The strategy of tension, yesterday and today

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After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, researchers in Europe and in my native Switzerland who are interested in the details of this phenomenon were eagerly awaiting the official U.S. investigation of this crime. Most of them immediately realized that these terrorist attacks on the United States would have far-reaching implications for Europe and the rest of the world, and therefore needed to be studied in detail. When the Report of the 9/11 Commission (also known as the Kean-Zelikow Report) was finally released in July 2004-almost three years after the 9/11 attacks-many scholars of contemporary history and international relations hoped it would provide a complete and definitive account of 9/11.

This hope was shattered a few months later with the publication of David Ray Griffin’sOmissions and Manipulations of the 9/11 Commission .  » I think, » Griffin wrote, that many readers will be outraged by the sheer number of omissions and the extent of manipulation. « Some European researchers interested in 9/11 have limited themselves to reading 571 pages of the official report on 9/11 and, due to lack of time or interest, have been content with the narrative it offered. Others, who invested more time and energy and also went through the 351 pages of Griffin’s review, were very confused. 

This rather unfortunate division still persists today. The first group, composed of those who had only read the Kean-Zelikow report, remained convinced that the Bush-Cheney administration and the official Kean-Zelikow report-which had basically confirmed the official version-were telling the truth. The second group could not help but be amazed, after reading Griffin’s analysis, as Griffin had predicted, by the audacity of the omissions and manipulations. For this second group, which I include myself in, the KeanZelikow report had such serious deficiencies and imbalances that it could in no way be accepted as an accurate account of what really happened on 9/11.

Just being aware that the Kean-Zelikow report is flawed does not immediately make it clear what really happened on 9/11. This crime therefore requires further investigation by researchers around the world — an urgent investigation, one might add, given the significant impact of the 9/11 attacks in recent years. This has forced all of us who specialize in secret wars to go back to the raw facts of 9/11 — a nebulous collection of facts, to be honest — to determine which theory best explains 9/11.

This article does not pretend to explain what really happened on September 11. Nor does it present all the conflicting information currently available about 9/11. In fact, it only deals with the secret wars of the Cold War era, because that is where the most enlightening beginnings are found. 

the relevance of the history of secret wars 

Ordinary people with limited knowledge of the history of secret wars have found it excessively shocking to consider that the U.S. government could have allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen, let alone actively participated in their organization. Why, they asked, would any government attack its own people or, equally criminally, deliberately allow a foreign group to carry out such an attack? While cruel dictatorships, such as the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, are known to have disrespected the lives and dignity of their citizens, a Western democracy would never commit such an abuse of power. And if criminal elements within a Western democracy, in North America or Europe, had committed such a crime, would not the elected officials or the media discover it and denounce it immediately? Is it conceivable that criminal elements within a government could commit terrorist operations against innocent citizens who fund that same government through the taxes they pay each year? Wouldn’t anyone notice? These are painful questions, even for researchers who specialize in the history of secret wars. But in reality, there are historical examples of such operations implemented by Western democracies. 

In this article, I present the most recent academic data about secret wars during the Cold War era. They undoubtedly demonstrate that there is a secret military strategy that targets populations through terrorism. It is called the « strategy of tension », and it has been put into practice, let us repeat, by Western democracies. 

the tension strategy 

The strategy of tension — a concept little known to the general public — essentially targets the emotions of the general public and aims to spread as much fear as possible within it. A terrorist attack in a public place, such as a railway station, a market or a school bus, is the typical technique by which the strategy of tension is implemented. After the attack — and this is a crucial element — the secret agents who perpetrated the crime shift the blame to a political opponent by concealing some evidence and fabricating others. 

It should be noted that the targets of the strategy of tension are not the dead and wounded of the terrorist attacks, as one might think. The real targets are political opponents, who are discredited by the attack, and those who are not personally affected but who begin to fear for their lives and those of their loved ones. Since the goal of the strategy is to discredit opponents and spread fear, the real targets are not the people killed, whether tens or even thousands, but rather the millions who survive without physical injury but with emotional stress. 

The strategy of tension is part of what is called « psychological warfare ». As the term indicates, this form of warfare does not attack human bodies, tanks, planes, ships, satellites or houses in order to destroy them, but human consciousnesses, human minds. If a group can access our thoughts and feelings without us noticing, they can exercise great power over us. However, when we realize that our consciences are being manipulated by psychological warfare, this technique loses some of its effect. 

The best historical data available today about the strategy of tension comes from Italy, where judges, parliamentarians and academics continue to work together to understand and describe this covert strategy. 

Judge Casson
and the attack of peteano 

Italian judge Felice Casson rediscovered this strategy during his investigation into a number of terrorist attacks in Italy in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. According to Casson, the best documented historical case in which the strategy of tension was used was in the Italian village of Peteano. It was here that, on May 31, 1972, three members of the Carabinieri (the Italian Gendarmerie) were called upon by an anonymous caller to inspect an abandoned Fiat 500 and were killed by a bomb explosion when they opened the hood of the car. For many years, this terrorist attack was attributed to the Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist organization in Italy. But when Casson reopened the case, he discovered that it was the Catholic neo-fascist Vincenzo Vinciguerra, an anti-communist activist, who had perpetrated the crime. 

To his surprise, Casson also discovered that Vinciguerra had not acted alone, but had been protected by members of the Italian military intelligence. At his trial in 1984, Vinciguerra confirmed that it had been relatively easy for him to escape and hide, because a significant proportion of the Italian security apparatus, including military intelligence, shared his anti-communist convictions and had therefore tacitly supported crimes that discredited the Italian left and in particular the Communist Party, which was very influential at the time. Vinciguerra recalled that after the attack,  » a whole mechanism had been set in motion… The Carabinieri, the Ministry of the Interior, the customs services, and the civilian and military intelligence services accepted the ideological reasoning behind this attack.  » Following this crime, military intelligence officials and politicians argued that the « communist danger » justified increased military budgets and reduced civil liberties in the interest of state security. Thus, the strategy of tension as applied in the Peteano attack spread fear throughout Italy, discredited a political opponent, and allowed the implementation of a conservative security policy. The effectiveness of the maneuver was due in part to the fact that no one knew at the time that the intelligence services themselves had supported the crime. 

Peteano was not an isolated tragedy in Italy, but part of a long series of terrorist attacks that began on December 12, 1969, when four bombs exploded in public places in Rome and Milan, killing 16 innocent civilians and injuring 80. After the massacre, the Italian military intelligence service deposited bomb-making materials in the villa of the famous leftist publisher Gianfranco Feltrinelli in order to attribute the attacks to communists and other members of the extreme left. It was only years later that it was learned that Feltrinelli had nothing to do with this crime, and that it was in fact the Italian extreme right that had perpetrated this atrocity in order to promote the strategy of tension. But the most deadly and memorable attack in this series was undoubtedly the one at the Bologna train station on August 2, 1980, in which 85 people died and more than 200 were injured. 

The purpose of these attacks, explained Vincenzo Vinciguerra after his arrest, was simple: « ihe aim was to get the Italian public to turn to the State to ask for more security. This is the political logic behind all the massacres and attacks that go unpunished, because the state cannot condemn itself or declare itself responsible for what has happened.  »

Stunned to discover, in the course of his investigation, that members of the Italian government and secret service had supported criminal enterprises, Judge Casson decided to investigate the matter to the end. In 1990, having obtained permission to search the Italian military intelligence archives, he made a sensational discovery: a secret army, set up after the Second World War by Italian military intelligence in collaboration with the CIA, and closely linked to NATO, existed under the code name « Gladio ». This secret army, which was supposed to prepare the resistance in case of a Soviet invasion, also sought to manipulate the Italian political game to the detriment of the left-wing forces, by means of secret, often bloody operations. Public opinion was outraged and the Gladio affair, which was to spread to all the European NATO countries, was launched. It turned out that, like Gladio in Italy, such so-called « stay-behind » networks had existed in Europe since the end of World War II in twelve NATO member countries and four neutral countries. Each of these networks gathered between a few dozen and a few hundred people. 

the strategy of
tension in belgium 

On the evening of November 7, 1990, the Socialist Minister of Defense, Guy Coëme, announced to the astonished public that a secret army linked to NATO had existed in Belgium during the Cold War. He added:  » I would like to know if there is a link between the activities of this secret network and the wave of crime and terrorism that our country has endured in the past years.  » Indeed, between 1983 and 1985, Belgium had been shaken by the famous killings in Walloon Brabant, which had caused a total of 28 deaths and many injuries, and had terrorized the country. The attacks were organized with military precision and composure, particularly against Delhaize supermarkets. Each time, a few masked killers shot at point blank range without any discrimination, and without any concern for collecting a worthy booty. The killers also did not hesitate to shoot at police officers, or even to provoke them or wait for them to arrive in order to ambush them. The perpetrators of these killings have never been identified, and the investigation remains open to this day. 

In order to verify possible correspondences with some of the suspects of the Brabant killings, the members of the Senate commission in charge of shedding light on the activities of the stay-behind network in Belgium demanded that the identified leaders of the two main branches of the network in Belgium provide them with the names, or even just the dates of birth of the members of the secret army. However, they were met with a wall of refusal, despite all the pressure they exerted. Albert Raes (director of State Security between 1977 and 1990, and head of the STC/Mob, the logistical branch of the Belgian network) and Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Legrand (head of Belgian military intelligence and head of the SDRA8, the operational branch of the secret army in Belgium) remained silent, despite the firm injunctions of the Ministers of Justice and Defence, their respective superiors, and in defiance of all democratic rules and the law. 


The two main arguments against the idea that the 9/11 attacks were influenced by the U.S. government and its military apparatus, either actively or passively, are a priori arguments. The first is that civilized Western governments in general, and the US government in particular, would never be guilty of such a heinous crime. The other main a priori argument is that if the 9/11 attacks had been carried out by forces inside the U.S. government, this fact could not have been kept secret all this time. The information in this text demonstrates that both of these arguments are, at best, extremely dubious. 

Daniele Ganser

Historian, Director of the Swiss Institute for Peace and Energy Research (SIPER), Basel 

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