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The Return of the Red Brigades?

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The economic convulsions shaking Europe might produce an additional unfortunate result: the revival of good old-fashioned leftist-inspired terrorism. Terrorism has been largely seen through the prism of Islam over the past twenty years even though terrorists who are not Muslims have been active in a number of countries, most notably India and Sri Lanka. It is easy to forget the 1970s and 1980s in Europe when groups like the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader Meinhof Group, the Irish Republican Army, and the Basque Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) were active. Most of the groups were eventually dismantled or ceased to exist, though Greece’s November 17th organization continued to be active until 2003, when concerted police work and a great deal of CIA assistance in advance of the Olympic games successfully netted its remaining militants. ETA also managed to survive, hanging on along the border between France and Spain before police pressure forced it to declare a cease fire in 2010 followed by a renunciation of all violence in 2011.

The old European groups were extremely capable and also were often found to be communicating with each other as they shared a common ideology and an agenda of universal revolution. The abduction and murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978 was meticulously planned and ETA once had the engineering expertise to construct a remote controlled car bomb that maneuvered around a corner and past a barrier to blow up a Guardia Civil barrack. Baader Meinhof was able to obtain and use military style shoulder launched missiles to attack armored vehicles. Effective police and intelligence work led to arrests of numerous radicals through the years but the reason most of the groups vanished was the shift in public perception that robbed them of their supporters. Domestic terrorists, who were originally respected as Robin Hoods attacking the state to help the poor and disenfranchised, were eventually seen to be little more than ideologically motivated criminals and psychopaths.

Senior security officials have had a number of secret meetings over the past six months in Brussels and also in several capitals to consider the likely consequences of recent economic developments. German police are sharing with Italy, Greece, and Spain the sophisticated monitoring capabilities that they developed during their war with Baader Meinhof, to include analysis of utility usage to identify safe houses. The CIA has also gotten involved, beefing up its stations in Rome, Athens, and Madrid and advising the local services on new surveillance technologies that have become available, including sophisticated real time communications monitoring and the use of drones. Germany, with a booming economy, has been relatively quiet but the economies that are suffering from high levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty, particularly among young people, are seeing the growth of counter-culture groups that spring from traditional leftist ideologies intent on introducing revolutionary solutions to resolve the all-too visible economic inequities.

Italy in particular has begun to clamp down preemptively with the mid-June arrests of ten suspects active in two anarchist (Federazione Anarchista Informale) and leftist extremist (Fronte Rivoluzionario Internazionale) organizations. The groups, whose activities centered on the city of Perugia, reportedly had access to handguns and bomb making equipment. Eight of the arrests were in Italy, one in Switzerland, and one in Germany. The two groups were reported to be coordinating their activities with northern European leftists and also with anarchist organizations in Greece. In November 2010, Greek anarchists working with the Fronte Rivoluzionario mailed a parcel bomb to then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The arrests and police activity in Italy are in response to the shooting of a nuclear industry executive a month ago and the death of a 16 year old girl in a bombing outside a secondary school on May 19th. The two attacks have deeply disturbed many Italians old enough to remember the near daily carnage of the 1970s. The two incidents were not the first violent acts to take place as a consequence of the current economic turmoil. There have been a number of attempted bombings and also letter bombings of government offices, particularly those linked to state owned enterprises or taxes. The Red Brigades, now called the New Red Brigades, still exist in a truncated form though a number of leaders are in prison and the group has no broad based support at the universities, which is where they initially rose to prominence. Their last murder of a government official was in 2002. But discontent is growing while high unemployment and a loosening of the social security net is leading many young Italians to embrace the old rhetoric about class warfare and the need for revolution, something that is clearly visible in the graffiti visible on walls in major Italian cities. It is a development that the police are monitoring carefully.

In Greece, the situation is similar but even worse as the economy is adrift while the Greek police have little in the way of resources to combat an anticipated wave of terrorism that will follow the harsh austerity policies that will be introduced by the new government. The Greeks have been experiencing their fifth year of recession, making theirs the weakest performing economy in Europe, and they are also entering into their fifth year of resurgence of low level left wing terrorism. The current round of violence was triggered when a young demonstrator was killed by police in 2008 and it has resurfaced repeatedly whenever Greeks gather to protest, with anarchist and other radical groups hovering on the fringes of every demonstration. Fire bombings and letter bombs have become an almost weekly occurrence, with the attacks being directed against the police and both government offices and capitalist symbols like banks. Greek officials believe that none of the seriously dangerous terrorist groups active up until a few years ago, including November 17th, have fully reconstituted, but small groups of anarchists and extreme leftists have been successful at setting up cells that are self-sustaining and therefore very difficult to identify and take action against. They have also learned not to communicate by cell phone, for example. The police believe that the terrorist movement has fragmented into a series of local franchises, which will mean that it will be impossible to identify and arrest a group of leaders and end the threat.

And one element that favors law enforcement is the difficulty in getting illegal weapons and bomb making equipment now as compared to the 1970s when there was a regular flow to groups like the IRA from state sponsors including Libya. Illegal weapons in Europe are now concentrated in the Balkans, which is also a focal point for drug trafficking, but they are difficult to come by except through organized criminal groups, which have little to do with leftists and anarchists. At least not yet. There is concern that radicals and criminals might develop common exploitative interests, as they did in Colombia. If criminal groups and militants combine to benefit from Europe’s economic chaos it would produce a combustible mixture that the police and intelligence services would find extremely difficult to contain.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

about the author

Phil Giraldi is a former CIA Case Officer and Army Intelligence Officer who spent twenty years overseas in Europe and the Middle East working terrorism cases. He holds a BA with honors from the University of Chicago and an MA and PhD in Modern History from the University of London. In addition to TAC, where he has been a contributing editor for nine years, he writes regularly for Antiwar.com. He is currently Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest and resides with his wife of 32 years in Virginia horse country close to his daughters and grandchildren. He has begun talking far too much to his English bulldog Dudley of late, thinks of himself as a gourmet cook, and will not drink Chardonnay under any circumstances. He does not tweet, and avoids all social media.

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