John Radzilowski: How Soviet-era documents can help us wage the war against terrorism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[John Radzilowski, Ph.D., is senior fellow at the Piast Institute ( and the author of the forthcoming book A Traveller’s History of Poland.]

Poland's new conservative government recently made public some 1,700 volumes of previously secret Warsaw Pact documents. Poland’s Defense Minister, Radek Sikorski, who approved the transfer of the documents to a public archive, called it “a symbolic end of the communist era.”

And rightly so, for the documents contain some stunning revelations. For instance, in the last decades of the Cold War, Soviet military planning was based on a doomsday scenario. The plan, titled “Seven Days to Rhine,” was a “counterattack” in response to NATO aggression which would result in the Soviet conquest of most of Western Europe. It would have invited retaliatory nuclear strikes on Moscow’s own unwilling Warsaw Pact allies while its nuclear arsenal would target the major population centers of Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark. The plan would have wiped out Bonn, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Munich, Hamburg, Brussels, Copenhagen, Warsaw and Prague as well as scores of smaller cities. According to Sikorski, the critical part of the plan was the Soviet willingness to sacrifice its own “allies” in the scheme.

Other documents released last week revealed new details about “Operation Danube”—the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968—and the 1970 massacre of shipyard workers by communist police in the Polish port city of Szczecin.

The release of the documents created a sensation in central Europe and irritated the Russian government. Yet, as Cold War-era Soviet documents go, these are only the tip of the iceberg. Vast quantities of documents with many potential bombshells have yet to see the light of day. Some of them will have a value that goes beyond fodder for historical monographs.

In the present worldwide struggle against terrorism, there is much to be learned about the origins, training, tactics and resources of well-known terrorist groups. Soviet-era archives have much information that is critical to the war on terror.

Although the effects of international terrorism are the subject of much discussion, its origins remain murky. However, most of the major terrorist groups in the world today, including parts of al Qaeda, can trace their origins to Soviet covert operations during the Cold War.

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets pursued a strategy of indirect attack against the U.S. and American allies around the world. Many infamous terrorist or “liberation” movements were an essential part of this strategy. Although the Soviets found plenty of willing allies in countries around the world, it was Moscow that provided the means to conduct bloody attacks and initiate local conflicts that destabilized scores of countries and bred terror. To this end, Soviet secret services provided financial assistance, logistical support, supplies, training and direction.

This aid to terrorism, however, was never given directly. Instead the Soviets used third parties and a wide range of front groups to conduct these operations. Thus, countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Cuba—or the secret services of other Warsaw Pact allies—were used to do the actual work. Some of these countries created their own front organizations to hide further their involvement.

In the Middle East, groups such as the PLO and Hezbollah were the most obvious beneficiaries of this program. In Latin America, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and later Peru’s Shining Path were supported by Cuba. Smaller terror groups included Action Directe (France), Red Army Faction (Germany), and the Japanese Red Army. Although some of the groups were overtly leftist, the Soviets were perfectly willing to recruit and use terrorists of any ideological stripe, including some that on their face would have opposed communism.

Perhaps it seemed strange to some in the 1970s that Arab terrorists would be arrested in Latin America aiding communist rebels, or that the Italian Red Brigades would get arms from the PLO, or that the Japanese Red Army would stage a bloody attack on an Israeli airport in 1972. By then there was a functioning international network of terrorists that was operating out of Soviet-allied countries. Perhaps the most obvious example was the infamous Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal, recruited by the KGB in Moscow, who was an active participant in Middle East terror.

For decades, many in the West, including many who should have known better, refused to believe that the Soviets so thoroughly supported international terrorism. Incredibly, during the height of the Cold War, U.S. intelligence reflected this belief and expended little effort on tracking these Soviet actions. It was only in the 1980s that the U.S. began to collect systematically intelligence on Soviet support for international terrorism.

Because of this, there remains much that we can learn about international terrorism from secret Soviet archives. As the Russian government is supposed to be our ally against international terrorism, it could help the U.S. and its allies to find missing pieces of the international terrorism puzzle. Many of the networks, the personnel and the tactics are still in play. Many organizations remain an active threat. Hezbollah and Japanese Red Army, for example, remain under the wing of Syria. The only logical reason for not releasing this information is that the Russians continue to see these contacts as helpful.

The overall strategy is still being used. Recent reports based on captured Iraqi documents show that Saddam followed the Soviet example and ran terrorist camps that in just three years, from 1999 to 2002, trained an estimated 8,000 terrorists. How many were trained in Syria over the past 30 or more years? How many were trained in Cuba since Castro came to power? Where are these people today? When we see a well-trained communist rebellion in a country like Nepal—an old flashpoint between India and China—do we see this as a purely indigenous movement? And how did they learn to make bombs or conduct ambushes?

Minister Sikorski’s release of a new cache of Soviet documents gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what remains hidden in the Soviet archives. It is time for the U.S. to demand that Russia follow the Polish example and reveal the skeletons in its filing cabinet.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 2/14/2006

Mr. Radzilowski is complaining, actually - demanding - the complete opening of Russian inteligence archives concerning the Cold War period.
It seems to me, if he doesn't want to be accused of double standards, and so sure about the one-sidededness of the expressed blame in sponsoring and supporting terrorism, that such demand should be adressed to all major players of that period, including, at the very least, US, Britain, West Germany and France.
However, the above-listed countries
haven't shown any readiness to open
millions of pages of pertaining materials in their achives (though opened many, as did Russia). That unwillingness on the part of Western countries is even more puzzling, if one maintains the opinion that they have nothing to loose or hide, but just gain in revealing the hard-core evidence against former and remaining communist/left regimes, especially over the accusations in crimes, which never been supported with such evidence (and the overwhelming majority of those - haven't).
Moreover, there are materials directly related to some of the tragic events of that era mostly opened by Russians, but stubbornly
refused to be opened by respective US
agencies (in spite of the numerous requests for that from the people or relatives of the people involved and seeking the truth).
Just to suggest one example: Hungarian events of 1956. (Note the
supposed age of the corrresponding documents?!)

Referring to just one of many other documents falling into another category: Indonesian genocide of 70s (in which American side was already implicated, at the very least, in political, ideological, and financial support of the murderous Sucharto's regime, perhaps, being guilty also in organizing and sponsoring of the genocide/terror itself, as they sponsored terrorist campaigns of Argentinian criminal goverment in 70s and 80s).
The US archives remain close in regard to the majority of the documents related to that tragic period in Indonesian history.
Far, far from all Western documents have been opened related even to such hot reality of today, as Muslim terrorism, along with the former dirty dealings of Western and especially US intelligence services in Mid-East. Not mentioning already,
the USG and its intelligence services covert operations and open military interventions in Central and Latin America that as anyone who is interested knows resulted in millions
of dead and tortured and economic devastation of the targeted countries, the devastation affecting those countries up to this day.
Where is your voice about the pertaining to all those events ubdisclosed documents in Western archives, Mr. Radzilowski?

Arnold Shcherban - 2/12/2006

A couple of years ago I scribbled some notes on several popular political, ideological,
and social postulates or "self-evident" truths that essentially form the basis of the American public attitude towards the mass of the events, ideas, and concepts in the areas of international affairs, govermental internal policy, economics, etc.
The piece of those notes that I'm posting now concerns one of the major Big Lies of Western propaganda
and right-wing proponents (even at the "hottest" of times denied by their own unbiased part of intelligence community)- sponsoring, training and planning of
international terrorism.
Sumultaneosly, though not in its entirety and details, I think it might serve as sufficient rebuff to
the attempts of revitalizing that particle of the Cold War and the badly covered author's attempts to justify newly developed animosity
towards current Russian goverment, just 'cause it has some serious political and strategic differences with the US.

<The other issue being simultaneously one of the 'postulates' discussed that illustrates the dirty methods and outrageous lies the US goverments and official propaganda would use to
smear the Soviets' ideological image and international practice
and to obtain the reason for inflicting different sorts of
punishing measures on them, is the issue of international

Up to now, about 15 years after the decay and fall the Soviets, the conservative/right propaganda desperately tries to
maintain the validity of labeling the Soviet Union as "major
sponsor of the world terrorism", which, especially in the view
of the events of the last decade, have become questioned and
skepticized about more and more even by some of its former staunch supporters.

It is very enticing and effective (see many other publications
to this effect) to use the swapping logic here, i.e. to present
many examples of the US government and its intelligence agencies
sponsoring and supporting any terrorist organization, government,
or groups, any sort of criminals, regardless of the gravity of
their crimes, as long as they were and are anti-Soviet,
anti-communist or just pro-American (read - pro-corporate-American).
It is also easy (since the supporting facts and arguments are abound) to come to the conclusion that the US itself is the biggest and the most dangerous for the world's stability terrorist state(not just the "sponsor of terrorism"), responsible for the murder of millions of folks all over the world.
But I would like just to show the ugliness and obvious nature of
the lies perpetrated by the US governmental officials, intelligence
services, conservative propaganda, "scholars", and right wing activists in order to instill the referred image into the hearts
and minds of the average American citizen.

First of all, what cold (or hot) facts have been presented to the
American public in this regard in the course of almost three
decades since that accusation surfaced on the lips of US
governmental officials and been relayed to the media?
Speculations, sometimes wild ones – yes (and more than enough
of those), outright falsifications later proven to be just
that - yes, serious evidence - none. Unless one consider serious
the evidence of the type presented by the same bunch in regard
to Iraq’s WMD and Iraq-Al-Qeida connections. Meanwhile, judging by the scale of the sponsoring accused of and perpetrated in the course of all those years, it seems absolutely insane to suggest that the 'Russians' together with
their "students" were so 'conniving" or "smart", as to be able to
somehow avoid to get directly implicated, at the very least, a couple of times. And, of course, one can be absolutely sure of the
desperate and continuous attempts of the US and other Western
intelligence and all heavily invested in that matter folks to
uncover the pertaining evidence.
Alas, they would finish, as they started - empty-handed.
Also, the fact that no Western country in the long (stretched for
20 years) course of all that Soviet terrorist "witch hunt" never
officially accused Soviet authorities in any specific acts of
terrorism or sponsorship of the latter ones would look anecdotal,
if it has not had such serious propagandistic consequences.
This alone speaks volumes to any unbiased observer.

Let's briefly recall the circumstances surrounding the US search for the "hand of Moscow" in just three incidents: the assassination of President Kennedy, the assassination attempt on Pope's
John Paul II life, and the case of infamous "Red Brigades".

It didn't take long for the investigation into President Kennedy's assassination to discover the original nationality of Oswald's
wife and his travels to Russia and Cuba. The America could hardly
hold its breath... This is it, right? What else could better confirm
the perpetual accusations against Soviets(and Cubans) as terrorists
and murderers?
The media went nuts smelling "Red" blood and huge sensation and...
Damn! Missed again! On the other token, numerous attempts made
by the terrorists trained and paid by CIA to assassinate President
Castro and other foreign leaders are well known, proved and documented.
(Not mentioning already many deadly terrorist acts against Cuba that have been “successfully” executed.)

Even more outrageous and telling was the investigative attempt
to write off the "work" of Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca
eventually convicted for the attempt on Pope's life on the
accounts of Eastern block countries.
Agca, a member of the militant right-wing 'Grey Wolves' group,
shot the pope after escaping from jail while being held on charges
of murdering of left newspaper editor Abdi Ipekci and was later
sentenced to death in absentia by his native country.

So, Pope survived, Agca stood trial, was convicted and put to jail.
End of story? Too easy! There were powerful forces within and
outside Italy that did not want to miss on such seemingly excellent
opportunity to score with their own government and public opinion,
by finally catching that devilish and scandalously always slipping
through their fingers "hand of Moscow". Soon after the FBI and CIA
officers, who offered their "help", entered the picture(had several
meetings with Agca) the events took absolutely unpredictable turn.
The new investigation was launched, since Agca (who suddenly had
become extra-cooperative with the prosecutors) started to reveal
his sensational links to Bulgarian(!?) intelligence, that
allegedly, through one of its operatives(Bulgarian diplomat)
hired him to assassinate the Pope.
During the first investigation and the previous trial Agca would
give several conflicting reasons for his attack on the Pope, was
changing his account of the pertaining events now and then,
so the Italian prosecutors should have had no doubts that besides
being already a proven murderer, that man was a perpetual liar.
They also knew he hated left in general, and communists,
in particular, after all - that's why he killed Abdi Ipeksi,
had he not?
On top of that, on numerous occations grilled by the judges and
prosecutors he was changing his account of the meetings with
the Bulgarian diplomat and of surrounding those meetings
circumstances, simultaneously providing the surprising
familiarity with the details of the Bulgarian diplomat's
behavior and activity having no direct bearings on the case
in question.
Nevertheless, that diplomat was arrested in an outright violation of the international law that protects
diplomats from the prosecution and the second(!) trial was
At that trial the prosecutors tried to link the attack to the growing democracy movement - very much alive
in Pope John Paul's native Poland at the time. The pontiff was a staunch supporter of Poland's Solidarity union(which, by the way, as it is admitted now, but fiercely
denied at the time, was sponsored by CIA and other Western intelligence agencies) and is believed to have been instrumental in the chain of events that led to the Eastern
Bloc's first freely elected government.
The theory speculated that Bulgarian secret service agents had hired Agca on behalf of the Soviet Union to "punish" the Pope for that. Of course, we all know, that neither then, nor twenty years later no proof of such conspiracy has been
found, though all the means to this purpose, provided it existed(not just within mutual design of CIA and Agca) was out there. That by the way was finally conceeded by the
Italian prosecutors too, by releasing the Bul;garian diplomat, on the "lack of evidence".
(They, of course, could't formulate it differently without exposing their American friends,
and explicitly admitting the violation of the international
treaties and laws.)
But the "noise and fury" raised by the officials and media that
time and the non-stop back references to the story under the
popular title "How Reds tried to murder the Pope" has ultimately
made their way into the minds of the Western populus and still
stays there. The old, good method of all falsifiers - "throw
enough s* against the wall, some - sticks" worked again...

The same pattern and with the same results was demonstrated by
the Western official propaganda in respect to the so-called
"Red Brigades" - the group of about 50 Italian left extremists
that terrorized Italian social and political arena in 70s.
In this case it took no effort or ingenuity to create the case
against the Soviets, since those who called themselves
"Red Brigades" belonged to the split branch of the
Italian Communist Party that decided to use terrorism as
the means of the 'class struggle'.
There was and still is seemingly strong argument in favor of
the Western public opinion on the Soviets' involvement in
terrorist activity: Stalin's times. No unbiased observer or
researcher can deny the factual and logical validity
of this argument being applied to those times. But, notice, even
in those terrible times for the Soviet citizens, Stalin's secret
police, intelligence services, and their agents abroad,
assassinated only their OWN citizens or former agents, whom they
consider traitors or terrorists, whether the latter really been
those or not, never - foreign political, public or business
figures of any kind, as the means of socio-political blackmail
or seeding terror in the West.
It was and is absolutely clear to the more or less involved in
antiterrorist and intelligence affairs on the West, that
provided Soviets really wanted to terrorize population of the
Western countries, they could have done it in immeasurably
more effective and devastating way, especially - in the USA;
the conclusion led to by the wide-spread propaganda and intelligence
data on the large-scaled "Red" penetration in Western life,
in general, and the US governmental institutions and intelligence
services, in particular.
As in all other scenarios of this kind the West was unable
to come up with any verifiable links between the infamous
"Red Brigades" and actual "Reds" - Soviet communists
(or even - to the other branch of Italian communist party).
By the way, uncaught members of the Brigades still time by time,
claim their responsibility for the assassinations of
politicians and prominent businessmen, long after their alleged
sponsors and ideological supporters have been gone - the fact
exposing one of the many Big Lies of the US and its allies'
propaganda, one more time.
Moreover, there were some indications, unfortunately remaining
not pursued(on easily understandable reasons) and therefore unproven,
of the Red Brigades-CIA links.
The complete resume on this issue cannot be written, since in
the radical contrast with the former Russian intelligence
archives, the US and UK ones pertaining to Red Brigades "affair"
have never been disclosed. One can only wonder why...
It goes without saying that practically all of the above
mentioned facts and considerations related to the contradictions
and outright fraudulency of the terrorism-sponsored-by-"Evil Empire"
concept have been completely ignored by the US conservative and
liberal "free" media and "historians" alike.