Last February, in the quiet of a secluded northern Italian country house, three Italian far left militants brainstormed, unaware that counter-terrorism officials were listening to their every word. The men were known members of the so-called “New Red Brigades,” discussing new strategies for the group. Alfredo Davanzo, the ideologue of the group who had just returned from France using a forged passport, spoke about the need to overcome the organization’s isolation, caused by its secrecy and the waves of arrests it had suffered (ironically, the three would be arrested the following Monday). The group, said the men, should find new venues for their recruitment efforts and pointed to Italian mosques, described as “propellers of protests and struggles,” as one of the most obvious choices (Corriere della Sera, July 30). The conversation is just another indication of what Italian intelligence officials have warned about for the last few years: some of the most militant segments of the Italian extreme left have displayed an increasing interest in and admiration for radical Islam. What has been only purely moral support up to now could possibly develop into a dangerous cooperation .
The “New Red Brigades”
In assessing the threat, it is necessary to briefly examine the history of the Red Brigades. The group was formed in the early 1970s and bloodied the streets of Italy until the first half of the 1980s. Divided in compartmentalized cells spread throughout the country, the group targeted with assassinations, kidnappings and shootings all those it perceived as “enemies of the proletariat”: politicians, military and law enforcement officials, entrepreneurs and business leaders. By the mid-1980s, the aggressive strategies employed by the Italian government (a clever mix of infiltration, tough judicial repression and deals with former militants) had dealt significant blows to the organization. After the crackdowns that followed the 1981 kidnapping of NATO General James Dozier and the 1988 assassination of Christian Democrat Senator Roberto Ruffilli, the Red Brigades were considered virtually dismantled. Most of its leaders received life or extremely long sentences, while only a few managed to flee Italy and settle in other countries .
By the beginning of the 1990s, however, authorities noticed a small-scale resurgence of left-wing terrorism. A group calling itself the Nuclei Comunisti Combattenti (Fighting Communist Nuclei, NCC) began to claim responsibility for a series of unsophisticated explosive attacks against targets such as the NATO Defense College, a U.S. military base and the Italian Industrial Federation. Although, as investigators would later find out, no members of the old Red Brigades were involved in the NCC, the language used by the latter in their communiqués was eerily similar to that used by the Red Brigades. The NCC operatives admired the Red Brigades and even approached some of its leaders imprisoned in high-security jails, attempting to receive a blessing for their actions.
Years of investigations of the group yielded no results. Most of the NCC members lived normal family lives and held regular jobs, making their detection extremely difficult. Only two of them, Nadia Lioce and Mario Galesi, both second-tier militants in the 1980s, decided to leave their regular lives behind and become what the Red Brigades used to call “complete militants.” In May 1999, the NCC significantly raised the quality of its actions. A commando directed by Galesi and Lioce gunned down Massimo D’Antona, a consultant for the Italian government on labor issues, on his way to work in Rome. The claim of responsibility openly stated that the group aimed to reconstitute the Red Brigades/Fighting Communist Party. Despite intense investigative efforts, Italian authorities were unable to track down the group and in March 2002 Marco Biagi, another high-profile government consultant on labor relations, was shot and killed in Bologna. The militants openly used the Red Brigades’ denomination in their claim of responsibility.
Exactly a year after the Biagi assassination, Lioce and Galesi were stopped for a routine check on a regional train in Tuscany. Afraid they would be recognized, they opened fire, killing a police officer. In the shootout that ensued, Galesi was killed and Lioce arrested. Once in custody, Lioce declared herself a member of the Red Brigades and a “political prisoner,” as members of the organization have traditionally done. However, the focus of the statement she gave to interrogators surprised officials:
“September 11, 2001,” said the 44-year-old militant, “must open the field to the revolutionary vanguards and not only in Italy. The upcoming war against Iraq constitutes an attempt to remove the main obstacle to the hegemony of the Zionist entity, the stronghold of imperialism in the region, disarming and annihilating the Palestinian resistance, which is the reference of all Arab and Islamic masses who have been expropriated and humiliated by imperialism and who constitute the natural ally of the urban proletarian class in European countries” .
With these words, Lioce made it clear that, while they had chosen their targets because of their involvement in domestic issues (and particularly in the modernization of the labor market, something the group considered an act against the proletariat), the “New Red Brigades” members considered global issues equally important.
Views on the Middle Eastern Scenario
Lioce’s statement and Davanzo’s intercepted conversations are symptomatic of the increasing interest of violent Italian leftist groups in international events. A vivid and more detailed example of this trend is provided by the writings of a group of Paris-based Italian militants linked to the “New Red Brigades” in their magazine La Voce (The Voice), which was published between 2000 and 2006.
In keeping with the traditional position of the extreme left on the Arab-Israeli conflict, La Voce describes how the “Palestinian popular masses” of the second intifada are making “the heroism of the Red Army, the fighters of Stalingrad, the participants to the Long March and the Vietnamese re-live” in their effort to dismantle “the racist and theocratic state of the Zionists and the imperialists.” Unsurprisingly, similar views are expressed about U.S. and Italian efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The novelty of La Voce lies in its view of the various factions of the “Palestinian resistance.” Traditionally, the Red Brigades had always politically (and, in some cases, materially) supported Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine due to ideological similarities. In contrast, La Voce breaks from this position and harshly criticizes Fatah as sellouts whose concessions in Oslo have forced the Palestinian people into “a state of semi-slavery.”
Moreover, La Voce openly expresses its support for various Islamist groups, breaking the ideological barrier that separates a Marxist group and a religiously-inspired movement. Displaying a bizarre description of Hamas, La Voce calls it an organization “fighting for a democratic Palestine, free of discriminations based on race, religion or nationality,” ignoring Hamas’ openly declared foremost goal to create a strict Islamic state in Palestine. Further, La Voce describes Hamas and Hezbollah, together with the “Islamic resistance in Afghanistan and Somalia,” as the main exponents of the “democratic and anti-imperialist revolution taking place in Arab and Muslim countries.” The “imperialist bourgeoisie” is threatened by “the positive and progressive role of these organizations, their democratic and anti-imperialist spirit.” Similarly, La Voce states that “Muslim revolutionary priests” are being arrested in Europe on the pretext of the war on terrorism only because the “imperialist bourgeoisie” wants to silence Islam, which is the religion of the new proletariat.
This Marxist-dominated worldview prevents the militants behind La Voce from making a realistic assessment of the nature of organizations such as Hamas or Hezbollah. Yet, the endorsement of these organizations is not absolute, but conditioned on the current status of the communist movement. La Voce states that Islamist groups have managed to “take the lead of the revolution” against imperialism only because of the inability of the communist movement to do so. “The leading role of the reactionary [Islamic] clerics,” writes La Voce, “is an effect of the decay of the communist movement and will disappear when the latter will resurge.” Therefore, the Islamist movement is useful in keeping the pressure on the imperialists while the communist movement is undergoing a phase of weakness, but this reliance will naturally disappear when the latter, natural leader of the global revolution will re-gain its strength and will be able to “lead the next wave of the proletarian revolution.”
After Lioce’s arrest, investigators uncovered the network of the NCC/New Red Brigades between Rome and Tuscany and most of the militants have received lengthy prison terms for the assassinations of D’Antona and Biagi. Waves of arrests have also dismantled Davanzo’s group and netted some of the militants behind La Voce. The violent extreme left in Italy nowadays can count just a handful of full-fledged militants and a few hundred sympathizers, nothing compared to its heydays of the 1970s. Nevertheless, this weak condition is not viewed by Italian intelligence agents with much relief. The fear, confirmed by Davanzo’s wiretapped conversation, is that left wing militants, feeling isolated, will reach out to any radical movement they might perceive as receptive, and all indications point to radical Islamist groups as their first choice. Officials have already monitored limited contacts between left wing militants and Islamists, occurring mostly at the margins of anti-war or anti-Israel initiatives. Particularly interesting are the ties being forged between militants of the two movements in Italian prisons, where there has been increasing cooperation in spreading anti-Western propaganda and protesting anti-terrorism laws. It is not a coincidence that the banner protesting anti-terrorism legislation behind which a hundred of self-proclaimed Red Brigades sympathizers marched last June in Padua was written in Italian and Arabic.
It is extremely difficult to predict how different segments of the Islamist movement will react to this overture and if a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” attitude will overshadow the immense ideological differences between the two movements. Italian authorities, however, are severely worried by the possibility that the links between the two movements—both of which have the motivation and the capability to use violence—could extend beyond statements to more formal cooperation.
1. See, for example, the briefing of the Secret Service Directorate (CESIS) to the Italian government, second semester 2006, available at: https://www.serviziinformazionesicurezza.gov.it/pdcweb.nsf/pagine/relazioni#.
2. For a brief history of the Red Brigades, see Giorgio Galli’s Piombo Rosso, Baldini Castoldi Dalai, 2004.
3. Daniele Biacchesi, Una Stella a Cinque Punte, Baldini Castoldi Dalai, 2007.