Is It Terrorism Redux?

The whacking of Massimo D'Antona had all the earmarks of a commando operation. For days, the killers hid in two stolen vans parked on opposite sides of the busy Via Salaria, where their quarry lived. Last Thursday D'Antona, a top economics adviser in the government of Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, stepped from his home and walked a hundred paces toward the university where he teaches labor law. He carried a briefcase in one hand and a laptop in the other. Two young men in denim pants and jackets, one with a pink shirt, one in a baseball cap, climbed from the vans and converged on him as he passed behind a sidewalk billboard. Screened from view, they shot him six times, then dropped their .38-caliber pistols and calmly walked away--apparently after first unscrewing and pocketing the silencers.

People close by neither saw nor heard the shots. D'Antona staggered into a wall and fell to the pavement, his white shirtfront stained with blood. A tour bus full of Americans pulled up and people began shouting, "They're shooting." But it was all over; a block away, the gunmen hopped on a scooter and disappeared into rush-hour traffic. D'Antona died minutes later, in an ambulance. "There is little doubt of the precise preparation of the ambush and of the cold and professional execution," said Interior Minister Rosa Russo Jervolino, addressing an emergency session of Parliament. This was no ordinary hit. Authorities were soon convinced that Italy's Red Brigades had just drawn their first blood in 11 years.

In the 1970s, the Red Brigades were the most successful of European terrorists. Their political assassinations, kneecappings (a brutal tactic they pioneered) and kidnappings claimed 350 lives. Their biggest "action" was the kidnapping of former prime minister Aldo Moro--whose five bodyguards were shot dead in a military-style ambush. Later his captors murdered him--and brazenly dumped his body in a car parked outside his party's headquarters. The Red Brigades even managed to capture an American NATO general and killed an American who headed the United Nations' Sinai peacekeeping force. Then in the 1980s, armed with tough new laws, Italian authorities just as dramatically crushed the Red Brigades. More than 250 of their followers were jailed, and many of their leaders renounced terrorism. Founder Renato Curcio, who is now 58, was pardoned after 17 years in jail. "Gli anni di piombo," the years of lead, as Italians called them, were a distant memory.

This time the group's communique, delivered to Italian newspapers, boasted the same off-center five-pointed star, but it was printed out from a computer instead of typewritten. Now the name was the Red Brigades for the Construction of a Combative Communist Party--a group the CIA says is the successor of the original group. The jargony rhetoric of the 28-page screed hadn't changed--but took on a new resonance due to NATO's war with Yugoslavia, and a government now led by former communists intent on free-market reforms.

Its victim had been chosen with care; a labor activist and leftist economist, D'Antona was high-ranking but not well known. He served as an adviser to Labor Minister Antonio Bassolino, who called him his "right-hand man." The killers' communique accused him of drafting "neocorporativist policies"--a swipe at the leftist-led government's determination to maintain fiscal austerity so Italy could successfully join the European Monetary Union. The terrorists also accused the government of allowing NATO to "reduce Serbia to poverty and impose the terms of imperialist domination."

The timing could not have been worse for D'Alema's government, which has backed NATO and allowed the use of its 11 bases in Italy to attack the Serbs. Facing rising opposition to the airstrikes even in his own coalition, D'Alema was on a well-publicized visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels. There he called for a pause in the airstrikes if the United Nations adopts NATO's demands for peace in Kosovo--the first alliance leader to do so. The assassination shook him: "The violence will take Italy back into the past," he said.

D'Antona's memorial service was watched over by rooftop sharpshooters and vanloads of heavily armed police and plainclothes bodyguards. Popular indignation ran deep, and labor unions staged protests throughout the country. "The Red Brigades must know that they were defeated once and they will be defeated again," said Walter Veltroni, leader of the Democratic Party of the Left, the former communists who dominate the coalition government. Doing so, though, is not a prospect anyone relishes. At a time when Italian leaders are struggling to maintain support for NATO's war against the Serbs, the last thing they need is a messy fight at home.