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Italy and the Vatican in Islamic State Propaganda

Italy and the Vatican in Islamic State Propaganda
11th August 2020 Francesco Marone
Francesco Marone
In Insights

In recent weeks, Islamic State (IS) targeted Italy in its official online propaganda. The jihadist organisation explicitly mentioned the country in Issue 242 of its Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba’, published on 9 July 2020. The editorial strongly rejected the assumption that IS manufactured a huge shipment of psychostimulants in Syria which were seized by Italian authorities, labelled as “the Crusader Italian police”, in the port of Salerno on 1 July. On the contrary, IS argued that that this fact revealed the secret connections between the “Crusaders” and the Tawagheet (tyrants) like the Syrian government. Overall, such direct and specific references to Italy remain quite rare in official jihadist propaganda.

In general, over the last few years, Italy has occupied a relatively marginal position with respect to the jihadist threat, in both mobilisation and propaganda. With regards to the former, the country, in many respects, represents an interesting “happy exception” in the West. In fact, the levels of jihadist radicalisation have been contained, when compared to other countries in the region. Arguably the most evident indicator of this has been the low number of terrorist attacks executed on its soil: at the time of writing, with the exception of a partially unsuccessful incident in October 2009 and a doubtful stabbing in September 2019, Italy, as well as the bordering Vatican, have never been hit by jihadist violence and, in any case, have never suffered fatal casualties, unlike many other Western countries. Another relevant indicator is the number of foreign fighters. The contingent of travellers with ties to Italy who joined jihadist armed groups in Syria and Iraq and in Libya (144 individuals, according to the latest official figures released in March 2020) is in fact considerably lower than that of other Western European countries like France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and of even smaller countries such as Belgium and Sweden.

With regard to jihadist propaganda, it should first be noted that the official online production specifically focused on Italy or directed at an Italian audience has been limited. For example, although IS has frequently employed European languages such as English and French, it has not published any significant material in Italian. Similarly, there are no videos or other types of relevant products officially distributed by the Islamic State or other jihadist organisations in which Italian-speaking jihadists play a major role.

Nonetheless in some respects, IS’s official propaganda mentions Italy and the bordering Vatican with a seemingly disproportionate frequency. A recently published study I carried out with a colleague explored this under-researched problem, by analysing all textual references to Italy and the Vatican in the flagship English-language magazines Dabiq and Rumiyah, two of the most well-spread and influential products of this jihadist organisation. Although these online glossy magazines, which were mainly directed at a Western audience, ceased publication, their 28 PDF issues are still available online today. In fact, the Internet offers unlimited access, allowing the effects of extremist content to transcend the time of creation and distribution of a particular message.

Prima facie, the relevance of Italy and the Vatican in Dabiq and Rumiyah should be immediately indicated by the title of the latter, since it translates to “Rome” in English. Our study documents that over three-quarters of the textual references concern precisely “Rome” (178 out of 228), which is both the capital of Italy and the seat of the Vatican. The city is often mentioned as a symbol of the West and Christianity, in the form of a synecdoche. On the other hand, relatively few mentions of Italy and the Vatican are actually specific, non-figurative and related to our age. In short, the empirical analysis of these flagship magazines confirms that IS has not articulated or developed a clear-cut and consistent discourse against Italy and the Vatican, unlike what it has done against other countries in the West, such as France, or outside the region, such as Saudi Arabia or Russia. Additionally, in these two online publications, threats to Italy and the Vatican are often generic (they do not specify targets and means of violence) and are not individualised (they also involve other countries).

However, even generic mentions of “Rome” and its “conquest”, traditionally common in jihadist propaganda, can raise potential concern, especially when they are associated with direct references to the city, like on the notorious cover of Dabiq #4 (a photomontage of the obelisk of St. Peter’s Square with the black banner of the so-called “caliphate” hoisted up on top) and in other visual instances. A cumulative effect in reiterated mentions could potentially increase the threat. In recent years, Italian authorities have apprehended several jihadists who were interested in planning attacks in Italy or the Vatican. Nevertheless, it is difficult to determine whether and to what extent these individuals were actually encouraged by specific propaganda references to these two countries. In general, the causal relation between extremist propaganda, in different formats, and terrorist attacks and plots remains to be seen.

Even in unofficial jihadist propaganda created by online sympathisers, the part played by Italy and the Vatican does not appear to be central. Although there is no empirical analysis on references to the two countries in this type of production, it can be estimated that the work of online jihadist sympathisers linked to Italy and the Vatican has not been particularly extensive or influential. In this regard, for example, back in February 2015, the attention of the Italian media was suddenly attracted to the online discovery of an anonymous 64-page document that, in good Italian, presented, legitimised and glorified the so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. The online document was relevant less for its informational content (in large part, a collage of texts and photos drawn from Dabiq and other publications, without specific threats to Italy or the Vatican) and more so for the fact that it offered a new updated pro-IS propaganda product specifically directed at the Italian-speaking public. The author of the piece, a 20-year-old Italian citizen of Moroccan origin, was arrested a few weeks later in a counter-terrorism operation. However, cases like this have been infrequent in Italy.

When it comes to social media, the Italian-based online jihadist scene appears to be small and unsophisticated in comparison to that of other Western countries. In this regard, a recent empirical analysis examined a major pro-IS Italian-language channel on Telegram, a sort of “app of choice” for jihadists in recent years. According to the information and data collected shortly before the November 2019 extensive eradication of IS-supporting accounts, channels and groups from the platform, this unofficial channel was limited to translating a small amount of IS Arabic-language media. The anonymous translators did not even include propaganda products that would have been of particular interest to Italian or Italy-linked jihadists (such as the statements on the killing of Italian anti-IS fighter Lorenzo Orsetti in Baghouz on 18 March 2019, officially claimed by IS). In short, this analysis shows that even this major Telegram channel presented serious limits both in terms of quantity and quality of material distributed in the Italian language.

In conclusion, while further empirical research is needed, it can be argued that, apart from recurrent figurative references to “Rome”, the position of Italy and the Vatican in jihadist online propaganda remains relatively minor.

This contribution is partly based on the academic article “We Will Conquer Your Rome”: Italy and the Vatican in the Islamic State’s Propaganda, published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.