Political terrorism and the Italian Red Brigades, forty years later


Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

On the 28th of April, French president Emmanuel Macron decided to extradite ten former members of the Italian terrorist group ‘Brigate Rosse’ who have seeked refuge in France for the past forty years. All were condemned to prison in Italy for having committed serious terrorist acts back in the 70’s and 80’s. Nine of them are now detained. The French authorities are still looking for one other terrorist, Maurizio Di Marzio. 

Red Brigades flag

‘Anni di piombo’

During the 70’s and 80’s, the “Years of Lead” (in italian, “anni di piombo”), a far-left armed terrorist organisation, the Red Brigades, also referred to as B.R., fought in Italy through an armed struggle (Jenkins, 2018). The term “Years of Lead” was coined, alluding to the large number of bullets fired. During this period of political and social turmoil, hundreds of people were murdered in bombings, assassinations and street warfare by rival far-right and far-left militant factions. At the time,  the leaders of the Red Brigades were Renato Curcio, Margherita Cagol and Alberto Franceschini. Their aim, inspired by the Latin American Urban Guerrilla movements, was to create a revolutionary state and to get Italy  out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Jenkins, 2018). They orchestrated robbings, bombings, sabotages and murderings against politicians, judges and journalists. A culminating event for the Red Brigades and Italian terrorism was the kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrat, former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro in 1978, which led to declining popular support of the group. It was the first time in Italian history that a leftist terrorist organisation abducted a high level government official (Sundquist, 2010). 

The founder of the Red Brigades was Renato Curcio, who formed a leftist study group at the Sociology University of Trento dedicated to Karl Marx, Mao Zedong and Che Guevarra, in 1967. Two years later, he married Margherita Cagol, who was also a radical. They moved to Milan together and their group started growing, not only students, but  workers also started joining. 

Their first significant acts of violence were against the managers of Pirelli and Siemens in Milan and Fiat in Turin (Sundquist, 2010). In 1974, the group turned to kidnapping and assassinating. Notably, the Red Brigades killed two members of the Italian neo-fascist party, the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), during a raid on the MSI headquarters in Padua. Estimates of the Italian revolutionary left’s active base in the late 1970’s included around 400 to 500 full-time members (Jenkins, 2018). In 1981, the Red Brigades split into two factions. One of the factions was the Communist Combatant Party, led by Barbara Balzerani, and the other one, was the Union of Combatant Communists, led by Giovanni Senzani.  In 1989, several members  were arrested by the police (Sundquist, 2010). According to Eric Dupont Moretti, French justice minister, the Red Brigades killed 362 people and injured 4,490 between 1969 and 1980 (Financial Times, 2021). 

The case of Marina Petrella, who was convicted in 1980 for the murder of Enrico Galvaligi, Italian head of national police and two of his bodyguards, gained importance again in 2007, when she was arrested in France. French authorities initially planned to extradite her, but the following year the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy blocked her transfer on health grounds, causing an uproar in Italy (France 24, 2021). 

The decision to extradite the group of terrorists in 2021 raises numerous questions. Italy had previously sought the extradition of about 200 convicted activists but since the 1980s France was under the “Mitterand doctrine”. He considered that there was not enough evidence to prove that they committed a “blood crime”. The doctrine is based on the idea that the special laws, adopted by the Italian authorities to combat terrorism, went against the French conception of the law (Leclerc and Gonzalez, 2021). Such laws included imprisonments on the basis of suspicion alone, interrogations taking place without the presence of a lawyer, and equality of punishment for individuals belonging to the same group regardless of the nature of the offenses committed individually.

It should be noted that what a president may say during his political mandate is not a source of law. The policy had no legal value. Thus, the decision to adhere to the policy has been strongly criticised in the past (France 24, 2021). 

Although one of the Red Brigades terrorists’ lawyers has defined the extradition an “unspeakable betrayal on France’s part”, this decision has calmed the long-standing tensions between Italy and France (Neuman, 2021). As explained by Macron, “France, also hit by terrorism, understands the need for justice for the victims” (Leclerc and Gonzalez, 2021). 


France 24. (2021) “France detains former members of Red Brigades sought by Italy”. https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20210428-france-detains-7-former-members-of-red-brigades-sought-by-italy

Jenkins, J. P. (2018) “Red Brigades. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Red-Brigades

Leclerc, J., Gonzalez, P. (2021) “Macron lance le marathon judiciaire de l’extradition pour dix brigadistes”, Le Figaro. https://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/brigades-rouges-7-personnes-interpellees-en-france-a-la-demande-de-l-italie-20210428

Mallet, V., Johnson, M. (2021) “France acts to extradite convicted Red Brigades members to Italy”, Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/6b8f2985-213b-4b8e-b187-73cf4425fc00

Neuman (2021) “French police arrest extremist Red Brigades members sought by Italy”. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/28/991544253/french-police-arrest-extremist-red-brigades-members-sought-by-italy

Sundquist, V.H. ( 2010) “Political terrorism; An historical case study of the Italian Red Brigades” Journal of Strategic Security, 3(3), 53-68. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5038/1944-0472.3.3.5 https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=jss

By Camilla

Camilla is a first-year student is Bsc. Social Sciences at University College London. She is passionate about current political issues and writing.

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