Pietro Valsecchi, rejected any responsibility. "We are relating reality," he said. "We haven't invented it. We haven't inspired a madman with our fiction. [He] was already there."

Some people in the area have questioned the vigilance of communities in the Veneto. They claim that people are up in arms whenever a bomb explodes, yet the next day carry on as if nothing has happened. The alternative, though, would make spontaneous action impossible, and to a degree, that is what the Unabomber has already achieved. During their mainland campaigns, the IRA made Tube passengers morbidly aware of unattended baggage. The September 11 bombers have caused security to be jacked up in every public place in the Western world. But the Unabomber's achievement is in a way even worse. He has insinuated his attacks so finely into the texture of everyday life, that every action, however mundane - squeezing tomato purée, blowing bubbles, lighting candles - has become fatally contaminated by fear.

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