MILAN — A few days before Christmas last year, Fabrizio Pozzobon, a plumber from the Venice area, left Italy. Telling his family and friends that he was going on a short vacation, he boarded a plane to Istanbul and vanished.
Italian authorities now fear that Pozzobon, 51, could be in Syria fighting with the Islamic State or another jihadist group. It might be yet another story of a disaffected European man being recruited to fight for Islamist extremists were it not for one fact: Pozzobon used to be an activist and elected official for a xenophobic far-right party that often attacks Muslims.
In 2010, Pozzobon ran for the City Council in his hometown, Castelfranco Veneto, as a candidate of the Northern League, a far-right party that campaigns against the presence of Muslim immigrants in Italy and opposes the construction of mosques on Italian soil. In Lombardy, a northern Italian province where the League is in power, the local government has passed a law banning face-covering veils in public spaces. Pozzobon eventually made it onto the council in 2014 and served a one-year term.
Pozzobon's story remained a secret until last week, when a small local newspaper, Treviso Today, broke the news that he was missing. The paper also reported that the case was being handled by the Special Operations Group, or ROS, of the Carabinieri, Italy's paramilitary national police force.
ROS is tasked with counterterrorism and is rarely involved in routine police work, and its involvement raised suspicions that Pozzobon might have joined a jihadist group. A few days after Treviso Today's story, another newspaper, Corriere del Veneto, reported that ROS was investigating that possibility. An ROS representative confirmed to The Washington Post on Monday that the organization is investigating Pozzobon's disappearance but could neither confirm nor deny that they are looking into potential links with any terror group.
The strongest evidence that Pozzobon could be involved with jihadists is a selfie that, according to Corriere del Veneto, he sent to an acquaintance in Castelfranco Veneto shortly before he cut off all contact. The photo shows him in a unnamed ruined city that could be in the Middle East.
Other hints are found a Facebook account under Pozzobon's name, which "liked" Facebook pages for Raqqa, the city that was until recently the de facto Islamic State capital, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the jihadist militia once known as the Nusra Front, and numerous other Syria-related pages.
While the cause of Pozzobon's disappearance is still undetermined, his case has captured national attention in Italy. For one, the country has supplied fewer foreign fighters in Syria than some other major European nations — about 110 of them, according to a government report from January, most of them fighting for the Islamic State. Add in the prospect of a white right-wing politician joining an Islamist terror group, and the story seems likely to be in the news for some time.