"We will Conquer your Rome: References to Italy and the Vatican in the Islamic State’s Official Propaganda” is the new study published by the Center on Radicalization and International Terrorism at ISPI. The full-lenght study is available here (PDF).
Over the last few years, Italy has not been hit by any terrorist attack of jihadist inspiration, nor has it experienced the same elevated levels of domestic radicalization as some of its European neighbors. Tellingly, the number of foreign fighters who have left Italy to join the Islamic State or other jihadist groups is much lower (around 130) than that of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and even smaller countries like Austria or Belgium.
However, this situation of relative quiet presents an important exception when it comes to the propaganda of the so-called Islamic State, which mentions Italy, the Vatican and especially Rome with a frequency that may appear disproportionate.
The Islamic State is not the first group to have made strategic use of modern means of communication. However, the level of sophistication reached by the group in its media efforts is unprecedented for a non-state armed group. Since the mid-2000s, when it operated under other names, the Islamic State saw communication as a crucial part of its strategy and, benefitting from the remarkable technological expertise and communication skills of some of its militants, established a vast propaganda machine that has been able to capture audiences worldwide.
The propaganda campaign of the Islamic State combines official releases with unofficial self-made productions. On one hand, the organization makes use of highly professional broadcasting structures, such as the al-Hayat Media Center, to produce and disseminate its propaganda. On the other hand, the Islamic State can count on numerous militants and sympathizers who autonomously produce and spread material meant to promote the self-declared Caliphate through diverse means of communications.
So far, the Islamic State, while frequently employing various European languages such as English, French, or German, has not published propaganda in the Italian language. Thus, even though its official magazine evokes “Rome” from the title (Rumiyah, in Arabic), the absence of an Italian edition suggests that it is not geared towards an Italian public. Likewise, no relevant video or publication released by the Islamic State features an Italian-speaking militant. Yet mentions of Rome are extremely common in the propaganda of the organization.
The first section of our exploratory and preliminary study counted 432 references to Italy, the Vatican and Rome in official English language media products released by the Islamic State since the proclamation of the Caliphate in June 2014. Arabic-language propaganda also mentions Rome – with different meanings - with frequency.
The main sources of official English language references were eBooks (213 references), followed by Dabiq (148) and Rumiyah (46) magazines. Finally, the English transcripts of the speeches by leaders of the Islamic State contained 14 mentions, videos contained 10, and there was one Amaq press release containing a mention.
Out of these 432 mentions of Italy- and Vatican-related matters, 299 were either mentions of Rome or Roman(s), while 80 were mentions of Italy or Italian(s). There were 36 mentions of the Pope or the Vatican, 6 of Italian Public Figures, 6 of Italian cities other than Rome, and 5 of Italian left-wing/anarchic terror groups.
Regarding the typology of the references in terms of categories, 43% were religious/historic, 25% were threats, 7% were operational instructions for attacks, 6% were related to Italian society, 3% were operational claims for attacks carried out by the Islamic State, and 16% were miscellaneous.
An analysis of the references reveals that, with some significant exceptions, the Islamic State devotes its attention to Italy mostly because it refers to “Rome” as a symbol for the West and Christianity. Most references, in fact, take their cue from secondary Islamic sources, in particular, a passage from Sahih Muslim (one of the two most trusted collections of hadith) that states that the Day of Judgment will come only when Muslims will fight the “Romans” and that predict the conquest of “Rome” (originally using a historic reference to the centuries-old confrontation between Muslim forces and the Eastern “Roman” Empire – the Byzantines – during the Middle Ages). These passages mainly serve mainly for explicatory purposes or as direct threats (even though the difference between the two is inherently blurred). Furthermore, the Islamic State has traditionally made ample use of religious and historic references in order to build its own legitimacy and provide a justification for its actions.
However, this centrality of Rome, even figuratively, is a worrying phenomenon, as it may be interpreted by Islamic State followers as an exhortation to carry out attacks in the city or, more broadly, in Italy. This, for example, is especially true for references categorized as threats, with passages containing (seemingly) broad threats on the conquest of Rome which may at times be paired with images of the actual city.
While not as recurring, the mentions on Italian Society are nonetheless an interesting type, as they offer an insight into what elements of Italian life and culture the group observes and how it interprets Italian society. Quotes on Italian public figures, the Mafia, left-wing and anarchist terrorist groups, the government, social and political dynamics, and migration have all been grouped under this category.
The majority of this kind of mentions can be found in the eBooks (the Black Flags series). As these sources outline methods to carry out attacks against and invade Italy, they often try to shed light on Italian dynamics they believe may assist jihadists in taking over the peninsula. It must be noted that the eBooks alternate parts that denote a significant knowledge of Italian society and history with others, including the feasibility of a military takeover of the nation, that are little more than puerile fantasies.
More worrying instead are the realistic and operationally detailed instructions for attacks that can be found in some Islamic State videos. For example, the November 2016 video You Must Fight Them O’Muwahhid, released in French with English and Italian subtitles, instructs potential terrorists on how to conduct stabbing attacks and how to fabricate TATP explosives in their kitchens.
The operational claims section instead refers to the instances in which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks against Italian targets. While, at the time of writing, the Islamic State has not carried out attacks on Italian or Vatican soil, the group or some of its followers have killed Italian citizens abroad on a few occasions. Two attacks with Italian casualties took place in Bangladesh, in 2015.
The second section of the analysis, on the other hand, explores the much larger body of Arabic language Islamic State propaganda material. This section presents a discussion of just some of the most noteworthy references to Italy found in official Islamic State publications, by way of example, with an emphasis on the categories of Threats, Operational Claims and Instructions for Attacks.
As with English language material, the majority of Arabic references to Italy are mentions of the city Rome intended to highlight its symbolic value. In other cases, however, the threat to Rome appears to be more direct, as in some videos where the symbolic references to Rome are paired to present-day images of the Italian capital. One of the most infamous examples of this can be found in the December 2015 video released by Wilaya Ninawah titled Appointment at Dabiq. The video features tanks with the black flags of the Islamic State and advancing through the desert towards various monuments of Rome, like the Colosseum, the Altare della Patria; Piazza Navona, and St. Peter’s Basilica are also shown.
The threat mentions regarding Italy, as opposed to Rome in a symbolic context, are much less frequent. Nonetheless there are a few examples, particularly in relation to Italy’s involvement in the Libyan crisis. These are often paired with occasional references to Italian public figures. These occurred in particular in the summer of 2016, at the height of the activity of the Islamic State in Libya.
A particularly noteworthy video is one released by Wilaya Tarablus in July 2016 and titled Islamic State – This is what Allah and his Messenger had promised. The video shows an image of then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as well as several shots of then Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni, standing with Fayez al Sarraj, head of the Libyan transition government and with then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other political leaders. Several Italian soldiers in Libya can also be seen in brief segments. This video is noteworthy, as it is probably the first time that a threat to Italy appears as direct and as directly related to the country’s involvement in the Libyan crisis. Interestingly, two brief shots of General Rodolfo Graziani and Benito Mussolini also appear in the closing images of the video, clearly used to evoke their controversial role in the Italian colonial rule over Libya.
 L. Vidino and F. Marone, The Jihadist Threat in Italy: A Primer, Analysis No. 318, ISPI, November 2017, https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/jihadist-threat-italy-primer-18541.
 See, for example, C. Winter, “Apocalypse, later: a longitudinal study of the Islamic State Brand”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 35, no. 1, 2018, pp. 103-121.
 Among others, M. Maggioni and P. Magri (eds), Twitter and Jihad. The Communication Strategy of Isis, Milan, ISPI, 2015; F. Marone, Modernità e tradizione nella propaganda dello ‘Stato Islamico’ (IS), in P. Scotto di Castelbianco (ed.), LeggIntelligence, Preface by Giampiero Massolo, Rome, Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri - Sistema di informazione per la sicurezza della Repubblica, 2015, pp. 148-163.
 For example, regarding Twitter, see the study by A. Alexander, Digital Decay? Tracing Change Over Time Among English-Language Islamic State Sympathizers on Twitter, Program on Extremism – George Washington University, 2017.
 While everything was done to reach the desired degree of exhaustiveness in relation to the propaganda references in English, we cannot exclude the possibility that some mentions may have been missed.
 Cf. J. Boutz, H. Benninger and A. Lancaster, Exploiting the Prophet's Authority: How Islamic State Propaganda Uses Hadith Quotation to Assert Legitimacy, in «Studies in Conflict and Terrorism», http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1431363.
 See, for example, Dabiq Issue #4.
 It is generally estimated that around 80–90 % of official jihadist propaganda (of all groups, including the Islamic State) is published in Arabic.