The Red Brigades (Italian: Brigate Rosse [briˈɡate ˈrosse], often abbreviated BR) was a left-wing terrorist organization, based in Italy, responsible for numerous violent incidents, including assassinations, kidnapping and robberies during the so-called "Years of Lead".
Formed in 1970, the organization sought to create a "revolutionary" state through armed struggle, and to remove Italy from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Red Brigades attained notoriety in the 1970s and early 1980s with their violent attempts to destabilise Italy by acts of sabotage, bank robberies, kidnappings  and murders.
Models for the Red Brigades included the Latin American urban guerrilla movements. The group was influenced by volumes on the Tupamaros published by Feltrinelli, "a sort of do-it-yourself manual for the early Red Brigades", and the Italian partisan movement of 1943–45, which was interpreted as an example of a youthful minority using violent means for just ends.
The group's most infamous act took place in 1978, when the second groups of the BR, headed by Mario Moretti, kidnapped the former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who was negotiating a compromesso storico, or "historic compromise", with the Communists. The kidnappers killed five members of Moro's police escort, and murdered Moro himself 54 days later.
In the 1980s, the group was broken up by Italian investigators, with the aid of several leaders under arrest who turned pentito and assisted the authorities in capturing the other members.
Brigate RosseParticipant in Years of Lead
Flag of the Brigate Rosse
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The Red Brigades were founded in August 1970 by Renato Curcio and Margherita (Mara) Cagol, who had met as students at the University of Trento and later married, and Alberto Franceschini. Franceschini's grandmother had been a leader of the peasant leagues, his father a worker and anti-fascist who had been deported to Auschwitz.
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 former members of the F G C I (the Communist youth movement) expelled from the parent party for extremist views. 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 for Sit Siemens was held for around 20 minutes whilst pictures were taken of him wearing a placard declaring him to be a fascist. The foreman was then released unharmed.
During this time the Red Brigades' activities were denounced by far left political groups such as Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio (which were closer to the Autonomist movement). Although there has been an attempt to demonstrate a link between the Red Brigades and foreign communist State Security Services, nothing has been proved and such an idea has always been rejected by all the militants that after years of prison decided to speak their truth in books, interviews etc. In June 1974, the Red Brigades took action as two members of the Italian neo-fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), were killed in Padua during a raid on the MSI headquarters.
Most of the Italian left-wing political parties of the time, including the Italian Communist Party (PCI), denied the Red Brigades' involvement in the murder and even the Red Brigades' existence itself. However, according to the BR leaders, the BR received support from a large number of people and this would be the reason for such a long existence of a military structure that counted a few hundred "effective members".
In September 1974, Red Brigades founders Renato Curcio and Alberto Franceschini were arrested by General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The arrest was made possible by "Frate Mitra", alias Silvano Girotto, a former monk who had infiltrated the BR for the Italian security services. Curcio was freed from prison by an armed commando of the Red Brigades, led by his wife Mara Cagol, but was rearrested some time later.
The Red Brigades then operated some high-profile political kidnappings (e.g., Genoa judge Mario Sossi) and kidnapped industrialists (e.g., Vallarino Gancia) in order to obtain ransom money which (together with bank robberies) were their main source of income.
After 1974, the Red Brigades expanded into Rome, Genoa, and Venice, their numbers grew drastically and began to diversify in its criminal ventures. Bank robberies, kidnappings, drugs and arms trafficking were the major crimes. Its 1975 manifesto stated that its goal was a "concentrated strike against the heart of the State, because the state is an imperialist collection of multinational corporations". The "SIM" (Stato Imperialista delle Multinazionali) became a primary target.
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. Amongst jurists, also Professor Fausto Cuocolo was attacked in 1979, during an exam at University of Genoa: it was the first time that BR attacked in a school.
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 between the Italian Communist Party and the Democrazia Cristiana. A team of Red Brigades members, using stolen Alitalia airline company uniforms, ambushed Moro, killed five of Moro's bodyguards and took him captive.
The captors, headed by Moretti, sought the release of certain prisoners in exchange for Moro's safe release. The Government refused to negotiate with the captors, while Italian political forces took either a hard line ("linea della fermezza") or a more pragmatic approach ("linea del negoziato"). From his captivity, Moro sent letters to his family, to his political friends and to the Pope, pleading for a negotiated outcome.
After holding Moro for 54 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 eleven 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 last expression of Marxist–Leninist revolutionary action. Original founder Alberto Franceschini wrote that the 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 other Italian left-wing militant formations and even the imprisoned ex-leaders of the Brigades. The Brigades suffered a loss of support. These events were closely portrayed in the 2003 Italian film by Marco Bellocchio, Good Morning, Night.
A crucial turning point was 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; this attack against a popular trade union organiser proved disastrous, totally alienating the factory worker base to which BR propaganda was primarily directed.
Also, Italian police made a large number of arrests in 1980: 12,000 far-left militants 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 (as dissociati), or collaborated with investigators in the capture of other BR members (as Collaboratori di giustizia), obtaining important reductions in prison sentences.
The best-known collaboratore di giustizia was Patrizio Peci, one of the leaders of the Turin "column". In revenge, the Brigades assassinated his brother Roberto in 1981, significantly damaging the standing of the group and lowering them in the public's eyes to little more than a supposedly radical Cosa Nostra.
On 7 April 1979, the Marxist philosopher Antonio Negri was arrested along with the other persons associated with the Autonomist movement, including Oreste Scalzone. Padua'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 kidnapping 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. Aldo Moro's assassination continues to haunt Italy today, 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 other magistrates.
Most of the BR were dismantled in the 1980s.
On 17 December 1981, four members of the Red Brigades, posing as plumbers, invaded the Verona apartment of US Army Brigadier General James L. Dozier, then NATO Deputy Chief of Staff at Southern European land forces. The men kidnapped General Dozier and left his wife bound and chained in their apartment. He was held for 42 days until 28 January 1982, when an Italian anti-terrorist team rescued him from an apartment in Padua. Dozier was the first American general to be kidnapped by insurgents and the first foreigner kidnapped by the Red Brigades.
The Red Brigades held Brigadier General Dozier for 42 days until January 28, 1982, when a team of NOCS (a special operations unit of the Italian police) successfully carried out his rescue from an apartment in Padua, without firing a shot, capturing the entire terrorist cell. The guard, Ugo Milani , assigned to kill General Dozier in the event of a rescue attempt did not do so, and was overwhelmed by the rescuing force.
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 Mulinari and Duccio Berio) were accused by the Italian authorities of being the "masterminds" of the BR, although they were all cleared afterwards.
After Vanni Mulinaris' 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 Mulinaris' cause. Mulinaris had been imprisoned on a charge of assisting the BR. The Abbé had even observed eight days of a hunger strike from 26 May to 3 June 1984 in the Cathedral of Turin to protest the conditions suffered by "Brigadists" in Italian prisons and the imprisonment without trial of Vanni Mulinaris, 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 1981, the Red Brigades had split into two factions: the majority faction of the Communist Combatant Party (Red Brigades-PCC, led by Barbara Balzerani) and the minority of the Union of Combatant Communists (Red Brigades-UCC, led by Giovanni Senzani).
In 1984, the Red Brigades claimed responsibility for the murder of Leamon Hunt, United States chief of the Sinai Multinational Force and Observer Group. In the same year, Curcio, Moretti, Iannelli and Bertolazzi, rejected the armed struggle as pointless.
In the 1980s, the arrests rate increased in Italy, including that of Senzani in 1982 and of Balzerani in 1985. In February 1986, the Red Brigades-PCC killed the ex-mayor of Florence Lando Conti. In March 1987, Red Brigades-UCC assassinated General Licio Giorgieri in Rome. On 16 April 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 1985 some Italian members living in France returned to Italy. The same year, French president François Mitterrand guaranteed immunity from extradition to BR members living in France who had made a break with their past, were not sentenced for violent crimes and had started a new life. 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, signaling for the first time a departure from the "Mitterrand doctrine". In the 2000s (decade), requests by Italian Justice for extradition from France involved several leftist activists, including Antonio Negri, Cesare Battisti, and others.
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 old BR, appeared in the late 1990s. The Red Brigades-PCC in 1999 murdered Massimo D'Antona, an advisor to the cabinet of Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema. On 19 March 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. On 23 October 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 1 June 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 Melazzi.
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 analysis of the events which happened during the "years of lead" in Italy. 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. According to statistics by the Ministry of Interior, a total of 75 people are thought to have been murdered by the BR. A majority of the murders were politically motivated, though a number of assassinations of random police and carabinieri officers took place, as well as a number of murders occurring during criminal ventures such as bank robberies and kidnappings.
The Red Brigades primary foreign support came from the Czechoslovak StB and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Soviet and Czechoslovak small arms and explosives came from the Middle East via heroin traffickers along well established smuggling routes. Logistic support and training were carried out directly by the Czechoslovak StB both in Prague and at remote PLO training camps in North Africa and Syria.
Aware of the involvement and fearing retaliation due to their own involvement with the KGB, 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.
Italian economist Loretta Napoleoni said in a TED Talk that she spoke to a "part-timer" with the Red Brigades who claimed that he used to sail between Lebanon and Italy during summers, ferrying Soviet weapons for a fee from the PLO to Sardinia where the weapons were distributed to "other organizations in Europe."
In October 2007, a former BR commander was arrested after committing a bank robbery while out-of-prison on good conduct terms. On 1 October 2007, Cristoforo Piancone, who is serving a life sentence for six murders, managed to steal €170,000 from the bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena with an accomplice.