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Gladio Revisited: State Sponsored Terrorism in the Mono-Polar World Order

Bologna railway station massacre, 1980

November 22nd is the 27th anniversary of a European Parliament resolution condemning Operation Gladio. For decades, secret armies in over a dozen NATO countries carried out terrorist attacks to influence the political landscape and manipulate elections. In this article I look back at Gladio, highlighting the damage it did and the problems these operations cause for democracies. Examining the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the intelligence failures that led to 9/11 I ask whether NATO’s secret armies were truly shut down at the end of the Cold War.

Neo-Nazis and the Bologna bombing

On August 2nd 1980 a powerful explosion ripped through the second class waiting room of Bologna train station, murdering 85 people and wounding hundreds more. More than any other event in Italy’s ‘years of lead’ the massacre in Bologna helped illustrate the problems caused by Gladio — one of the dirtiest secrets in Europe’s history.

The Bologna bombing happened on the same day that a court sent eight members of a neo-fascist gang to prison for the bombing of the Italicus Express six years earlier. While initial media reporting placed the blame for Bologna on communists, some suspected that it was an act of revenge by the neo-fascists.

Just as with previous attacks, claims of responsibility came in from both neo-Nazi groups and the communist Red Brigades. Investigators initially explored leads directing them towards Left-wing extremists but clues also came in that implicated the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR) — a neo-fascist terrorist group.

The investigations were delayed and hobbled by the Italian security services, but eventually —nearly 15 years after the bombing — the courts convicted two members of NAR: Francesca Mambro and Valerio Fioravanti. They also found Licio Gelli — the grand master of the CIA-funded P2 masonic lodge — guilty of obstructing the investigations.

NAR hideout, 1980

Mambro and Fioravanti have always maintained that they weren’t responsible for the Bologna bombing, and they could be telling the truth. By 1980 both the Left-wing and Right-wing terror gangs in Italy had been infiltrated, or were being run, by Italian military intelligence. According to Allan Francovich’s seminal 1992 documentary on Gladio, the head of Ordine Nuovo — Pino Rauti — was working for the SID (Italian intelligence) while the original leaders of the Red Brigades were in prison, replaced by agents of the state.

The Other Problem with Gladio

Licio Gelli faired better than the footsoldiers. Despite being given a 10-year sentence for his role in helping to cover up the real forces behind the Bologna bombing, alongside several other convictions, Gelli only spent five months in prison. In this clip from the never-released film Conspirator he told journalist Gabor Harrach how he once escaped from a maximum security prison via helicopter:

Licio Gelli describes his escape from prison

While most of the commentary on Gladio focuses on the question of the extent to which the state can be blamed for violent crimes, there is a second and equally important problem caused by these kinds of secret operations. Gelli used his connections via the P2 lodge (and from his lifetime of working with or for various intelligence and transnational criminal organisations) to help cover up the Bologna massacre. As a result, even now we cannot be sure whether Mambro and Fioravanti are neo-Nazi terrorists or victims of a miscarriage of justice.

It is widely accepted among informed critics that Gladio was used to undermine sympathy and democratic support for communist or Marxist groups, movements and parties. However, perhaps the even greater subversion of democracy by Gladio-type operations is that they prevent our justice systems from being able to resolve these traumatic events. When the criminals behind a mass murder are correctly identified and jailed, this helps bring emotional closure for the victims and the bereaved, and helps discourage others from committing similar crimes. When this doesn’t happen, the pain is never resolved and violent fanatics are emboldened and encouraged.

While the secret armies now known as Gladio were set up by the CIA and MI6, it is virtually impossible to assess the extent to which those agencies were involved in Gladio-linked events like the murder of Aldo Moro and the Oktoberfest bombing. The covering up of the role of state agents and agencies in these crimes often involves committing further crimes, which are then covered up. The cover-up continues so we cannot be sure whether the secret armies were shut down, or simply adapted to the new post-Cold War landscape.

Al Qaeda as the New Gladio

Osama Bin Laden, 1998

Officially, following the exposure of Gladio in Italy in the mid-1980s and across Europe in the early 1990s, the secret armies were shut down. But fortunately for NATO’s ambitions both domestically and abroad, a new terrorist menace/radical proxy force was emerging: Al Qaeda.

Founded in 1988 at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, Al Qaeda had a surprising international reach, and throughout the 1990s they carried out terrorist attacks across several continents as well as helping to fund and organise the wider ‘global jihad’ movement. Their activities often dovetailed neatly with NATO’s plans, just like the neo-fascists in Italy and in the Iberian peninsula had during the Cold War.

In Bosnia in the early to mid-90s the Pentagon created an air funnel and flew in weapons and thousands of mujahideen to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslim Army against the Serbian forces. As intelligence specialist Richard Aldrich wrote, citing an extensive report by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, the US and UK were in flagrant violation of the UN arms embargo:

Arms purchased by Iran and Turkey with the financial backing of Saudi Arabia made their way by night from the Middle East. Initially aircraft from Iran Air were used, but as the volume increased they were joined by a mysterious fleet of black C-130 Hercules aircraft. The report stresses that the US was “very closely involved” in the airlift. Mojahedin fighters were also flown in, but they were reserved as shock troops for especially hazardous operations.

Osama Bin Laden travelled to the country, and through charities including the International Islamic Relief Organisation and the Third World Relief Agency helped fund the Bosnian mujahideen. Ayman Zawahiri’s brother Mohammed Zawahiri was sent to Bosnia to make contact with Alija Izetbegovic — a commander of Bosnian forces and the country’s first president. This process helped build up Al Qaeda as a force to be reckoned with, as well as destroying Yugoslavia in keeping with NATO’s aims.

These operations also involved the CIA, and it is here that things start to resemble Gladio very closely. Another close Bin Laden associate — the Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman — took over the Al Qaeda office in New York and used it to recruit young Muslim men to join the jihad in the Balkans. Rahman was a known radical, having been imprisoned in Egypt for his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood and for leading the violent extremist group al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya.

Despite this, following a meeting in 1989 between followers of the Blind Sheikh and the US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner Jr. (son of the legendary CIA operative) Rahman was smuggled out of his house arrest and made his way to New York. His visas for entering the US were approved by CIA officers posing as consular officials in Egypt and Sudan, and this happened half a dozen times so it must have been because the Agency viewed Rahman as an asset.

The Blind Sheikh, looking a little bit like the scariest Santa Claus ever

After taking over the Al Qaeda hub at the Al Farooq mosque in Brooklyn, the Blind Sheikh’s followers would go on to murder Rabbi Meir Kahane and bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Even after the Blind Sheikh’s visa was revoked and he was called to an immigration hearing following Kahane’s assassination, he wasn’t arrested for another two years.

The FBI had an informant within the Blind Sheikh’s close circle of followers named Emad Salem — a former Egyptian Army officer. He was pulled out of the group and fired by the FBI six months before the World Trade Center bombing. After the bombing he was re-hired and sent back in on a sting operation to take down the Blind Sheikh’s cell. However, even though Bin Laden was paying for the Blind Sheikh’s living expenses and some of his legal bills, the investigation into what was going on at the Al-Farooq mosque did not sprawl.

So just as with the original Operation Gladio, we have a radical group being used to attack a socialist nation (Yugoslavia) resulting in violence and blood on the streets. Whether the World Trade Center bombing was blowback or wilful indifference or shocking negligence is not certain — just as with Gladio, there have been no serious public inquiries into what happened and why. The initial cover-up prevented anyone from connecting the culprits to US intelligence, which included ruining the career of Salem’s FBI handler Nancy Floyd who started asking questions. The ongoing cover-up means that despite all that we now know, we still cannot be sure why the bombing happened.

9/11 and Al Qaeda as a ‘secret service operation’

So what really happened that day?

A similar string of events occurred in the run-up to 9/11. In mid-late 1999 the CIA recruited Luai Sakra — a Syrian Al Qaeda operative in Turkey who had run a support office for the mujahideen during the war in Bosnia. He ran training camps in Turkey, including for six of the 9/11 hijackers including Nawaf al Hazmi. Sakra reportedly warned his CIA handlers on September 10th 2001 of an imminent attack, but nothing was done.

Not long after training in Sakra’s camps, al Hazmi attended the Al Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000. This was monitored by local intelligence and by the CIA, who found out that al Hazmi’s travelling partner Khalid Al Mihdhar had a visa for entering the US which was due to expire soon.

This indicated one or both of the men was on their way to America after the summit, though the CIA say they followed them to Bangkok and then lost them. However, both men travelled to the US shortly afterwards, using their real names, and arrived at LAX on January 15th. The CIA’s dedicated Bin Laden unit — named Alec Station — knew about the summit and the visa, and almost certainly knew that the two men had actually arrived in the US. But they repeatedly, and without explanation, failed to tell the FBI.

Over a year later, when a senior member of Alec Station named Tom Wilshere was seconded to the FBI, he reviewed all the CIA’s materials on Al Hazmi and Al Mihdhar in spring 2001, but said nothing about the pair to the Bureau. Instead he instigated another review of the same materials, and gave the job to an FBI agent who was working inside Alec Station. Weeks later she came back saying that they should try to find these guys.

While Wilshere suddenly started sending emails to his CIA superiors about how important Al Hazmi and Al Mihdhar were, within the FBI he opened an intelligence investigation and not a criminal one. This meant that finding the pair was not made a priority in the summer of 2001 — just weeks before the 9/11 attacks.

Khalid Al Midhar — FBI photo

Despite his role in training the 9/11 hijackers, and apparently warning of the attacks just before they happened, Sakra remained at large. He masterminded the Istanbul bombings in 2003, but was not arrested until 2005. As reported in the Turkish press as a result of Sakra’s interrogations:

Turkish intelligence specialists agree that there is no such organization as al-Qaeda. Rather, Al-Qaeda is the name of a secret service operation. The concept ‘fighting terror’ is the background of the ‘low intensity- warfare’ conducted in the mono-polar world order. The subject of this strategy of tension is named as ‘al-Qaeda’.

This indicates that following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratic support for socialism in Western Europe, Gladio shifted gears. In the new paradigm it isn’t so much ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ as ‘the same man is both a terrorist and a freedom fighter’. Those who fought in Bosnia, in keeping with NATO’s strategy to Balkanise Yugoslavia, were freedom fighters. Those who attacked the World Trade Center were terrorists. Only in the case of al Hazmi and al Mihdhar, they were the same people.

A resolution, but no resolution

European Parliament resolution on the ‘Gladio Affair’

27 years ago today the European Parliament passed a resolution on the ‘Gladio Affair’, documenting ‘the existence for 40 years of a clandestine intelligence and armed operations organization’ that had ‘eluded all democratic controls’ and ‘operated and continue to operate completely outside the law… thereby jeopardizing the democratic structures of the countries in which they are operating’ as ‘military secret services (or uncontrolled branches thereof) were involved in serious cases of terrorism and crime’.

The resolution called for parliamentary inquiries and ordered that the secret armies be shut down. Given that only a few countries held inquiries, and the numerous connections between Western intelligence and some of the biggest terrorists attacks in the West since the Cold War we must ask: were the secret armies shut down, or re-purposed for the mono-polar world order?