One of the first reactions to the kidnapping in the spring of 1978 of Aldo Moro, leader of the Italian Christian Democratic Party, was fascinated disbelief. How could such a superbly timed and orchestrated feat, involving some fifty actors, the knocking-out of a local telephone system and the diverting of police cars, as well as routes and steps planned meticulously many months before, possibly be the work of Italians? How could a group like the Red Brigades, well-known for their chronic disorganisation, conceivably have pulled it off? The same incredulity was displayed when the Basque Nationalists assassinated Franco’s political heir, Carrero-Blanco. How could a collection of young Spaniards, on their own, be so efficient?
This contempt for the organisational skills of individual revolutionary groups has inspired a number of writers in the past few years. Since, left to themselves, the argument runs, these woolly-minded and dangerous thugs can accomplish little other than sporadic outbursts of undisciplined violence, they must have friends, and, to be of use, these friends must obviously be powerful, rich, well-connected, and backed by a government. Claire Sterling, with The Terror Network, is the most recent arrival among the conspiracists. Her thesis is straightforward. Most of the terrorist actions that have afflicted Europe and Latin America in the last ten years – Fright Decade I, to use her terminology – have been, if not directly run, at least stimulated and supported by the Kremlin and the KGB. 1964 was the big year. That was the moment when the Politburo decided to ‘increase spending in the field of terrorism abroad by one thousand per cent’. (From what to what?) Two years later came the Tricontinental Conference in Havana: the ‘like of it had never been seen since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917’. It was there, among the 513 delegates in Cuba, that a ‘global revolutionary strategy to counter the global strategy of American imperialism’ was devised. That strategy was to be one of professionally-trained, heavily armed terrorist assault.
From that day on, what Claire Sterling calls the ‘do-it-yourself scheme’, ‘complete with kit and instructions’, was available, courtesy of Moscow, to every nascent terrorist band, nationalist or revolutionary, urban or rural, European or Latin American. They had but to ask. The Russians gave weapons, diplomatic cover, money and know-how to the Palestinians, who in turn passed it on to everyone else. They were helped by Castro, who laid on training camps and instructors (supervised by the KGB) outside Havana, and, increasingly, by Qaddafi, who took terrorism to heart as the decade wore on. The result: ‘bands of professional practitioners dispensing death in forty-odd countries on four continents today’.
There is a revealing passage at the start of The Terror Network. When Claire Sterling embarked on her research, she not surprisingly turned to the anti-terrorist forces of the West for help. Here she received a shock. It wasn’t just that the CIA and, reportedly, the West German security apparatus refused to be involved. They frankly denied her thesis. There was no such thing, they told her, as a ‘Guerrilla International’. President Carter’s adviser on terrorism called the notion ‘bunk’. These ‘bland lies’, as she calls their denials, ‘were mostly of the familiar dampening sort meant to talk a reporter out of being a trouble-maker and a pest’. Not deterred, she set out to prove her ‘international terrorist circuit or network’, for which ‘there is enough evidence to pole-axe the reader.’ She warns: ‘This is not a book of fiction. It deals with facts.’ To document her case, she runs through the biographies of a number of the major terrorist stars, James Bond figures like the Italian millionaire publisher Feltrinelli, the mysterious Carlos, ‘a senior executive in the international terrorist circuit’, and ‘Annababi’ or Petra Krause, the German-Jewish girl who ran a ‘weapons take-out service’ in Zurich. She scrutinises a collection of the major terrorist groups – ETA, IRA, the Red Brigades – and the involvement of those individuals and governments who helped them most – the Cubans and Palestinians in particular, terror’s ‘great magnetic poles’, who laid on cash, moral support and arms, and ran training camps in the deserts of the Yemen and Libya.
She visited ten countries. She talked to countless numbers of people. But it is from the index that you learn that much of the material she uses is in fact a pastiche of newspaper cuttings. This is not, of course, in itself bad. It becomes suspect only when so many of the newspapers in question are openly of the Right, and, given the serious nature of her allegations, exceedingly lightweight. Paris Match, Il Giornale Nuovo, are most in evidence. Her academic mentors are no more reassuring. Claire Sterling, a former dove, has turned to the Hoover Institute for the Study of War and Peace, the Georgetown Institute of Strategic Studies and the Institute for the Study of Conflict (based in London): all of them right-wing think-tanks.
The one ‘proof’ she offers for the Kremlin’s strategy is an interview by Michael Ledeen, editor of the Washington Quarterly Review (of the Georgetown Institute) with General Jan Sejna of Czechoslovakia, who defected to the United States in 1968. The General said nothing publicly on the subject of terrorism at the time of his defection. In 1980, when he was interviewed by Ledeen, he was recalling, with the help of notes, events that had taken place 16 years before. The Kremlin master-plan theory gets some more backing from Stefan Possony in International Terrorism – The Communist Connection. Dr Possony is, in Claire Sterling’s words, a ‘meticulous scholar’; he also works for the Hoover Institute.
When you move on to the life-histories of the terrorists the picture is much the same: a hotchpotch of innuendo, gossip and speculation surrounds nuggets of fact. When Feltrinelli went to Bolivia he ‘may just have gone to visit Guevara’s best French friend, Régis Debray, in a Bolivian jail at the time’. (Who is to say? Not Claire Sterling, apparently.) Feltrinelli is the target of a particularly unpleasant kind of sexual mockery. Born with ‘a shrivelled penis ... not for all the Feltrinelli money could he purchase the normal sexual pleasures enjoyed, say, by his stepfather or the gardener.’ (Proof? He is known to have fathered at least one child.) Qaddafi ‘had a standing offer of $1 million for anyone able and willing to murder Anwar Sadat’. (No source.) ‘ “Kill as many Jews as you can” were his instructions to a Palestinian team he once sent off to shoot up the airport at Istanbul.’ (No source.) And there are mistakes. The British diplomat kidnapped by the Quebec separatists was James Cross, not Richard Gross. The man sitting between Yassir Arafat and George Habash at the Tripoli Arab Summit Conference in 1977 was Zuhair Mohsin of SAIQA – not, as Claire Sterling suggests, Ahmed Jibril of the PFLP, to whom she devotes an entire chapter. The fate of her master terrorists is interesting. Why did the Italian police never pick up Feltrinelli, since they apparently followed his crossings back and forth into Czechoslovakia closely? Why is Petra Krause living, free, in Naples? And the French-Egyptian Jew, Henri Curiel, murdered in 1978, may be totally innocent of the charge that he directed international terrorist operations in France. A report on him, prepared under Giscard d’Estaing, is now coming to light under the Socialists. Nothing in it provides evidence of his guilt.
It is worth insisting on these points, even when they sound churlish. The danger of The Terror Network is that it makes stirring, even sensational reading. What book of fiction has provided us with a villainous heroine to match Petra Krause with her ‘slender frame’ and her ‘air of troubled and weary womanhood’, who travelled the world under false names procuring and distributing weapons – not just pistols and grenades, but anti-tank mines – to the terrorists who asked her for them? Like other writers on modern terrorism, Claire Sterling is conveniently vague about the subject. At the start of the book she declares that she will stick to the leftists: ‘the past decade belongs to the emerging forces of the radical left.’ But soon, as Japanese commandos are found training with Tupamaros and IRA on Libyan soil, it becomes hard to see quite what motivates anyone, and the political views of the protagonists are finally swamped in a pace that becomes more breathless by the page. One way or another, they are all Commies anyway. Nor does she make any attempt to distinguish between bands of revolutionaries, like the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades, who, in their philosopher Carlos Marighella’s words, are transforming a political situation into a military one by their use of terror tactics – ‘heightening the disastrous situation in which the government must act’ – and those, like the PLO and the ETA, who have the distinct goal of setting up their own separatist state. Detail upon detail; meetings; contacts; visits; discussions – but nowhere any analysis. (Unless you count a passing but virulent attack on Schmidt, on whose capitulation to the terrorists over the Lorenz kidnapping she blames the entire sequence of West German terrorism. A Rand Corporation study of terrorist events between 1969 and 1975 found that the noconcessions policy had no effect at all on the frequency with which American officials were kidnapped.) It all becomes like a game of Consequences, in which whenever a Cuban meets a Palestinian in Switzerland holding a Czech gun and a passport forged in Tripoli, there is bound to be trouble (of a Soviet sort).
Why wouldn’t the CIA and the West Germans help? Claire Sterling has a handy answer to this. It is all part of the conspiracy. The West is an ally in the game, not daring – whether from political considerations, fear or ignorance – to confront the truth. This makes them accomplices. ‘Had the Western intelligence community passed on something of what it knew to the public, the most intractable of hard-core terrorists might ... have been stripped of their revolutionary pretensions, isolated and contained long ago.’
There is need for a good book explaining the appalling violence of the Seventies. One that examines why 37 people were killed by terrorists in 1978, the year Moro was kidnapped, while seeing that figure within a wider perspective – people are dying at the rate of 1000 a month in EI Salvadorean violence at the moment. One that does not glamorise the terrorists, as Claire Sterling does when she says that, ‘methodically trained, massively armed, immensely rich and assured of powerful patronage, they move with remarkable confidence from floodlit stage to stage’, but shows them to be what they are: confused, wretched, furious and often frightened. One that records the Soviet Union’s unquestioned help, particularly to the Palestinians, the existence of Libyan training camps, and the terrifying arsenals of weapons collected and loaned by groups around the world, while examining closely the social turmoils from which terrorism stems. What triggered this violence? What is there about modern society that is so unacceptable? One, finally, that does not sneer, or resort to hyperbole. The trouble is that The Terror Network is becoming a cult book in America, where it has been on the best-seller list. At his first press conference as Secretary of State, Alexander Haig told his audience that the Soviet Union had a ‘conscious policy’ of ‘training, funding and equipping’ the agents of international terrorism. Later, he added that there were now ‘thousands of embryo-terrorists’ in ‘Kremlin-backed training camps’. As for those who doubted his words, Haig went on, ‘I would suggest they read Claire Sterling’s report.’