A spate of crude letter bombs targeting top European officials has put European Union headquarters in Brussels on high alert, and brought the Union - accustomed to criticism from the right - apparently under attack from the far left.
Two simple incendiary devices exploded in the offices of European Parliament leaders Monday, and a third was detected and defused, bringing the total to seven in 10 days. None caused any injuries. All of the explosive packages bore a Bologna postmark and appear to be the work of a shadowy Italian anarchist group opposed to the EU's plans for closer cooperation among members, fearing they will lead to a "super state."
"We are taking these threats very, very seriously," said European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer on Thursday. "The people doing this are obviously enemies of democracy in all its forms."
They are not, however, particularly sophisticated, suggests Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrew's University in Scotland. "You don't need to be a rocket scientist to put this sort of thing together," he says. "The information needed to construct rudimentary devices is available to anyone over the Web."
The Italian police have convened a multinational European task force of anti-terrorism experts that intends to identify the perpetrators of the attack within two months. Italian officials said the group would concentrate on "anarchist-insurrectionalist" groups around the continent.
Suspicions focus on the "Informal Anarchic Federation," (FAI) which claimed responsibility for two small bombs that exploded in trash cans not far from the Bologna home of European Commission President Romano Prodi on Dec. 21. The FAI said the attack was the beginning of "Operation Santa Claus."
A week later, a package that looked like a videocassette exploded in Mr. Prodi's hands as he opened it. The next day, similar packages were discovered at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, where bank president Jean-Claude Trichet was the target, and at the headquarters in The Hague of Europol and Eurojust, two crossborder anticrime units. Though Bologna police then ordered local post offices to hold all mail addressed to EU institutions, some of the letter bombs had apparently already got through, and were stuck in the Christmas backlog of mail elsewhere.
On Monday, when the European Parliament resumed work after the holidays, assistants to two senior members narrowly escaped being burned when letters caught fire as they opened them, and a third suspect package at the parliament in Brussels was defused. All seven letter bombs were posted in Bologna, historically a stronghold of the Italian anarchist movement.
The FAI said in its first and only communiqué, sent to the Bologna office of an Italian daily, that it was a new alliance of four anarchist groups opposed to "the new European order" and to the nascent EU constitution, which it said "legitimizes the rearrangement of the old continent's politics of domination." The group warned it would target "bureaucrats and politicians" along with policemen and prisons in a wave of "armed struggle."
Bologna's chief prosecutor, Enrico Di Nicola, played down the significance of the FAI, telling reporters Tuesday that it "may be about 350 [members] in all of Italy" and was less structured than other terrorist organizations. "I think they have caused greater social alarm ... because of the symbols they have chosen and the individuals they have targeted," he said. "I think they have already reached the goal they set for themselves."
The FAI is not the only Italian political group to have expressed violent opposition to the EU. A Marxist faction calling itself 'Europposizione' is believed to have sent two bombs to police stations in Rome and Viterbo last October.
Neither group is expected to have any serious political impact. But if the letter bomb spate continues, it could undermine mainstream Euroskeptics, as critics of the EU are known, suggests Heather Grabbe, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in London. "Once an anarchist group is involved, and there is a hint of terrorism, it takes some of the wind out of the sails of legitimate opponents of the constitution," says Ms. Grabbe. "If this is the start of a major terrorist campaign, it will change the political landscape, and change the terms of debate."
One British anti-EU campaigner has already drawn scorn from European Parliament colleagues for expressing understanding of the bombers' motives. Nigel Farage, a European Parliament representative of the UK Independence Party, said that he could "understand the reasons" behind the letter bombs since "the route the EU has chosen for itself, to swallow up nation states without giving the people of Europe the final say, was destined to end in civil unrest and violence."
Marco Savina, an Italian intelligence analyst with close ties to law-enforcement agencies, takes a less dramatic view of events. "These letter bombs have very little significance," he argues. "They are the tools of a very few and very unimportant groups of people who are doing this to be in the media for a few days. This is a group of desperate people who don't know what to do with their time," he adds.