The clock struck 10:25 am on August 2, 1980, when a bomb exploded at Bologna’s Central Train Station. The attack plunged the city, known at the time for its left-wing politics and home to one of the oldest universities on the continent, into chaos. One of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe, the explosion had a devastating effect, killing 85 people and injuring over 200. After years of investigations, trials and false leads, Francesca Mambro and Giuseppe Fioravanti, members of the right-wing terrorist organization Armed Revolutionary Nuclei (NAR), were sentenced to life imprisonment in November 1995. Both, however, have always maintained their innocence.
Many others were also put on trial, some of whom eventually received prison sentences for supporting the terrorists or for obstruction of justice. Among them were Licio Gelli, head of the infamous Propaganda Due lodge, and Pietro Musumeci, an officer in the Italian military secret service.
Not All Terrorists Want to Claim Responsibility for Attacks
Despite these convictions, the Strage di Bologna, or the Bologna massacre, as the attack is now known, continues to be a source of heated debate in Italy, and serious doubts remain as to whether the masterminds behind the attack have really been caught. Every now and then, for example, the Italian judiciary issues new sentences in connection with the attack. Moreover, as recently as January this year, nearly 40 years after the incident, Gilberto Cavalli was found guilty of aiding and abetting Mambro and Fioravanti.
The ongoing sentencing seems to confirm the widespread belief that we still do not know the whole story and that Italy has struggled to come to terms with this horrible act of terrorism. This state of seeming paralysis is symbolized by the fact that the main station’s clock has not been replaced and, as a reminder for future generations, still shows the exact time of the attack.
A New Lead? The Palestinian Theory
Former politicians, judges and magistrates, as well as investigative journalists and academics, have often added to the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the attack. Manifold theories about the true masterminds exist, alternately accusing left-wing terrorists, the Mafia or Gladio of having orchestrated the attack. In 2008, Francesco Cossiga, member of the former Christian Democratic Party (DC) who served as minister of interior between 1976-78 and held the title of prime minister between 1979-80 and president of Italy from 1985 to 1992, cast doubt on the culpability of the neo-fascists.
In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, he argued that the Bologna attack was an act of retaliation by Palestinian terrorists because the government in Rome had violated the so-called Lodo Moro — a decades-old secret agreement between Rome and the Palestinian Liberation Organizations (PLO), in which the Palestinians offered to spare Italy from PLO orchestrated terrorist attacks in return for Rome’s diplomatic support and for allowing the PLO to roam freely in Italy. In July 2016, Rosario Priore, who has investigated right-wing terrorism in Italy for years, propagated Cossiga’s thesis in his book, “I segreti di Bologna: La verità sull’atto terroristico più grave della storia italiana” (“The Secrets of Bologna: The Truth About the Most Serious Attack in Italy’s History”).
According to Priore, everything started in November 1979 when the Carabinieri arrested three left-wing extremists — Daniele Pifano, Giuseppe Nieri and Giorgio Baumgartner — and a Palestinian man, Abu Anzeh Saleh, for arms smuggling. When the Italian government declined to release Saleh, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) under George Habash contacted Libyan leaders Muammar Gaddafi, who in turn asked the Venezuelan militant Ilich Ramirez Sanchez — better known as Carlos the Jackal — to retaliate against the Italians. The German Thomas Kram, a member of Carlos’ group, was duly dispatched to Bologna to carry out the bombing. However, Kram and Carlos denied any involvement, arguing that Kram was under constant surveillance by the Italian police as soon as he entered Italy and therefore could not have carried out the attack undetected.
Nevertheless, the question remains: Were the Palestinians really responsible, in one form or another, for the terrorist attack in Bologna? As time goes by and more and more archives declassify their documents and make them available for researchers, we may be able to get closer to the truth. In the meantime, however, as historians, we can try to sort myth from reality by contextualizing the events and critically examining the arguments presented. This approach reveals that the Palestinian theory is not as cut and dried as Priore and others claim.
We do not currently have any evidence that the PFLP and its main leaders, Habash and Bassam Abu Sharif, or any other Palestinian group actually demanded the release of Saleh. Furthermore, bombings were not typically the first weapon of choice for Palestinian terrorists, who preferred kidnappings and taking hostages at the time. In addition, the Palestinians usually claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks they committed. Even Carlos, who worked for the PFLP until 1975, usually claimed responsibility for his actions.
Moreover, neither the Palestinians nor the Italian government would have gained anything from a stand-off caused by the arrest of one person and the confiscation of weapons. Given the vulnerability of the Italian economy and its dependence on Arab oil, Rome continued to negotiate with rather than confront the PLO. In June 1980, for example, the European Council under Italian leadership issued a statement in favor of the PLO. In addition, in 1980, the various factions within the PLO — including Habash’s PFLP — supported Yasser Arafat’s more cautious and diplomatic approach toward the European countries.
Why would the PFLP, whose leadership had been weakened when Habash suffered a stroke in 1980, go through all this trouble when there was really nothing to gain? Only when Arafat’s leadership role was challenged in 1982 did Palestinian attacks in Europe resume, with the Achille Lauro affair of 1985 serving as a prime example.
Going back to Francesco Cossiga’s testimony, it seems that he used the 2008 interview primarily to present himself in a favorable light for the newspaper’s Israeli readership by rejecting any involvement in the pact between Rome and the PLO. He claimed that the secret service did not tell him any details about the agreement between Rome and the Palestinians, which, considering his positions at the highest level of government, is hardly convincing. In addition, by blaming foreign terrorists for the deadliest attack in Italy’s history, he avoided taking responsibility for neglecting and underestimating homegrown terrorism.
Moreover, we should not forget the tensions between the leadership of what was formerly known as the Christian Democratic Party and the Italian judiciary. Cossiga’s interview shows his distrust toward the judiciary and might have also been an attempt to undermine their authority, by implying that they were unable to find and prosecute the real perpetrators of the attack despite all these years that have passed since.
A Familiar Pattern: Right-Wing Terrorism
Considering these points, it seems unlikely that the Bologna attack was an act of retaliation against Italy orchestrated by the PFLP. The extent of Gaddafi’s involvement might tell a different story, but only further investigation and declassification of documents will clarify that case. As it stands, all the concrete evidence and indications we do have point to Italy’s extreme radical right.
The Bologna attack mirrored how right-wing terrorists have previously operated in Italy, particularly during the strategy of tension period between 1969 and 1974. Though skeptics may claim that the attack was designed to mimic the tactics of the extreme radical right and thus shift blame, it was not just the attack itself — the indiscriminate bombing without anyone claiming responsibility — but also the target that reminded many contemporaries of the chaos right-wing terrorists inflicted on Italy a decade earlier: placing bombs in or close to trains in the summertime, thus causing maximum civilian casualties.
On August 4, 1974, for instance, right-wing terrorists of the group Black Order carried out an attack on the Italicus express, killing 12 people and injuring 48. The Italian singer and songwriter Claudio Lolli commemorated the attack in his famous song “Agosto”— August — which experienced a revival after the Bologna attack.
One important aspect of the strategy of tension, however, was missing in 1980, thus implying that it was not just a copycat attack. In contrast to the early 1970s, the attempts to blame the Italian left for the attack were marginal and had not been picked up by Italy’s major newspapers. It shows that the perpetrators were able to adapt to a new socio-political situation. Blaming the Italian left, which had established itself as an integral part of the Italian political landscape in 1980, for the Bologna attack would have been a lost cause.
That does not mean, however, that the right-wing terrorists did not attempt to influence Italian politics. Bombings, bloodshed and chaos on the streets usually favor conservative groups who claim to be the protectors of law and order. Why right-wing terrorists thought 1980 would be a good year to launch another campaign to push Italy further to the right can only be fully understood when we contextualize Bologna within Italian and European history of the time.
Given the rising tensions between the West and the Eastern Bloc since 1979, anti-communism became a powerful recruitment tool for the radical right in Europe and again offered an opportunity to form alliances with the conservative milieu, including elements of the state secret services. Thus, it comes as no surprise that everywhere in Europe, extreme parts of the radical right started a new campaign of terror to influence the politics of their respective countries and push them further to the right. The campaign started in February 1980 and lasted, with pauses, at least until 1984-85, when the regime in Moscow began to noticeably decline.
France and Spain experienced a series of right-wing attacks, and after Bologna, a bomb exploded at the Oktoberfest in Munich on September 26, 1980, killing 13 people. Given the latter’s proximity to the Bologna attack, rumors quickly circulated that some kind of connection must have existed between the Italian terrorists and the German perpetrator, Gundolf Köhler. In 2014, the German federal prosecutor general decided to reopen the case due to inconsistencies and omissions in the original investigations. Until July 2020, when the case was closed again, over 300,000 pages of evidence were examined and over 1,000 witnesses interviewed. In the end, however, the prosecutor could not find additional co-conspirators or backers as possible evidence was carelessly — some would argue deliberately — destroyed early on.
He did, however, establish that Köhler indeed committed a right-wing terrorist attack to shape West Germany’s politics and was more than just a disgruntled youth. Köhler wanted to influence the political landscape in his country in favor of conservative change — after all, parliamentary elections in West Germany occurred only a couple of days after the bombing, and Franz-Josef Strauß, the candidate of the conservative CDU, was known for his anti-communist stance.
In Italy, the political situation in 1980 was also fluid, even though no general election was on the horizon. Francesco Cossiga formed a fragile coalition government in April 1980 between his Christian Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the Socialist Party under Bettino Craxi. In the regional election in June 1980, the Christian Democrats gained new seats, and right-wing terrorists might have thought that by destabilizing public order this trend could be pushed even further, maybe resulting in an end to the Socialist’s government involvement.
Also, the city of Bologna as a target can be taken as a clear sign that it was the extreme radical-right milieu that sought to benefit from public turmoil: Bologna was a, if not the symbol in Italy for a successful, leftist local government: Since 1970, Renato Zangheri, a member of the communist party, has served as the mayor of the city.
Last but not least, we should also consider the Italian extreme right-wing terrorist scene at the time. Internal rivalry between different factions within a terrorist milieu is often an important factor to explain a process of radicalization. While the strategy of tension of the early 1970s was dominated by a form of reactionary right-wing terrorism, the second half of the decade saw the emergence of a heterogenous right-wing “armed spontaneity” that showed similarities to the American idea of leaderless resistance of the 1970s and 1980s.
During the second half of the 1970s, former heroes of the strategy of tension like Stefano Delle Chiaie were sidelined. When the security apparatus was able to arrest exponents of the armed spontaneity faction, and when the Cold War tensions once again increased, the old guard of Italian right-wing terrorism might have seen an opportunity to regain control over the country’s radical-right extremist milieu.
One last question remains, however: Why do the arrested right-wing terrorists deny all the charges? Should we believe them? Despite the fact that nearly everyone who was accused of having committed the terrorist bombing in Bologna has denied their involvement, the right-wing terrorists have another motif: Spreading terror and fear is a core aspect of every terrorist group. So, when they deny their involvement in the attack, which remained shrouded in mystery for decades, they increase a sense of unease, fear and terror — a feeling that something similar can happen anywhere and at any time because the true puppet masters are still out there, giving even those who have been accused of or arrested for a crime the opportunity to advance the group’s agenda.
On this 40th anniversary of the Bologna attack, the citizens of Bologna will observe a minute of silence as they have done every year since 1980, commemorating the 85 victims whose names are enshrined on a plaque with the title “Victims of Fascist Terrorism.” Like each year before, the anniversary will be accompanied by newspaper articles and commentaries, continuing the controversial debates surrounding the attack. These discussions, however, should not distract from the fact that currently the judicial and the historical evidence point only to one group of perpetrators: right-wing terrorists.
However, as long as theories and rumors circulate and documents remain classified, the victims and their families still await closure. Even if the terrorists might have not succeeded in their ultimate goal, the fear and terror they unleashed on August 2, 1980, still haunts Italy’s public memory — and Bologna’s main station, with its stricken clock — to this day.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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