The Red Brigades was a Marxist-Leninist left wing terrorist group active in Italy in the 1970s and early 1980s. Known as ‘Brigate Rosse’ in Italian and sometimes shortened to BR, their main aim was to force Italy to leave the NATO alliance. They are most famous for the kidnap and murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. During their long history of political and at times somewhat random violence they carried out approximately 14,000 acts of violence.
As with many Cold War European terrorist groups they were founded by radical students, in the case of the Red Brigades by Renato Curcio, Alberto Franceschini and Mara Cagol in 1970. In the beginning there were two main groups, that of the Trento Group with strong ties to the sociology Department of a catholic university and the Reggio Emilia group headed by Franceschini which recruited mainly from the Communist youth movement. At first the groups’ areas of operations were around the University and in the industrial factories of Milan, both areas a rich source of recruits. Operations were fairly low level, mainly factory sabotage and burglary but did include a brief kidnapping in 1972. This was about to change when the Red Brigades began to get direct aid for the Soviet block via Czechoslovakia. By 1974 the Red Brigades had committed their first murder and become a totally covert terrorist organisation, although an earlier lethal petrol bombing was mistaken blamed on the Red Brigade.
In September 1974 an Italian secret service agent infiltrated the organisation and his information lead to the arrest of Curcio and Franceschini who were both sentenced to 18 years. Curcio was briefly rescued but soon re captured. Kidnapping now became the organisation’s modus operandi with the taking of several industrialists and politicians, mainly to gain ransom money to fund the organisation. The organisation was supported during its heyday by Soviet small arms and explosives provided by Czechoslovakia often via the PLO and smuggling routes for heroin, as well as training for members in Syrian camps and in Prague. (See state sponsored terrorism). This support lead to friction between the Italian communist party and the KGB who refused to cut off support to the Red Brigades. As the Brigades became more radical and violent they also expanded into other regions of Italy striking against big industry and corporations. In 1975 a police attempt to rescue a hostage lead to a violent gun battle which left two police officers and Mara Cagol dead. This led to a campaign against Police and magistrates especially those who had been involved in the conviction of Red Brigade members.
The most famous crime committed by the Red Brigades was in 1978, when they kidnapped and 56 days later murdered the politician Aldo Moro. The attack was well organised with members using stolen Alitalia plane company uniforms, and carrying out an ambush which left five of Moro’s bodyguards dead and him a prisoner of the Red Brigade. The Brigade wanted a semi official status as ‘insurgents’ but the Government refused to negotiate despite various pleading letters from Moro to his family , friends and even the Pope. The terrorists started to fear discovery and had lost faith with the chance of getting what they wanted so shot Moro more than ten times and as a final insult to the police dumped his body in a car near the Christian Democratic Party headquarters in Rome, despite the city being under tight surveillance. The murder was counter productive, Aldo Moro had been a popular figure to people from both ends of the political spectrum, and the Italian left wing condemned the murder as did some of the imprisoned Brigade leaders. A further blow to the Brigade’s popularity came in 1979 when they shot and killed Guido Rossa, a popular trade Union official who had reported Brigade members for distributing propaganda. This killing lost the organisation much of the support from the factory workers.
On the back of this loss in support the police made large inroads against the organisation arresting thousands of activists and forcing many others to flee to France or South America. Many those captured turned evidence and provided information to help capture other members in order to reduce their own prison sentences. Despite this decline in influence the Red Brigades were far from finished - on December 17th 1981 a small group kidnapped US Army Brigadier General Dozier who was at that time Deputy Chief of Staff for NATO Southern Land forces. 42 days later the General was rescued by Italian Special Forces from the apartment where he was being held. Despite this alarming swansong the organisation was in its death throes and in 1984 it split into two factions and many of its former leaders renounced the idea of armed struggle while the support from the Soviet Block dried up.Isolated killings continued with the murders of the US Sinai Multinational Force commander Leamon Hunt in 1984, the ex-mayor of Florence Lando Conti in February 1986, General Licio Giorgieri in 1987, and Senator Roberto Ruffilli in 1988. Police operations in response led to many arrests and the Red Brigades had virtually ceased to exist as a meaningful entity by the end of 1988. A remnant of the group still exists, possibly a new group with very little connection to the old Red Brigades. It briefly resurfaced in the 1990s and early 2000s murdering several government advisors and some police in gunfights. On October 23rd 2003 police raids in several areas of Italy, including Rome and Sardinia led to the arrest of several members of this group, four of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2005. It is possible other isolated cells remain and the Red Brigades were certainly a long time in dying even after Soviet support was cut off at the end of the Cold War, but any threat they still pose is more one of criminal activity than any meaningful political action.