Where are they hiding?

[Some edits and additions in response to Robert’s comments, 26/6 and 27/6]

In 1997 Francesco Cossiga was interviewed for a book called Una sparatoria tranquilla (mentioned back here). Cossiga was one of the leading figures of Italy’s old establishment – a former President of the Republic, a former Minister of the Interior, an unapologetic defender of the covert anti-Communist Gladio network. The interesting thing about this interview was the identity of the interviewer: Francesco Piccioni, a former member of the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades).

The BR were a left-wing ‘armed struggle’ group – one of 40 or 50 groups which flourished in Italy in the 1970s. The BR were the largest and longest-lived of all the groups. Between 1970 and the mid-eighties, over 900 people were arrested and charged with BR membership; more conservative estimates suggest that around 400 people were members of the group at some point, half of them joining in the group’s peak years of 1978 and 1979. The armed struggle ‘scene’ as a whole was much bigger than the BR – groups other than the BR carried out around 3,000 actions in total, as compared with the BR’s total of 500. But the BR were much bigger than any other single group: few of the others lasted as long as five years, or had as many as a hundred members. Discounting a penumbra of sympathisers and supporters, the people directly responsible for the Italian left-wing ‘terrorism’ of the 1970s numbered, in all probability, no more than 2,000. And that was a huge scene by contemporary standards: far beyond anything dreamed of by the RAF in West Germany, the Weather Underground in the USA or our very own Angries.

Bearing in mind the actions carried out by the BR over the years – notably 58 murders, including the ‘execution’ of the kidnapped Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro and the slaughter of his bodyguards – it’s interesting to read what Francesco (Cossiga) said to Francesco (Piccioni).

“The great semantic trick which we all carried out was calling you ‘terrorists’ – I thought about this later – because calling you ‘terrorists’ kept us from realising what you were. I understood this later, because I was trying to understand Moro’s attitude. What led me to think of you, historically and ideologically, as a subversive phenomenon rather than as terrorist, was the interest and curiosity which Moro demonstrated in his letters [from captivity] – a curiosity which he wouldn’t have shown for a gang of people who planted bombs and that was that. And, in fact, you didn’t plant bombs.”
[Piccioni: “Never.”]
“Terrorists plant bombs in cinemas. This was something else. Your operating methods were precisely those of partisan warfare. If I’d said something like this at the time… Who taught you those things?”
[Piccioni: “Books, and a few veterans.”]

Cossiga’s argument suggests that ‘terrorism’ has – or at least can have – a specific meaning. We can start by defining ‘terror’ tactics as the use of personal violence against non-specific targets, with the immediate goal of causing panic and alarm. If one person mounts a ‘terror’ attack, they’re going on a rampage, going berserk or wendigo. If a mob uses terror, it’s a pogrom. If armed forces use terror, it’s either warfare or a war crime, depending on who the targets are. Finally, if an organised group of non-state actors uses terror, it’s terrorism. Whether a group, rather than its individual actions, can be described as ‘terrorist’ depends on how consistently it uses terror. Neo-fascist groups in Italy and Spain can reasonably be described as ‘terrorist’; the record of the IRA, for example, is more mixed.

On the other hand, if an armed struggle group targets buildings rather than people, or if personal violence targets selected individual enemies, linguistic precision alone suggests that something other than ‘terrorism’ is going on. This is where I part company with Robert’s proposed definition of terrorism as “the extension of the rules of battle beyond what is normally thought to be a battlefield … expanding the spaces of violence, so that we are combatants in places we had never thought we would be, something which would obviously be terrifying”. Irregular and guerrilla warfare has precisely these characteristics; indeed, Robert’s formulation recalls the words of Senza Tregua (“No Quarter”), a hagiographic history of an early Partisan group which was very popular in certain circles in the early 1970s:

[these were] groups of patriots who never gave quarter to the enemy: they struck him at all times, in all circumstances, day and night, in the streets of the city and in the heart of his fortresses

But I’d argue that these attacks (unlike the German reprisals which often followed) were too precisely focused to qualify as terror.

Having said all of which, the invocation of ‘terrorism’ is also a value judgment and hence a rhetorical move: ‘guerrillas’ may be people engaged in politics by other means, but ‘terrorists’ are evil people dedicated to causing destruction. An ‘armed struggle’ militant can, in theory, be negotiated with; a ‘terrorist’ must be defeated. Treating the BR as terrorists made it easier for the Italian state to crush them, but – Cossiga suggests – at the cost of failing to understand them. What was obscured by the ‘terrorist’ labelling is suggested by Cossiga’s reference to partisan warfare – a live reference point in Italy in the 1970s, as we have seen. Cossiga’s contrast between the BR and a mere ‘gang of people who planted bombs’ also suggests a question of scale: a nihilist gang of terrorist bombers could not have had the roots the BR drew on, or drawn in so many people, or lasted so long. This isn’t to say that the BR was engaged in Partisan warfare in any real sense – although a large part of the appeal which enabled the group to enlist so many people and survive so long did derive from its orchestration of Partisan themes and memories. But Cossiga, in 1997, was right: the term ‘terrorist’ alone wasn’t adequate. Something was going on there, and he didn’t know what it was.

In the ghastly American Enterprise (via Alex), I’ve just read this:

Contrary to the impression given by most newspaper headlines, the United States has won the day in Iraq. In 2004, our military fought fierce battles in Najaf, Fallujah, and Sadr City. Many thousands of terrorists were killed, with comparatively little collateral damage. As examples of the very hardest sorts of urban combat, these will go down in history as smashing U.S. victories.

Yes, that is what he said:

Many thousands of terrorists were killed

I don’t know what it does to the enemy, but by God the American Enterprise frightens me. My first thought, on reading that passage, was that something had gone very, very wrong for those words to be put together at all: I’m not sure there have ever been “many thousands” of non-state political actors devoted to creating panic through indiscriminate killing. Then I wondered if ‘terrorist’ was becoming a working public synonym for Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer (discussed recently by Slavoj Zizek in the LRB). On this reading the definition of ‘terrorist’ would be functional: the point is not that a ‘terrorist’ is someone who carries out certain acts, but that anyone who is a ‘terrorist’ is excluded from society and can be killed with impunity. But many thousands of them…

Something is going on there, and they don’t know what it is. But they’re prepared to go on killing people until it stops.


  1. Rob Jubb
    Posted 26 June 2005 at 10:59 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m not sure about this: presumably on your account large proportions of the American military in Iraq are terrorists, since by most accounts they use violence fairly indiscriminately, without much thought for precise military goals, so thousands of people could be terrorists. I agree the idea that thousands of terrorists were killed in Fallujah is ridiculous, but for the reason that most of those who might plausibly be described as terrorists had plainly left by the time the Americans attacked, rather than for the reason that there couldn’t be thousands of terrorists in the first place.

  2. Rob Jubb
    Posted 27 June 2005 at 17:19 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m still not quite sure. I can’t see any in principle difference that being the agent of a state creates with regard to terrorist actions: think of a case of clear terrorism – say the IRA pub bombings – and then imagine exactly the same thing done by agents of a state. I think it would still be terrorism. It might be that states are less likely to commit terrorism, simply as a matter of fact, but definitionally, I can see no reason to think that they cannot commit it.

    I also still don’t see why large numbers of people can’t be terrorists. As you mention in the comment to my posted response, a pogrom looks like terrorism, yet that would involve large numbers of people. In fact, I think that the definition you offer – indiscriminate killing, with no aim other than causing panic – is pointing at something like my, slightly wider, definition – the extension of the rules of battle beyond what is normally thought to be a battlefield. Political violence is usually bounded, implicitly at least, by certain normative conventions about who is and who isn’t a combatant, and what looks distinctive to me about terrorism is the expansion of those boundaries: it aims at terror by expanding the spaces of violence, so that we are combatants in places we had never thought we would be, something which would obviously be terrifying. This would certainly draw the boundaries of terrorism much wider than is usual – the BR might well become terrorist under this definition (indeed, anyone who expands the normatively acceptable spaces of armed conflict would count as terrorist here I think) – but I’m not sure how much of a problem that is if – and it’s a big if – the intuition about the ‘core’ cases is correct.

  3. Phil
    Posted 27 June 2005 at 21:42 | Permalink | Reply

    Interesting, but I think your broader definition is too broad, precisely because it tends to lose the distinction between targeted and indiscriminate violence. It does, however, recall an interesting quote, which I’ll add in tonight’s rewrite…

  4. Rob Jubb
    Posted 28 June 2005 at 16:50 | Permalink | Reply

    I can see well why you want to restrict the definition I offer, and I share some of the reservations, but I still find it hard to understand why you restrict the predicate ‘terrorist’ to non-state actors. If the act is in every other way identical, I can’t see how the identity of the actor makes any difference.

    Also, I might offer a further restriction – at the risk of keeping you from further blogging, I suppose: that the expansion of the social space of battle brings social identities which had not been in the social space of battle before in to it. I think that might well remove most of my reservations about my definition, and perhaps most of yours, since it would remove conventional partisans from it, since they generally only target soldiers on duty etc… I do think though, that attacks on soldiers when off duty are terrorist. Anwyay…

  5. Rob Jubb
    Posted 28 June 2005 at 21:32 | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t want you to think I’m harrassing you, but…

    I think what motvates my attempts at definition is the idea that what’s important about terrorism as a predicate is the critique it implies. So, when you’re trying to define it, what you want to do is find out what exactly the critique it implies is. I juat throught you might want to know this.


  6. Phil
    Posted 28 June 2005 at 21:38 | Permalink | Reply

    I still find it hard to understand why you restrict the predicate ‘terrorist’ to non-state actors. If the act is in every other way identical, I can’t see how the identity of the actor makes any difference.

    Is it ‘in every other way identical’, though? Can it be? The direct victims end up just as dead, whether the killer’s an occupying army, a terrorist group, a racist mob or Michael Ryan, but that’s not really an argument for ignoring the differences between the killers: different resources, different tactics, different organisation over space and time… I suppose the limit case would be the neo-fascist Italian groups which actually did have state backing, or a group like the ‘mad killers of Brabant’. Because of the way they operated and the limits to the immediate resources they could draw on, I think it would still make sense to talk about them as terrorists (albeit terrorists with state connections), whereas we’d talk about the SS or the Black and Tans as state actors committing acts of terror.

    I like the ‘expansion of the social space of battle’ argument, but I don’t think it exhausts the distinctions that can (usefully!) be made. You could say that terrorism is to unconventional warfare as unlawful terror tactics are to conventional warfare: terrorism as an unconventional war crime.

  7. roger
    Posted 2 July 2005 at 18:53 | Permalink | Reply

    I think the BR context is important. Most non-Italians think of WWII as something that is over and done with. But in an interesting book, The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones points out how problematic that idea is when applied to Italy, which ended the war with a resistance group, on the one hand, nominally allied with the Allies but in large part communist, fighting against the Fascists, who were, at the end of the war, adopted by the Allies. In the judiciary, for instance, there was hardly any purge of personnel at all. Plus the political establishment reformed into the Christian Democrats was continuous with the fascist political elite. And — on the other side — many of the leftists paramilitaries of the seventies had relatives (fathers, uncles, mothers, aunts) who fought in the resistance. The thinking was: the war is ongoing. Which was the same thought among the fascist paramilitaries. As he points out, one of the latter, Ordine Nuovo, founded in the 1950s, explicitly took its motto from the SS. The latter weren’t marginal groups — they had deep roots in the Italian secret police and army, and they devised a pretty successful strategy of tension to promote their aims — which did involve bombing public places.
    Terrorism, in this context, designates the seriousness of political and military strategy. The more serious, the more terroristic tactics are allowed — if you have a good chance of overturning the government, plant the bombs in the movie theater, and it is armed struggle or liberation or resistance; if you have no realistic chance, it is terrorism.

  8. HappyClam
    Posted 21 July 2005 at 02:39 | Permalink | Reply

    If you were not there, fighting with the coalition in Fallujah, Najaf, or Sadr City, then your opinions about what went on are not particularly meaningful. The fact that you do not believe there are thousands of non-state actors engaging in unconventional combat in Iraq, usually using tactics equated with terrorism, only reflects your lack of firsthand knowledge of the situation.

    I did not participate in those battles either, and I know my opinions about them are pretty flimsy, but I do know that you can’t expect to understand what is happening in Iraq by reading about it in the popular media.

    Also I don’t really care how anyone uses the term terrorist. A terrorist is one who terrorises, period. If you feel terrorised by someone, you can legitimately refer to them as a terrorist. Additional definitions of the term are political and consequently of dialectic significance.

    So you can call the various anti-coalition elements anything you want (the coalition calls them “anti-Iraqi forces”), but the punchline is that they are something very different from the Brigate Rosse of the 1970s, and very different from the IRA – they’re a lot more dangerous and there are a lot more of them.

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