How We Beat ANTIFA the Last Time


The following is a condensed version of an academic paper I wrote in 2012, regarding comparative strategies to combat leftist terrorism in the U.S. and Germany. This paper was published in the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officer’s “Intelligencer” quarterly journal in the spring of 2013.

The article compares strategies for dealing with subversive elements analogous to ANTIFA (Antifashiste Aktion), a Maoist terrorist group active in the United States and elsewhere. ANTIFA is a group whose intellectual history and operational manual is the product of ~150 years of intellectual ferment and tactical thought, including the works of Marx, Mao, Lenin, and lesser-known thinkers such as Mikhail Bakunin and Antonio Gramsci.

Western Germany and the United States embody different strategies towards confronting the threat of leftist terrorism. Western Germany embraced lockdowns and paramilitary force to confront the Red Army Faktion — as a result, RAF maintained the political capital to survive well into the 90’s, albeit in diminished form. Comparatively, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program (which also targeted the KKK) focused on infiltrating groups and engaging in domestic political warfare (now controversial) to discredit the Weather Underground Organization (WUO). Both movements were embedded in larger social organizations and sought to employ Maoist tactics to create an overreaction by governments to radicalize and recruit sympathizers, while engaging in rioting, looting, arson, and political violence.

I’ve hyperlinked sources in my bibliography. Two I recommend most are Rafalko’s MHCHAOS and Cunningham’s There’s Something Happening Here, both of which offer a contrarian take on the effectiveness of countersubversion programs in the United States in the 60’s and 70’s. I also highly recommend watching “Die Baader Meinhoff Komplex” based on the book of the same name.

“The Utility and Necessity of Domestic Countersubversion Programs: Comparing the Legacies of the Weather Underground and Red Army Faction”

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a tumultuous time for Western democracies, and marked the rise of several violent domestic extremist organizations. Chief among these were “New Left” groups such as the American Weather Underground Organization (WUO) and West German Red Army Faction (RAF), both of which splintered from broader leftist youth coalitions in order to pursue the goals of revolutionary guerrilla warfare inside their home countries. These two groups were alike in almost every meaningful way, including their size, demographics, modus operandi, stated goals, organizations, and tactics. Both groups received support from hostile foreign intelligence organizations, and served as terrorist proxies during the Cold War. However, there is one essential difference between the two: Only the Weather Underground was targeted by a sophisticated counterintelligence program properly designed to destroy that group’s center of gravity. This came in the form of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO (“Counterintelligence Program”), a domestic counterintelligence effort targeted at American citizens and movements committed to the act of subversion. Where West German authorities attempted to counter the RAF through legal action and arrests, this only catered to the group’s public narrative of fascist oppression and allowed the organization to survive to a second and third generation, only formally dissolving in 1998. By comparison, the Weather Underground petered out rapidly, ceasing to operate by the late 70’s. In comparison, this vindicates domestic countersubversion programs such as COINTELPRO. Despite their controversy, countersubversion programs are a winning strategy against foreign state-sponsored terrorism.

II. Basis for Comparison

The Weathermen and Faction were fundamentally similar along almost all lines of comparison; their young and educated demographic, “anti-imperialist” and “anti-fascist” rhetoric and ideology, and their use of increasingly high profile violence against symbols of Western capitalism and democratic order. One could even examine the minutia of how these groups operated and see astounding similarities, from their common use of banks robberies and riots on college campuses to their collective chants of “HO, HO, HO CHI MINH!” at rallies and use of “sexual liberation” in order to fully invest new members in the group. Beyond linguistic and geographical differences, there is little to distinguish the two.

WUO and RAF were formed within a few months of each other (late 1969 and early 1970, respectively), splitting from broader New Left coalitions[1] in pursuit a of revolutionary violence and outright warfare against the state. These groups existed in free states governed by constitutional federalism and by a Western political-moral tradition, and both maintained contact with governments hostile to that political and moral order. In the case of the Weathermen, individuals were trained in Cuba prior to its split with the broader “New Left” coalition. This core later maintained contact with the Cuban DGI operating from the UN in New York. The RAF benefited first from East German provocation and later from direct material support rendered by the Ministry for State Security (MfS, better known as Stasi). Contrary to their self-written hagiographies, these groups were proxies, not organic insurgents.

The WUO and RAF had a similar organizational profile rooted in the Communist model or insurgency and reflected by later models of terrorist organization, with core ideologues and operators surrounded by a few dozen committed but less capable operatives and much broader network of facilitators and sympathizers. Steeped in Communist insurgency literature, both the WUO and RAF invoked “propaganda by deed” — the use of terrorist tactics and bravado to make a political point. By committing acts of violence, insurgents hope to make the state overreact and oppress the populace, which in turn is expected to broaden the base of grievance from which the insurgent could operate from.

It is also now beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Weather Underground and Red Army Faction were also co-opted as proxies by the USSR’s satellite intelligence services. Despite the fact that the New Left in both the United States and Germany was not universally pro-Communist, both the DGI[2] and MfS[3] had active roles in the emergence of the Weather Underground and the Red Army Faction through provocation and recruitment targeted at existing “New Left” organizations.

By June of 1969 at least 110 members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had traveled to Cuba, with the majority receiving their expenses paid by the Communist Party of Cuba[4]. The leader of what became the Weathermen, Mark Rudd, and nineteen other SDS members (including WUO heavyweights Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers) traveled to Cuba in February of 1968 to train for four weeks in urban guerrilla warfare and Marxist-Leninist ideology as guests of the Communist Party of Cuba and with cooperation from the KGB and DGI[5],[6]. These “SDSers” were cased for ideological commitment, no only to Communist goals and ideology but to violent action against the government of the United States. Guerrilla training predated the October 1969 convention in which Rudd’s faction separated from the larger SDS, highlighting WUO’s development as an act of foreign subversion. Rudd became the core leader of the WUO and was later run as an asset by a member of the Cuban Delegation assigned to the United Nations: General Secretary Alberto Boza Hidalgo Gato. Due to the program’s success the DGI added an additional officer to the New York delegation in order to assess and recruit New Left radicals in the New York area. Due to diligence on the part of both the FBI and CIA’s MHCHAOS program, which followed the activities of COINTELPRO targets abroad, these operatives were identified and declared persona non grata for espionage activities within the year.[7] Despite shrill claims to the contrary, WUO was a bonafide communist proxy and an absolutely legitimate target.

Similar to WUO’s relationship with the DGI, the RAF had multiple relations with the East German MfS. The first predated RAF’s inception; on 2 June 1967, Benno Ohnesorg, a 27 year-old university student attending his first protest was fatally shot through the head by a plainclothes police officer, Karl Heinz-Kurras, during the ensuing riot, becoming a martyr of fascist thuggery and unchecked imperial violence to the German New Left. Heinz-Kurras was suspended from the police force for four years, and later readmitted with a promotion. It was discovered only in 2009 that Heinz-Kurras was in fact a Stasi agent in West Berlin, and that the murder of an innocent protestor was a premeditated act designed to incite violence on the part of the German New Left, who had been a party in attendance at the protest.[8] After the arrest of the Baader-Meinhoff gang in 1972, the Stasi became deeply involved in the operation of the remnants of the Faction, facilitating communication between the second and third generations of the RAF and providing a safe haven for RAF operatives.[9]

The major difference between the RAF and WUO was not actually between the RAF and WUO, but between the BKA (Bundeskriminalamt) and FBI’s respective responses to them. West German authorities undertook a strictly law-enforcement approach towards the problem presented by RAF, sentencing 1444 individuals to jail time for membership and support rendered to the Faction.[10] This included nation-wide crackdowns directed by the BKA and Federal Police (BPOL/Bundespolezei), using early computerized databases to identify and isolate individuals who were “off the grid,” complete with checkpoints and ID checks along major roads and bridges. Despite this vigilance, the RAF persisted, killing 34 people and wound 230, in addition to the loss of 25 of its own operatives over the course of its history.[11]

The American security response to the Weather Underground was quite different. COINTELPRO involved the use of varied counterintelligence tactics to neutralize groups fomenting domestic unrest, such as the Black Panther Party, Klu Klux Klan, Weather Underground, and CPUSA. To quote David Cunningham’s seminal study of COINTELPRO, “…accounts of both New Left and Klan activity decline draw on three factors: Decreased political opportunities, reduced organizational capacity, and a breakdown in the movement organization’s ability to construct resonant frames to engage and mobilize constituents.[12]” In short, the WUO failed to become as lethal or as popular as the RAF because it was confronted across this spectrum, whereas the RAF merely faced crackdowns and arrests that catered to its recruiting narrative.

III. Comparing Responses

COINTELPRO-New Left was initiated by the FBI in 1968, with the initial focus of identifying and assessing the nature and threat of the New Left movement, which was poorly understood by outside sources. The CIA’s MHCHAOS program was tasked with monitoring American New Left activities abroad, including the 1968 travel to and subsequent training in Cuba by what became the core of the Weather Underground.[13] The FBI’s strategy against the Weather Underground and other New Left militants involved several of the same tactics used against other COINTELPRO targets, including efforts to brand WUO members as filthy, out of touch, illiterate, incompetent, and as petty criminals with ideological dressing.[14] This process was adaptive and included an operational assessment cycle; the FBI registered 455 actions against the New Left, with 146 of those actions reporting immediate impacts.[15]

The first distinct period of Weatherman activity begins with the October 7, 1969 bombing of the Haymarket Police Memorial in Chicago, followed by the SDS “Days of Rage” on October 8–11. Although the FBI did manage to partially disrupt the number in attendance through misdirection, roughly 300 individuals arrived and were jailed for smashing shop windows and other riotous activity. This group included the majority of the Cuban-trained Weathermen ringleaders, who were later released on bail. The level of violence committed further split SDS, WUO, and the Black Panther Party (BPP), with BPP Chicago chairman Fred Hampton denouncing the group: “We believe that the Weather Underground Organization’s action was anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, chauvinistic, [and] Custeristic[16]… It’s nothing but child’s play — it’s folly.[17]” The FBI exploited this public divide, diminishing the prospects for future cooperation between SDS and the Black Panther Party. By the time the Weathermen went underground after jumping bail, they had few friendly organizations to turn to. Returning to Flint, Michigan, the Weathermen elected to “engage in war against the US Government” and formally abolish Students for a Democratic Society as an organization[18]. This period is marked by a series of bombings against law enforcement institutions and symbols, such as the bombing of a police station in San Francisco on February 16 of 1970, carried out in collusion with the Black Liberation Army (BLA).

With the arrest and trial of the “Panther 21” the Weather Underground organization began to threaten the justice system even more overtly, similar to the second generation of the Red Army Faction’s campaign of violence to free the first of the RAF generation from 1972–1977. In an attempt to make devices for a mass casualty attack against the Columbia University Library and a non-commissioned officer’s ball at Fort Dix, the Weathermen suffered their first casualties when a dynamite-based anti-personnel bomb went off inside their New York townhouse, killing three Weathermen and wounding two others. After this point, the Weathermen struggled to maintain their organization; when they struck, the FBI dominated the media and denied the group a stump by which to trumpet their ideology. FBI also established agents of influence within more moderate elements of the New Left in order to redirect dissent into traditional democratic channles while negatively branding violence embraced by the WUO. By attacking the connection between intellectual dissent to the Vietnam war and violence against the state, the FBI denied the WUO fresh recruits and martyrs while stifling their “propaganda by deed” strategy of violence, effectively isolating the group to cook in its own juices.

COINTELPRO-New Left itself was short-lived, but acted as an abortificant at the right place and time, preventing the Weathermen from creating a durable network whose members were candidates for martyrdom. Though this program ended in 1974, it had already put the Weathermen on the fringe and deprived their organization of momentum in recruiting new militants, preventing the kind of generational effects visible in the Red Army Faction. In this timeframe the FBI registered 158 operations in which they supplied information to officials that negatively cast the Weathermen and SDS,[19] in addition to a slew of other operations such as disrupting invitations to events, misdirecting protests, and playing on SDS member’s family connections to give them a choice between status-quo avenues of protest and radical isolation. This program even included the manipulation of extremist publications, such that they appeared even more distastefully radical.[20] COINTELPRO was coupled with traditional law enforcement, though arrests were only made in the case of proven violence, and those individuals were condemned for their actions and deprived of the freedom to use their prosecution as a pulpit.

The effectiveness of COINTELPRO and MHCHAOS stand in stark contrast to West German responses to the RAF. The murder of an Benno Ohnesorg by an ostensibly West German police officer and the attempted murder of Rudi Deutschke, the leader of West Germany’s Marxist Student Movement[21] in April of the following year further galvanized left; Ulrike Meinhoff was a key figure in the mobilization, blaming Springer Group, a right-wing media outlet, for the violence. Meinhoff was eventually co-opted by Baader and Ennslin, two violent far-left paramours who had been imprisoned for arson and released as “political prisoners” in 1968. What became the core of the RAF, known as the “Baader-Meinhoff Gang” emerged in 1970, operating as bank robbers and arsonists a until their capture in 1972. Despite being eventually convicted, the RAF continued to exercise “propaganda by deed” through hunger strikes, resulting in the death of Holger Meins, a lower-level RAF operative. Meinhoff hung herself in 1974 after being isolated and mistreated by Ennslin and other RAF inmates. Means of communication between the core and remaining operatives was facilitated by the RAF’s lawyers, including Klaus Croissant, who was identified in 1992 as an MfS asset.[22] This allowed for continued operational control as well as recruitment: RAF members outside attempted to free arrested members by committing increasingly violent acts of terrorism in order to extort the prisoner’s release, culminating in the October 1977 hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 by the PFLP, in coordination with the RAF. Contrary to PFLP and RAF expectations, the West German government did not give into demands for the Faction’s release, instead sending GSG-9 (West Germany’s elite counterterrorism unit) to free the hostages on the tarmac of the Mogadishu airport. Following news of the PFLP’s failure, Baader, Ennslin, and Raspe committed suicide in unison, hoping to implicate their guards in murder. This was their final act of propaganda by deed, and was used to facilitate the recruitment of second and third generations of RAF, with the same dynamic of extortionary violence emerging each time a major cell was arrested.

Following the capture of the core of RAF (Baader, Meinhoff, Ensslin, and Raspe) in June of 1972 following a sophisticated nationwide crackdown by the Bundeskriminalamt, the second generation of RAF became operationally independent of the core, despite having lines of communication through the imprisoned commander’s lawyers. After the 1977 suicide of the core, RAF shifted from kidnapping politicians and other high power individuals as a means of extorting concessions from the state to attacks against representatives of the “military industrial complex.” To quote a recent article on the Red Army Faction’s demise, “Unlike the first generation, whose goal was focused on starting a revolution in West Germany, the primary goal of the second generation, at least until 1977, was to force the release of the imprisoned members of the first generation.[23]” This generation of the RAF went through a similar cycle. After the German Autumn of 1977, the second generation of the RAF continued bank robberies and armed assassinations of government ministers. The second generation was again wrapped up by the BKA in 1984 with the arrest of Brigitte Mohnhaupt and several other militants, including cached weaponry and safehouses. Some operatives, however, “renounced violence” and disappeared into East Germany, resurfacing as part of the third generation with support from the Stasi.[24] Not a single RAF safehouse was found by the BKA after 1984, through the group only formally dissolved in 1998.[25] RAF members from this generation were uncovered in East Germany after reunification, and were living under assumed identities provided by the Stasi.[26]

Despite facing a very capable West German police force, which managed to arrest networks of RAF militants time and again through the diligent and tenacious use of intelligence, the Faction carried on by recruiting new supporters and turning neutralized members into martyrs for the cause. What COINTELPRO accomplished that the BKA law-enforcement approach did not was the isolation of the violent element of the New Left from the New Left at large, which denied the organization the ability to continue after the first generation of militants had been removed from the fight. The use of counterintelligence tactics isolated the Weathermen from other radical networks and intelligence agencies, a factor that proved essential in the continuation of the Red Army Faction. The arrest, trial, and eventual suicide of the first generation of the Red Army Faction did not accomplish this goal; rather, it catered to RAF sympathizer’s perception of fascist oppression and inspired a second generation to take up arms. After the human and material core of the second generation of the RAF was neutralized, new recruits emerged to form a third generation of the RAF, which was equally committed to violence and revolutionary subversion, despite being more limited in its opportunities.[27] Most of the third generation had no direct connection with the first generation of RAF, and only tangential connections with the second generation, yet they were still able to recruit, form, and acquire funding for their initiative. It was the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, not the use of arrests and legal prosecution, that eventually persuaded the RAF to cease attacks after 1993 and formally lay their arms down in 1998.

IV. Lessons Learned

Despite the accusations leveled at COINTELPRO and MHCHAOS by modern-day progressives as “anti-democratic” and “authoritarian” programs of state repression, the effectiveness of these programs at defending innocent civilians and preventing state-sponsored terrorism inside our own borders has been vindicated by history. By embracing the necessity of counterintelligence activities against foreign proxies on U.S. soil, including those involving our own citizens, the FBI and CIA denied a foreign-sponsored terrorist group momentum, while German authorities’ attachment to legal process and arrests allowed a nearly identical movement to continue its work. Not only did the imprisonment of the Baader-Meinhoff gang fail to fully isolate the leadership from the organization, it allowed a new generation of RAF members to justify even more violent strikes against officials and civilians. The strictly legal strategy failed partially because it did not confront the narratives of martyrdom and authoritarian rule that the RAF and similar organizations marketed themselves as fighting. Furthermore, this shakeup in organization allowed the East German Stasi to establish a tighter means of control over the group, further entrenching RAF.

In comparison, WUO was quickly isolated from foreign support and from the populace at large by MHCHAOS and COINTELPRO, resulting in an operational arc of six years, rather than two decades. These programs were effective. That is an inconvenient fact for people of every political stripe who insist that there is no place for such programs in a democracy.

[1] Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Ausserparlamentarische Opposition, respectively.

[2] Dirección General de Inteligencia, Cuban Intelligence Service, organized along the lines of the KGB/Cheka including departments devoted to foreign subversion, domestic surveillance, and political warfare in addition to traditional intelligence collection.

[3] Ministerium für Staatssicherheit — “Ministry for State Security” [Stasi]. Soviet Proxy intelligence service, again organized along KGB lines, to include offices for foreign subversion, domestic surveillance, and political warfare in addition to traditional intelligence collection

[4] Rafalko, Frank. (2011) MH/CHAOS: The CIA’s Campaign Against the Radical New Left and the Black Panthers. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. Page 160.

[5] Buck, M.; Gilbert, D. Whitehorn, L. 2001 Enemies of the State: An Interview With Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoners. Montreal, QC: Abraham Guillen Press.

[6] United States 94th Congress. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws. “The Weather Underground Report of the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate Ninety-Fourth Congress First Session”, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975) U.S. Senate Subcommittee 13, 22, 65

[7] Rafalko, p. 159

[8] Der Spiegel, “1968 Revisited: The Truth About the Gunshot That Changed Germany” 5–28–2009.

[9] Shmeidel, John. 1993. My Enemy’s Enemy: Twenty Years of Co-operation Between West Germany’s Red Army Faction and the GDR Ministry for State Security. Intelligence and National security, Vol. 8. №4. pp-59–72. p. 61–72

[10] ibid p. 158

[11] Moghadam, A. (2012). Failure and Disengagement of the Red Army Faction. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 35:156–181. p. 157

[12] Cunningham, David. (2004). There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, The Clan, and FBI Counterintelligence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 152

[13] Rafalko, Frank J. 2011.

[14] Cunningham, David. 2004. There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, The Klan, and The FBI. Berkely, CA: University of Callifornia Press

[15] ibid. p. 153

[16] referring to George Armstrong Custer

[17] Lozano, C. (Producer), Siegel, B. & Green S. (2002) The Weather Underground. USA: New Video Group.

[18] Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1976). Weather underground organization case files. Retrieved from 382–383.

[19] Cunningham, David. Appendix A, p. 251

[20] ibid, p. 117

[21] 68er-Bewegung — “Movement of ’68”

[22] Robers, Norbert. Stasi Akten: Besonders wertvoll. Focus Magazine, №18. (29 February 1996).

[23] Moghadam, A (2012). p. 163

[24] Schmeidel, John. (1993). 59–72

[25] Moghadam, 168

[26] Shmeidel, John. (1993) p. 67

[27] Moghadam, 169

American counterterrorism professional, entrepreneur, author; not necessarily in that order. Write mostly philosophy, politics, & economics. @adavidknapp

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