Are Old Terror Groups Re-Forming?

The cold-blooded murder of a government official stunned Italy last month. Now observers hope the killing is not the first shot in a revival of terror groups that have lain dormant for years.

Police have suggested a faction of Italy's Red Brigades, who terrorized the country in the 1970s and 1980s, is behind the March 19 killing of Marco Biagi, an official in the labor ministry.

The next day, a bomb near the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, killed nine people, with the country's interior ministry blaming an offshoot of that country's notorious Shining Path terrorists for the attack.

Until this year, the Red Brigades had been held responsible for just one killing in recent years, while the Shining Path, which waged a virtual civil war for control of Peru during the 1980s, was decimated in the early 1990s.

The apparent return of older groups has added to the concerns of government officials still devising new security tactics after the al Qaeda terror organization's Sept. 11 assault on the United States. Why have the Red Brigades and other non-Islamic groups seemingly stepped up their efforts? Have they become emboldened after Sept. 11?

With the threat of terrorism a major security concern for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece — where the November 17 terrorist group, also formed in the 1970s, continues to operate — these are hardly idle questions.

"There's a recent history that can't be ignored," said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after a bomb exploded outside the country's interior ministry in Rome in February. "This is a worrying signal and it would be a mistake to underestimate it."

Resurgence of Anti-Capitalism?

Most terrorism experts, however, feel it is premature to assess whether or not some of these groups are clambering back out of the dustbin of history.

"It's too early to say how widespread the support is, or how it is organized," says Magnus Ranstorp of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

In Italy, Biagi's murder is officially still an open case, and politicians on the left in Italy have been quick to find a political motivation behind the comments of the conservative Berlusconi, who cited left-wing protests and rhetoric as a potential source of terrorism.

Still, some observers feel the enormous social and political uncertainties surrounding contemporary Europe at a time of economic globalization and integration, along with large-scale immigration, might provide the sort of conditions in which reconstituted terror groups could draw new support.

"There's a new marketplace for ideas and recruitment," says Stephen Sloan, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, and co-editor of the Historical Dictionary of Terrorism, noting the "thrust toward violence on the part of various people who oppose globalization."

Indeed, proponents of globalization already appear to be terror targets. Biagi, for instance, had proposed reforms making it easier for companies to fire workers, while Massimo D'Antona, another labor official, was killed in 1999, with the Red Brigades claiming responsibility. And Italian police say they uncovered a plot to kill President Bush during the G-8 economic summit in Genoa last July.

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.

"If you compare it to the height of its activities, it's not the force it used to be," says Jennifer Holmes, Latin America expert at the University of Texas, Dallas. "For a while it looked like they might actually win [control of Peru]. But they don't have the encroachment into Lima they did before."

But the group never completely became extinguished, and has been carrying out dozens of terror acts every year even since Guzman was jailed.

"It was never wiped out," says Holmes. "It's important to remember they never completely went away." And, she adds, a hard-core group of Shining Path members remains committed to its Maoist principles: "They have a lot of ideology left in them."

The March bombing in Lima — the largest attack on an urban target in Peru this year — could herald more trouble to come.

"There are indications that terrorist organizations are continuing to plan actions directed against American citizens and American interests in Peru," warned the U.S. State Department last week.

After Sept. 11, Is a ‘Contagion Effect’ Possible?

Similarly, in Greece, the November 17 terrorist group has never ceased operations since its mid-1970s foundation. And while the United States and Greece have pledged a joint crackdown on the group, the upcoming Olympics could provide November 17 with a chance to conduct new attacks — or bargain with the government in return for the promise of no attacks, as ETA did before the 1992 Barcelona games.

"November 17 is in a unique position of leverage at this time," says Badey. "It may try to push a political agenda in an effort to get some change in policy."

Even if November 17 doesn't attempt any Olympic attacks, others may target the Athens games. And after Sept. 11, Badey says the success of al Qaeda's attacks could conceivably spur other groups into action.

He notes that terror experts have observed a "contagion theory, which says essentially as you watch events on television and in the media, people get affected by these events and motivated — there are people sitting on couches watching on TV thinking, 'We may not want to do that, but [it's] time for us to do something.'"

Holmes, however, disagrees, saying the Shining Path and the ETA, among others, have been continuously active without needing a prod from outside sources: "Historically these groups have had no problem dreaming up things up on their own."

In either case, government officials, law-enforcement agents and anti-terror units in Italy, Peru and elsewhere will be closely watching developments in their own countries — and hoping the social and political turbulence of the moment doesn't seed the growth of newly violent extremists.

"I hope terrorism has been [a non-recurring] disease for Italy," said defense minister Antonio Martino recently. "Once you have had it, you build up antibodies and you are immune to it from them on."