Yet whichever way you look at it, international terrorism has its origins in the state itself. There are many ways of understanding this, but perhaps the most pertinent for our purposes is contemporary history. We don’t need to go very far back either. Only twenty odd years, to the era of the Cold War, when we were also getting Trigger-Happy trying to defend the “Free World” from the “Evil Empire” of International Communism, as Ronald Reagan put it so aptly.
The “strategy of tension” denotes a highly secretive series of interconnected covert operations conducted jointly by the CIA and MI6 largely in Western Europe during the this period. Well-documented by several respected historians, confirmed by official inquiries, and corroborated by former intelligence officials, the “strategy of tension” is one of those unsavoury moments in contemporary history that we don’t learn about in school, or even university.
My favourite book on the subject, and the most authoritative in my view, is Dr. Daniele Ganser’s NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe (2004). Published in the UK as part of the “Contemporary Security Studies” series of London-based academic press Routledge, Ganser’s study is the first major historical work to bring the “strategy of tension” into the mainstream of scholarship.
During the Cold War, indeed through to the late 1980s, the United States, United Kingdom, and Western European governments and secret services, participated in a sophisticated NATO-backed operation to engineer terrorist attacks inside Western Europe, to be blamed on the Soviet Union. The objective was to galvanize public opinion against leftwing policies and parties, and ultimately to mobilize popular support for purportedly anti-Soviet policies at home and abroad – most of which were really designed to legitimize brutal military interventions against nationalist independence movements in the “Third World”.
Ganser was a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, before he moved to Basel University to teach history. Citing the transcripts of European parliamentary inquiries; the few secret documents that have been declassified; interviews with government, military and intelligence officials; and so on, Ganser shows how intimately the British were involved.
In fact, it wasn’t even an American idea – it was very much ours. The strategy of tension began on the order of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who in July 1940 called for the establishment of a secret army to “set Europe ablaze by assisting resistance movements and carrying out subversive operations in enemy held territory.” (p. 40) By 4th October 1945, the British Chiefs of Staff and the Special Operations branch of MI6 directed the creation of what Ganser describes as a “skeleton network” capable of expansion either in war or to service clandestine operations abroad: “Priority was given in carrying out these tasks to countries likely to be overrun in the earliest stages of any conflict with the Soviet Union, but not as yet under Soviet domination.” (p. 41) In the ensuing years, Col. Gubbins’ Special Operations branch of MI6 cooperated closely with Frank Wisner’s CIA covert action department Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) on White House orders, and in turn coordinated US and UK Special Forces, to establish stay-behind secret armies across western Europe. (p. 42)
Among the documents Ganser brings to attention is the classified Field Manual 30-31, with appendices FM 30-31A and FM 30-31B, authored by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to train thousands of stay-behind officers around the world. The field manual was published in the 1987 parliamentary report of the Italian parliamentary investigation into the terrorist activities of “P2”, the CIA-MI6 sponsored Italian anti-communist network. As Ganser observes: “FM 30-31 instructs the secret soldiers to carry out acts of violence in times of peace and then blame them on the Communist enemy in order to create a situation of fear and alertness. Alternatively, the secret soldiers are instructed to infiltrate the left-wing movements and then urge them to use violence.” In the manual’s own words:
“There may be times when Host Country Governments show passivity or indecision in the face of Communist subversion and according to the interpretation of the US secret services do not react with sufficient effectiveness… US army intelligence must have the means of launching special operations which will convince Host Country Governments and public opinion of the reality of the insurgent danger. To reach this aim US army intelligence should seek to penetrate the insurgency by means of agents on special assignment, with the task of forming special action groups among the most radical elements of the insurgency… In case it has not been possible to successfully infiltrate such agents into the leadership of the rebels it can be useful to instrumentalise extreme leftist organizations for one’s own ends in order to achieve the above described targets… These special operations must remain strictly secret. Only those persons which are acting against the revolutionary uprising shall know of the involvement of the US Army…” (p. 234-297)
The existence of this secret operation exploded into public controversy when in August 1990 upon the admissions in parliament by Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, the existence of ‘Gladio’ was exposed as a secret sub-section of Italian military-intelligence services, responsible for domestic bombings blamed on Italian Communists. Ganser documents in intricate detail how a subversive network created by elements of western intelligence services – particularly that of the US and UK - orchestrated devastating waves of terrorist attacks blamed on the Soviet Union, not only in Italy, but also in Spain, Germany, France, Turkey, Greece, i.e. throughout western Europe. Despite a number of European parliamentary inquiries; an European Union resolution on the Gladio phenomenon; NATO’s close-doors admissions to European ambassadors; confirmations of the international operation from senior CIA officials; and other damning documentary evidence; NATO, the CIA and MI6 have together consistently declined to release their secret files on the matter.
The Strategy of Tension simply isn’t part of our historical consciousness. Very few historians of the Cold War are fully conversant with it, let alone academics working in international relations and political science. This is despite the fact that it played an instrumental role in physically constructing a threat, projected into the USSR, which did not ultimately exist. Ipso facto, the Strategy of Tension belongs to the waste-bin of history.
The immense fear and chaos generated by the impact of the Operation Gladio phenomenon throughout western Europe was instrumental in legitimizing the interventionist policies of the Anglo-American alliance in the South, throughout the Cold War period. Although the Soviet Union was supposed to be the real threat and source of terror, and thus the ultimate object of the over 70 military interventions conducted since 1945 [see William Blum’s Killing Hope (London: Zed, 1995)] the Soviet threat was in fact actively exaggerated ideologically – and even physically constructed through clandestine operations – to mobilize the comprehensive militarization of western societies. This does not mean that many government officials did not believe their own propaganda. But we now know that there was a secretive sub-section of the Western intelligence community, known only to very few members of elected governments, that was involved in this.
The number of people who were killed across the “Third World” as a consequence of this militarization process is shocking, its implications genuinely difficult to absorb. According to Dr. J. W. Smith, a US development economist who runs the Institute for Economic Democracy in Arizona, in our glorious self-evidently noble fight to defend the “Free World” from imminent Soviet attacks, invasions, and general inconceivably irrational hell-bent pure evilness, Western states:
“… were responsible for violently killing 12 to 15 million people since WW II and causing the death of hundreds of millions more as their economies were destroyed or those countries were denied the right to restructure to care for their people. Unknown as it is, and recognizing that this has been standard practice throughout colonialism, that is the record of the Western imperial centers of capital from 1945 to 1990” [Smith, Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle of the 21st Century (2003)]
12 to 15 million people from 1945 to 1990.
I have to repeat these figures to myself to absorb their implications.
Repeat these figures to yourself.
Six million Jews in the Second World War, and now 12 to 15 million innocents in the post-WWII period. The former in the name of German lebensraum. The latter in the name of the free market.
Yet as a society, as a Civilization, we are oblivious, utterly blind, to our historic complicity in the systematic destruction of "Other" societies who fail to conform to our (deluded) self-image of universal prosperity.
It is a blindness with which we remain afflicted.
Consider Blair’s rendition of the “War on Terror” in early 2007, as “a clash not between civilizations”, but rather “about civilization.” The War on Terror is therefore a continuation of “the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace the modern world and those who reject its existence.”
And what is this "progress", this "modernity" that should be embraced? The "progress" that slaughtered millions of men, women and children across continents, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, in Somalia, Rwanda, in Kenya, Malaya, in Oman, Iraq, etc. etc. (in no particular order and with significant omissions)?
If this is modernity then I must be a backward, semi-feudal ignoramus. Along with most of the population of the entire world. But then, who cares what the world says? Bush, Blair, and their enlightened ilk are no doubt the modern civilized ones. As long as they do what they think is right. Right???
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
NATO's Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe
By Daniele Ganser
BBC2 - Timewatch: Operation Gladio - Part 1
BBC2 - Timewatch: Operation Gladio - Part 2
BBC2 - Timewatch: Operation Gladio - Part 3