Are Old Terror Groups Re-Forming?

Because of its impetus for economic modernization, "the European Union would be the biggest cause" of such a resurgence, agrees Tom Badey, a professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. But he notes that with many Italian terrorists having been jailed in the 1980s, the current violence may be coming from new extremists filling the same role.

"We may not be looking at the same group of people, but it's possible a group of people with similar ideas may be calling themselves the Red Brigades," Badey notes.

After the Cold War, a ‘Dead End’

Even with different operatives at work, a resurgence of frequent terror attacks by leftist extremists would be a dreadful prospect for Europeans who lived through "the leaden days" of the 1970s and 1980s, as they were dubbed after the title of a 1981 German film.

To be sure, some European terror squads of the past decades have been right-wing or featured nationalistic agendas, like the Irish Republican Army or the Basque ETA group in Spain. But many of the most prominent in continental Europe — including the Red Brigades, November 17, France's Action Directe and Germany's Red Army Faction, which was perhaps Europe's best-known terrorist group — generally espoused a left-wing, Marxist, anti-capitalist point of view.

Some groups, especially the Red Army Faction, also traded on communism's anti-fascist past by claiming that society had still not cleansed itself of its fascism.

The havoc they wreaked was enormous. In one gruesome episode, the Red Brigades kidnapped and killed former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978, while the Red Army Faction carried out a long series of killings, kidnappings and even hijackings in the 1970s and 1980s, often targeting bankers, industrialists or government officials involved in the financial system.

There are several reasons why these groups disbanded or were squelched, including anti-terror crackdowns and the failure of some attempted terror actions.

But more than anything else, the end of the Cold War drained ideological and material support away from Europe's violent left-wing underground. The toppling of Eastern Europe's communist regimes made the fight against capitalism seem futile, while the vanished regimes themselves — particularly East Germany — had apparently provided a certain amount of logistical support, training and financial backing to terror groups.

In 1998, the Red Army Faction formally disbanded itself, after years of diminished activity. In a letter announcing the end of their activities, RAF members themselves seemed to acknowledge life in reunified Germany had dulled the group's ideological edge.

"The RAF is now history," said the declaration. "We are stuck in a dead end."

Peru: Shining Path Never Totally Extinguished

That seemed to be the case in Peru as well, where the Shining Path's leader, Abimael Guzman — a mysterious figure for years when the group was flourishing — has languished in jail since his capture in 1992.

A tough anti-terror campaign by then-president Alberto Fujimori helped throttle the group, which may have had 30,000 members at its peak. But property-reform laws that made life easier for rural dwellers undercut some of the Shining Path's traditional provincial support and made the group's Maoist philosophy seem less appealing.

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