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.