In a video featuring 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by the group, ISIS proudly noted its gains in north Africa put it “south of Rome” and in a strategic position to threaten the Italian capital. The video showed a masked leader pointing across the waters towards Europe and pledging to “conquer Rome, God willing.” They have said the same thing before.
Is this promise to sack Rome credible? ISIS’s claim initially struck most as absurd. Many Italians took to joking about the threats on Twitter. After all, Rome has not fallen to outside forces since World War II, and Italy is one of the world’s preeminent economic powers.
Yet Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti says the threat “cannot be ruled out.” Indeed, after ISIS’s announcement, an additional 500 troops were dispatched to guard Roman sites such as the Coliseum.
History, both recent and ancient, suggests the threat may not be so idle.
In only a few months, ISIS has hopscotched from the cradle of civilization in Iraq and Syria to another home of antiquity in north Africa. The blows have come quickly. Last month, terrorist forces in control of a large swath of Libya (following years of civil war) publicly pledged fealty to ISIS and its leadership. Last week, in next-door Tunisia, a terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the nation’s capital, claimed 23 lives. The victims were mostly tourists, many of whom had sailed over on cruise liners from Italy. On March 19, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and promised it is “just the start.”
Tunisia is separated from Sicily, the southernmost part of Italy, by a mere 100 miles of sea.
The Italian tourist ships that turned around from Tunisia after the bombing last week were a reminder that history and geography tie together these two lands. The ruins of Roman settlements that dot the north African landscape, one of the destination points of these tours, are interspersed with remnants of Carthage, the great adversary of ancient Rome. The two rivals fought three wars in the third century B.C. to determine mastery of the Mediterranean Sea and its lucrative trade routes.
Though Rome eventually emerged the winner, it was not without tremendous cost. Carthage’s greatest general, Hannibal, led thousands of Carthaginian troops and a platoon of elephants across the Mediterranean into Europe. From present-day Spain they marched over the freezing Alps and wreaked havoc throughout central Italy. Many military historians still regard Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in 216 B.C. as the most brilliant tactical victory in history, a model for all battlefield engagements. Eventually, after years of war, Rome complied with the dictum of the great Roman Cato the Elder, “Carthage must be destroyed.” But it was a brutal contest.
ISIS now has a foothold on the ancient home of Carthage in Tunisia and Libya. The group understands, among other things, the impact of illegal immigration: It has threatened to pack up and sail 500,000 illegal immigrants from Africa onto Italian shores should the West intervene against it militarily in Libya. Whether they engineer such an invasion by sea, or simply count on fomenting civil rebellion among Muslim expatriates in Italy and throughout Europe, ISIS’s intentions have been stated plainly and are fully in line with their deeds.
As ISIS spouts audacious and seemingly outlandish claims, we do well not to dismiss them too quickly. If ancient warriors could float elephants across the same sea, then march them over the Alps and into the heart of Italy, it is worth asking just what a modern enemy like ISIS can do.