Formed in 1970, the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades sought to create a revolutionary state through armed struggle and to separate Italy from the Western alliance (NATO). In 1978, the second groups of the BR, headed by Mario Moretti, kidnapped the former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro and murdered him 54 days later. The BR barely survived the end of the Cold War following a split in 1984 and the arrest or flight of the majority of its members. In the 1980s, the group was broken up by Italian investigators, with the aid of several leaders under arrest who assisted the authorities in capturing the other members. A majority of such leaders took advantage of a law that gave credits for renouncing the doctrine (pentito status) and contributing to the capture of members on the loose.
While the Trento group around Curcio had its main roots in the Sociology Department of the Catholic University, the Reggio Emilia group (around Franceschini) included mostly members and former members of the Communist Youth movement (FGCI). In the beginning the Red Brigades were mainly active in Reggio Emilia, and in large factories in Milan, (such as Sit-Siemens, Pirelli and Magneti Marelli) and in Turin (Fiat). Members sabotaged factory equipment and broke into factory offices and trade union headquarters. In 1972, they carried out their first kidnapping: a factory foreman who was held for some time but later released.
During this time the Red Brigades' tactics and agenda split from other extreme left political groups, such as Lotta Continua or Potere Operaio (which were closer to the Autonomist movement). The Red Brigades now became far more violent and organised than their contemporaries and began receiving direct and indirect aid from the Czechoslovakian StB. In June 1974, the Red Brigades made its first lethal attack, against two members of the Italian neo-fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). After this it abandoned its non-clandestine political activities among workers.
Nonetheless, the 1972 Peteano car-bomb attack, killing three policemen, was blamed for a long time on the BR, though it was later found that neo-fascist activist Vincenzo Vinciguerra was the true culprit. After this bombing, Vinciguerra escaped to Franquist Spain where he continued to organize terrorist attacks, in the frame of the strategy of tension.
The Red Brigades then operated some high-profile political kidnappings (e.g., Genoa judge Mario Sossi) as well as kidnapping industrialists (e.g., Vallarino Gancia) in order to obtain ransom money, which was their main source of financing.
According to Franceschini, the death of publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, on March 15th, 1972, who blew himself up accidentally while trying to dynamite electricity power installations near Milan, had left them like "orphans”, and sparked the more violent nature of the BRs' acts after 1972. Curcio and Franceschini were released under the 1987 law on "dissociation". Franceschini also admitted the Red Brigades' involvement in the bombing of the US Embassy in Athens Greece, which Corrado Simioni organized. Simioni also set up a secret group inside the Red Brigades, a sort of "superclan". Franceschini alleged that Simioni was working on behalf of NATO's Operation Gladio in a false flag operation, citing Simioni's insistent proposal to assassinate Junio Valerio Borghese in November 1970 or another unattended request to murder two NATO agents. Mario Moretti then took the head of the BR, and organized Aldo Moro's March 1978 kidnap. Moretti was suspected of being a spy by Franceschini and Curcio.
In 1975, the Italian police discovered the farmhouse where industrialist Vallarino Gancia was kept prisoner by the Brigades (Cascina Spiotta). In the ensuing gunfight, two police officers were killed, as was Mara Cagol, Curcio's wife. That following April, the Red Brigades announced that they had set up a Communist Combatant Party to "guide the working class." Terrorist activities, especially against Carabinieri and magistrates, increased considerably, in order to terrorize juries and cause mistrials in cases against imprisoned leaders of the organization. Also, since arrested members of the Brigades refused to be defended by lawyers, lawyers designated by the Courts to defend them ("difensori d' ufficio") were also targeted and killed.
In 1978, the Second BR, headed by Mario Moretti, kidnapped and murdered Christian Democrat Aldo Moro, who was the key figure in negotiations aimed at extending the Government's parliamentary majority, by attaining a Historic Compromise ("compromesso storico") between the Italian Communist Party and the Democrazia Cristiana. A team of Red Brigades members, using stolen Alitalia plane company uniforms, ambushed Moro, killed five of Moro’s bodyguards and took him captive.
Moro's captivity was used by the Brigades in order to try to obtain some kind of recognition by the Italian Government, as an "insurgency" movement. However, the Government refused to negotiate with Moro's captors, while the various Italian political forces took either a hard line ("linea della fermezza") or a more pragmatic approach ("linea del negoziato"). From his captivity, Moro sent desperate letters to his family, to his political friends, to the Pope, pleading for a negotiated outcome.
After holding Moro for 56 days, the Brigades realized that the Government would not negotiate and, fearful of being discovered, decided to kill their prisoner. They placed him in a car and told him to cover himself with a blanket. Mario Moretti then shot him ten times in the chest. Moro's body was left in the trunk of a car in Via Caetani, a site midway between the Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party headquarters, as a last symbolic challenge to the police, who were keeping the entire nation, and Rome in particular, under strict surveillance. Moretti wrote in Brigate Rosse: una storia italiana that the murder of Moro was the ultimate expression of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary action. Original founder Alberto Franceschini wrote that those imprisoned members did not understand why Moro had been chosen as a target.
Aldo Moro's assassination caused a strong reaction against the Brigades by the Italian law enforcement and security forces. The murder of a popular political figure also drew condemnation from Italian left-wing radicals and even the imprisoned ex-leaders of the Brigades. The Brigades lost much of their (small) social following.
A crucial turning point was also the murder, in 1979, of Guido Rossa, a member of the PCI and a trade union organizer. Rossa had observed the distribution of BR propaganda and had reported those involved to the police; he was shot and killed by the Brigades, but this attack against a popular trade union organizer totally alienated the factory worker base to which the BR propaganda was primarily directed.
Also, Italian police made a large number of arrests in 1980: 12,000 far-left activists were detained while 300 fled to France and 200 to South America; a total of 600 people left Italy. Most leaders arrested (including, e.g., Faranda, Franceschini, Moretti, Morucci) either retracted their doctrine ("dissociati"), or collaborated with investigators in the capture of other BR members ("collaboratori di giustizia"), obtaining important reductions in prison sentences.
The most well-known collaboratore di giustizia was Patrizio Peci, one of the leaders of the Turin "column". In revenge, the Brigades assassinated, in 1981, his brother Roberto. This murder also widely contributed to discredit the movement.
On April 7, 1979, the Marxist philosopher Antonio Negri was arrested along with the other persons associated with the Autonomist movement, including Oreste Scalzone. Padova's Public Prosecutor, Pietro Calogero, accused those involved in the Autonomia movement of being the political wing of the Red Brigades. Negri was charged with a number of offences including leadership of the Red Brigades, masterminding the kidnaping and murder of Aldo Moro and plotting to overthrow the government. At the time, Negri was a political science professor at the University of Padua, visiting lecturer at Paris' École Normale Supérieure. Thus, French philosophers Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze signed in November 1977 L'Appel des intellectuels français contre la répression en Italie (The Call of French Intellectuals Against Repression in Italy) in protest against Negri's imprisonment and Italian anti-terrorism legislation.
A year later, Negri was exonerated from Aldo Moro's kidnapping. No link was ever established between Negri and the Red Brigades and almost all of the charges against him (including 17 murders) were dropped within months of his arrest due to lack of evidence. Negri was however convicted of crimes of association and insurrection against the state (a charge that was later dropped) and, in 1984, sentenced to 30 years in jail. Two years later he was sentenced to an additional four and a half years on the basis that he was morally responsible for acts of violence committed by militants during the 1960s and 1970s largely due to his writing and association with far-left causes- and groups. French philosopher Michel Foucault later commented, "Isn't he in jail simply for being an intellectual?
Aldo Moro's assassination continues to haunt today's Italy, and remains a significant event of the Cold War. In the 1980s-1990s, a Commission headed by senator Giovanni Pellegrino investigated acts of terrorism in Italy during the "years of lead," while various judicial investigations also took place, headed by Guido Salvini and others magistrates.
Most of the BR were dismantled in the 1980s.
After the Abbé Pierre's death in January 2007, Italian magistrate Carlo Mastelloni recalled in the Corriere della Sera that the Abbé Pierre had "spontaneously testified" in the 1980s in support of a group of Italian activists who had fled to Paris and were involved with the Hyperion language school, directed by Vanni Mulinaris. Simone de Beauvoir had also written a letter to Mastelloni, which has been kept in juridical archives. Some of those associated with the Hyperion School (which included Corrado Simioni, Vanni Mulinaris and Duccio Berio ) were accused by the Italian authorities of being the "masterminds" of the BR, although they were all cleared afterwards.
After Vanni Mulinari's travel to Udine and subsequent arrest by the Italian justice, the Abbé Pierre went to talk in 1983 with Italian President Sandro Pertini to plead Mulinari's cause. Mulinari had been imprisoned on a charge of assisting the BR. The Abbé had even observed eight days of a hunger strike from May 26, 1984 to June 3 in the Cathedral of Turin to protest the conditions suffered by "Brigadists" in Italian prisons and the imprisonment without trial of Vanni Mulinari, who was recognized as innocent some time afterwards. Mulinari's treatment was, according to the Abbé, a "violation of human rights". La Repubblica specified that Italian justice has recognized the innocence of all people close to the Hyperion School.
In the mid-eighties, arrests increased in Italy. In February 1986, the Red Brigades-PCC killed the ex-mayor of Florence Lando Conti . In March 1987, Red Brigades-UCC killed General Licio Giorgieri in Rome. On April 16 1988, in Forlì, Red Brigades-PCC killed Italian senator Roberto Ruffilli, an advisor of Italian Prime Minister Ciriaco de Mita. After that, the group activities all but ended after massive arrests of its leadership. The BR dissolved themselves in 1988.
In 1998, Bordeaux's appeal court decided that Sergio Tornaghi could not be extradited to Italy, on the grounds that Italian procedure would not let him be judged again, after a trial during his absence. In 2002, however, Paris extradited Paolo Persichetti, an ex-member of the Red Brigades who was teaching sociology at university, signaling for the first time a departure from the "Mitterrand doctrine". These extraditions in the 2000s overreached the sole case of the BR, with other, leftist activists exiled in France being researched by Italian justice. These have included Antonio Negri's voluntary return to Italy and surrender to the justice, Cesare Battisti, etc.
While leftists had mostly fled to France, many neofascist activists involved in the strategy of tension, such as Vincenzo Vinciguerra or Stefano Delle Chiaie, fled to Spain; Delfo Zorzi, condemned for the Piazza Fontana bombing, was granted asylum and citizenship in Japan, while others fled to Argentina (in particular Augusto Canchi, wanted by Italian justice for his role in the 1980 Bologna massacre).
The issue of a general amnesty in Italy for these crimes is highly controversial and still source of dispute. Most political forces oppose it and, in particular, the associations of victims of terrorism and their family members are adamantly against it.
A new group, with few links, if any, with the ancient BR, appeared in the late 1990s. The Red Brigades-PCC murdered in 1999 Massimo D'Antona, an advisor to the cabinet of Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema. In March 19, 2002, the same gun was used to kill professor Marco Biagi, an economic advisor to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The Red Brigades-PCC again claimed responsibility. On 3 March 2003 two followers, Mario Galesi and Nadia Desdemona Lioce, started a firefight with a police patrol on a train at Castiglion Fiorentino station, near Arezzo. Galesi and Emanuele Petri (one of the policemen) were killed, Lioce was arrested. In October 23 2003, Italian police arrested six members of the Red Brigades in early-dawn raids in Florence, Sardinia, Rome and Pisa in connection with the murder of Massimo D'Antona. On June 1st, 2005, four members of the Red Brigades-PCC were condemned to life-sentence in Bologna for the murder of Marco Biagi: Nadia Desdemona Lioce, Roberto Morandi, Marco Mezzasalma and Diana Blefari Melazi.
Several figures from the 1970s, including philosopher Antonio Negri who was wrongly accused of being the "mastermind" of the BR, have called for a new, honest analysis of the events which happened during the "years of lead" in Italy. Negri voluntarily returned to Italy in 1997, after living 14 years in France, and was imprisoned several times; his objective was to raise awareness on the situation of hundreds of radical left political activists who had been condemned to prison sentences and/or had fled to foreign countries. Negri was freed in the spring of 2003, having served the remainder of his sentence of 17 years.
On the other hand, BR founder Alberto Franceschini declared after his release from an 18-year prison term that "The BR continue to exist because we never proceeded to their funeral," calling for truth from every involved party in order to be able to turn the page.
According to Clarence A. Martin, the BR were credited with 14,000 acts of violence in the first ten years of the group's existence. However, according to statistics by the Ministry of Interior, 67,5% of the violences ("brawls, guerrilla actions, destruction of goods") committed in Italy from 1969 to 1980 are imputable to the far right, 26,5% to the far left, and 5,95% to others. Furthermore, 150 persons were killed in terrorist actions carried out by the far right, and 94 by far left terrorist actions.
According to Ion Pacepa, Red Brigades primary support allegedly came from the Czechoslovak StB and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Soviet and Czechoslovakia small arms and explosives would have came from the Middle East via heroin traffickers along well established smuggling routes. Logistic support and training were allegedly carried out directly by the Czechoslovak StB both in Prague and at remote PLO training camps in North Africa and Syria.
According to the Mitrokhin Archives, the Italian Communist Party lodged several complaints with the Soviet ambassador in Rome regarding Czechoslovak support of the Red Brigades, but the Soviets were either unwilling or unable to stop the StB. This was one of several contributing factors in ending the covert relationship that the Italian Communist Party had with the KGB culminating with a total break in 1979.