Red Brigades

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Red Brigades

LEADER: Renato Curcio; Giovanni Senzani



The Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse [BR] in Italian) is a Marxist-Leninist group that formed in 1969 from student movements in Italy. The group split into two—the Communist Combatant Party (BR-PCC) and the Union of Combatant Communists (BR-UCC) in 1984.


The Red Brigades (BR) organization was one of Italy's most active extremist groups between the years of 1969 and 1984. Their agenda to destabilize the country and separate Italy from the Western Alliance included robberies, kidnappings, assassinations, and arson.

The founder, Renato Curcio, and his wife, Mara Cagol, launched an organization called the Metropolitan Political Collective (MPC) in September 1969. Their objective was to use the MPC as a means to radicalize workers and students towards Marxist-Leninist ideas. The Red Brigades was immediately created to concentrate on that objective. They announced their intentions for the BR in the MPC's journal, stating that they would use a grassroots revolution to overthrow capitalism.

The presence of the BR was first felt from the many attacks they carried out on the symbols of capitalism. They burned the personal vehicles of company directors and damaged company property. They were known to firebomb warehouses and factories. They abducted business executives and right-wing officials of the trade union, who were later released.

The group was influential. In December 1973, the BR kidnapped the personnel director of the Fiat automobile company. Fiat was forced to reinstate the employment of 600 laid-off workers in order to secure his release.

In April 1974, the BR kidnapped a right-wing judge, Mario Sossi, in Genoa. They held him for thirty-five days, until the government agreed to a prisoner exchange. However, after the release of the judge, the authorities did not follow through with their end of the bargain. A violent revenge was later carried out against the judge responsible for canceling the prisoner exchange.

The Red Brigades first began their deadly campaign in June 1974 while raiding the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement Party headquarters in Padua. The BR murdered two party officials who put up resistance. That same year, the group killed the inspector of Turin's anti-terrorism team.

The summer and autumn of 1974 saw the capture of many of the leaders of the BR, including Curcio. With Curcio in jail, his wife, Mara Cagol, took over leadership of the organization. In February 1975, the BR succeeded in freeing Curcio.

In May 1975, three members of the BR carried out the first of their trademark "kneecappings," by shooting Christian Democrat lawyer Massimo de Cairolis in the leg. Beginning that spring, violent attacks by the BR were commonplace. A month later, in June, Cagol was killed in a gun battle with the elite Italian police, the Carabinieri.

Curcio and several other BR leaders were taken back into police custody in January 1976. While their court cases were getting underway in Turin, members of the Red Brigades continued to carry out murders. They planned to sabotage the trials being held for the BR members.

First, the BR threatened all lawyers working on the proceedings. Then, the BR killed the president of the Lawyers' Association, Fulvio Croce, who selected the public defenders for the Red Brigades on trial. With the murder of two policemen, the trial was halted, due to the inability of the court to keep the right number of judges on the panel. A second trial was begun with 8,000 armed men surrounding the court-house. Several big attacks, including the murder of Turin's marshal of public security, overshadowed the trial.

Attacks against individuals in the media whom the BR claimed were enemies, were carried out in 1977. The Red Brigades capped the knees of three conservative journalists. The BR accused them of spreading lies about the group. They also shot and killed Carlo Casalegno, the vice-director of La Stampa, one of Italy's largest newspapers.

The kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 is considered one of the most notorious actions carried out by the Red Brigade. At the time, Moro was the leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Party and had facilitated a compromise leading to the formation of the first Italian government to be actively supported by the Communist Party. On the morning Moro was to institute this new government, all five of Moro's security forces were killed, and Moro was seized from his car. Then Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti refused to negotiate on Moro's behalf, claiming he would not negotiate with a terrorist organization. Moro's bullet-riddled body was eventually found in an automobile, in the center of Rome.

The authorities stepped up their operations against the Red Brigades in 1978. This caused further escalation in the knee-capping and murders of important Italian figures. The number of violent attacks in Italy reached a record 2,500 in 1979.

In 1981, the government adopted strict measures to try to catch terrorists, as they were labeled. This included automatic life sentences for the murder of a public official and the allowing of interrogation without the presence of a lawyer.

A 1981 decision gave reduced sentences to extremists who cooperated with police. These informants were called "pentiti," and are said to have brought about the final decline of the BR. The chief of the BR in Turin, Patrizio Peci, became the first pentiti.

The biggest break for police came with the capture of Giovanni Senzani, a respected professor of Criminology at the University of Florence. Many informers claimed he was the real leader of the Red Brigades. His arrest came at the same time the Red Brigades had kidnapped decorated Vietnam veteran, James Lee Dozier, who was the deputy chief of staff for logistics and administration at NATO. An informer revealed to police the address where Dozier was being held.



Renato Curcio, born in 1945, first set up a leftist group at the University of Trento in 1967. It was a thinking group devoted to the study of political thinkers Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara. Curcio married Mara Cagol, also a radical. They moved to Milan, where they began to assemble other zealots who would eventually form the base of the Red Brigades. Curcio was put in prison for the second time in 1976. He was freed in 1993.


Giovanni Senzani was considered the main leader of the Red Brigades during the peak of their violent campaign. He was a respected criminology professor at the University of Florence and had also worked at the University of California at Berkeley. For a period, Senzani was also a criminology consultant for the Italian government. After his arrest, many other Red Brigades began turning themselves in and became informers.

Following Dozier's rescue in 1981 and the capture of his kidnappers, many informers began coming forward. This led to even more raids and arrests of BR members. This caused the BR to lose the large following they previously had. However, they continued to murder and maim. By 1982, though, their attacks on politicians, professors, and military advisors became much more sporadic.

As the Red Brigades rapidly declined as a militant force, they began to link up with other European militant groups in promoting the Palestinian cause. In 1984, the BR killed US diplomat Leamon Hunt in Rome, in an attempt to weaken the Camp David Accords.

The Red Brigades continued to murder through the 1980s, but on a much-reduced scale. The final assassination was that of an advisor to the Christian Democrats, in 1988. Trials of Red Brigades members carried over into the 1990s.

There has been evidence that a new Red Brigades has formed. In 2003, nine suspected Red Brigades members were arrested in Rome, following an investigation of the murder of a labor consultant, Marco Biagi. Biagi was reportedly targeted for his help in drafting laws to make it easier to fire workers. The recent Red Brigades claimed responsibility for the Biagi killing and the murder of another labor advisor, which they say they did on behalf of the Combatant Communist Party.

Investigations into the new Red Brigades uncovered guns, 220 pounds of explosives, detonators, fake identity cards, and police uniforms at a house in an eastern suburb of Rome. Of the nine arrested members, many had normal jobs and were considered to be normal law-abiding citizens by their neighbors. The police were given a tip regarding this new wave of Red Brigades following a train shootout with two of the group's members. One of them was killed.


The leaders of the Red Brigades considered themselves promoters of a pure form of Marxist-Leninism. The Bolsheviks, who were led by Lenin and Trotsky and who fought to establish communism in Russia, were one of the role models of the BR.

The BR was part of the Italian revolutionary left that developed at the time when a divide within the left-leaning political parties had formed. Differences came from disagreement between reformist policy designed by the Italian Communist Party (Partito Communista Italiano, PCI) and the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary ideology. It was these differences that shaped party activists, Italian intellect, and eventually the extremists.

At the time, the far left in Italy followed one of two trends. First, there were those Marxist-Leninists who placed emphasis on the doctrine of Lenin, which stated that the organization of political parties was most important. The second approach was called Worker's Autonomy (Autonomia Operaia, AO), which focused on the importance of political organization and awareness of the working class. To the AO mind-set, political awareness was important for reaching the essential stage in the revolutionary process when the party could play an important role.

The BR thought of their organization as being related to the approach of the AO. The BR was not a party, but rather an armed avant-garde group working with the laborers to form a party.

One very important ideological leader for the Italian radical left, accepted by both left-wing student activists and the intellects, was Antonio Negri, a professor at the University of Padua. Negri's books and articles greatly influenced the leaders of BR and other extremist groups. Negri legitimized the use of shooting, arson, and other criminal behavior as tools for breaking down the structure of the capitalist economy. Negri was arrested and put on trial by Italian authorities, but his direct involvement in the criminal activity he legitimized was never proved.

In the first four or five years of its existence, BR focused their activities in Milan and Turin. They concentrated on what was happening in factories, where social disparities and labor disputes were obvious. They first targeted the far right and then began armed assistance for trade unionists.

The second stage of BR activity began to focus more on the state. They began working outside of factories and began to earn national recognition. As security forces were cracking down on the group, they had to focus less on the movement of the masses, and increase their secrecy.

The group published a document describing its immediate strategic goals in 1975. Its stated plan was to weaken the central government of Italy and cause its political disintegration.

In 1977, the BR moved to their most violent period, when their almost daily attacks, or campaigns, took on different themes. The idea being to collapse the system. The BR was acting in the context of a larger movement of political protest—feminist movement, protests against transport price hikes, and others.

The Moro murder trials provided a detailed picture of the Red Brigades' organizational structure. It became clear how the group was managed, how it recruited, and how members were trained. The group had territorial columns, or brigades, based in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Turin, Naples, and other Italian cities. Each of the brigades had an independent chain of command. At the very top of the BR was the Strategic Direction, made up of representatives from each column. Under the Strategic Direction, the second level of leadership, the Executive Committee, implemented the decisions and plans developed by the Strategic Direction. There were different fronts for coordinating the different logistics required for the group's activities.

Within the different columns, there were two types of members. Those called regulars went underground, working only with their particular brigade. Irregulars were those who pursued normal careers but worked secretly for the Red Brigades.

New Red Brigades/Communist Combatant Party (BR/PCC) a.k.a. Brigate Rosse/Partito Comunista Combattente


This Marxist-Leninist group is a successor to the Red Brigades, active in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to ideology, both groups share the same symbol, a five-pointed star inside a circle. The group is opposed to Italy's foreign and labor policies and to NATO.


In 2004, the BR/PCC continued to suffer setbacks, with their leadership in prison and other members under pressure from the Italian Government. The BR/PCC did not claim responsibility for a blast at an employment agency in Milan in late October, although the police suspect remnants of the group are responsible. In 2003, Italian authorities captured at least seven members of the BR/PCC, dealing the terrorist group a severe blow to its operational effectiveness. Some of those arrested are suspects in the assassination in 1999 of Labor Ministry adviser Massimo D'Antona, and authorities are hoping to link them to the assassination in 2002 of Labor Ministry advisor Marco Biagi. The arrests in October came on the heels of a clash in March 2003 involving Italian Railway Police and two BR/PCC members, which resulted in the deaths of one of the operatives and an Italian security officer. The BR/PCC has financed its activities through armed robberies.


Fewer than 20.





Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

BR recruited individuals from radical leftwing factions. The recruits had to complete a rigorous training before becoming full members. Despite the recruits, BR chose to maintain small numbers. They never had more than a few hundred active members at any one time. The thinking behind this approach was to keep the BR's status as an elite revolutionary group, in common with the Bolsheviks.

Being a small organization, the BR relied on sympathizers to give them support when needs came about. Many of these sympathizers were revolutionary groups that had taken hold in schools and factories across Italy. The actual number of these groups is unknown, but it appeared as though there were many throughout Italy. These groups looked to the Red Brigades as role models and for direction.

The Christian Democrats were the ruling political party in Italy during the time of the BR. Members of the party were often the primary target of the Red Brigades. However, in 1979, the BR killed a communist factory worker, Guido Rossa, who had actively supported Christian Democratic policy against the BR. The BR was also critical of the reformist Communist Party. Following Rossa's assassination, there were large protests by factory workers against what were labeled as "terrorist activities." This caused some damage to BR public relations.

The killing of Rossa, controversial among the radical left, began to create internal problems within the BR. Two leaders of BR who had taken part in the Rossa killing resigned. The BR Executive Committee was accused of looking beyond the interests of the working class, and the state of Italy was determined to defeat BR.

The tactical disagreements and personality clashes led to the creation of two additional splinter groups. The three organizations appeared to be in competition to outdo each other, as the number of violent attacks soared. At this same time, the Palestinians and BR began to be in contact. Acting on behalf of the Palestinian causes and the Marxist-Leninist causes, BR was pulled in even more directions. Eventually, with the capture of many members, the Red Brigades declined.


The Red Brigades are known for having one of the most consistent and well thought through ideologies of all extreme European leftist groups during the 1970s and 1980s. They thought of themselves as having a pure Marxist-Leninist approach. However, it is argued that the BR approach of fighting for the social inequities of the working class puts the group, today, in a category of the New Left and neo-Marxism. It has been argued further that the neo-Marxism tendencies, along with many of their activities, classify the group as an anarcho-communist organization.

There are disagreements as to the level at which the BR participated in activities with Palestinian organizations (POs). Much was published stating that POs and BR worked together in a close cooperation in various campaigns. Other evidence indicates that the BR's relationship with Palestine was not highly developed, although BR may have acted independently in the name of some causes of POs. This evidence says BR prisoners may have over-emphasized the relationship between the groups. This was at a time when there was growing fear in Italy of Middle Eastern-based terrorism.


Red Brigades formed.
BR launches its first deadly attack.
BR founder, Renato Curcio, captured by police.
Curcio's wife, Mara Cagol, killed in a gun battle.
Curcio back in jail for a second time after being freed.
BR members sabotage BR criminal trials by killing lawyers and policemen.
BR kidnaps and kills former Prime Minister Aldo Moro.
Informers help police capture Giovanni Senzani and other top Red Brigades leaders.
BR is weakened, killings are fewer and more sporadic.
BR turns their focus to the Palestinian cause.
Last assassination by the original BR.

It is said that the BR influenced politics in Italy, as well as the psyche of the Italian people, in its efforts to turn communist ideology into reality. However, the BR failed to reach this reality because of the resistance of the Italian people to heed the calls for a revolution. The Italian government and security forces were eventually able to defeat one of their greatest challenges and remove the threat of revolution.


During the 1970s and 1980s, the BR was determined to destroy the Italian political scene with kidnappings, killings, and destruction of property. The time period has been labeled the "Years of Lead" for the enormous number of bullets that were used. The Red Brigades claimed to be fighting on behalf of the labor class and hoped to implement a Marxist-Leninist government in Italy.

The group, known as one of the most violent in Western Europe, was brought to a functional halt in 1988. However, after 1988, the group succeeded in assassinating a former Prime Minister, judges, businessmen, and diplomats.

A new Red Brigades group was uncovered in 2003. Its strength is unclear. This group appears to be targeting lesser-known people who shape public policy. This is in contrast to the BR, which specialized in high-profile targets.



Crenshaw, Martha, and John Pimlott (editors). Encyclopedia of World Terrorism, Volume 3. Toronto: Sharpe Reference, 1996.


Stanley, Alessandra. "Rome Journal; Agony Lingers, 20 Years After the Moro Killing." New York Times. May 9, 1998.

Web sites

BBC History, Higher Bitesize Revision. "Why did the Bolsheviks win the Russian Civil War?" 〈〉 (accessed October 20, 2005).

BBC News World Edition. "Italy's History of Terror." 〈〉 (accessed October 20, 2005).

BBC News. "Police Seize 'Red Brigades' Cache.'" 〈〉 (accessed October 20, 2005).

BBC News UK Edition. "Italy's Andreotti Cleared of Murder." 〈〉 (accessed October 20, 2005).

International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. "Red Brigades." 〈〉 (accessed October 20, 2005).

International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. "The Red Brigades: Cooperation with the Palestinian Terrorist Organizations." 〈〉 (accessed October 20, 2005).