Black flags from Rome: Mafia and Isis, as before Mafia and Al Qaeda

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Stefano Portelli. Stefano is a cultural anthropologist with a doctorate in Urban Studies, his primary fieldsites are a barrio of Barcelona and the Ostia neighborhood of Rome, where the issue of mafia is crucial. Starting September 2017, he will be a Marie-Curie fellow for Leicester University’s Department of Geography.

Black flags from Rome: Mafia and Isis, as before Mafia and Al Qaeda
by Stefano Portelli

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 2015, some social networks mostly based in Southern Italy published an uncanny piece of news, that bounced back on the web immediately after the much more deadly attacks in November. The Sicilian mafia boss Totò Riina, from the maximum security jail where he is secluded since 1993, was reported answering to the fear of terrorism spreading across Italy, by suggesting that if the Italian state really wanted to defeat Isis, they should release him from prison, and let him do. “Ci penso io” is a sentence that could condense the mafioso’s claim of being able to deal with the Islamic state: a very ambiguous formula in Italian, as anthropologists know. It entails taking charge of somebody else’s problem through one’s connections and savoir faire, but without disclosing the means. It creates a relation of gratefulness tinged with admiration – the basis for dependency and patronage.

The piece of news was certainly a hoax, as some of the websites themselves suggested. Still, that same January some newspapers echoed it in a more ‘respectable’ form, by quoting an interview with an anonymous secret agent, who literally said: “Terrorist leakings are much more difficult in the South [of Italy], where there is somebody who controls or even manages the territory”. A title was “Half of the country is safe (under the Mafia)”, the other “Isis only fears the Mafia”. In November the idea gained even more popularity, when the online version of an influential weekly magazine built a whole article on it, quoting another source from the intelligence community who declared that “the real protection” for Italy against Isis is “the indirect one wielded by criminal organizations”. “The Mafia succeeds in opposing terrorism”, was the title. The thesis was promptly rejected by an Italian left-wing journalist, but its very presence in public discourse reveals a rather unexplored consequence of the terrorist threat. Fear quickly evokes national cohesion, but can reach the point of crossing the boundary of what is publicly admitted, into the realm of the unspeakable, and of the obscure.

I can’t forget how scared I felt the week immediately after 9-11, 2001, strolling along the via Tiburtina, in the eastern periphery of Rome. An Islamist attack on the Vatican seemed the logical consequence of the state of war on which the TV insisted every day. When in 2004 four trains were bombed in Madrid – the first time ‘terror’ struck Southern Europe – I was in Spain; at a party I had a conversation with an expat friend of mine, who claimed that a similar attack would be impossible in Southern Italy. “In Naples nothing enters the city unless the camorra knows it”, he stated. “And they’ll never leave their people undefended”. Camorrista entrepreneurs were earning immense profits from illegal waste disposal, devastating agriculture and the health of thousands; still, their presence seemed to me reassuring, even gratifying, in the face of this new unknown threat. These networks of ruthless gangsters and cynical entrepreneurs could turn out to be our army, our sons-of-a-bitch, as conventional nation-state devices of citizen security proved incapable of defending much more ‘successful’ nations from the terrorist threat.

It is widespread in Italy the feeling that, by scratching the surface of public self-representation, the nation appears as a huge array of dark and undemocratic agents. They include obviously the Mafia, with its four regional variants; the Freemasonry; some sectors of the intelligence community; the Vatican state; and a whole range of right-wing extremists, whose influence went fading as their more presentable figures flowed into legal political parties. In many every-day discourses, Italians display their rage against what they perceive as a whole world of secret societies that reduce all the coming-and-goings of politics to a public performance for the foolish, more intended to entertain than to represent the people. These networks are a permanent evidence that Italy will never be a ‘normal’ nation – a truly ‘European’ one as the UK, or Belgium, or France. Less evident is the point to which these same forces, at need, and always with great diplomacy, could end up representing a guarantee for protection and ‘homeland security’.

As Al-Qaeda before them, Isis spokespersons once in a while mention Rome as their ultimate military target – though ‘Rome’ in their jargon is a name for all western Europe, the former Roman empire (rumii means ‘European’ in many Arab languages). A dubious leaflet, much less appealing and professional than the official Isis magazin Dabiq, circulates in the internet under the title of “Black Flags from Rome”. In its last pages it describes a clumsy strategy to conquer Italy and the capital of Christiandom by desembarking from Tunisia. In their medieval dystopia, the jihadists imagine that they will have to “ally with other militias to fight the Mafia before the conquest of Rome”. The very backwardness of the Islamists and their rootedness in an era in which the city still held intact some of its power, can make a despised nation feel desirable in the high-contrast photoshopped images of its capital displayed in the e-leaflet. So much desirable, even to the barbarians, so much ours, shining in its corruption and horror, in its elusive layers of power and history. Living in Italy is learning to deal daily with failure and with contamination: an art which is at once the national curse and the national pride.



Thus, fear is just one of the possible reactions to terrorist threat. National cohesion is another; another one is irony. The photo of this graffiti on a wall in eastern Rome flooded the internet just after the November attacks: “Isis, with bare hands whenever you want” it defied, in a very Roman way, by challenging the terrorists to fight unarmed. In summer 2014, when the first declaration of Al-Baghdadi concerning the conquest of Rome was popularized by the press, a whole saga developed on the web, imagining the arrival of the mujahiddins on the chaotic and out-of-control sprawl of the Italian capital. Here are some excerpts from one of the first versions of the saga, written by a popular Roman cartoonist:

The army of Isis chose the wrong hour to conquer Rome. At 8:30 they got stuck in a traffic jam on the Raccordo highway, near Settebagni. The cruel warriors of Allah didn’t know that at that time people go to work. Among the curses of some mad drivers, car stereos boosting at incredible volume, motorcycles buzzing everywhere, an ambulance blocked on the emergency lane by the SUV of some son-of-a-bitch that tried to pass and was arguing with the paramedics, the bearded avengers of God didn’t know what to do: imposing the Qur’an one car at the time was impossible, since not even a soul would pass between the packed cars. [Original version here]

After more hours of traffic jams, and all sorts of urban incidents – involving political rallies, holes of the asphalt, hooligans, parking fees for the armoured cars, Romas petty thieves, Bangladeshi rose-sellers, tax collectors and tourist-catchers dressed as Roman centurions – the ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi screams: “This is hell, as the Prophet described it!”, and ordered his troops to retreat, suddenly realizing why the Italian army didn’t try to stop them before. The jihadists were ridiculized by the Romans for being inept to cross the urban jungle they face daily: in front of Isis, all that makes life in Rome impossible – all our flaws, all our sins – becomes our greatest strength. No better illustration of what Michael Herzfeld calls cultural intimacy: a series of elements of the inmost circle of culture, that provoke embarassment and discomfort to external eyes, but that can mobilize at need to create stronger bonds than any national anthem or flag.

How far is this joke from the supposedly serious declaration of the secret agent reassuring us that we are ‘protected’ by the mafia? These messages are twofold, as is double the face of the nation itself. On one side, the official narrative presents Italy as a legitimate state of right, build on the model of France, the UK, or Belgium: our national aspiration is to be someday recognized as a purely ‘European’ country – but as such, a proper target for the terrorists. On the other side there is a second version, less publicly displayed (‘off-stage’, as Andrew Shryock would put it) but more coherent with collective feelings: it depicts Italy as a failed nation, which will never attain the level of efficiency, democracy and accountability of ‘Europe’, mainly, because of the corruption and criminality that control and manage most of its economy, politics and territory. But in the current state of exception, suddenly this very failure becomes our greatest defense from terrorism: we are safe, because we are not properly a modern and efficient nation state.

What if under this apparently harmless jokes and hoaxes there were a stronger point being made – a prefiguration of a era in which some big families are more or less tacitly allowed to take care of public issues, even with weapons, even if they illegaly take control of public resources, even if they maintain people under fear? We should not forget that the mafia – as Jane and Peter Schneider exposed in their parallel with Al-Qaeda – is not a group of people but a kind of relationship: it is a blood tie between the oppressors and the oppressed, that guarantees increasing power to the oppressors, in exchange for the security that the oppressed will remain oppressed, but by the same oppressors. Our own local terrorists come in white masks: they are Christian oppressors, they inflict Christian violence and promise Christian death, thus countering the terrible fear that, someday, a similar terror can come from some unknown oppressor, worshiping some other god.

The final message of this deeply conservative, politically dangerous, culturally intimate narrative, is this: why shall we keep fighting the mafia, the corruption and the ongoing privatization of public goods for the benefit of the few powerful? The more powerful these people become, the more they will be able to prevent these strange puppets to appear on the horizon and try to conquer us, as the Moors of a Sicilian Opera dei pupi performance, waving their black flags over Rome.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.