Terrorism in the 1970s: Radicalized Activists or Government Pawns?


By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D.University of Idaho

In the 1970s, a new generation of radicals sparked a new wave of terrorism. They weren’t anarchists but revolutionary Marxists. Their incubators were university campuses in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. But were they activists or just pawns in a secret game?

The logo of the Red Army Faction and the flag of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
The Red Army Faction, also called the ‘Baader-Meinhof Gang’, and the Symbionese Liberation Army were two left-wing organizations that became notorious in the 1970s in Europe and the USA. (Images: [left] Ratatosk/Public domain; [right] CeltBrowne/Public domain)

The Baader-Meinhof Gang

West Germany’s Red Army Faction was among the best-known radical groups in the 1970s. At the core of the Red Army Faction were Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, hence the alternate name: the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Neither was a student radical. In 1970, Meinhof was a 36-year-old communist journalist, and Baader a 27-year-old high school dropout.

Baader and Meinhof were enraged by the 1968 attempted assassination of German student leader Rudi Dutschke. They believed the gunman was a secret agent of the West German authorities. Like the anarchists, Baader-Meinhof justified bombings, robberies, and murders as revenge and self-defense. Also, they wanted to provoke the West German government into repressive responses.

Baader and Meinhof were arrested in 1972. Over the next several years, most of the group’s actions were designed to extort their release from jail. The wave of violence peaked in the so-called German Autumn of 1977. That coincided with the abduction and murder of German industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer, as well as the hijacking of a Lufthansa airliner, and the suspicious deaths of three Red Army prisoners, as well as Baader, in their jail cells. Ulrike Meinhof had hanged herself in prison a year earlier.

The Red Army Faction sputtered on until 1998 but was no longer a threat. Still, its terror caused 34 deaths, and 27 Baader-Meinhof members also died violently.

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The Red Brigades

Photograph of Aldo Moro taken during his detention by Red Brigades.
Aldo Moro was kidnapped and eventually murdered by the Red Brigades. (Image: Member of the Red Brigades/Public domain)

The Italian Red Brigades lasted from 1970 to 1988, dubbed Italy’s Years of Lead. This coincided with political and financial scandals, and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. Most original members of the Red Brigades were arrested early. They were replaced by new ones bent on revenge. Between 1970 and 1980, the Red Brigades were credited with 14,000 acts of violence, and 75 deaths.

The violence peaked in 1978-79, and included the murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The Italian government rounded up 12,000 leftists. Detained Red Brigadists included Mario Moretti, Moro’s kidnapper. Moretti turned squealer. Once a secret society loses secrecy, it’s finished.

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The Armed Revolutionary Cells in Italy

Italy wasn’t plagued just by left-wing terrorism. The single-worst act of terror—the Bologna train station bombing of August 1980—left 85 dead and more than 200 injured. It was the work of a secret neo-fascist group, the Armed Revolutionary Cells. From 1977 to 1981, these Armed Revolutionary Cells were responsible for at least 33 other murders.

Some believe Armed Revolutionary Cells, and maybe the Red Brigades, were really controlled by the Italian police and intelligence services. There’s a name for it: “strategy of tension.” The theory is that governments, or secret organizations within them, facilitate or create radical terrorist groups. Then, the perceived terrorist threat justifies the expansion of governmental control.

The Weathermen in the US

The US also saw a wave of domestic terrorism in the 1970s. Probably the best-known group was the Weather Underground, or Weathermen. The Weathermen were more about performance art than deadly mayhem.

The Weathermen’s first big stunt was breaking LSD guru Timothy Leary out of prison in 1970. They did that as work-for-hire for another secret society: the drug-dealing Brotherhood of Eternal Love, better known as the Hippie Mafia.

From 1971 to 1975, The Weather Underground set off bombs in the US Capitol building, the Pentagon, and at the State Department to protest American actions in Vietnam. But their most destructive act came in March 1970. Three Weathermen died when their amateur bomb-making demolished a brownstone in New York’s Greenwich Village.

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The Symbionese Liberation Army

The Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA, was a different breed. It appeared in the San Francisco Bay area in 1973.

The SLA’s nominal leader was a petty criminal named Donald DeFreeze who adopted the nom de guerre Field Marshal Cinque Mtume. DeFreeze was a sometime police informer, ex-mental patient, and escaped convict who’d been radicalized in lock-up. DeFreeze is credited with coming up with the SLA’s emblem: a seven-headed cobra.

DeFreeze was black. The rest of the SLA mostly consisted of white, middle-class, ex-university students. In November 1973, the SLA assassinated Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster with cyanide-laced bullets. But their best-known act was kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. Through isolation and terror, Hearst was eventually persuaded to join the SLA.

Most SLA members died during a televised shootout with police in Los Angeles in May 1974. The survivors pulled off a bank robbery in northern California in early 1975 in which a bank employee was murdered. Hearst’s capture—or rescue—in September 1975 and the round-up of most remaining members spelled finis to the SLA.

But one member, Kathleen Soliah, a suspect in the bank killing, managed to stay in hiding for nearly a quarter-century. That was only possible because a continuing network of SLA sympathizers—a secret society—helped her. Ultimately, Soliah was discovered living as a suburban mom in Minnesota under the name of Sara Jane Olson.

The Strategy of Tension

There are those who see something darker at work in the SLA. It’s that “strategy of tension” again. That presumes the SLA was deliberately created, or used, to sow fear and chaos and discredit left-wing activism.

In this view, there’s something fishy in DeFreeze’s earlier incarceration at the Vacaville Prison medical facility. While there, DeFreeze came under the influence of a prison consultant, Colston Westbrook. The SLA later accused Westbrook of being a CIA agent and FBI informer.

Others note that Patty Hearst’s brainwashing showed surprising sophistication for a supposed bunch of college drop-outs. And then there’s that seven-headed cobra. Did it hint at some connection? Is there real proof of any of this? Absolutely not. But there wouldn’t be if it were done right.

Common Questions about Terrorism in the 1970’s

Q: What was the Baader-Meinhof Gang?

The Baader-Meinhof Gang, or the Red Army Faction, were the most well-known left-wing radicals in West Germany during the 1970s. Baader-Meinhof justified bombings, robberies, and murders as revenge and self-defense.

Q: What were the terror activities of the Weathermen?

From 1971 to 1975, the Weathermen set off bombs in the US Capitol building, the Pentagon, and at the State Department to protest American actions in Vietnam.

Q: What was the Symbionese Liberation Army?

The Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA, was a radical group that appeared in the San Francisco Bay area in 1973.

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