Will ISIS Attack the Vatican on Christmas?

A man thought to be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi makes a speech. Reuters

A propaganda poster released by a pro-Islamic State group this week called on followers to attack the Vatican on Christmas, the SITE Intelligence Group disclosed.

The image from the Wafa Media Foundation shows a car driving into St. Peter's Basilica, an Italian Renaissance church in Vatican City. Lettering on the poster says the attack should take place on Christmas.

Experts said it's unlikely ISIS forces could enter Rome or the Vatican anytime soon, as the group recently was defeated militarily and driven out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. But its propaganda machine continues to go strong, and the group is increasingly turning to lone-wolf supporters to take up its violent cause around the world. With this in mind, experts say it's important to take seriously the threat against the Vatican.

"Wafa Media Foundation specializes in these types of graphics. Wafa's threat, like others recently issued by pro-ISIS media groups, is a specific attack directive within a larger push by ISIS for lone wolf attacks as it rapidly loses territory in Iraq and Syria," Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, told Newsweek.

"Though these threats should be taken seriously, there is also a publicity element to pro-ISIS media groups' threats against places like the Vatican or events like 2018 FIFA World Cup."

1) With the current status of #ISIS' #Rumiyah mag unknown (last issue released 2 months ago), group continues pushing #lonewolf attacks, this time via its Naba newspaper in an infographic offering "advice for the mujahideen in the countries of the enemy." https://t.co/I0ut5PMGNr pic.twitter.com/2KNP3VoRff

— Rita Katz (@Rita_Katz) November 10, 2017

This is not the first time the Islamic State has specifically threatened the Vatican. In August, a pro-ISIS group released a video calling for attacks on Pope Francis and for Catholic icons to be destroyed. The video showed jihadists ripping up photographs of the pope.

"We will have our vengeance, we will arrive in Rome," the jihadists said in the video.

Members of the Swiss Guard, the security force that protect the Vatican, said they believed it was "only a matter of time" before an attack was carried out in the holy city. Last year, Italian police arrested four men in connection with an alleged plot against the Vatican.

The propaganda poster shows pro-ISIS terrorists attacking the Vatican. via SITE Intel Group

Members of the Islamic State and the group's supporters have frequently threatened to take over Rome. The extremist group even has its own magazine, called Rumiyah (Rome), and its followers have frequently used the hashtag #Rome in its social media posts. References to Rome have also been discovered in pro-ISIS telegram channels and chat rooms.

It is likely the group uses the word Rome as a synonym for the West, and for Christianity more broadly.

"For ISIS, the Vatican in particular is a symbol of the 'Crusader' West, and any attack made against it would be widely accepted by all of its followers," Katz explained.

In 2015, ISIS released a video showing the beheading of a group of Ethiopian Christians in Libya and warned that they were just south of Rome.

"We will conquer Rome with Allah's permission," a masked militant in the video said.

Italians responded to the group's threats by issuing travel warnings to arriving jihadists.

#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome are you sure? pic.twitter.com/yNPVEO8Gzc

— Mauro Giulivi (@MauroGiulivi) February 20, 2015

Tomorrow is strike of public transport. Good luck. #We_Are_Coming_O_Rome

— Alessandro Cocco (@AleCocco84) February 19, 2015