Insurrectionary anarchism and social revolutionary terrorism: The historical background

In 1898 European governments were so preoccupied with anarchist assassinations and bombings that an international conference gathered in Rome in order to find means to fight that threat. On the other hand in the 1970s when revolutionary terrorism reached its heyday anarchism seemed a spent force. Lately anarchist terrorism has come back in the form of insurrectionary anarchism in Italy, Greece and Spain. This paper explores the similarities and the differences between late 9th and early 20th centuries.

Nowadays the kind of terrorists we are afraid of are almost exclusively jihadists. Some of the recent attacks in Europe have been perpetrated by young men born and raised in our countries; still, European jihadism is not fundamentally a homegrown problem. It has its roots in the Middle East, even if we have a problem of jihadist radicalization which should be addressed at home.

The topic which we have to discuss today is instead that of the truly homegrown terrorism which has its roots in European history. Is it a threat in our time? It is certainly not a threat of the same order of magnitude as jihadist terrorism but we are all convinced that it is a threat. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

Not long ago we had in some European countries various strands of homegrown terrorism which were really dangerous.

The most lethal of all was the Irish and Basque ethno-nationalist terrorism which for almost half a century caused death and fear and sorrow in the United Kingdom and Spain. The Provisional IRA was responsible for the deaths of 1.823 people up to 2001 and ETA killed 829 people up to 2010.

We should also remember that the worst terrorist massacres of the last decades in Europe were perpetrated by right wing terrorists namely neofascists. The worst of all was the 1980 Bologna railway station bombing in which 85 people lost their lives. Considering the growth of anti-immigrant and xenophobic attitudes in some areas of European society, I am afraid that this is the kind of homegrown radicalism that could be most threatening in the near future. Low intensity terrorism in the form of assaults or arsons against immigrants has been lately common in some countries, especially in Germany. And in Norway there was a mayor massacre in 2011, the Oslo and Utoya Island attacks perpetrated by an islamophobic and anti-leftist lone wolf, in which 77 people were killed, mainly young Norwegian social democrats blamed for their pro immigrants feelings.

And I want to remember the new mayor of Cologne Henriette Reker and express my wishes for her prompt recovery as she was stabbed before the election by a fair right and xenophobic activist that apparently blamed her for having run the refugee services in Cologne for the past five years.

Last but not least there was in Europe a strand of terrorism rooted in socioeconomic tensions and in the longing for a perfectly equalitarian society. This social revolutionary terrorism had its heyday in the seventies and early eighties as an aftermath of the 1968 protest movements. As in the case of neofascist terrorism, Italy was the country most affected by the terrorist campaigns of social revolutionary groups, such as the Red Brigades and other lesser groups. No other country experienced such a mayor threat in those years. Nevertheless the attacks by the Red Army Faction, more commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, had a great impact in Germany, France had Action Directe and Belgium had the Cellules Communistes Combattantes. And the most lethal group beside the Italian Red Brigades was the Spanish GRAPO which killed 85 people up to 2006. Surprisingly this is very little known outside Spain. The Red Brigades killed 84 people up to 2003, a very similar number.

All these red terrorist groups did not have important links between them but had in common their communist ideology, even if mainstream communist parties as those of Italy and Spain were by then staunch supporters of democracy and firmly condemned terrorism. In fact the Red Brigades and the GRAPO could be considered as the reaction of a communist mainly young minority who longed for revolutionary action and felt that mainstream communists had adapted themselves to bourgeois democracy and betrayed the glorious tradition of communist fighters in the Spanish Civil War or the Italian antifascist Resistance.

In any case the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the embrace of market economy by Chinese communists have effectively put an end to the utopian dream of a perfect communist society and it makes very unlikely that any European country should experience again anything similar to the Red Brigades or the GRAPO. Nevertheless occasional attacks by smallish groups or lone wolves inspired by the communist revolutionary tradition cannot be entirely excluded.

Perhaps a more serious threat is the revival of another terrorist strand inspired by a different European social revolutionary movement, namely anarchism. In fact a report of the Italian Ministry of the Interior in 2013 stated that insurrectionary anarchist violence was the most dangerous form of non-jihadist violence in Italy. By then anarchist attacks had been reported also in countries such as Greece, Spain, Chile and others, even far away Indonesia.

Thirty years ago, when domestic terrorists groups of ethno-nationalist, fascist or communist nature were important threats in different European countries while the anarchist movement seemed a spent force everywhere, very few analysts would have predicted that anarchist terrorism would arrive to be considered the main domestic threat in Italy.

On the other hand it would have been of little surprise to the representatives of all the European countries, including diplomats, lawyers and policemen that in 1898 convened in Rome for a conference which would improve the international cooperation against anarchist violence.

The conference had been proposed by the Italian government after the assassination of Austrian empress Elizabeth by an Italian anarchist in Geneva, Switzerland. As it came after the assassinations of a President of the French Republic in 1894 and a Spanish prime minister in 1897, both by Italian anarchists, and after some indiscriminate bombings in Paris and Barcelona, there was a serious concern all around Europe. The word terrorism was not then in use in Western Europe but the popular image of the anarchist as sinister fellos who emerged from the shadows to kill either royals or politicians or anonymous citizens was very similar to the fearful image of terrorists we have today.

Of course not all anarchists have been prone to violence and terrorism. It could be argued that anarchism is one of the most beautiful dreams of humankind, the dream of absolute freedom in a society in which there wouldn’t be any coercion but only the cooperation between individuals that would voluntarily form associations to pursue common ends with others. It was a utopia based in the implausible supposition that in a society in which everyone could do as he pleased, everyone would want to do what he ought to do, as the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta once wrote. If it is assumed that left to themselves people would freely cooperate, the only possible explanation of all social evils such as oppression, inequality and violence was the coercion imposed on individuals by the power of the State, the Church and the bourgeoisie. Therefore if all the political, religious and economic institutions were destroyed, freedom, happiness and mutual cooperation would be the natural result. And so the anarchists don´t have to worry about the design of future institutions, they have only to destroy the present institutions.

In that frame of mind the appeal of violence was strong. If the first task was to destroy the institutions, violence could be easily considered the main way to achieve the perfect society of freedom and equality. Moreover anarchists were impelled to violence by the simple reason that they rejected politics: they boycotted elections at all levels and therefore were never represented in parliaments or town council. Until the beginning of the 20th century, when an important sector of anarchism embraced syndicalism and created strong trade unions with a mass following, especially in Spain, anarchists were restricted to activities of propaganda which usually reached a very limited audience, and to violent actions, which at least gave them notoriety.

That was the origin of what 19th century anarchists called propaganda by the deed, which is probably the first reference to the nowadays commonplace idea that a terrorist act is basically a violent means by which a message reaches an audience either to instill fear or to promote rebellion. The term propaganda by the deed was initially applied to any kind of action which could have a great impact in public opinion, from an armed insurrection, even if failed, to a massive demonstration, but it was especially applied to assassinations or bombings aimed against the State, the Church or the bourgeoisie.

The logic of propaganda by deed was well explained by a French anarchist paper edited in Switzerland (L’Avant-Garde) when commenting two attacks against Kaiser William of Germany in 1878, the first of which failed while the second injured him. Few workers, the paper said, read revolutionary papers or took part in assemblies but if someone shot at an emperor every worker or peasant would ask himself: What do they want, these assassins?

In the late 19th century just as today terrorism was the least demanding strategy: it takes only a person to shoot a gun or throw a bomb. In a very few cases the anarchists tried to mount armed insurrections, the first in 1873 in the Spanish industrial town of Alcoy, and they were affairs of little importance, as they were unable to muster large numbers of fighters. On the other hand they attained notoriety by single attacks in which they used daggers, guns or bombs. It all began in 1878 and 1879 with five attacks, none of them fatal, against the emperor of Germany and the kings of Italy and Spain.

The heyday of anarchist terrorism came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were two main types of attacks: assassinations of members of the royalty and statesmen and indiscriminate attacks with bombs. An assassination was a much simpler undertaking then than today as very important people had much less protection. Between 1894 and 1921 anarchist assassins managed to kill a president of the French Republic, an empress of Austria, a king of Italy ,a president of the United States and no less than three prime ministers of Spain, not to mention various failed attempts, including one against the shah of Persia while he was visiting Paris.

Regarding mayor bombings, we should at least remember the Haymarket bomb, which killed seven policemen in Chicago in 1886; the bombing of a theater in Barcelona, which killed twenty spectators in 1893; the bombing of a religious procession again in Barcelona, which killed twelve people, mostly workers, in 1896; the bombing at a royal wedding in Madrid that killed 25 people in 1906; the Wall Street bombing in New York, which killed thirty people in 1920; and the bombing of a theater in Milan in 1921, with twenty one deaths. Explosives were not as lethal a hundred years ago and the number of deaths may seem small today but they were real carnages by the standards of the day.

Most interesting was the modus operandi of those terrorists as it could be described as a combination of lone wolves and informal networks which provided a fertile breeding ground. It was something similar to the lone wolves attacks inspired by jihadist propaganda of nowadays, such as the recent Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris. I will make this point using two pieces of evidence, one from an American anarchist newspaper and the other from a French police report.

The American newspaper was the Arbeiter-Zeitung of Chicago, written in German as most of the Chicago anarchists were German immigrants. Its editor was unjustly condemned to death for the Haymarket bombing, in which he did not in fact take part. But a year before the bombing this paper had published an article about how to make a “revolutionary action”. It said that the bestr was to act alone or with the least possible number of comrades, as it made easier to avoid detection by the police. Those comrades should not form part of an established group, probably known by the police, and the new group should disband as soon as the action was done. Finally the action should be done in a place where the comrades were not known. In fact the bomber of Haymarket, who was never arrested, could have been a German anarchist from New York. Then which was the role of the permanent groups? The Arbeiter-Zeitung explained that the groups would provide the men of action with shelter, money and a milieu in which to find comrades for the action, and afterwards they would use their deed as propaganda for rebellion.

I suppose we would all agree that it was a very clever advice and it was followed by many anarchist terrorists in different countries. Anarchism has been since the beginning a truly international movement with strong if informal ties across the frontiers. So we could move to Paris, where the police had a very good network of informants between the anarchists. In 1894, after various bombings, a police report explained that even if all the anarchists agreed in the use of violence to foster revolution, the attacks were never committed by established groups. Therefore the police informants who attended their meetings could provide little valuable advice. And it was extremely difficult for the justice to prove that anarchists formed part of a great conspiracy.

Anarchist informal networks had their advantages and they resemble some jihadist networks of nowadays. On the other hand, in the heyday of social revolutionary European terrorism in the 1970’s most terrorists favored hierarchical organizations such as the Red Brigades, the IRA and the ETA. By then anarchism, either peaceful or violent, seemed a spent force.

Then the collapse of communism arrived and the longing for a more libertarian dream came back. Nobody dreams any more of Soviet type socialism. There has been instead a small revival of anarchist thinking. Could there be also a strong revival of anarchist violence? I think it is not at all probable but in a lesser scale some countries, like those old anarchist strongholds of Italy and Spain, have already suffered some anarchist attacks. They were the result of a new brand of anarchism usually labelled as insurrectionary anarchism.

The term insurrectionary anarchism was first used in Italy in the early 1990s. Some of its militants were arrested in 1995 as perpetrators of various terrorist crimes. One of them was Alfredo Bonanno, who was sentenced to six years of prison and is considered the most influential propagandist of insurrectionary anarchism worldwide. He is most well-known for a violent pamphlet he wrote in 1977: Armed joy. In it he criticized both capitalism and the professional revolutionaries and opposed the joy of play, even armed play, to all kind of boring seriousness. According to Bonanno armed struggle must not be professionalized. He rejected the project of an armed party favored by the Red Brigades and other Marxist groups and proposed a free network of affinity groups. These affinity groups had been the main form of anarchist organization in the late 19th century and were just informal gatherings of individuals who felt affinity among themselves. Some of these groups were the breeding ground for terrorist acts.

Insurrectionary anarchism spread very soon to other countries. In 1996 two policewomen were killed during a bank robbery in the Spanish town of Cordoba. The robbers were three Italian and one Argentinian anarchists and after they were sentenced to prison there was an international movement of anarchist solidarity with them. The killer of the policewomen, the Italian Claudio Lavazza, became a sort of hero. In March 2015 he sent an address from a Spanish prison to a meeting to be held in Athens in solidarity with the anarchist prisoners in different counties.

In the late 19th century the comrades fallen in the struggle against State and capital, such as the “martyrs of Chicago”, were a powerful motive in the anarchist propaganda. Nowadays, after the death penalty had been rightly abolished in all our countries, this role is played by the imprisoned comrades. In the years 2002 and 2003 there were bomb attacks against Spanish targets in Italy as a reprisal for the imprisonment of Lavazza and other anarchists in Spain.

The meaning of “armed joy” could be understood in a very sinister way after the kneecapping of an Italian manager of a nuclear company, Roberto Adinolfi, in 2012. The gunman declared in his trial that “In a wonderful morning in May I acted and in the space of a few hours I fully enjoyed my life. For once I left fear and self-justification behind and defied the unknown”. I think that in these words we can grasp something important, the frame of mind of a terrorist which seems to shoot for the joy of it and as a means of probing to himself that he is really a brave man capable of confronting society. For this kind of people the long term objective of total revolution seems to be less important than the action in itself.

The name of the anarchist group that shoot Adinolfi is also interesting. It called itself the Olga Nucleus in reference to Olga Ikonomidou, arrested in 2011 as a member of the anarchist Greek group Conspiracy of Fire Cells,

The Olga Nucleus was one of the groups loosely united in the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI in its Italian acronym) a loose network of small affinity groups. It emerged in 2003 as a federation of four groups that were already responsible of at least 20 attacks, either by explosive devices or letter bombs. From 2003 to 2014 the FAI claimed 50 attacks, again most of them by explosive devices or letter bombs. The kneecapping of Adinolfi in 2012 was the first and only case in which they shoot a person. In total they injured ten people and some of the attacks could have resulted in deaths. It is worth noting that ten of those fifty terrorist incidents were letter bombs sent abroad to targets in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Britain, France and Greece. Two of them were sent to the headquarters of Europol and Eurojust in The Hague.

The FAI has not for the moment killed any person and they have not committed indiscriminate attacks against anonymous individuals. For the moment their violence is more restrained than that of their 19th ancestors or of the red and fascist terrorists of the 1970s.

It seems that individuals and groups can carry out attacks autonomously and then claim them in the name of FAI. As in the late 19th century it is not easy to establish the real structure behind the attacks, but probably we have the same combination of actions carried out autonomously by individuals or small temporary groups and a larger network that give inspiration and support to the actual terrorists.

In common with the late 19th and early 20th century’s anarchists, present day anarcho-insurrectionists are very prone to international cooperation. Around 2010 the FAI promoted an International Revolutionary Front (FRI in its Italian acronym). Its real structure, probably very loose if at all real, is difficult to ascertain, but the the FAI-FRI brand name has been used to claim attacks, mainly sabotage and arson, in Spain, Greece, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Indonesia.

Probably the most dangerous insurrectionary anarchist groups are to be found in Greece. The group Revolutionary Struggle (Epanastatikos Agonas) have been active since 2003 with very serious attacks, mainly bombings and shootings, and even some rocket attacks like the one against the US Embassy in Athens in 2007. The most tragic incidents were the shooting against the police that guarded the ministry of Culture in 2009, in which a young policeman was seriously wounded and a parcel bomb that exploded in the ministry of Public Order killing an aide of the minister in 2010. This attack was not claimed by Revolutionary Struggle, but it is the main suspect. Two month earlier the Greek police had arrested three suspected leaders of the group who were sentenced to long prison terms. Two of them were sentenced in absentia as they had managed to escape, including Nikos Maziotis who was rearrested in 2014 and has become another hero for the more radical anarchists worldwide.

The other main Greek terrorist anarchist group is the Conspiracy of Fire Cells (Synomosia Pyrinon tis Fotias) which has been active since 2008 with many attacks against Greek or foreign targets. They consider themselves nihilist anarchists and their ideology is far away from mainstream anarchism in that they not only hate the oppressors but despise the oppressed in as much as they don’t rebel, an attitude that could be also found in some individualistic anarchists a century ago. They are against civilization, urbanism and science and only the continuous and merciless destruction seems to make life enthralling for them. Even their name Conspiracy of Fire Cells suggests more a gang of arsonists than a group of committed revolutionaries. Some of their members have been arrested but the group is still active.

In 2013 the Conspiracy of Fire Cells launched an international terrorist campaign branded as the Project Phoenix, in solidarity with the gunmen of the FAI-FRI Olga Nucleus who kneecapped the manager Adinolfi. Again the international solidarity with imprisoned anarchists plays a crucial role in the motivation for new terrorist attacks. Project Phoenix has claimed during 2013 and 2014 fourteen attacks, mainly arsons and explosive attacks, in eight countries: Greece, Indonesia, Russia, Chile, Mexico, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Of course is very difficult to ascertain if there is a real structure connecting the separate groups responsible for those attacks or if Project Phoenix is just a brand name that any violent individual or group could freely use.

Finally I will make some reference to insurrectionary anarchist activity in Spain, which began in the 1990’s and has had its main center in Barcelona, a town of a very old anarchist tradition and well connected to the two other Mediterranean countries most affected by this kind of violence namely Italy and Greece. And there has been also a Chilean connection. In 2013 a Mateo Morral Commando, named after an anarchist that in 1906 throw a bomb in Madrid against the king and queen of Spain killing 25 people, placed a bomb in the Madrid cathedral, which did not explode, and another in the Basilica del Pilar at Zaragoza, which did. When the bombers were lately arrested two of them were identified as Chilean anarchists who had been judged but acquitted for other attacks in their home country. Insurrectionary anarchist activity has lately diminished in Spain after 36 suspects have been arrested in 2014.

So we must conclude that anarchist terrorism is not a major threat as it was in 1898 but it forms a small but dangerous international network which in the future could possibly inspire more dangerous attacks than those we have witnessed in the last few years. An nihilist lone wolf could one day be responsible of a massacre comparable to the one a solitary right winger perpetrated in the Norwegian island of Utoya in 2011. It was an entirely unexpected incident but it happened.