How Europe Won The '70s War On Terror

From the Red Brigades to ISIS, Aldo Moro to Charlie Hebdo, lessons learned and unlearned.

01.25.15 11:45 AM ET

ROME — On May 7, 1978, five-time Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro wrote a farewell letter to his wife from the secret cell in a Roman apartment where he was being held by Italy’s notorious Red Brigade terrorists.  "They have told me that they are going to kill me in a little while,” he wrote.  “I kiss you for the last time.”

Two days later Moro’s blood-soaked body was found in a rusted red Renault 4 on Rome’s Via Michelangelo Caeteni, across the street from the American Studies Center on the edge of the city’s Jewish ghetto.  He had been killed with 11 bullets to the chest. 

Aldo Moro’s murder marked a watershed moment in the so-called “Years of Lead,” when radical extremists from both the right and left of the political spectrum routinely engaged in the sort of urban warfare echoed by the terrorism Europeans have experienced in recent months and fear will continue to grow. And while the ideological pretexts that surround the current threat in Europe are vastly different, counter-terrorism experts say there are indeed lessons to heed today. 

Jacco Pekelder, a professor of Political Violence and Terrorism at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, says that Europe needs to remember its past to survive the current threats.  “In the end, Islamists have a different ideology than the left wing terrorists of the 70s had, but in basic human affairs, there are a lot of similar processes going on when you consider group dynamics, social psychology, and the environment in which they operate,” Pekelder told The Daily Beast. “We can try to learn something by stepping back and looking at the situation from a certain distance.”

Pekelder also sees similarities in the way the general public and those in power react.  He says that terrorism—whether kidnapping a prime minister or shooting cartoonists—elicits a gut reaction that destabilizes society, but which some politicians sometimes are tempted to echo and to share.

Pekelder praises British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his reaction to the 7/7 bombings in London.  “I though it was great that, after the London bombings, Prime Minister Blair, in a very short statement explained to the public which trick the terrorists tried to play and called upon the Brits to remember to just go on with their lives,” he says. “These short statements are so important to calm nerves, and to not play into the terrorists hands.  Leaders need to explain to the public what happened and then function as a model for citizens to find a productive reaction, but often you see in politics that it is hard to maintain this kind of reaction. Instead a lot of politicians repeat that they are scared, too, playing into the terrorists’ hands.”

The way that played out in Italy at the height of the Red Brigades’ terrorism could be shameful, as pointed out by the self-described mastermind of the Moro kidnapping, Mario Moretti. He wrote in his prison memoirs that these Brigate Rosse, by far the most powerful terrorist group in Europe during the 1970s and early 1980s, often made things up as they went along, taking the lead from their targets based on their response to the terrorism. 

If Moretti is to be believed, the Red Brigades had hoped not to kill Moro at all, and instead planned to use him as currency to negotiate.  But for reasons he speculates have to do with fear, collusion and complicity by everyone from the Italian government to the CIA, all of whom had their own agendas, nobody wanted to talk to the Brigades about freeing Moro, and nobody even seemed interested in finding him. So, says Moretti, the only response left for the Brigades was to kill him.

“I’m not trying to minimize our responsibility for our political choices, but in that moment I felt infinite compassion for Moro,” , wrote Moretti, who is serving a life sentence.  “Nobody in the world should ever have to feel as alone as he did. Here was a man who knew the most powerful people on earth; the men in the government were his men, the minister of interior his friend, and not a single one of them lifted a finger to help him, or made the slightest move to step forward from the pack.”

Few remember those years of vintage terrorism the way American author Michael Mewshaw does.  He was one of the first American journalists on the scene in Rome when Moro’s body was found.  A few years later, he was living in London during the Hyde Park bombing in 1982, and he was there again in the 1990s when his apartment shook when the IRA blew up a building on the Canary Wharf.  Coincidentally, he was back again in 2005 when the 7/7 bombings killed more than 50 people on the underground.

“One tends to forget how often and how many different groups were waging murderous campaigns,” he told The Daily Beast. “Although I’m certain that no politician or terror expert would agree, I suspect that this kind of chronic low-level terrorism may be a permanent feature of metropolitan life, just as drone strikes and car bombings seem to be chronic aspects of life in the Arab world.”

If experience is a guide, this, too, shall pass, or at least be replaced by some other threat.  “Like 7/7 in London, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and its aftermath provokes wild speculation, cud-chewing punditry and predictions of more and worse to come,” says Mewshaw.  “Right now the great fear is of the Islamic radicals, ISIS, Al Qaeda.  Back in the 70s it was the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction in Germany, the IRA, the Libyans and the Palestinians, all of whom were in contact with one another and offered support, encouragement, training, weapons to one another.”

Pekelder says that one of the most successful tools used to defeat groups like the French Action Directe, the  Red Brigades and Germany’s Red Army Faction, commonly known as Baader-Meinhoff Gang, was the use of incentives to get out of the terrorism business. He points to the pentiti  program in Italy, whereby convicted Mafiosi and terrorists were offered alternatives to the life of crime and given a second chance.  He says it gave them an opportunity to “escape the social control” that so often locks people into cult-like terrorist movements.  He says such programs also undermined what he calls the terrorists’ “first audience,” those people looking for a cause.  “The tone of public debate about terrorists and their grievances changed and that was important,” he says.  “We tried to listen to people who might be susceptible.”

The Red Brigades ultimately were defeated through a concerted program that focused on the “neutralization” of terrorists who were exposed—often by the pentiti—hunted down, jailed or killed.   That, Pekelder says, is not happening yet in the current wave of terrorism. Instead he says the mass sweeps of potential jihadist fighters tend to punish a whole group of people who happen to be the same ethnic race or religion.  Instead, he says, more emphasis has to be placed on understanding how vulnerable people think and operate on the margins of society.

“In 70s it used to be pamphlets, now it is the Internet,” that must be utilized to reach the next so-called homegrown terrorists before they self-ignite.  “This is the battle ground we have to work in, but you have to be completely steadfast in terms of not making the battle about freedom of ideas and freedom of religion.” 

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Pekelder said the key in the 1970s and 80s was differentiating between those who could be rehabilitated and those who could not.  “Some of the real bad guys are lost. We cannot negotiate with them or anything like it,” he says.  “That’s clear.  But you can talk to a lot of young people in schools and universities who are susceptible and who feel discriminated against.”

Rounding up the usual suspects rather than trying to understand who they are can be very counterproductive. “It is a compromise to round them up,” he says.  There’s often a strong element of racial and religious profiling, The danger is that law enforcement will fulfill the terrorists’ prophecies of repression and thus help them recruit new cannon fodder. Whereas if you can win over those people who are leaning toward terrorism, and pull them away from it, as Pekelder puts it, “you win the war.”

Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Muslim who went on to co-found the think tank Quilliam Foundation says that while dissuading potential recruits is noble long-term goal, it won’t necessarily work in the short term.  “The only long term way through this is by 'intercepting the message,' what I call discrediting the message,” he told The Daily Beast.  “In the meanwhile, military and legal means are sometimes necessary stop gaps.  The directness of the message… and the full-on recruitment, should be met with similar direct and full-on online and offline responses. Alas, we are a long way from that yet. Some presidents cannot even name the ideology.”

The other problem Europe faces is convenient selective memory about yesterday’s terrorist threats.  Gianni Cipriani, a counter-terrorism expert and author of the book Limited Sovereignty about Italy’s Years of Lead, says that, indeed, today’s terrorism still uses yesterday’s rules. “What we are facing is not the classic suicide bombing; not the action of so-called lone wolves or the spontaneous expression of a terrorist without a real organization,” he says.  “But we are in the presence of a Red Brigades type terrorist … as it prepares to fight the war in the heart of the West, with clandestine cells that operate in the background.”  And that, he says, is something Europe better remember quickly. 

Mewshaw raises the issue of perspective.  “The question in my mind is whether the extraordinary lengths governments are now going to—intrusive surveillance, overbearing police powers, anti-immigrant movements and rightwing political, even fascist parties—are really justified,” he says.  “ I fully realize that comparisons are odious, but I would be willing to bet that during the same period of time that Paris suffered its recent spasm of violence, there were similar numbers of people killed in what we call random violence in any number of American cities.” (There were 17 people murdered by the terrorists in France this month, there have been 20 criminal murders in Chicago.)

“In the U.S., when a disgruntled employee or disenfranchised minority member or deranged citizen picks up an automatic weapon and guns down dozens, we shrug and call it tragic but say it’s just common criminality,” as Mewshaw puts it.  “In Europe where there are also many disgruntled, disenfranchised, deracinated and deranged people, we call it terrorism and take it much more seriously than other kinds of violence.”

The lessons of focus and perspective are there to be learned from the past, if anyone cares to do so. In the meantime, Europe waits for the next attack.