The Ustica Massacre: one of the greatest unsolved international mysteries

7 mins read

More than 40 years after the Ustica Massacre, the exact truth about that night is still not known. This article will demonstrate how the Ustica Massacre was likely the result of international intrigues.

On the evening of June 27, 1980, a DC-9 civil aircraft of the Itavia company, which took off from Bologna and should have landed in Palermo, suddenly disappeared from the radars on the island of Ustica, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The search for the plane continued all night until the first light of the morning of June 28, when the first remains of the aircraft and some bodies were identified: none of the 81 passengers survived. Initially, a possible structural failure or a terrorist attack was taken into consideration given that Italy was going through the so-called Anni di Piombo, a period of social and political turmoil. It was clear later that the situation was much more complex than it seemed. Three weeks after what happened in Ustica, another mysterious plane crash of a Libyan MiG was discovered in Calabria. Investigations of this event were quickly closed and the cause of the crash was attributed to running out of fuel or the pilot suffered a stroke.

Case Background 

The historical period in which this case happened was particularly problematic and tense. It was the last decade of the Cold War and NATO had recently decided to install medium-range missiles on European territory in the hope that the USSR would withdraw the SS-20s which were aimed at Europe.

The commitment to deploy euromissiles in Comiso, a small town in Sicily, allowed Italy to autonomously maintain its role in the Middle East region. Precisely in those years, Italy strengthened its economic and commercial relations with Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, creating discontent on the part of the Alliance and above all the USA.

The investigation into what happened was shelved until 1986, the year in which an appeal was made to the President of the Republic Francesco Cossiga for putting an end to silence on the matter. The appeal achieved the effect of triggering a political-institutional mechanism that induced the Craxi’s Government to allocate the necessary funds for the costly operations to recover the remains of the DC-9, which were considered indispensable for establishing the actual causes of the accident.

The Blasi College, named after its president, presented the first report only in March 1989, identifying the explosion of the DC-9 in the impact with a missile. 

Years later, the seizure of the recordings of calls between the various radar stations revealed the presence of intense military air traffic in the area of the disaster that night, with the presence of an aircraft carrier. The Pentagon, which has the Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, denied that they were US air and naval units.

Intelligence liaison

The interrogations by the Italian justice could have been more accurate, taking into account that an interview done by Atlantide, an Italian television program, has brought important information to light. The interviewee Brian Sandlin, a former crew member of the USS Saratoga (CV 60), claimed to have seen that day two F-4J Phantoms return at the end of a fight mission against two Libyan MiGs with no armament under their wings.

There may have been an intelligence liaison between various secret services to cover up the evidence of the case, considering that we still do not know the truth regarding what happened. On May 8, 2010, the head of state Giorgio Napolitano affirmed that what occurred in Ustica was the result of international intrigues, together with the lack of transparency on the part of state bodies.

Major sources of the Italian media have alleged that the aircraft was shot down during a dogfight involving Libyan, United States, French, and Italian Air Force fighters in an assassination attempt by NATO members on Gaddafi, who was flying in the same airspace that day. This version was supported in 1999 by investigative magistrate Rosario Priore, who said in his concluding report that his investigation had been deliberately obstructed by the Italian military and members of the secret service, in compliance with NATO requests.

Signals Intelligence

It is well known that Signals Intelligence plays an essential role during an investigation to reconstruct the temporal and spatial characteristics of the event and to understand the facts. Little or almost nothing of the information about that evening of June 27 has been recovered. Although the radar sites of Poggio Renatico, Poggio Ballone, Ciampino, Potenza Picena, Jacotenente, Licola and Syracuse were sophisticated and technologically advanced at the time, neither tapes nor registers were found. Only in Marsala was it possible to analyse the tape recordings but with two-time gaps.  

Rosario Priore explains in his long sentence that only thanks to some sheets and tapes which were not eliminated because they were considered harmless for the object that appeared on their cover, it was possible to find out a background. Rosario Priore accused the operators of each radar site and many other branches of the Air Force for the disappearance of all documentation. 

We can therefore note that if the data detected by the radar had been available during the investigation, it would have been possible to reconstruct more easily what happened.


From Priore’s long investigation emerged that there was a complex context that evening, probably characterized by a battle between military fighters, which unfortunately involved the DC-9. The crash of the civil airliner could have been because of the collision with one of the military aircraft, whose nationality, however, will never be ascertained. The destruction of evidence demonstrates how there was a specific project to prevent any well-founded and reasonable reconstruction of the event.

Classe 1998, ottiene una laurea triennale in Sviluppo e Cooperazione Internazionale presso l'Università di Bologna. Nel corso della triennale si specializza principalmente nel project management e in tutto ciò che concerne lo sviluppo sostenibile, grazie soprattuto al suo attivismo nell'ambito dell'associazionismo.
A seguito di un periodo di studio trascorso in Svezia, durante il quale ha potuto approfondire temi relativi al security risk management, decide di approfondire questo interesse con un Master in International Security Studies presso la Charles University di Praga, optando per una specializzazione in ambito tecnologico.
Attualmente, oltre a frequentare il Master, sta lavorando come consulente presso un'agenzia di consulenze manageriale italiana occupandosi principalmente di risk management e sviluppo sostenibile.

Membro della redazione dello IARI, scrive per l'area "Difesa e Sicurezza".

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