SANT’ANTIOCO is a village with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants off Sardinia. In 1815 it was the scene of the last big Moorish raid on Italy: more than a hundred Sardinians were seized as slaves. Arabs and Berbers, then Turks and finally north African pirates terrorised the coast of Italy at intervals for 1,000 years. Muslims ruled Sicily for centuries and created enclaves there. In 846 they sacked the Vatican.
Muslim incursions are now a distant folk memory—until now, when they appear frighteningly present. On February 15th Islamic State (IS) released a typically horrific video of the decapitation of 21 Egyptian Copts. What alarmed Italians was the title, “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross”, and a warning that the jihadists are “south of Rome”. Italians knew their capital, the papal seat, was a target. Earlier videos said that IS’s black flag would fly over St Peter’s. But these were made when IS was confined to the Middle East, not beheading Christians on a beach just across the sea from Lampedusa.

Commenting on IS’s advance, the foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, said that, if a UN peace initiative failed, “the issue needs to be raised with the United Nations to do something more.” That was enough for IS’s radio station in Mosul to brand Mr Gentiloni the representative of a “crusader Italy”. Undaunted, the defence minister, Roberta Pinotti, hinted the next day at what “something more” might be. Italy, she said, was ready to lead a coalition to crush IS in Libya: “We have been discussing it for months, but now an intervention has become urgent.” The prime minister, Matteo Renzi, warned against “hysteria”.
Wholly out of character with Italy’s cautious attitude to military involvement, such statements reflect pent-up frustration over the failure of Italy’s allies to address the deteriorating situation in Libya. Yet, as became clear in the UN Security Council on February 18th, Italy’s friends are averse to intervention (see article). So are many Italians, who are mindful of the way they are seen as Libya’s former colonial masters. When Mr Gentiloni repeated in parliament that time was running out for a diplomatic solution, the Five Star Movement, a populist left-wing party, said Libya could become Italy’s Vietnam.
The threat from IS is linked to a surge in immigration from Libya of asylum seekers and others. More than 6,000 people have fled from north Africa so far this year, twice as many as a year ago. Yet winter is the most perilous time to cross to Italy. Last week survivors reported that more than 200 had died when their boats were overwhelmed by high seas. There is pressure from humanitarian groups to restart Italy’s “Mare Nostrum” search-and-rescue policy, replaced last year by the smaller “Triton” operation.
IS’s advance may intensify the desperation of would-be migrants, especially Christians. That might raise sympathies in Italy, where the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world is a big topic of public debate. But compassion is offset by growing concerns that IS terrorists could be smuggling themselves into Europe among the migrants—or that IS might force a surge in departures to step up its war of nerves with “the Nation of the Cross”.