Med-Or, the Leonardo’s foundation behind the Italian hidden diplomacy


Med-Or, the Leonardo’s foundation behind the Italian hidden diplomacy

December 29, 2021

Lorenzo Bagnoli
Riccardo Coluccini

Defence, surveillance, intelligence, borders. Four keywords connecting the most important Italian company in the defence sector, Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica), and the kingmaker of Italian politics in the field of intelligence: former Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti. A member of the Democratic Party, Minniti served as Secretary to the Prime Minister’s Office Cabinet with responsibility for intelligence services during governments led by Letta and Renzi. Marco Minniti is equally held in high esteem by the left and the right, for his deep knowledge of the universe of Italian intelligence and the structure of power of the armed forces.

It is no coincidence that the new foundation created by the Leonardo group, Med-Or, picked Minniti, now out of Parliament, as its president. Med-Or‘s mission is to expand the network of relations required to export the “Italian System” abroad and consolidate its positions. The choice of Minniti brings knowledge of the geopolitical contexts, which is vital for the sector, and a common vision shared by the diverse range of participants in the diplomatic and political network of Leonardo’s diverse universe.

Defence and relations

«The results for the first nine months are very positive.» Alessandro Profumo, CEO of Leonardo, is happy with the performance of the most important Italian defence company, which is 30% owned by the Ministry of Finance. The driver of the success is the military/government sector, which accounts for 87% of the group’s revenues.

In the Odyssey, Penelope endlessly wove a shroud to avoid having to remarry, in the hope that her husband Odysseus would return home. Hoping to remain one of the industry’s biggest players despite the pandemic, Leonardo weaves its own networh, made up of relationships with governments around the world and with Italian companies owned (and/or otherwise controlled) by Leonardo. This is the reason why the company’s military orders by foreign governments reached €9.2 billion, «a sharp growth over the first nine months of 2020,» states a November press release.

Since July 2021 a new think-tank has been weaving Leonardo’s web: the Med-Or foundation. Thanks to Med-Or, whose stated aim is to foster education, training, and cultural exchange, Minniti can continue to promote his political beliefs in another capacity. As a minister, he led proponents of increased surveillance in the Mediterranean; Border monitoring is among the main fields of interest of Minniti’s new employer, Leonardo.

Leonardo’s web: getting where institutions can’t

The letter begins with a formal tone: «Dear Sir,» (A more informal “dear Franco” was later added by pen). «The Leonardo Group – continues the letter undersigned by Chairman Marco Minniti – has recently set up a new Foundation called Med-Or, which I have the honour of chairing.» «Franco» is Franco Gabrielli, former head of Police and now undersecretary to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. A similar letter was mailed to Luciana Lamorgese, Minniti’s successor at the Ministry of the Interior after Matteo Salvini’s short interlude, and Luigi Di Maio, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. They all participated, by invitation, in the Med-Or Day, held on July 20th, the day of the foundation’s launch.

«Since its very creation – Minniti continues -, the Foundation has pursued very ambitious objectives, and its vocation is to serve the national interest, to which, as you know, I have devoted a large part of my life.» The aim of Med-Or, a conjunction between the “Mediterranean” and the “Orient”, is to «encourage dialogue with those international players for whom Italy is a natural interlocutor» especially in the area that Minniti has repeatedly defined as the “Mediterranean quadrant”, i.e. the geopolitical area that extends from the Mediterranean to the Sahel and the Middle East. «You are certainly aware of the fact that almost all industrialised countries use this type of tool to underpin their relations, as I have been able to appreciate in my previous institutional experiences; the results are often very appreciable, and the objectives equally ambitious,» the former minister added.

Med-Or is a sort of “clearing house” for formal and institutional meetings, an incubator of relations available not only to Leonardo but also for the whole shaky Italian industrial apparatus. «Is there an Italian system?», the former minister asked in an interview with Libero in September 2020. The rhetorical question followed a reflection on Italian deeds in Libya, where Italy runs a hospital in Misrata, but the port is controlled by Turkey. The subtext was that Italy is unable to consolidate its leading positions and to assert its presence in multiple sectors by acting as a single entity.

Leonardo’s aim is to reach where institutions can’t. «Leonardo’s top management considers this initiative with particular interest, not only due to its contribution to the Group’s international relations, which will favour its strategic positioning but also because Med-Or aims to represent a heritage available to Italian institutions and to protect its values,» Minniti wrote in his invitation letter to Med-Or Day.

The foundation is supported by Leonardo – as its sole sponsor – with a Core Fund of € 120,000 and an additional donation amounting to approximately € 500,000 «to finance the initiatives currently underway (scholarships, higher education, internships, etc.)», Leonardo explains in a note to IrpiMedia.

«Foundations with similar characteristics to Med-Or are common mainly in English-speaking countries and in France. There are many examples,» the company continues, without, however, providing any specific names. «The vocation of a foundation like Med-Or is to have an open dialogue with Mediterranean countries, based on cultural exchanges,» it adds. The Med-Or strategic committee includes envoys from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, Economic Development, Defence and Finance; the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the Federation of Italian Companies for Aerospace, Defence and Security (AIAD), a sector association of companies led by former MP and founder of Fratelli d’Italia, Guido Crosetto. Med-Or is not a state agency, but it looks like one. It is the flagship of diplomatic relations outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ building: a network made of friendships, industrial relations, and cultural exchange projects.

«The fact that the Foundation has only one sponsor is not very common in think-tanks», Mattia Diletti, professor at La Sapienza University in Rome and author of I think tank (Farsi un idea) (Think-Thanks: a general overview), published by Il Mulino, told IrpiMedia. «In Med-Or, the network dimension is very actively supported. In political science, we talk about gatekeepers or policy entrepreneurs, i.e. people who drive other networks of stakeholders: when Minniti acts, he doesn’t just represent himself», Diletti added.

Politics, Business, and Journalism in the Med-Or Foundation

Marco Minniti: Chairman – Former Minister of the Interior in the Gentiloni Government, former Democratic Party MP. He was the promoter of policies aimed at containing migratory flows from Libya.

Alessandro Ruben: Board member: A lawyer, former MP close to Gianfranco Fini, former advisor to Ignazio La Russa when the latter was Minister of Defence in the Berlusconi government, he enjoys an excellent international reputation. He has friendly relations with Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. He was an advisor to Cassa Depositi e Prestiti until 2021. Together with the chairman of Elettronica, Enzo Benigni, he is a member of the Guido Carli Foundation, which represents some of the most influential voices in Confindustria.

Germano Dottori: Board member – Academic, scientific advisor to Limes, between 2018 and 2019 he was an advisor to the then president of Copasir and under-secretary of Defence Raffaele Volpi (Lega). He is the author of La visione di Trump (The Vision of Trump), a book where the election of the former American president is not described as an accident of history, but as the result of the consequences of the Cold War.

Paolo Bigi: Board member – Since 2021, he has been the CEO of Saudi engineering and construction group Arkad, an industry giant that closed some plants in Liguria in 2018, following a group reorganisation. From 2017 to 2020, he was manager of the Saudi Binladin Group (SBG), the engineering company founded by Osama Bin Laden’s father and still controlled by the Saudi terrorist’s family.

The board of directors also includes journalist Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, a contributor to several national newspapers and director of the Leonardo Foundation’s own newspaper. Among the authors of Med-Or’s articles and analyses are the deputy editor of Foglio Alessandro Giuli and Francesco Cossiga’s daughter, Anna Maria. The site that has most closely followed the launch of Med-Or is, founded and edited by Paolo Messa, who, from 2018 to 2020, was the head of the organisational unit “Institutional Relations – Italy”, of the Leonardo Group. The Formiche group also publishes the specialist magazine Aviopress.

Minniti at Med-Or: intelligence, Niger, Libya and the friends from the Gulf

The first think-tank co-founded by Marco Minniti was ICSA, Intelligence Culture and Strategic Analysis, between 2009 and 2013, the year when he left office to become under-secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office (Prime Minister Enrico Letta) in charge of intelligence services. ICSA, which today is led by retired army general Leonardo Tricarico, deals with education and training in the field of intelligence; its first chairman was Francesco Cossiga, a former President of the Republic with a passion for intelligence services. Among all the foundations run as a “one-man company”, ICSA has been different since the very beginning, a collector of relations and skills in the specific field of defence and security.

Shadows on foundations: between caviar diplomacy and interference by foreign powers

It was 2014 when the New York Times headlined Foreign powers buy their own ability to exert influence on think-tanks. An investigative report by the outlet «has found that more than a dozen major Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pressuring U.S. government public officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities. Money is increasingly transforming the former industry of think-tanks into a lobbying arm of foreign governments to exert pressure on Washington.»

Between 2014 and 2016 Azerbaijan allegedly paid a series of MEPs to influence their decisions on the sanctions to be imposed (or not imposed) to the regime of the Aliyev’s family. The payments were also channelled through foundations and lobby groups. In Italy this was established by the Court of Milan in the first instance sentence against former MEP Luca Volontè and his Novae Terrae Foundation. Ongoing investigations also concern important politicians from various parties in Germany who are part of consultancy groups, lobby organisations, and, in some cases, foundations.

It is the long wave of the so-called “caviar diplomacy”, the strategy implemented by the dictatorship in Baku to buy the favourable votes of some MEPs in around 2010. The cash-for-votes system, dubbed the Azerbaijani laundromat, was investigated by OCCRP. The findings also led to the introduction of the Register of People with Significant Control in Scotland, the freezing of several bank accounts linked to the laundromat in the UK. The Baltic and Russian branches of Danske Bank were closed down in 2019 after money-laundering investigations uncovered suspicious transactions worth approximately 3 billion dollars.

Joseph Muscat, the former Maltese Prime Minister, was forced to resign in 2020 because some members of his staff were tied to suspects of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. As reported by The Shift, after leaving government Muscat joined a think-tank funded by the Azerbaijani government, the Nizami Ganjavi International Center. The case raised significant criticism, alongside that of former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his relations with Saudi Arabia. Matteo Renzi’s foundation, Open, is now under investigation on charges of being used for alleged illicit funding.

The experience at the Ministry of the Interior contributed to corroborate Minniti’s reputation in geopolitical matters, and especially in Libya. Minniti has been a leading proponent of the outsourcing of border policing. The controversial policy was implemented in 2015, through the training of border guards and the handover or sale – depending on individual agreements – of surveillance technology to transit countries on the main migration routes to Europe. As Minister of the Interior, in February 2017 Minniti signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government in Tripoli to fund the Libyan Coast Guard. Minniti also promoted the largely contested NGO code of conduct, which granted police officers rights to board NGO ships to gather intelligence. Ultimately, Minniti brokered a peace agreement between 72 tribes in Fezzan, Libya’s southern region, hoping to pacify Libya. Minniti said his goal was to create «a Libyan border patrol to guard 5,000 kilometres of Libya’s southern borders.»

On that border, the surveillance system was operated by Selex, which was then part of the Finmeccanica group (now Leonardo). «Our company manufactures the sensors for border monitoring but we know perfectly well that without the desert tribes those borders can’t be monitored. This is because the human factor is indispensable since no technology can completely cancel out the importance of the human factor»: these were Minniti’s words on October 29th, the day on which Leonardo, through Med-Or, donated 50 respirators to Niger to help the country deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. «We know that a decisive challenge for the overall security of the Mediterranean and the entire planet is being played out in the Sahel. The Sahel is crossed by tensions and instability: however, in what we have called “Europe’s Southern border” – a definition that arose scandal when we first used it and has now become commonplace – a crucial game is being played for Europe’s security, for the fight against terrorism and the issue of migratory flows», the chairman of Med-Or commented.

On the occasion of the launch of Med-Or, the Vice-President of Libya, Abdullah al Lafi, sent a warm message of good wishes «to our friend Marco». Interviewed in April 2021 by Repubblica, al Lafi said: «The most important thing for us is to provide support in ensuring the security of the Mediterranean, and in stopping illegal immigration». With this in mind, the country is discussing the purchase of helicopters to patrol the sea area in which rescue operations are under the responsibility of Libya, as well as the creation of a helicopter assembly centre on site.

The launch of Med-Or was also attended by Dimitris Avramopoulos, the former European Commissioner for Migration when Minniti was Minister of the Interior. Another attendee was Mohamed Abdirizak, Somalia’s foreign minister, but also a businessman and former coordinator of Mossad operations on prisoners of war and victims of armed action under Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government David Meidan (who said he was «honoured to be part of the Med-Or Leonardo initiative» and thanked Minniti for the trust).

From left to right: Luciano Carta, Marco Minniti and Alessandro Profumo at Med-Or launch day on July 20, 2021 | Foto:

These attendees were joined by three ministers of Gulf countries: Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain; Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar; and Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sheikh, Minister of Education of Saudi Arabia.

These people all personally thanked Minniti for the invitation to take part in Med-Or. They all represent countries with whom Leonardo has consolidated relations. In Bahrain, which recognized Israel as a nation state in 2020, Leonardo operates contracts for civil and military air traffic management, the supply of ships, and the Navy’s radar tracking system. In 2021, in Qatar, Leonardo received an order for the provision of training courses for operators of the Qatar Computing Research Institute against hacker attacks, it provides ships and helicopters. In Saudi Arabia, Leonardo has historical supplies of aircraft and warships.

Leonardo and his daughters

One of Leonardo’s strengths is its wide range of stakes in the share capital of companies in the defence and security sector. Some of these connections are also established by memoranda of understanding. For example, at the beginning of November Leonardo signed an agreement with Elettronica Spa – the company that controls the protagonist of the previous episodes of #Surveillances, Cy4gate -, «aimed at consolidating and strengthening Leonardo’s core business,» as outlined by CEO Alessandro Profumo. In essence, the agreement provides for joint participation in international projects. «On the opening day, Med-Or representatives showed guests its analysis centre, based on open sources and aimed at improving the understanding of the debate and the social and cultural dynamics of the countries of interest,» Leonardo explained to IrpiMedia.

The software on the screen appears to be the same as the one produced by Cy4gate: on the screen, you can see a customised version, with the Med-Or logo, of an information dashboard identical to the dashboard of AMICO (an acronym for Advanced Multimedia Information Cockpit). The system allows access to documents and information collected online from so-called “open sources” such as social networks, public databases, or press reviews. Metro first reported on it in 2018, explaining that the product is «developed by Leonardo SpA and Rome-based Cy4gate». AMICO can interact with other software developed by Cy4gate. As outlined in a series of slides released following a meeting last October, the right-hand column of the AMICO dashboard may host documents from another product, QUIPO, described by the company as «the platform developed by Cy4gate to support intelligence analysts». Med-Or, however, «does not use QUIPO software», Leonardo replies.

Photo taken in July 2021 during Med-Or Day, a launch day for the Med-Or Foundation. On the screen, what appears to be an information dashboard similar to the one produced by the company Cy4gate is clearly visible | Photo:

Cy4gate presents the AMICO information dashboard during the 2019 edition of the Italian Conference on Cybersecurity (ITASEC2019). The tweet from which the image is taken states that AMICO is a platform developed for data viewing, capable of collecting and analysing huge streams of data in real time | Photo: Twitter

In an interview released in July 2021 to the Telos blog, Minniti mentioned two issues related to health security when speaking of Med-Or’s interests: «The first is Health Intelligence, an area in which Leonardo has the necessary know-how. The other is Health Surveillance, that is, monitoring the progress of the pandemic». «The epidemic – Leonardo added in his answers to IrpiMedia – has highlighted how crucial the issue of managing health emergencies is. The epidemic has highlighted the difficulties of systems that do not have systems for monitoring (health surveillance) the development of the epidemiological situation. Italy can be a reference for these countries, to improve their ability to manage their own complexities». This same topic has also been the focus of Cy4gate itself, which has developed HITS, a contact tracking software.

Leonardo’s web in the history of think-tanks

Think-tanks like Med-Or are an invention of post-World War II American politics in the wake, as sociologist Mattia Diletti writes, of the «hope – almost always shattered – that knowledge, doctrine, knowledge or rationality will influence the actions of rulers and institutions». In the United States, think-tanks have many stakeholders, and scholar Robert Kent Weave has categorised them into three models: «Universities without students», i.e. training centres that make up for the shortcomings of the parties; research and development centres that live off public funding (one name for all: Rand Corporation, the largest think-tank in the world, whose budget ranges between 200 and 250 million a year and million-dollar commissions mainly from the Department of Defence) or political agora, where ideas and projects with ideological connotations are formed (partisan think-tanks). All American-style think-tanks «act in the gap between politics, industry and private stakeholders,» Diletti told IrpiMedia. «They generally rely on a multiplicity of donors, which allows them more independence.»

In Europe, these organisations are smaller. They have emerged mostly in Britain and Germany, where they are often created in the orbit of power centres where either foreign or economic policies are studied. In France, the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), for example, is an organisation counting dozens of partners and funders, whose board includes former state councillors, academics, managers of Renault, L’Oreal and Burelle (a manufacturer of plastic products), bankers, and public officials. Their goal (on both sides of the Ocean) is to create positive interactions between important national companies, academia, and government. In other words, they «are systemic.» In Europe, «personal think-tanks» are also very successful: they act as manoeuvring spaces for political leaders who rely on their network of relations and their authoritativeness. They are often led by former politicians, such as Tony Blair or Gerhard Schröder.

Renzi: from a personal think-tank to Saudi Arabia

In Italy, people like Matteo Renzi went from a personal think-tank (Fondazione Open) to an institutional think-tank of a foreign country: in fact, although he is a senator, Renzi has decided to take part in Future Investment Initiative Institution (FIII), the think-tank of the Saudi monarchy. Saudi rulers have been accused – among other human rights violations – of having ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist, and writer who was killed at the Saudi Consul’s Office on October 2nd, 2018.

According to a report issued in February 2021 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence consultancy body of Washington’s government, «Saudi prince Mohammed Bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.» One month after the document was issued, Renzi replied to criticism of his trips to Saudi Arabia by stating that «Bin Salman is a friend, I have known him for years. And there is no certainty that he is the instigator of Khashoggi’s murder. Which, by the way, I wish to clearly and fully condemn». Attending events on behalf of a foreign foundation does not, in itself, violate any rules of the Senate, the branch of Parliament in which Matteo Renzi was elected: it is only questionable in terms of political appropriateness.

If the same had happened with a member of the second chamber, the situation would have been different, due to a 2016 code of conduct that requires House elected officials to accept «reimbursement of travel, lodging, and living expenses» only if it occurs «in the performance of their duties».

In Italy, “one-man company” foundations, as former socialist minister Gianni De Michelis once called them, are particularly trendy. These are think-tanks created to promote personal leadership: «The Italian environment is more modest; our economy does not have big system stakeholders. Our big players are state or parastatal bodies», Mattia Diletti added, clearly referring to Eni and Leonardo.

The latter explained to IrpiMedia that it «has a duty to maintain relations with the countries in which it operates, beyond merely trade-related relationships. Med-Or, as it clearly emerges from its Statute, does not deal with Procurement. Its mission is to build a dialogue based on culture and the exchange of knowledge and skills. Throughout Med-Or, Leonardo intends to start a new partnership with an enlarged Mediterranean area». In short, weaving a web.

Among the concrete actions carried out so far, there are analyses and researches signed by journalists and academics published on the website and the opening of a partnership between the Mohammed VI University of Rabat, in Morocco, and Luiss University of Rome, through which the first three scholarships for Moroccan students have been financed.



Lorenzo Bagnoli
Riccarco Coluccini

In partnership with


Luca Rinaldi


Marco Minniti as Minister of Interior at a press conference in January 2016.
Photo: Simona Granati/Corbis