Operation Gladio – part 3: false flag terrorism and the stratgy of tension in Italy

This article is part of a series called ‘Operation Gladio, an inquest into the world’s largest terrorist network’, which exposes the role of NATO and Western intelligence agencies in terrorism, assassinations, coup d’états, the international drug trade, psychological warfare and the creation of enemies to legitimise their war on humanity, both at home and abroad. This series documents the emergence and development of Operation Gladio in post-WOII Europe but also uncovers its rebirth and globalisation after the Cold War in which the network aligned itself with Salafi-jihadism – rather than the extreme right – to further NATO’s geopolitical agenda for global hegemony.
You can acces previous parts here:
Part 1: A whirlwind the shadows of Operation Desert Storm
Part 2: Cold War Italy: blueprint for a true shadow government

“You had to attack civilians, the people, women, children, innocent people, unknown people far removed from any political game. The reason was quite simple. They were supposed to force these people, the Italian public, to turn to the state to ask for greater security. This is the political logic that lies behind all the massacres and the bombings which remain unpunished, because the state cannot convict itself or declare itself responsible for what happened.”[1]

Vincenzo Vinciguerra, convicted Italian right-wing terrorist
In the previous part of this series I demonstrated how the Propaganda Due (P2) masonic lodge, the CIA and NATO’s Gladio clandestine army constituted an invisible government that held the Italian state in the pro-Atlantic camp in the course of the Cold War. We saw how the immense power of this secret political structure manifested itself in a successful covert war against the Communist Party (PCI) and to a lesser extent its socialist allies of the PSI; in a coup strategy to maintain the right wing of the Christian Democratic Party (DCI) in power; and, eventually, in the abduction and assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Especially during the Years of Lead between the late 1960s to early 1980s, at the height of the Italian deep state’s power, Italy also occurred in a state of tension in which extremists from both the left and right of the political spectrum ostensibly tried to destabilise the Italian state. Many left-wing militants were convicted for assassinations, kidnappings, robberies and arson attacks carried out in the framework of their armed struggle against capitalism, but terrorists of the right, who in contrast orchestrated bombings that were directly aimed at targeting the public and killed over a hundred civilians in total, often escaped justice. Not only did the authorities usually know the perpetrators and covered up their crimes, however, they often blamed and arrested communists and anarchists for the atrocities.
As we saw in part 1, judge Felice Casson bumped into a top-secret document from the Italian military secret service SIFAR in the summer of 1990 which snowballed into the exposure of Operation Gladio throughout Europe. That document, called The special forces of SIFAR and Operation Gladio dated 1 June 1959, confirmed the dual function of NATO’s secret army. It detailed Gladio’s apparent role as a stay-behind resistance movement in the case of a “military invasion,” but bluntly admitted that it was to be employed against “domestic upheaval” as well.[2] As will become clear in this article, the terrorist attacks that shook Italy during the Cold War were not, as they may appear at face value, meant to destabilise the Italian state. Rather, they were part of what Italian prosecutors and analysts have called a “strategy of tension” that was to install fear in the population – fear that could be exploited to consolidate and strengthen the grip of the pro-NATO status quo government and marginalise the popular left.
The coup strategy and false flag terrorism
In the parliamentary elections of April 1963, the combined votes of the socialists and communists together defeated the ruling DCI despite the vicious covert war against the PCI since the end of the Second World War. The logical democratic outcome was Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s conciliatory policy towards the left. Although he only gave cabinet posts to socialists even though the communists of the PCI nearly doubled the PSI’s vote, this was considered a nightmare by the CIA and NATO as it threatened the status quo. The four coup d’état plots directed by Italy’s invisible government that followed in the subsequent ten years must therefore be seen as trying to abolish, or at least limit to the extent possible, democratic rule, because this was seen as the only way to keep Italy safely in the Western orbit. As the Italian population would of course not just accept the installation of a dictatorship such as existed in other South European countries, false flag terrorism was employed in a dialectical manner to pave the way for an authoritarian shift or coup d’état. Indeed, most bombings associated with the strategy of tension occurred in this period. Systematically, elements of the state apparatus covered up the tracks of the right-wing terrorists with whom they were in cahoots and instead blamed leftist and anarchist militants.
The idea of using false flag terrorism to circumvent the left’s popularity itself originated in the CIA. Citing fears over Moro’s new policy following the elections of 1963, CIA chief of station in Rome William Harvey urged Gladio director Colonel Renzo Rocca to use his “action squads” to “carry out bombings against Christian Democratic Party [DCI] offices and certain newspapers in the north,” which would then be falsely “attributed to the left.” Luckily, however, these plans did not materialise.[3] Instead, Rocca, Harvey and Carabinieri chief General Giovanni de Lorenzo began planning the Piano Solo coup, in which de Lorenzo and his Carabinieri troops entered Rome and pressured Moro into replacing the most disturbing socialist ministers with more moderate politicians of the left. For their part, neo-fascist ideologues first oppered the idea in 1969 by an anonymous document entitle “Our political action” that was sent from Italy to Aginter Press, a Lisbon-based pseudo press agency that was actually NATO’s Gladio arm in Portugal funded by the CIA.[4] The document bluntly stated that, in order “to make us appear as the only ones capable of providing a social, political and economic solution suited to the needs of the moment,” people of fascist conviction should engage in “the destruction of the structures of the state which should appear to be the action of the communists and the pro-Chinese.”[5] “The destruction of the state,” the Aginter Press document reiterated, “must be carried out as much as possible under the cover of ‘communist activities’.”[6]
This strategy materialised in the spring and summer of that same year, when a series of mostly low-potential bombs exploded across Italy, injuring several people. Other bombs failed to detonate and were discovered. These actions, which preceded the December 1970 Borghese coup, culminated in a highly-coordinated terrorist operation in the afternoon of 12 December 1969, when an explosion at the headquarters of the National Agrarian Bank on the Piazza Fonatana in Milan killed 17 people and injured 88, while three bombs in Rome wounded 13. Immediately, two known anarchists, Pietro Valpreda and Giuseppe Pinelli, were arrested by the authorities. Pinelli died in the evening of his arrest by falling out of the fourth-floor window of the police station where he was being interrogated. His death was first ruled a suicide; then, after an investigation that acquitted the police officers present, an Italian court maintained that Pinelli’s fall had been caused by fainting and losing balance. Valpreda, on the other hand, was kept in jail for several years, until he was cleared of all charges in 1987 for lack of evidence.
The 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing
Foreknowledge and cover-up was alleged by a 300-page parliamentary report from 2000 commissioned by eight Italian senators, most of whom belonged to the Democratic Left Party (PDS) which had replaced the PCI after the fall of the Soviet Union. It claimed that the cover-up came mainly from the interior ministry and specifically from an internal intelligence bureau called UAR that was headed by Federico Umberto D’Amato, who was a wartime OSS agent collaborating with James Jesus Angleton, worked for NATO and as a member of P2 had numerous encounters with Licio Gelli.[7] According to the report, American intelligence agents were informed in advance of the Piazza Fontana bombing but did nothing to alert their allies to prevent the attacks from taking place.[8] However disturbing these accusations, they are backed up by Paulo Taviani, who as defence minister had overseen Gladio’s creation and who served as interior minister both before and after the Piazza Fontana bombing. Taviani testified in the 1990s that Italy’s military intelligence service SID was on the verge of sending a senior officer from Rome to Milan to head off the bombing but eventually did not do so. Thereafter, the SID instead sent a different officer from Padua who went on to support the false hypothesis that left-wing anarchists were the perpetrators. Finally, Taviani also confirmed his belief that CIA agents were among those that “supplied the materials” and “muddied the waters of the investigation” in an August 2000 interview.[9] A year later, General Gianadelio Maletti, the commander of the counter-intelligence section of the SID from 1971 to 1975, testified during a Piazza Fontana trial that the explosives may have been obtained with the help of the US intelligence community. The reason, according to the senior Italian intelligence figure, was that “the CIA, following its directives of its government, wanted to create an Italian nationalism capable of halting what it saw as a slide to the left, and, for this purpose, it may have made use of right-wing terrorism.” He finished off by saying that “I believe this is what happened in other countries as well.”[10]
Two years after the bombings, two of the actual perpetrators were finally arrested in connection to a total of 22 failed and succeeded bombings in 1969, including the coordinated attack of 12 December. They were Franco Freda and Giovanni Ventura, both members of the extreme-right Ordine Nuovo organisation.[11] When Milanese prosecutors were close to discovering a more sinister network involving state elements, however, the investigation was moved to the southern Italian city of Catanzaro, where both Freda and Ventura were acquitted. Yet, an investigation by prosecutor Guido Salvini in Milan started in the 1990s identified Freda and Ventura as the culprits who made and planted the bomb of the Piazza Fontana massacre, but they cannot be tried as they have already been acquitted once for the crime. Salvini also discovered involvement of both foreign and domestic intelligence agencies, thanks to the coming forward of Carlo Digilio, who claimed to have worked for the Italian secret services, the CIA and NATO as an expert for explosives. According to Digilio’s testimony, he and Ordine Nuovo member Carlo Maria Maggi helped the CIA and NATO to link up with Italian right-wing terrorists who committed, among other smaller terrorist attacks, the Piazza Fontana bombing without themselves being aware of their role as patsies.[12] Freda, a declared admirer of Hitler who published Mein Kampf in Italian, seemed in retrospect to understand his role in the greater power play to some extent. “I accept that I have been a puppet in the hands of ideas,” he told documentary makers of the BBC, but he maintained that “I have voluntarily fought my own war.”[13]
In May 1973, in anticipation of the “Rosa Dei Venti” coup attempt later that year, Gianfranco Bertoli threw a hand grenade against a crowd coming out of the Police Central Office in Milan in an attempt to kill Prime Minister Mariano Rumor. Although Rumor was not even injured, four people died and 52 were wounded. Bertoli declared himself to be an anarchist, and his crime was indeed in line with the left-wing and anarchist militants’ pattern of targeting the heart of the political system. Italian judges eventually found out, however, that Bertoli was really a man of right-wing sympathies and a long-standing informant of the military secret service SID, where he was codenamed “Negro.”[14]
A year before, a similar attack aimed at the state apparatus took place, which, again, was covered up by that same state apparatus. An anonymous call on the last day of May 1972 had lured the Carabinieri paramilitary police force to an abandoned Fiat 500 in a forest near the village of Peteano. Upon opening the hood of the car, a bomb exploded, killing three Carabinieri and gravely wounding another. The belief that the Red Brigades were behind the attack was upheld until 1984, when judge Felice Casson reopened the dormant case and discovered a concerted effort to falsely implicate leftist terrorists. It turned out that Marco Morin, a member of Ordine Nuovo and explosives expert for the Italian police, had provided fake expertise claiming that the explosive used was traditionally the one employed by the Red Brigades. In fact, the actual explosive used was C4, which was used by NATO and was stored in Gladio arms caches. Casson’s investigation led to the conviction of Vincenzo Vinciguerra, likewise a member of Ordine Nuovo as well as a similar extreme-right organisation called Avanguardia Nazionale. Vincinguerra confessed to the crime and claimed that he had been protected by the state and security apparatus, and that it was therefore relatively easy for him to escape and get away with the crime.[15] This prompted Casson to look deeper into the strategy of tension, which, as we saw, eventually escalated into the exposure of Operation Gladio.
Allowing further terror
1974 was the year in which the strategy of tension, at least ostensibly, mutated into a more brazen open assault by right-wing terrorist groups on the state, the latter which finally started to take small steps towards countering extremism of the right. Interior Minister Paulo Taviani had already outlawed Ordine Nuovo in 1973, and Defence Minister Giulio Andreotti replaced a dozen military officers in July 1974 upon discovery of the “White Coup.” Although some sections of the strategy of tension still believed in the feasibility of a declaration of emergency to pave the way for the installation of a more authoritarian government, the coup strategy seemed to be aborted by the puppetmasters. Most terror attacks were not blamed on the left anymore, but they were still allowed to go through and covered up.
This became painfully clear in May 1974 when a bomb exploded on the Piazza della Loggia square in Brescia amidst an anti-fascist protest. The explosion wounded 102 people, and a further eight demonstrators lost their lives. The terrorist attack was claimed by the newly created Ordine Nero, in many ways a carbon copy of Ordine Nuovo, which alongside other extreme-right groups had announced a “war on the state” a few weeks earlier. According to the leftist PDS parliamentary report, American intelligence agents had foreknowledge of the attack but did nothing to stop it just like was the case with the Piazza Fontana bombing.[16] Furthermore, as we saw, the testimony of CIA agent Carlo Digilio led judge Guido Salvini to conclude that Digilio and Carlo Maria Maggi, both members of the now outlawed Ordine Nuovo, helped the CIA and NATO in supplying right-wing terrorists with explosives without the latter’s knowledge. Additionally, Digilio testified to his involvement in the Brescia bombing, having been present at a meeting where “another large bomb attack” was planned a few days prior to the bombing and having checked the operationality of the bomb.[17] Decades of trials and acquittals later, Maggi and another Ordine Nuovo member were finally issued a life sentence in 2015.
Click to view slideshow.
In the early hours of 4 August 1974, right-wing terrorists exploded another bomb, this time on the Italicus train travelling from Rome to Munich. The planted device detonated while approaching the end of a long tunnel under the Apennines. It killed 12 people and wounded 48 but could have left even more casualties if the train had not reached the end of the tunnel under its own momentum. Again, the terrorist attack was claimed by Ordine Nero. Again, specific information about the coming attack was leaked to elements of the state apparatus – including the Carabinieri and Emilio Santillo, the head of the newly-created anti-terrorism police unit IGAT – who apparently did nothing to prevent the atrocity. And again, justice did not seem to catch up with the culprits. Even though both an Italian court and a parliamentary investigation traced the Italicus bombing back to a neo-fascist cell in Tuscany, the first trial of three detained neo-fascists ended with their acquittal. The appeal court then overturned the acquittal and sentenced them to life in prison, but the appeal sentence in its turn was invalidated by the Supreme Court of Cassation after which the defendants definitely walked free in 1992.[18] According to the parliamentary commission investigation P2, the masonic lodge had provided “the essential economic, organisational and moral background” to the bombing.[19]
By the end of the 1970s, the historical leaders of Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale had either been arrested or had escaped abroad. Paola Signorelli, described by witnesses as close to P2 chief Licio Gelli, stepped in as the new chief neo-fascist ideologue. Meanwhile, extremist militants of the right regrouped and reorganised themselves into a new militant organisation called Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR). Two Italian prosecutors investigating this reorganisation, Vittorio Occorsio and Mario Amato, ended up being killed, the former by a member or Avanguardia Nazionale in 1976 and the latter by two NAR members in June 1980 after Amato had reported a breakthrough in his investigation to his superior, the head prosecutor of the Rome judiciary Giovanni de Matteo, who later turned out to be a member of Gelli’s P2.[20] Amato’s death was but one murder among the dozens of assassinations orchestrated by the NAR in its short existence between 1977 and 1981.
Moreover, the Cold War’s deadliest terrestrial terrorist attack in Western Europe is accredited to the NAR as well. On the first Saturday of August 1980, 85 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when an unattended suitcase detonated inside the crowded waiting room of the Bologna train station, where many Italians were getting ready to depart on holiday. A long and controversial trial eventually ended in a life sentence for three neo-fascists, but, remarkably, also in minor sentences for P2 head Licio Gelli and three officials of the military secret service SISMI, namely Francesco Pazienza, General Giuseppe Musumeci and Colonel Pietro Belmonte. Gelli and the SISMI officials deliberately manufacturing false leads during the investigation to cover up the truth about the deadly massacre.[21] Most blatantly, Pazienza and Musumeci, both involved with P2, planted an explosive on a train to be discovered on purpose which would implicate foreign terrorists instead of domestic neo-fascists with whom the secret services had a long collaborative history.[22] When Italian prosecutors searched Gelli’s residence and found the P2 membership list in 1981, however, the truth soon started to unravel, which eventually resulted in the only time thus far that high-level Italian officials were convicted for covering up the strategy of tension.
As Aldo Moro had already been assassinated, one might assume that the puppet masters had already won, and that the Bologna massacre had no use in the covert war against the left. Contrary to all other bombings during Italy’s Years of Lead, there was no urgency in shifting an undesired government policy. Still, other massacres linked to Gladio across Europe, such as the Brabant massacres in Belgium and the Munich Oktoberfest bombing in Germany, were yet to follow. Although all of them were to some extent employed to condition the public to turn to their governments for greater security, perhaps they should first and foremost be understood in the international context of the last intensification of the Cold War following the Iranian Revolution, the start of the Soviet-Afghan War and the election of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, a growing portion of the European population started to move against the NATO line after the 1979 decision to deploy nuclear warheads on European soil. The terror of the 1980s deceived Europeans that a big state apparatus was still necessary.
[1] Quoted in Hugh O’Shaughnessy, “Gladio: Europe’s best kept secret,” Observer, 07.06.1992, reprinted on Cambridge Clarion, http://cambridgeclarion.org/press_cuttings/gladio_obs_7jun1992.html.
[2] Servizio Informazioni delle Forze Armata (SIFAR), Le ‘forze speciali’ del SIFAR e l’operazione ‘Gladio’ (Stato Maggiore della Difesa: Ufficio ‘R’ – sezione ‘SAD’, 01.06.1959), 1, available at http://scribd.com/document/25709232/Gladio-Report-1959-Italian. The document was entirely translated to English, analysed and put in its proper context by Swiss historian Daniele Ganser: Daniele Ganser, “The ghost of Machiavelli: an approach to operation Gladio and terrorism in Cold War Italy,” Crime, Law and Social Change 45, no. 2 (2006), 111-54.
[3] Philip Willan, Puppetmasters: the political use of terrorism in Italy (London: Constable, 1991), 38.
[4] Daniele Ganser, NATO’s secret armies: Operation Gladio and terrorism in Western Europe (London/New York: Frank Cass, 2005), 115-8.
[5] Quoted in Willan, Puppetmasters, 23.
[6] Quoted in Cottrell, Gladio, 121.
[7] Celani, “Strategy of tension: the case of Italy – part 1,” 35.
[8] Philip Willan, “US ‘supported anti-left terror in Italy’,” Guardian, 24.06.2000, reprinted on Cambridge Clarion, http://cambridgeclarion.org/press_cuttings/us.terrorism_graun_24jun2000.html.
[9] Philip Willan, “Paola Emilio Taviani,” Guardian, 21.06.2001, http://theguardian.com/news/2001/jun/21/guardianobituaries.philipwillan.
[10] Philip Willan, “Terrorists ‘helped by CIA’ to stop rise of left in Italy,” Guardian, 26.03.2001, http://theguardian.com/world/2001/mar/26/terrorism.
[11] Willan, Puppetmasters, 123.
[12] Claudio Celani, “Strategy of tension: the case of Italy – part 1,” Executive Intelligence Review 31, no. 12 (2004), 35-6, available at http://larouchepub.com/eiw/public/2004/eirv31n12-20040326/eirv31n12-20040326_034-strategy_of_tension_the_case_of.pdf; Ganser, “The ghost of Machiavelli,” 132.
[13] Allan Francovich, Operation Gladio (BBC 2, Timewatch, 1992), 1h31m15 – 1h32m, http://youtube.com/watch?v=GGHXjO8wHsA&t=5808s.
[14] Willan, “Terrorists ‘helped by CIA’ to stop rise of left in Italy.”
[15] Ganser, “The ghost of Machiavelli,” 129-30.
[16] Willan, “US ‘supported anti-left terror in Italy’.”
[17] Ganser, “The ghost of Machiavelli,” 132.
[18] Celani, “Strategy of tension: the case of Italy – part 2,” 71.
[19] Quoted in Willan, Puppetmasters, 135.
[20] Claudio Celani, “Strategy of tension: the case of Italy – part 3,” Executive Intelligence Review 31, no. 14 (2004), 43, http://larouchepub.com/eiw/public/2004/eirv31n14-20040409/eirv31n14-20040409_039-strategy_of_tension_the_case_of.pdf.
[21] Celani, “Strategy of tension: the case of Italy – part 3,” 43-5.
[22] Claudio Celani, “Strategy of tension: the case of Italy – part 4,” Executive Intelligence Review 31, no. 17 (2004), 58, http://larouchepub.com/eiw/public/2004/eirv31n17-20040430/eirv31n17-20040430_058-strategy_of_tension_the_case_of.pdf.