115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Clandestine Planning for Ostentatious Deeds: Communicative Strategies of Late-20th-Century Leftwing Terrorism

Alan Rosenfeld, University of Hawai'i, West O'ahu

Focusing on the urban guerrilla movement of the late-20th Century, this project explores the tensions that exist in the operational viability of terrorism. One of the great contradictions of terrorist operations is that the execution of attacks intended to maximize publicity are predicated on the inconspicuousness of those involved.

Proposal: 

One of the great contradictions of terrorist operations is that the execution of attacks intended to maximize attention and publicity are predicated on the inconspicuousness and secrecy of the actors involved. Invisibility of the individual is a path to visibility for the group, and both are inextricably linked to the operational success of terrorism. Focusing on the urban guerrilla movement and leftwing extremism of the late-20th Century, this paper explores the tensions that exist in the operational viability of terrorism, which remains, in essence, a communicative tool. Historically, terrorist organizations of the modern era have depended upon mass media as a transmitter and amplifier of their violent actions, broadening each group’s communicative reach. Although the advent of the Internet has disrupted terrorists’ reliance on mass media, it has not altered the core strategy of terrorism, which involves the use of sensational displays of violence to attract attention and produce a forum for the dissemination of a group’s ideology and political platform.

 

The late-20th Century witnessed the emergence of a leftwing urban guerrilla movement, based on the operational program of Brazilian Carlos Marighella, which rapidly spread from Latin America to Europe, North America, and Japan in the 1970s. Although members of these organizations—which included the Red Army Faction (Germany) and the Weather Underground (United States)—preferred to present themselves as urban guerrillas, they did not entirely reject the terrorist moniker. In fact, Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla (1969) viewed the label as a “quality that ennobles any honorable person” as a dedicated participant in the global struggle against dictatorship, imperialism, and oppression.

 

The writings of Marighella, which quickly developed into the operational blueprint of the transcontinental urban guerrilla movement, elucidated and explored the tensions between clandestine planning and ostentatious deeds, or the secretive and invisible path to visibility. Of course, this strategy was hardly new, as the same conceptual model had been advocated and implemented by countless others in history, including Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) and the Russian anarchist groups of the previous century. However, it was Marighella’s detailed approach, tailored to late-20th-century urban terrains that resonated with disenchanted youths across the western world—particularly (and somewhat paradoxically) those from middle-class backgrounds possessing high levels of educational attainment.

 

In Marighella’s framework, the urban terrain of the modern metropole offered the enticing combination of a high number of potential terrorist targets coupled with a cloak of anonymity that masked planners and perpetrators from the gaze of state power. The Red Army Faction and Weather Underground relied on these features of the city to remain concealed and undetected until the moment of impact. The terrorist act—typically a bombing or an assassination—was not only intended to garner the group media attention but also to provoke the state into taking excessive counter-terror measures that would bring the violent nature of the modern state into full visibility, alienating the general populace in the process.