It was the 8th of November 1990.
Almost exactly one year after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the last days of that stand-off known as the Cold War.
For decades, the World had been on the verge of a devastating conflict between the Western and Eastern Blocs, fearing a Mutually Assured Destruction brought about by the enmity between the Capitalist and Communist ideologies.
The Cold War had occasionally flared up in localised conflicts by proxy, many of which had been fought or sponsored by shadowy organisations, of which the general public knew little or nothing about.
On that fateful day, a man stood up in front of an assembly of more than 300 Senators and Ministers and disclosed a shocking truth to the world.
That man was the Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti.
At the 449th Session of the Italian Senate he revealed the existence of ‘Gladio’, a secret, militarised organisation which had been operating in Italy and other Western countries for more than four decades.
That day, the World found out about the Stay Behind network: NATO’s secret armies to resist against a Soviet invasion.
SOUND OF ROLLING TANKS
Like dominoes falling, other European leaders admitted to the truth.
Since 1948, secret military and civilian units had been covertly training, planning, and equipping themselves to face a not so unthinkable prospect: a full-blown attack on Western Europe by Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops.
The mission of these sleeper cells was to immediately spring into action, extracting politicians to safety, setting up resistance movements, demolishing infrastructure and harassing the invaders with guerrilla attacks.
Their brief, however, may have gone one several steps further.
Gladio and other similar organisations may have bene involved in clandestine operations including propaganda, counter-insurgency, false flag operations, subversion of democratic institutions, even state-sponsored terrorism.
The ultimate goal of these actions was to prevent the rise to power of socialist or communist parties in Western Europe. If necessary, by favouring the rise of military juntas and right-wing regimes.
These allegations have been popularised by Swiss historian Daniele Ganser, author of the controversial
‘NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe’,
published in 2004.
Ganser’s allegations and methodology have been both defended and criticised by academia and media outlets.
Was there a widespread conspiracy, coordinated by NATO and the CIA, to steer the West towards authoritarianism, against communism?
The overall picture is very complex, and many details are still obscure.
So, let’s proceed in order.
By February of 1948 Europe was already divided along the Iron curtain, the fault line of the conflict of ideologies. From the 21st to the 25th of that month, a Communist coup d’etat took place in Czechoslovakia, adding another territory under the shadow of Moscow.
The prospect that the leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, may seek to expand his sphere of influence became very realistic.
The sound of rolling tanks marked by a red star made its way into the nightmares of the West.
On the 18th of June 1948, US State Department advisor George Keenan and the US National Security Council launched a new initiative, the Office of Policy Co-ordination, or OPC.
Keenan was the engine behind the Marshall Plan, the project of economic aid to rebuild Europe post WWII. But his new brainchild was a completely different affair.
The OPC was a covert operations unit, set up to create ‘Stay-behind’ networks in Europe: a sort of pre-emptive resistance movement to fight a potential communist invasion.
After the formation of the NATO in April of 1949, this Western military alliance took over the plan, creating two separate sets of entities: Stay Behind Units – SBUs – and Stay Behind Organisations – SBOs.
The SBUs were composed of professional military personnel. By the early 1950s the bulk of their forces were constituted by the 21st and 23rd SAS Regiments of the British Army, as well as the US 10th Special Forces Group. They were joined one decade later by the Special Reconnaissance Squadron of the British Royal Armoured Corps.
In case of a Warsaw Pact attack across the East-West German border, the bulk of NATO forces in West Germany had to fall back to the west bank of the River Rhine.
But the units I mentioned had to stay behind and delay the progress of communist forces.
They were to split into small contingents, hiding into pre-fab shelters equipped with periscopes, field radios … as well as brandy and chocolate!
From there, they had to acquire targets on behalf of NATO’s artillery and missile batteries, ready to rain down tactical nukes on the advancing enemy.
Given the occasion, the SBUs could launch targeted assassinations or demolish enemy installations, inspired by their field manual: ‘Total Resistance’ – a guerrilla warfare handbook written by the Swiss Army Major Hans von Dach.
Another part of their mission was to lead resistance movements in the occupied lands. To accomplish this task, SBUs would be supported by civilians recruited into Stay Behind Organisations, or SBOs – such as the Italian Gladio.
While the actions of the SBUs were directed at NATO level, SBOs were to remain under national command.
In 1952 SBOs were coordinated by NATO’s Clandestine Planning Committee, and later by the Allied Coordination Committee.
But the scope of these bodies was to only train and direct local SBOs for two purposes: attacking the Warsaw Pact military, and rescuing NATO pilots downed over Europe.
All other activities conducted by an SBO was the sole responsibility of that country’s government or security services – which left freedom of interpretation as to what they were exactly meant to do.
JOINING THE SHADOWS
SBOs mushroomed in most NATO countries, with the few exceptions of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the microstates. Well, not all the ‘little guys’ were excluded from the game, as Luxembourg had its own network.
Even the US recognised the need for an SBO to defend Alaska, the most likely route for a Soviet invasion via Siberia. Set up in June 1950, this was known as ‘Washtub’, a joint operation of the FBI and the Office of Special Investigations, the Air Force’s intelligence service.
Eventually, the overall scheme extended also to non-NATO members, formally neutral countries like Switzerland, Sweden and Finland.
Each SBO had its own local ‘flavour’ in terms of recruitment, training, structure, equipment, and mission statement.
Thanks to extensive parliamentary enquiries and Freedom of Information releases, the best documented operations are the ones in Alaska, Italy and Switzerland: Washtub, Gladio and P-26 respectively.
I am going to concentrate on these three to extrapolate some examples and common themes.
First, recruitment. How were the sleeper anti-Soviet agents selected?
FBI Director J Edgar Hoover himself delineated the ideal profile for his Alaskan guerrillas. They were to be picked amongst unskilled or semi-skilled workers, provided they were not actively engaged in a labour union – to prevent communist infiltration. These candidates were less likely to be deported or executed by the Red Army.
The most desirable trait was experience in survivalist skills. An Air Force memo put forward the perfect candidate: a professional pilot, hunter and photographer form Anchorage. The detail that he only had one arm seemed not to bother recruiters!
The local Inupat population and women were excluded from the start, both categories deemed unreliable. Although declassified files prove the enlistment of at least one woman, a former teacher turned gold dredger.
New agents were to be grouped into cells of 4 to 6 individuals, one cell per 5,000 civilians. Each unit was coordinated by a ‘principal’, who gave authority to his men – or woman – to recruit further operatives, on the condition that the leader’s identity remained secret.
Similar criteria were implemented in Italy.
Recruiters from the military secret services preferred middle aged, low key, even disabled civilians. Again, they were less likely to attract the attention of potential invaders. But the early days of Gladio also saw an influx of younger, physically fit individuals, especially former partisans with experience of Alpine guerrilla warfare against Nazis and Fascists.
In all cases, the selection excluded candidates with extremist political views – on both sides of the spectrum – and those with an excessive trigger-happy attitude.
The so-called ‘Gladiators’, 622 in total, were organised into small, tight-knit cells, who eventually also welcomed women amongst their ranks. A hairdresser with a talent for instinctive shooting was the first female gladiator.
The Swiss SBO, P-26, was an exception as it included active military personnel at the top and intermediate levels of the chain of command. The resistance fighters on the ground were all civilians, albeit with former military training.
The ideal ‘P-26er’ had to be a low-profile and trustworthy individual, with a regular job which could provide cover for frequent training leaves. A travelling salesman, for example.
Each unit consisted of 6 to 10 members, spread in 80 locations across the country. Units were split in two cells, one ‘active’ and one ‘sleeper’.
The ‘active’ cell was coordinated by an operational chief, leading a communications expert, a courier and a demolitions specialist. Despite their competence, these operatives were expected to fall very soon in Soviet’s hands. For this reason, its members didn’t even know about the existence of the ‘sleepers’, lest they revealed their names or location under torture. It was then time for the ‘sleeper’ cell to kick into gear.
BECOMING A SHADOW
As you may expect, training for all SBO agents was frequent, intensive and brutal.
The best documented training curriculum comes from the parliamentary enquiries on Gladio.
Italian volunteers were flown to a boot camp in a location kept secret even to them. It was later revealed to be the ‘Training Centre for Saboteurs’ near Alghero, Sardinia.
Here, recruits completed five basic modules:
Collection and transmission of intelligence
Counter-propaganda against invaders
Exfiltration of high-profile individuals, and
The sabotage school, for example, included a realistic obstacle course, in which gladiators learned how to negotiate barbed wire and glass-topped walls before blowing up military installations with plastic explosives.
The training was complemented with field exercises. Exfiltration specialists had to practice crossing the Alps in winter, to release their high-level wards into Switzerland or France.
While guerrilla experts joined Italian Special Forces and US Navy Seals in War Games such as ALTENEA ’74, which simulated ambushes against the Red Army on the border with Austria and Yugoslavia.
The course was completed with the sixth module, which taught each ‘gladiator’ to independently recruit and run their own partisan organisation.
The Swiss and Alaskan counterparts of Gladio were trained in a similar way, but the field exercises of P-26 deserve some extra attention.
P-26ers were trained in Britain by SAS and MI6 operatives, arguably a violation of Switzerland’s neutral status.
After 1972, British security services organised regular exercises, codenamed ‘TARGUM’.
Trainee cells had to reach the UK incognito, collect a consignment of secret messages, evade police controls and eventually sabotage an oil refinery.
In the last act of TARGUM, recruits had to jump from a low-flying helicopter onto the deck of a motorboat or a surfaced submarine.
Sounds like spectacular fun!
Maybe that is why in the 1979 exercises a Swiss secret service official arranged for his mistress to participate!
A common attribute of all training programmes was proficiency in unarmed and especially armed combat.
All SBO networks – except for Luxembourg – had access to firearms. Veritable arsenals were stored in secret weapons caches, generally located near the most likely invasion routes.
Italian Gladio had planted 139 of such caches across the nation, the majority in the North Eastern regions. Codenamed ‘nascos’ they were usually located in disused quarries, caves or even under deconsecrated churches.
They typically stored a variety of field radios, binoculars, knives and small arms. Larger ‘nascos’ could include hand grenades, TNT, plastic explosives, mortars, or even 57mm field guns.
All of which sitting underneath unsuspecting citizens!
HOW FAR INTO DARKNESS?
For at least four decades, most Western Countries maintained units of highly secretive, highly trained operatives, numbering in the thousands. A veritable shadow army, answering only to a restricted number of decision makers in the military, the Secret Services and the Government.
Your neighbour who left home for frequent ‘business trips’.
Your photographer friend, who went on ‘hunting expeditions’.
Your hairdresser, who disappeared weeks at a time to ‘visit relatives’.
Anyone could have been a sleeper operative, with access to enormous firepower stashed in a dark basement.
The resulting picture is intriguing to say the least, but it could also be unnerving.
That depends on each SBO’s primary mission brief.
For most networks, the key priority was about survival of their national institutions.
In other words: to spirit away to safety those fellow citizens most likely to be killed or captured by the Soviet invaders in the first days of the invasion.
These included top ranking civil servants, military officers, cabinet ministers and Royal family members.
For example, networks in the BeNeLux countries all had plans to exfiltrate their cabinets and Royals to the UK, where they could establish a government in exile.
The French SBO, known as ‘Mission 48’, had formulated the ‘Plan Smala’. In case of a Soviet attack, the French Government and Chiefs of Staff were to be evacuated to Algeria, where they could plan for the reconquest of the mainland.
The second strategic priority for SBOs was to collect intelligence on enemy strength and movements, so they could feed them back to their exiled governments and other NATO allies.
Finally, they were to harass and sabotage Warsaw Pact personnel and installations: set Europe ablaze!
The leaders of several Stay Behind networks, however, realised that an all-out attack on the West may never take place.
Hence, some of these organisations were designed and empowered to carry out peacetime missions to prevent local communist and socialist parties from acquiring too much power. Even if NATO’s coordinating committee for SBOs, the ACC, did not have a generalised Master Plan for internal, peace-time activities.
The enquiry on the Swiss network P-26, led by judge Pierre Cornu, found that a 1979 training exercise simulated acts of sabotage against an unspecified ‘extremist government’, which had taken power in Switzerland.
Cornu wrote in his report:
“The elements gathered during the enquiry allows to state that … resistance organisations would have probably sprang into action not only in case of a foreign occupation, but also in case of the Communist Party, or a similar political force, gaining power”
In a similar fashion, a report by the Italian Parliament quotes a military intelligence document of June 1959, according to which SBOs were intended to resist against ‘internal subversion’.
More examples of internally focused activities come from France.
Alongside their Plan ‘Smala’, Mission 48 initiated Plan ‘Cloven’, with CIA backing. The aim was to reduce the influence of the local communist Party within schools, universities, civil service, and trade unions.
And in November 1990, the then head of French military intelligence Admiral Lacoste admitted that back in 1961 several Mission 48 agents had joined a domestic terror group. This was the OAS – Organisation of the Secret Army, which opposed President De Gaulle’s decolonisation of Algeria and claimed some 2,000 lives.
The CIA also provided backing to the West German stay-behind, the BDJ, which enlisted several former Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS officers.
A CIA memo of February 1952 states:
“The BDJ is already at present one of the most potent mechanisms for political warfare purposes; in fact, it is the only mass organisation through which we can carry out a wide variety of assignments by issuing direct orders”
A BDJ member, former SS Hans Otto, confessed to the existence of the network to the Frankfurt police. In a raid of its premises, officers found evidence that the CIA had subsidised the BDJ to the tune of 50,000 $ a month!
In April 1953, another CIA memo referenced a document issued by West Germany’s Social Democrat Party. This paper claimed that the true aims of the BDJ were the subversion of the moderate government in favour of a more authoritarian, anti-communist regime.
Yet another CIA- backed organisation was ‘Aginter Presse’, a Lisbon-based paramilitary group disguised as a press agency.
It had been founded in September of 1966 by former French officer and OAS co-founder Yves Guérin-Sérac.
In addition to serving as an informal SBO for Portugal, Aginter Presse provided training to far-right and pro-colonialist paramilitary and terror groups in Europe, Africa and South America.
One of the alleged ‘clients’ of Aginter was the Greek military regime, installed with the coup of April the 20th 1967. An action which may have benefitted from support by the local Stay behind, known as LOK – the ‘Hellenic Raiding Force’.
Supervised directly by Field Marshall Alexander Papagos, it was set up chiefly as a resistance network against the Warsaw Pact.
But its secondary mission was to counteract a potential communist coup in Athens. To this end, LOK personnel had been trained in the execution of the ‘Prometheus’ plan, a NATO anti-coup contingency plan.
The April 1967 coup which installed Papagos’ right-wing government followed the Prometheus blueprint. Which prompted suspicions that the LOK network was directly involved in subversion of democracy.
The Turkish stay behind network may have also been involved in staging not one, but two coups d’état in Ankara, in 1971 and 1980. The organisation, known as ‘Counter-Guerrilla’ and ‘Special Warfare Department’ was accused of perpetrating several massacres against ethnic minorities, communist sympathizers, intellectuals and members of the opposition.
Some of these claims come from former members of the organisation themselves.
For example, in 2001 a former commander of the SBO, General Yirmibeşoğlu, admitted to their involvement in a series of pogroms in September of 1955:
“The 6-7 September events were also the job of the Special Warfare. It was a splendid organization. And it achieved its goal.”
Allegations of violent actions perpetrated by SBOs were made also in Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy.
In Belgium, between 1983 and 1985 a criminal outfit known as the ‘Brabant killers’ committed a string of violent robberies, killing 28 people. Following Andreotti’s revelations on Gladio, the Belgian Senate enquired whether the Brabant killers may have been part of the local SBO, called SDRA8.
The enquiry found no evidence that this network may have been involved in criminal activities, and the case remains unsolved.
In nearby Luxembourg, the country was shocked by 18 bombing attacks, between 1984 and 1986. Among the targets: police stations, the Palace of Justice and the airport.
Luckily, no one died.
A trial begun only in 2013, with two Gendarmerie officers in the dock.
The prosecution argued that the defendants aimed to increase funding for law enforcement. But the thesis of the defence was that the real perpetrators were members of the local SBO. As of 2021, nobody has still been indicted for the bombings.
The most controversial and inextricable case of state- or NATO-sponsored terrorism concerns Italy, and is the one which prompted Daniele Ganser’s research.
Italian police, institutions and civilians were targeted by thousands of terror attacks, from 1968 to 1988, attributed to far-right and far-left extremism. The period was known as
‘The Years of Lead’.
One of these killings was the massacre of three police officers in Peteano, North Eastern Italy, in May of 1972.
In the subsequent trial, the prosecution alleged that the explosive had been obtained from one of Gladio’s Nascos. And the self-confessed culprit hinted at the involvement of the military secret services and Gladio.
But again – no conclusive resolution!
Other enquiries during the Years of Lead found evidence of collusion between rogue factions within the secret services and far-right terrorists. They often infiltrated left wing groups – already violent in their own right – to provoke or carry out false flag attacks in their name.
The end goal was to turn public opinion against them, and to favour the rise of an authoritarian government.
This was part of the so-called Strategy of Tension, carried out by a cabal which included even organised crime and the secretive masonic lodge ‘P2’.
But was Gladio actually involved?
This has never been definitely proven, and All-party parliamentary enquiries also appear to exonerate the Italian SBO.
Surviving Gladio members deny any involvement and have made their names publicly available on their official website, stay-behind.it.
What we have found in our research however is that the ubiquitous Aginter Presse did train many of the leading terrorists involved in the Strategy of Tension. And according to public prosecutor Sergio Dini
A section of the secret services, ‘Office D’, undertook sabotage training at the same Sardinian boot camp used by Gladio. Dini pointed out that these courses immediately preceded two bombings which killed 20 civilians in 1974.
We have just visited a world of half lights, secrets and deceit; a world where ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are mercurial, unstable substances, whose structure and foundations are never truly solid.
Based on what we know thus far, there wasn’t any large-scale conspiracy at NATO level to turn every single Stay Behind Organisation into an anti-democratic subversive force.
Some SBOs however had been designed to intervene in case of a communist takeover, or to curb the power of left-wing organisations in their country – even violently if necessary.
This seems to have been the case in Turkey, Greece and Portugal.
But even if other SBOs appear not to have taken part in similar activities, enquiries into their conduct opened another can of worms: the unholy alliance between secret services and extremists to subvert established order in Italy and other European countries.
But this is a story whose final chapters are yet to be written. A story to which we may return in the future, to venture … into the shadows.
Giulio Andreotti’s big reveal:
Stay Behind Units and Organisations: origins, chronology, doctrine and strategy
Counter-Guerrilla in Turkey
Massacre at Peteano and the Years of Lead