The Prisoner Dilemma: Insurrectionary Anarchism and the Cospito Affair.

AuthorMarone, Francesco

Insurrectionary anarchism is a violent extremist tendency within the diverse anarchist galaxy. In Italy, a cradle of this understudied transnational phenomenon, insurrectionary anarchism is regarded as the most serious form of domestic (non-jihadi) terrorist threat. In the country, the most important entity has been the Informal Anarchist Federation (Federazione Anarchica Informale, FAI), a network of individuals and small temporary "affinity groups," that has also fostered contacts and relationships with foreign networks and groups.

In recent months, the cause of insurrectionary anarchism has attracted much attention in Italy and in other countries due to the story of the best-known exponent of the FAI network, Alfredo Cospito. In October 2022, this Italian citizen, in prison since 2012 for acts of terrorism, started an indefinite hunger strike to protest against both a special regime prison (the so-called 41-bis regime) and the risk of ergastolo ostativo ('life in prison without parole").

His story turned into a transnational cause celebre and a major legal and political case in the country, forcing Italian authorities to make difficult decisions. The Cospito affair deserves attention not only because it confirms the dynamism of insurrectionary anarchism in Italy and abroad, including destructive "direct actions," but also, more generally, because it highlights the complex dilemmas that liberal democracies have to address in combating terrorism.

This article examines the Cospito affair and its challenges. After presenting the cause of insurrectionary anarchism and the FAI network, it discusses the story of Alfredo Cospito, from his acts of terrorism under the banner of the FAI to his indefinite hunger strike in prison. It then examines the handling of the Cospito affair, highlighting the complex dilemmas that Italian authorities have to face. Finally, it explores the actual and potential effects of the case on the visibility and dynamism of insurrectionary anarchism.

Insurrectionary Anarchism and the FAI Network

Insurrectionary anarchism is an extremist tendency within the diverse anarchist movement that emphasizes the practice of revolutionary "insurrection" through illegal and violent actions. While anarchism generally prioritizes practice over theory, insurrectionary anarchism takes this position to an extreme. In fact, in their unconditional struggle against the state, capitalism, and any form of dominion, insurrectionary anarchists focus more on tactics than on strategy. (1) The immediate, self-organized "attack" here and now is considered essential. Furthermore, some insurrectionary anarchist militants and networks do not hesitate to target human beings. (2)

Contemporary insurrectionary anarchism emerged at the turn of this century, and from the beginning, Italy has been a crucial epicenter of this phenomenon. (3) Overall, Italian insurrectionary anarchists (anarchici insurrezionalisti) have used a "double level" of action. (4) On the one hand, they have engaged in public campaigns of collective mobilization on different issues, (5) including "anti-militarism," opposition to state "repression" (particularly against the prison system), militant "environmentalism," support to immigrants, and opposition to modern technology and the so-called "techno-industrial system." (6)

On the other hand, fringes of the insurrectionary anarchist movement have resorted to terrorist methods. From this perspective, in Italy insurrectionary anarchism is still regarded as the most serious form of domestic (non-jihadi) terrorist and subversive threat. (7)

Over the last two decades, the most important insurrectionary anarchist entity engaged in terrorist activities has been the Informal Anarchist Federation (Federazione Anarchica Informale, FAI). (8) The FAI is a loosely connected network of individuals and small temporary "affinity groups." (9) Since its inception, in 2003, dozens of acts of violence have been claimed under the banner of this shadowy entity in Italy. Several attacks took the form of letter bombs and homemade bombs against various targets, including political leaders, law enforcement, and businesspeople. (10) These incidents have caused several injuries. (11) Despite the fact that a few of the attacks were assessed as having the potential to be lethal, (12) fortunately, thus far, they have not resulted in fatalities.

Additionally, the Italian FAI has fostered contacts and relationships with foreign networks and groups. In particular, the FAI has strong ideological and solidarity ties with Greek anarchist groups, (13) especially with the Conspiracy of Cells of Fire (CCF), a revolutionary anarcho-individualist armed group that emerged in 2008. (14) In 2011, the FAI also promoted the development of the Fronte Rivoluzionario Internazionale (International Revolutionary Front), FRI, an ambitious effort to connect together likeminded action groups at the transnational level. Moreover, in recent years, several individuals and cells around the world have used the FAI brand name to claim responsibility for their own attacks (usually acts of sabotage or arson), from Chile to Indonesia. (15) Despite this, the FAI/FRI network and its violent extremist cause have thus far received little attention from scholars and experts.

In Italy, the FAI network was weakened after several waves of arrests, especially in 2012-2013, (16) but its brand name has not disappeared. For example, in September 2020, FAI-linked insurrectionary anarchists sent a parcel bomb to the president of the employers' union of Brescia, northern Italy; (17) fortunately, the homemade device did not explode. (18) The anonymous perpetrators claimed the attack a few days later in a communique posted on an anarchist website, under the moniker of the FAI/FRI "Mikhail Zhlobitsky Nucleus." (a) The online communique also mentioned that a second, similar device was sent to the Union of the Penitentiary Police in Modena, north-central Italy, although it was never delivered. (19)

The Case of Alfredo Cospito

Against this background, the case of Alfredo Cospito, the best-known exponent of the FAI network and an influential figure in the wider insurrectionary anarchist movement, deserves special attention. In recent months, his story has turned into a transnational cause celebre and a major legal and political case in Italy.

Cospito was born in the city of Pescara, central Italy, on July 14, 1967. During his youth, he joined the cause of anarchism, and based on these political beliefs, he refused to perform his military service. (b) For this reason, he was convicted of desertion and imprisoned on March 10, 1989, and again, after a general amnesty in 1990, (c) on April 16, 1991. (20) During his second detention, on August 27, 1991, Cospito began an indefinite hunger strike for the first time. On September 27, 1991, his father requested amnesty from Italy's president, and like many other draft evaders during that period, Cospito was pardoned on December 27, 1991. He was eventually exempted from military service in 1993. (21)

In the early 1990s, Cospito was also involved in squatting actions in Pescara and other areas in Italy. He then moved to the area of Turin, northwestern Italy. Here, Cospito cemented his reputation as an uncompromising anarchist militant and engaged in terrorist violence, under the banner of the FAI. (22)

In 2006, Cospito and his partner, Anna Beniamino, another prominent insurrectionary anarchist, secretly plotted a bomb attack on a cadet barracks of Carabinieri (Italy's national gendarmerie) in the town of Fossano, not far from Turin. The bombing was planned with a booby-trap technique, with two explosive devices: a minor device to lure cadets out, and a second one with a higher potential (approximately 500 grams of gunpowder) timed to explode around 30 minutes later to hit cadets. (23) Eventually, the bomb attack was carried out on the night between June 2 and 3, 2006, on behalf of the FAI, and only by chance did it result in no injuries. (24)

In 2012, Cospito launched another terrorist attack. On May 7 that year, Cospito and another insurrectionary anarchist, Nicola Gai...

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