Rome, 12 September 2019: Mourners are raising their arms in the Roman salute and singing the hymn of the former neo-fascist organization National Vanguard (Avanguardia Nazionale; AN) while a coffin is carried into the early medieval church San Lorenzo fuori le mura in Rome. Many have come to pay their last respects to their former leader, spiritual father, and the alleged mastermind of transnational right-wing terrorism during the Cold War: Stefano Delle Chiaie, who died just before his 83rd birthday.
Long before right-wing terrorists like Brenton Tarrant even imagined a transnational terrorist network, Stefano Delle Chiaie had successfully established long-lasting contacts and networks between right-wing terrorist groups, military dictatorships and segments of a reactionary conservative milieu. Maurizio Boccacci, a former member of AN, described him as a true “commander of an entire fascist world.” But who was Stefano Delle Chiaie, called the “Black” Carlos by admirers and enemies alike?
Delle Chiaie’s life is shrouded in mystery, turning him into a mythical figure for the radical right. Documents from law enforcement agencies and security services concerning his activities are still rare—not in the least because of his close contacts to the security apparatus of various states. In addition, Delle Chiaie himself helped to create his mystique by giving contradictory interviews to media outlets and parliamentary commissions.
In recent years, however, more information about Delle Chiaie has been declassified. This new evidence offers an opportunity to critically engage with the life of one of the historical leading figures of transnational right-wing terrorism. This is, however, not the only reason why his biography is of particular interest: through the prism of his life we can examine the dynamics of radicalization within the far-right milieu, the entanglement between segments of the state and terrorist groups, and the working mechanism of a global right-wing terrorist network. All these topics are hugely important in order to increase our knowledge of right-wing terrorism as a whole.
We will start our exploration into Delle Chiaie’s life and activities by first taking a look at his early activities in Italy through his escape to Spain in 1970.
Part I: Stefano Delle Chiaie and the Radicalization of Italy’s far right
The Making of a Terrorist
Stefano Delle Chiaie was born on 13 September 1936 in the Italian city of Caserta in the southern region of Campania. Even after World War II and the demise of Mussolini’s regime, the region remained a hotbed of fascism or at least anti-democratic sentiments. The neo-fascist party Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano; MSI), which was created in 1946, enjoyed rapid success in the region.
The MSI under Arturo Michelini (1954-1969) favored collaboration with the ruling Christian Democratic Party (Democrazia Cristiana; DC) to increase its political influence. This strategy proved successful in 1960 when the MSI helped to elect Christian Democrat Fernando Tambroni (1901-1963) as prime minister. But the success was short-lived. After only four months in office, Tambroni was forced to resign due to riots across the country, causing several deaths.
The MSI leadership’s legalistic approach, however, did not go unchallenged. Pino Rauti (1926-2012) in particular, who was attracted by Italian philosopher Julius Evola’s traditionalist and anti-liberal aristocratic elitism, founded the group New Order (Ordine Nuovo; ON) to oppose Michelini’s strategy. In 1956 ON officially split with the MSI.
Rauti’s radicalism and discontent were shared by younger neo-fascists, including Stefano Delle Chiaie, who had joined the MSI youth group in 1950. He wanted to abandon “traditional” fascist slogans, populism and nostalgia, which he criticized as anachronistic. He believed that the party lacked answers to Italy’s political and social problems and accused its leadership of protecting the constitutional order, instead of radically changing it.
Focusing on his increasingly radical political engagement, Delle Chiaie dropped out of university and eventually joined Rauti’s ON in 1957. Early on, he engaged in violent actions and property damage, leading to several charges against him. For instance, he was arrested for a couple of days for stealing the flag of the Resistenza from Rome’s Museum of the Risorgimento.
However, ideological differences about the right strategy and personal rivalry between Rauti and Delle Chiaie quickly emerged. When Delle Chiaie was denied a more senior position within ON, he left and founded the Groups of Revolutionary Actions (Gruppi d’Azione Rivoluzionaria) which was renamed the National Vanguard (AN) in December 1959. As the name of the new organization suggests, Delle Chiaie also believed in Evola’s aristocratic elitism.
Looking at Delle Chiaie’s early career allows us to chart the dynamics of radicalization of a right-wing extremist. Given Delle Chiaie’s primary conflict with the left and secondary conflict with the “state,” he joined the MSI in the hope of changing the system. However, he quickly became disappointed with the party’s leadership—the third conflict—and joined Rauti’s ON. When this group denied him more influence over the right course of action, he eventually chose to set up his own radical extra-parliamentary organization, AN.
Delle Chiaie’s National Vanguard
Delle Chiaie’s AN quickly attracted a younger generation of right-wing radicals and developed into a nationwide organization with strongholds in Southern Italy. Besides the public face, which organized meetings and demonstrations, AN possessed a powerful clandestine structure, which engaged in violent clashes and acts of psychological warfare. The exact number of members is unknown, though estimates range between a few hundred and a few thousand.
Despite its split from and rivalry with ON and the MSI, contact between these groups remained strong. Leading figures of the MSI financially supported AN. Later money also came from the American embassy. As the Pike Commission revealed in 1976, US Ambassador Graham Martin (1969-1973) and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (*1923) had devised a program to finance extreme right-wing groups in Italy. The commission estimated the financial support given to right-wing groups and the Italian secret service in order to encourage a “turn to the right in the Italian political balance” at around $10 million.
In the 1960s, Delle Chiaie’s AN helped to devise the theoretical foundations of what later became known as the “strategy of tension” in order to counter the “opening to the left” in politics and society. Abandoning his previous convictions, Delle Chiaie now believed that it was of utmost importance to establish contacts with segments of the security apparatus if he wanted his theoretical ideas on terrorism and psychological warfare to succeed. The alliance, albeit fragile, between right-wing radicals and reactionary elements within the security apparatus and political milieu was nothing new; this phenomenon already existed in Italy’s interwar period and was key for Mussolini’s rise.
Delle Chiaie’s first contact with Italian law enforcement and secret services dates back to the protests against the Tambroni government in 1960. With the blessing of Italy’s security apparatus, He infiltrated the left-wing anti-government protests in Rome as an agent provocateur. It was the beginning of a long-lasting cooperation between Delle Chiaie and segments of the Italian security services, the Carabinieri, and the Ministry of the Interior. One of Delle Chiaie’s most important contacts in this realm was Guido Giannettini (1930-2003), a right-wing journalist and secret agent.
In May 1965, the Istituto Alberto Pollio organized the “La guerra rivoluzionaria” conference at the Hotel Parco di Principi in Rome with the support of the Italian secret service and the Carabinieri. In addition to members of the Italian army and secret services like Giannettini, well-known right-wing extremists like Rauti and Delle Chiaie were present. The conference documents were later published under the title “La Terza Guerra Mondiale è già cominciata.” They leave no doubt: High-ranking members of the security apparatus and right-wing radicals all agreed that the “opening to the left” must be countered by any possible means.
In this, they were echoing what Clemente Graziani (1925-1996), a member of Rauti’s ON wrote in April 1963. He warned of a global Communist revolution that could only be averted by using the tactics of the enemy—propaganda, infiltration, and terrorism. Moral concerns were to be completely disregarded:
“Indiscriminate terrorism […] inevitably includes the possibility of killing old people, women and children. Actions of this kind have so far […] been regarded as fatal if one wants to win a conflict. Today, however, these forms of terrorist intimidation are absolutely necessary.”
Given the connections between the radical right and the security apparatus it might not come as a surprise that law enforcement agencies were reluctant to act against the growing threat of right-wing extremism. In June 1962, Delle Chiaie and other leading members of AN were arrested on charges of re-founding the dissolved fascist party. Due to insufficient evidence, however, they were quickly freed.
Given the marginalization of the radical right in his home-country after the Tambroni episode in 1960 Delle Chiaie turned his interest to the global fight against communism and sought to form international alliances. His personal involvement in a global clandestine neo-fascist infrastructure dates back to 1964, when he contacted the newly created Aginter Press in the Portuguese capital Lisbon. This pseudo press agency was founded by former OAS (Organisation armée secrète) officer Yves Guillou, known as Yves Guerin-Serac, and functioned as a network that—with the support of the CIA—organized the worldwide fight against communism and national liberation movements in former colonies who were seen as Moscow’s puppets. Delle Chiaie became Aginter’s agent in Italy, responsible for the infiltration of the left and carrying out the coordinated international propaganda campaigns against the left and the USSR.
In April 1968, Delle Chiaie and approximately 200 other Italian neo-fascists travelled to Greece. The trip was organized by members of the Italian army and secret service. In Greece they met with leading figures of the military junta who had successfully staged a coup d’état against the elected government in April 1967. The trip was not only meant to strengthen the ties between various groups of the European right and authoritarian regimes; it was also a perfect opportunity to exchange ideas, given that right-wing radicals like Delle Chiaie considered the Greek case as a possible model for a coup in Italy.
The “Strategy of Tension”: Piazza Fontana and the Borghese Coup
The outcome of the Italian election of May 1968 was a bitter disappointment for the radical right: Communists were able to increase their votes by two percent, the Socialists by more than six. For radicals like Delle Chiaie it was time to act and fully put into operation what had been discussed in 1965.
The goal of the “strategy of tension,” which lasted from April 1969 to 1974, was simple: Violent protests and terrorist attacks, all carried out by right-wing terrorists but blamed on the left, would plunge Italy into chaos and eventually justify an authoritarian coup and suppression of Communism in Italy. At least 3,640 acts of violence were committed by right-wing terrorists that cost the lives of 63 people.
On 12 December 1969, bomb attacks in Milan and Rome shook the Italian nation. While the three explosions in Rome injured 18 people, the attack at the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricultura at the Piazza Fontana in Milan claimed the lives of 16 people and wounded over 150. Despite numerous trials that dragged on for years, the actual perpetrators have not yet been identified. It is considered likely that Franco Freda and Giovanni Ventura, both members of ON, carried out the attacks. However, thanks to the cover-up by segments of the Italian secret service, there was never enough evidence for a conviction.
Delle Chiaie’s name appears very early in the investigation. Just a few days after the bombing attack, his close collaborator Mario Merlino (*1944) was interrogated by the police. Merlino stated that he had spent the day before the attacks at Delle Chiaie’s house, a claim Delle Chiaie immediately denied when he was asked by the police. In July 1970, the public prosecutor’s office issued an arrest warrant for Delle Chiaie on the grounds that he’d given false testimony about Merlino’s whereabouts. However, by then Delle Chiaie had already gone underground to escape arrest.
While right-wing extremists plunged the streets of Italy into bloody chaos, Delle Chiaie prepared for a coup d’état. He had previously established close ties with Junio Valerio Borghese (1906-1974), leader of the neo-fascist group National Front (Fronte Nazionale, FN) and nicknamed the “Black Prince.” Though Delle Chiaie had briefly disbanded AN in 1966 (he re-established AN in 1970), he felt that Borghese’s FN was a right-wing group powerful enough to be able to carry off the coup.
On 7 December 1970, the time had come: As agreed with Borghese in advance, Delle Chiaie and a few followers occupied the Ministry of the Interior. However, in the early morning hours of the next day, Borghese himself called off the coup. Even today the exact circumstances of this decision remain in the dark.
Though only a few perpetrators of the “strategy of tension” have been convicted, public prosecutors were able to prove connections between right-wing terrorists and the Italian secret service as early as 1974. These connections allowed suspected terrorists, including Delle Chiaie, to avoid police investigation. The unsatisfactory investigation results cannot only be explained by these networks, however. At the time, right-wing terrorists did not publish lengthy manifestos justifying their actions. The violent act itself was deemed message enough and did not require further explanation; their aim was to spread fear among the public and discredit the left, thus pushing the former to seek protection from the government.
After the failed coup in December, Borghese and Delle Chiaie escaped to Francisco Franco’s Spain. However, Delle Chiaie would not give up. More than ever he was convinced that every right-wing group and authoritarian state worldwide needed to work together and use every tool of the “revolutionary war” in order to stop Communism and the further decline of the West. How exactly he intended to implement his ideas, will be the focus of Part II.
Dr Tobias Hof is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Privatdozent for Modern and Contemporary History at Ludwig-Maximilians-University München. See his profile here.
© Tobias Hof. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).