The Red Brigades was Italy's largest, longest-lasting, and most broadly diffused left-wing terrorist group. At its peak the organization had thousands of active members and supporters, with its strongest presence in the industrial cities of Northern Italy. It sought to overthrow the democratic Italian state and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat. Its primary targets were symbols of capitalism and the Italian state. These included politicians, especially those of the center-right Christian Democratic party, law enforcement, and factories. The organization cast its armed activities as acts of self-defense, undertaken on behalf of workers facing repression from factory bosses and police.
The first pamphlet signed by the Red Brigades – then using the singular "Red Brigade," or "Brigata Rossa" – appeared at a Sit-Siemens plant in Milan in 1970, but the roots of the organization extend back to the late 1960s, as student and worker demonstrations spread throughout Italy and protestors increasingly clashed violently with the police. The fall of 1968, known as the "autunno caldo" or "hot autumn," marked a high point in such violence as well as an organizational turning point as workers began to form collectives as alternatives to existing trade unions. The Red Brigades' founders are believed to have decided to take up arms during a November 28, 1969 meeting of the Metropolitan Political Collective (Collettivo Politico Metropolitano), a coordinating group of leftist student and worker movements, in Chiavari in the province of Genoa.
Some two weeks later, a bomb exploded in Milan's Piazza Fontana, killing 16 and wounding 87. At roughly the same time, two other bombs exploded in Rome, wounding 16. Suspicion for the day's carnage initially fell on the far left, members of which insisted that right-wing groups, likely aided by elements of state intelligence, had planned the attack as a provocation. What later came to be known as the "Piazza Fontana Massacre" was seen on the left as the inauguration of a "strategy of tension" pursued by the right in cooperation with the state.
Members of the Red Brigades attacked property, rather than people, until 1972; arson against factory managers' cars was particularly common, as were raids against the offices of right-wing organizations. Beginning with the 1974 kidnapping of a Genoa magistrate, the Red Brigades expanded their attacks to include politicians and employees of the state. An April 1975 BR document outlining the organization's "Strategic Direction" identified Italy's long-dominant Christian Democratic party "the principal enemy." The number of BR-directed attacks, including kidnappings and shootings, spiked between 1977 and 1979. The organization's best-known attack of the period was the kidnapping and killing of Christian Democratic leader and former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.
The Red Brigades' activities began to decline in 1980. Members began being arrested at higher rates, and those arrested began increasingly to cooperate with authorities, leading to the capture of more members. The group split numerous times over the period.
The Red Brigades ceased to exist as a unified organization around 1981. Its core successor, the Red Brigades Fighting Communist Party (BR-PCC) continued to stage high-profile attacks throughout the decade. The Red Brigades' original leaders, many of them in jail, continued to guide the BR-PCC until formally declaring the armed struggle finished in 1988.
Attacks have been carried out in Italy under the name "Red Brigades" as late as 2002, though the attackers are likely not formally connected to the original organization.
- Antonio Savasta (Unknown to 1982): Savasta was the leader of the Venice branch of the Red Brigades. He was arrested in 1982.
- Margherita Cagol (1970 to 1975): One of the founders of the Red Brigades, Cagol was Curcio's wife. She was killed in a shootout with police in June 1975.
- Mario Moretti (1970 to 1981): Moretti was a founding member of the Red Brigades and confessed to having personally fired the shots that killed Christian Democratic Leader Aldo Moro. He was arrested in 1981 and freed in 1998.
- Renato Curcio (1970 to 1984): Police arrested Curcio, along with co-founder Franceschini, with the help of an informant in September 1974. Curcio remained in prison for about four months until a BR squad directed by his wife and co-founder Margherita Cagol freed him and several others from prison in February 1975. Following his release, Curcio was among the authors of an April 1975 document outlining the BR's "Strategic Direction" and identifying Italy's long-dominant Christian Democratic party "the principal enemy" and "the political and organizational center of reaction and terrorism." Curcio was recaptured in Milan in January 1976. He is believed to have continued to guide the organization from prison.
- Alberto Franceschini (1970 to 1984): Franceschini was arrested along with Curcio in 1974. He is believed to have continued to guide the organization from prison.
Ideology & Goals
- Communist revolutionary
The Red Brigades sought to seize political power in Italy with a strategy combining elements of the Maoist cultural revolution in China and the Leninist Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The "dictatorship of the proletariat" would be achieved in three phases; first, a period of "armed propaganda," followed by an attack on the "heart of the state," followed by a state of "generalized civil war" which would end with the overthrow of the state.
- 1970: 50 (Terrorism and Security : the Italian Experience.)
- 1979: 1,000 "militants" and "some 2,000 external support (Terrorism and Security: The Italian Experience.)
- 1983: 100 "militants" and "200 external supporters." (Terrorism and Security: the Italian Experience.)
The Red Brigades got some revenue from kidnappings for ransom and from theft, which is also how they often acquired weapons. In absorbing smaller militant groups, the Red Brigades also took on their material assets, including those of the Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (GAP), which was financed by millionaire publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli until his death in 1972. The group Soccorso Rosso (Red Aid) provided free legal services to left-wing operatives. By October 31, 1982, Italian police had discovered and dismantled some 200 bases belonging to the BR.
The Red Brigades were influenced in their ideology and methods by leftist and militant movements all over the world. As elements of the Italian left moved toward a strategy of political violence in 1967 and 1968, Uruguay's Tupamaros provided a model of urban guerilla warfare at the same time that Palestinian nationalist terrorism became more prominent in the wake of the Six-Day war of 1967. Philosophically, the BR borrowed from Lenin and Mao.
More formally, members of the Red Brigades had contact with other Western European militant movements extant in the 1970s, especially Germany's Red Army Faction (RAF), whose 1977 kidnapping of business leader Hans Schleyer was the model for the Aldo Moro kidnapping a year later. The BR are also believed to have had some connection with France's Actione Direct (AD) and to have provided training for them.
Former Red Brigades members have told authorities that the BR acquired weapons from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), with Libya acting as intermediary, beginning in 1978 or before. BR founders Renato Curcio and Margherita Cagol visited Cuba. There is disputed evidence that the Red Brigades may have received funding from "Eastern bloc" communist countries including Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. One former brigadier has denied these contacts, saying "The RB was formally prohibited from having contact, making liaison, or receiving assistance from the Eastern Bloc." A training camp outside of Benghazi, Libya is believed to have been used by Italian terrorists. Former members of the Red Brigades have denied press accounts of training abroad, however, saying that the BR instead used abandoned mines in Italy's mountans as training sites.
Italian terrorist organizations of both the left and right were active primarily in the northwest and center of Italy. Left-wing groups concentrated on Milan, Turin, and Rome, whereas the militant right was most active in Milan and Rome. The BR was the only one of these groups with a strong presence in Genoa. The merger with the NAP gave the Red Brigades a foothold in Naples and elsewhere in the more-agrarian south, but the Red Brigades had difficulty sustaining sustaining formal "columns" there, particularly after the NAP dissolved. Though the BR had its strongest presence in the cities listed above, the organization was active in at least 16 of Italy's 20 regions over its lifespan.
Targets & Tactics
The Red Brigades typically targeted factories and the offices of right-wing targets such as political parties or certain trade unions. In its first few years such attacks were only against property and most often took the form of office raids and car arson. Early Red Brigades communiqués describe such attacks as punishments for specific "anti-worker" actions, such as the firing of a coworker: "For every comrade they hit, one of them must pay," or, more generally, "for every eye, two eyes; for every tooth, an entire face." Thus, when in late 1970 "first the bosses, then the unions" of Milan's Pirelli plant fired a 50-year-old mechanic, "one of them, precisely the 'first on the list' (as suggested by many of the factory workers), found his car destroyed."
The Red Brigades' 1971 "self-interview" describes such methods as a form of "armed propaganda," which served both to recruit new members and to demonstrate "the conniving between power groups and/or apparently separate institutions."
The Red Brigades claimed its first attack against an individual on March 3, 1972, with the kidnapping of a Sit-Siemens plant manager. They released him the same day. After 1972, the Red Brigades carried out targeted killings and kidnappings of factory managers, magistrates, and political figures, particularly members of the Christian Democratic party.
The BR was one of few left-wing terrorist groups to engage in kidnappings, and conducted by far the most of any left-wing terrorist group, 18 of 24 attributed to the entire terrorist left. Most of the BR's kidnappings were political, whereas other Italian leftist terrorist groups typically kidnapped to raise funds through ransom.
The BR adopted the practice of mass leg-shootings, also called "kneecapping," in 1980, months after another leftist group, Front Line (PL), originated the tactic.
The Red Brigades did not carry out mass-casualty explosive attacks. There were four such attacks in Italy between 1969 and 1980, all attributed to right-wing terrorists.
The Red Brigades abandoned overt political activity after a wave of arrests in 1972, when members assumed complete clandestinity.
- April 18, 1974: Kidnapping of Genoa Assistant State Attorney Mario Sossi. Sossi was the sixth person, and the first state employee, kidnapped by the Red Brigades. In its claim of responsibility, the BR called the kidnapping an attack "on the heart of the state." The group released him on May 23 in exchange for a court order, later blocked, to release eight BR-affiliated prisoners. ().
- June 17, 1974: Killing of two members of the right-wing party Italian Social Movement (MSI). (2 killed).
- November 16, 1977: Shooting of Carlo Casalegno, deputy editor of La Stampa newspaper, on a street in Turin in broad daylight. Casalegno died of his wounds on November 29. ().
- March 16, 1978: Kidnapping of Aldo Moro, president of the Christian Democratic party and a former prime minister. In the attack, members of the Red Brigades killed five of Moro's bodyguards. On April 15, a BR communique announced that a "People's Tribunal" (Tribunale del Popolo) had tried Moro and had condemned him to death for his role in the "counter-revolutionary function of the [Christian Democrats]." Until May, however, BR communiques offered to exchange Moro for 13 imprisoned BR members, including founders Franceschini and Curcio. The Italian government refused. Italian police found Moro's body in a car on May 9, 1978. ().
- May 20, 1981: The Red Brigades kidnapped a chemical engineer in Mestre. It was the last attack claimed with the name "Red Brigades" as the organization split into factions. (0).
Relationships with Other Groups
The Red Brigades was the largest left-wing terrorist organization in Italy, and most other left-wing Italian terrorist groups had some relationship to it, as rivals or allies, or having split from or been absorbed into it.
The BR's most important ideological rival was Front Line (PL), the second-largest left-wing terrorist group in Italy. Several of the PL's founders were dissident members of the BR who left the group because of its strict hierarchy and the centrality of the armed struggle to its political agenda. The PL viewed the hierarchy as counterproductive, and the armed struggle as merely a tactic in a larger political program. The Red Brigades may have begun to cooperate with the PL in the late 1970s as the smaller organization declined and began calling for a unified proletarian force. The BR's symbol, a five-pointed star, appeared on the PL's claim of responsibility for a 1979 attack on a Turin school.
The BR formed an alliance with Naples-based Armed Proletarian Nuclei (NAP) in 1976. The BR had had difficulty extending its reach into agragrian southern Italy due to its focus on the class struggle in factories, which were concentrated in the industrial north. Most of NAP's leadership was arrested shortly after that, and the BR absorbed the remainder of the group's assets and members.
The BR absorbed several other smaller groups as well, including Partisan Action Groups (GAP), which merged with the Red Brigades in 1970 after itself absorbing the October XXII Circle.
The BR itself began to decline with the arrest of many of its leaders in the early 1980s. The group split; its main successors were the Red Brigades Walter Alasia Column (BR-WA), the Red Brigades Guerrila Party (BR-PG), and the Red Brigades Fighting Communist Party (BR-PCC).
Leftist extraparliamentary organizations represented a recruitment pool, as well as a source of logistical and public relations support, for the BR, especially Workers' Autonomy (Autonomia Operaia, AUTOP) and Workers' Power (Potere Operaiao, POTOP or PO). This latter group formally dissolved in 1973, though prosecutors investigating the case argued that the "dissolution" was a cover for members' deciding to take up arms with the Red Brigades and others.
- ^ Barbato, Tullio. Il Terrorismo In Italia Negli Anni Settanta : Cronaca E Documentazione. Milano: Bibliografica, 1980. p. 52
- ^ Brigaterosse.org. "Breve storia delle Brigate Rosse (1970-1987), Parte III." Last updated March 15, 2007. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from http://www.brigaterosse.org/brigaterosse/storia/storia3.htm.
- ^ Della Porta, Donatella. Il Terrorismo Di Sinistra. Bologna: Il mulino, 1990. p. 92.
- ^ Brigate Rosse, "Prima intervista a se stessi," 1971. Available: http://www.brigaterosse.org/brigaterosse/documenti/archivio/doc0001.htm
- ^ Barbato, Tullio. Il Terrorismo In Italia Negli Anni Settanta : Cronaca E Documentazione. Milano: Bibliografica, 1980.
- ^ http://www.annidipiombo.it/piombo/cronologia
- ^ http://www.annidipiombo.it/piombo/cronologia/1971-potere-operaio
- ^ Sidney Tarrow, "Violence and institutionalization after the Italian protest cycle," in Catanzaro, Raimondo. The Red Brigades and Left-wing Terrorism In Italy. London: Printer Publishers, 1991, pp. 44-45.
- ^ Caselli, Gian Carlo, and Donatella Della Porta. Terrorismi In Italia. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1984. p. 77.
- ^ Brigate Rosse, "Risoluzione della direzione strategica, aprile 1975," April 1975.
- ^ Annidipiombo.it. Cronologia. "1988: la lotta armata contro lo Stato è finita." Available: http://www.annidipiombo.it/piombo/cronologia/1988.
- ^ National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and
Responses to Terrorism (START). (2011). Global Terrorism Database [Data file].
Retrieved from http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd}}