Abstract: Italy is a crucial epicenter of insurrectionary anarchism, a transnational extremist tendency that promotes “self-organized” illegal and violent actions, even against people. In particular, over the last two decades, dozens of acts of violence, including letter bombs, homemade bombs, and shootings, have been claimed under the banner of the Informal Anarchist Federation (Federazione Anarchica Informale, FAI), a loosely connected network that has also fostered relationships with likeminded groups abroad. The Italian counterterrorism system has successfully addressed this threat with aggressive rules, measures, and practices, that, in part, derive directly or indirectly from the long fight against the Mafia. However, today Italian authorities face a new challenge, posed by the case of Alfredo Cospito, an influential exponent of the FAI network who started an indefinite hunger strike in prison in October 2022. The handling of the Cospito affair highlights the complex political, legal, and ethical dilemmas that liberal democracies have to address in combating terrorism.
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 célèbre 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 célèbre 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, shot the executive of an Italian nuclear power company in the legs in the northwestern port city of Genoa.25 A letter sent to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, claimed responsibility for this gambizzazione (kneecapping) on behalf of the FAI.26 Four months later, on the night between September 14 and 15, 2012, Cospito was arrested in Turin, together with his accomplice, Gai. Cospito, who has never disowned his acts of violence, was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years and eight months in prison.27 Gai was sentenced to nine years, but later he obtained a sentence reduction and was eventually released in November 2020.28
While serving his sentence in prison for the 2012 assault in Genoa and other offenses, in 2019-2020 Cospito received an additional 20-year term for his association with the FAI network, formally recognized by the judges as an “association with the purpose of terrorism” (under article 270-bis of the Italian Penal Code), and for the 2006 attack in Fossano.29 At the same time, his partner Beniamino was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Furthermore, in relation to the 2006 bombing, on July 6, 2022, Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation formally changed the sentence from the crime of “‘common’ massacre” (strage “comune”) against public safety (article 422 of the Penal Code), established in a 2019 trial, to the even more serious crime of “‘political’ massacre” (strage “politica”) against State security (article 285 of the Penal Code).d
On February 8, 2023, Cospito’s lawyer appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, contesting this ruling of the Italian Court of Cassation and, at the time of writing this article, Cospito’s defense was waiting for the decision of the Strasbourg court.30
As part of a complex court case, Italy’s Constitutional Court will have to determine the final penalty against Cospito, in a hearing scheduled for April 18, 2023.31 The anarchist extremist risks ergastolo ostativo (translatable as “life in prison without parole”). This strict (and legally controversial)32 type of custodial sentence was introduced in 1992, soon after the assassination of high-level, anti-Mafia prosecuting magistrate Giovanni Falcone and four others (his wife and three police escort agents) by Sicilian Cosa Nostra on May 23, 1992.33 It can be applied to detainees convicted of Mafia association, terrorism, and other serious crimes who do not accept to collaborate with justice. According to recent official data, in 2022, there were 1,280 detainees sentenced to ergastolo ostativo (out of 1,822 serving life sentences) in Italy.34
From prison, Cospito continued his efforts to actively promote his violent extremist cause, especially by writing public contributions to the insurrectionary anarchist debate and propaganda. In particular, he gave an inflammatory interview to an extremist anarchist journal, published in three parts, respectively in 2018, 2019, and 2020.35 In this public interview in Italian, Cospito advocated the use of “nihilistic” violence against people: He first condemned, to use his words, the “refusal (never admitted, but in fact practiced) [by most Italian anarchists] to target people, those directly responsible for the atrocities of the system. For many anarchists there is only ‘sabotage’ and destructive action (hitting and destroying things).” He then argued, to legitimize his position, that violence against people is actually an integral part of the anarchist tradition. Furthermore, unlike most contemporary actors engaged in terrorism, Cospito did not hesitate to use this term in a positive sense: In his words, “bottom-up terrorism has all the justifications in the world.”36
In addition, it is interesting to note that, while insurrectionary anarchism is not inclined to glorify political “martyrdom,”37 in another passage of this interview, Cospito apparently showed appreciation for suicide attacks: “We have lost sight of ‘the possibility of succeeding’ and this has made us coward to such an extent that we do not recognize, for example, the greatness of the act of one of our brothers, Mikhail Zhlobitsky, who blew himself up at the FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk to avenge his comrades tortured by Russian cops. An invaluable contribution to the struggle.”38
The (Complex) Handling of the Cospito Affair
In order to avoid the supposed risk of Cospito inciting people to violence from his cell in a “high-security section”e of the prison of Ferrara, northern Italy, and based on an evaluation by competent judges, the then Minister of Justice Marta Cartabia decided on May 4, 2022, to put Cospito under the so-called 41-bis special regimef in a dedicated section of the prison of Sassari on the island of Sardinia.
The 41-bis prison regime formally suspends a few rules of the ordinary treatment of detainees, imposing in practice a number of strict restrictions on the affected detainee, including: isolation from all other inmates, in a solitary cell, in a special prison section; yard time limited to two hours a day (or one hour in special cases); constant surveillance by a special unit of the Penitentiary Police; and control of outgoing and incoming mail. Originally conceived in 1986 for exceptional cases of prison riots or other emergency situations, the 41-bis regime was expanded in 1992, a few days after anti-Mafia prosecuting magistrate Giovanni Falcone’s assassination, and is now applied to detainees convicted of Mafia association, terrorism, and other serious crimes. According to the latest official data, covering the year 2022, in Italy there were 728 detainees under the 41-bis regime (out of approximately 56,000 inmates in total in the same year). Of these detainees, 724 were serving sentences for association to a Mafia-type organization, and four, including Cospito, for terrorism.39
While the 41-bis prison regime, sometimes informally dubbed “hard prison” (carcere duro), may have, in practice, a serious impact on the psychological and social condition of affected detainees and has also raised legal and moral controversies,40 its official function is limited to separating inmates, especially those in positions of leadership in their organizations, from their (former) criminal associates. In the case of Cospito, the 41-bis regime was used for the very first time against an anarchist detainee.
On October 20, 2022, Cospito started a hunger strike to protest against both the 41-bis regime and the risk of ergastolo ostativo. Cospito made clear that his body was the only “weapon” in his “last battle” against a supposed “inhuman” regime, as he reportedly told a delegation of Italian MPs that visited his prison facility on January 12, 2023.41 At the same time, he did not show any fascination with death. For example, in a letter written in January 2023, and made public by his lawyer on March 1, Cospito claimed that he did not seek “the altars of martyrdom”: “I love life, I am a happy man, I would not exchange my life with that of another. And precisely because I love life, I cannot accept this hopeless non-life.”42
After a few months of abstention from eating, at times interrupted by the intake of supplements, by late January 2023, Cospito lost almost 50 kilograms of weight and his health conditions seriously deteriorated.43 For this reason, in early 2023 the Supreme Court of Cassation brought forward the hearing for his appeal against the 41-bis regime first from April 20, 2023, to March 7, and then to February 24. Meanwhile, on January 30, 2023, the Minister of Justice Carlo Nordio ordered that Cospito be moved from the prison in Sassari first to the prison in Opera, near Milan, where his health conditions could be treated better; and then, on February 11, 2023, to a special wing of a hospital in Milan, always maintaining the same special prison regime. On February 24, 2023, the Court of Cassation rejected Cospito’s appeal against the 41-bis regime44 and the Minister of Justice immediately acknowledged this decision.45 On the same day, soon after learning of this undesired outcome, the Italian anarchist extremist announced that he was sure that he would die soon and that he hoped that someone would continue the struggle after him.46
On February 25, 2023, Cospito’s lawyer also submitted an individual complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. On March 1, this body replied that “while his case is under consideration by the Committee,” “the State party [Italy] has been requested to ensure that Mr. Cospito’s imprisonment conditions are in accordance with international standards.”47
The Italian government also considered force-feeding Cospito, in case serious harm was imminent. According to some legal experts, although the anarchist extremist is in prison and consequently in the custody of the State, the force-feeding option does not seem to have a solid legal basis, even in the event that the detainee was no longer conscious, especially since Cospito already signed his living will in which he clearly expressed his refusal to be fed.48
With this respect, on February 6, 2023, the Minister of Justice asked the Comitato Nazionale per la Bioetica, CNB (National Bioethics Committee) for its non-binding opinion on the controversial ethical issues of this potential practice in general. On March 6, 2023, this governmental advisory body, which by regulation cannot consider specific “personal cases,” approved a complex document that, by unanimity, argued that the State does not have the right to limit a hunger strike by coercive measures and that the detainee can refuse medical treatment; however, at the same time, this CNB document, by a majority of present members (19 out of 30), supported the interpretation that “in the case of imminent danger to life, when it is not possible to ascertain the actual will of the detainee, the medical doctor is not exempt from carrying out all those interventions suitable for saving his/her life.”49
Actual and Potential Effects of the Cospito Affair
After Cospito was subjected to the 41-bis prison regime in May 2022, several Italian and foreign anarchist militants organized protests and “direct actions,” including premeditated attacks, in the country and abroad in solidarity with his struggle in prison. For example, on June 27, 2022, in Rome, a bomb squad defused a parcel bomb that was sent to the headquarters of an Italian aerospace and defense multinational company, to the attention of its CEO;50 this action was claimed online by insurrectionary anarchists under the moniker of the FAI/FRI and was explicitly “dedicated” to Cospito.51
After the beginning of Cospito’s hunger strike, on the night of December 2, 2022, anarchist militants set fire to cars of an Italian diplomat and left a Molotov cocktail in front of her private house in Athens. A few days later, the perpetrators claimed the attack in Greek52 under the banner of the “Carlo Giuliani revenge Nuclei” in solidarity with the Italian anarchist detainee.g Within a few weeks, other lower-level “direct actions” were carried against Italian diplomatic missions in various foreign countries (including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States).53
In addition, several threatening messages were spread. For example, on February 15, 2023, a letter signed with the FAI moniker was delivered to a few Italian companies and a newspaper. This typewritten flyer claimed that a certain manager “will be shot to death in front of his family” and added that this person, identified as “the black soul of market operations […], at the service of the war that fuels death in Ukraine … is the ideal target for the revenge of Alfredo [Cospito] and all comrades in prison. He [the manager] can be hit at any time. We know his habits, his interests.”54
Interestingly, Cospito’s struggle against the 41-bis regime attracted the interest of detainees placed under the same special regime belonging to Italian Mafia-type organizations. In particular, on January 31, 2023, it was revealed in a parliamentary speech by an Italian MP55 that during Cospito’s one-hour yard time (with no more than four other, fixed inmates under the 41-bis regime, without any turnover), on at least two occasions—on December 28, 2022, and on January 12, 2023—Cospito had a brief exchange of words with at least two mafiosi who opportunistically showed their support for his struggle against this special prison regime. It is worth bearing in mind that, unsurprisingly, members of Italian Mafia-type organizations have repeatedly attempted to oppose both the 41-bis regime and ergastolo ostativo, even with occasional hunger strikes in prison,56 often highlighting the legally controversial aspects of these prison rules.
Against this background, there should be concern that anarchist extremists could benefit from the visibility and interest generated by the Cospito affair. In fact, solidarity with prisoners has always been a key element of insurrectionary anarchism.h In addition, common hostility toward state “repression” can reduce the distances with other sectors of the diverse anarchist galaxy and even with extremist left-wing milieus.i
In exceptional cases, such as the current Cospito affair, the theme of solidarity with “political prisoners” could attract more or less passive sympathies even from outside these extremist circles,j potentially not only for the specific human story of this detainee on hunger strike, but also in favor of his violent extremist cause.
Furthermore, long before this prominent exponent of the FAI network ended up at the center of public debate and political discussion in Italy, many destructive “direct actions” had already been carried out “in revolutionary solidarity” with imprisoned comrades in Italy and abroad.57 For example, Cospito and Gai claimed their 2012 Genoa gun attack under the moniker of the “Olga Nucleus” of the FAI/FRI, with an explicit reference to Olga Ikonomidou, an imprisoned member of the Conspiracy of Cells of Fire.58 Along these lines, authorities should anticipate that insurrectionary anarchists could intensify their violent and even terrorist activities in solidarity with Cospito, especially if his health conditions in prison were to deteriorate even further. This risk would likely only increase if Cospito ends up dying in prison, as, while he has stated that he does not want to become a “martyr,”59 he seems to be heading down a path that leads to being recognized as such.
Insurrectionary anarchism has shown to be a serious threat in Italy and beyond. As regards the terrorist dimension of this phenomenon, in Italy the authorities have dealt with this menace with considerable success. In doing so, they have used relatively aggressive counterterrorism rules, measures, and practices60 that, in part, derive directly or indirectly from the long fight against powerful Mafia-type organizations. Some rules, including key prison rules,61 were first introduced in emergency conditions but have subsequently been carefully and extensively tested and at times partially revised. While Italy’s approach against both the Mafia62 and terrorist actors63 overall is usually considered sophisticated and effective, and involves a crucial and active role for an independent judiciary, some specific rules have raised delicate legal issues.
Against this background, the recent Cospito affair poses further difficulties. As in similar cases elsewhere,64 the story of an unrepentant terrorist on indefinite hunger strike poses delicate dilemmas for a liberal democracy. On the one hand, state authorities cannot easily give in to what could be considered political blackmail, potentially even with indirect effects on the demanding fight against the Mafia; on the other hand, they must guarantee the protection of human rights while avoiding the risk of a cause célèbre increasing the visibility and potentially even the actual vitality of a violent extremist cause. Furthermore, in the case of insurrectionary anarchism, the decentralized and fluid nature of this largely clandestine phenomenon65 implies that reactions of militants and sympathizers cannot be fully controlled, even by prominent figures who are part of this movement.
In conclusion, the Cospito affair not only confirms the dynamism of insurrectionary anarchism in Italy and internationally, it highlights more generally the complex dilemmas that liberal democracies face in combating terrorism.
[a] Mikhail Vasilievich Zhlobitsky was a Russian anarchist who blew himself up in the local office of the FSB (Federal Security Service) in Arkhangelsk, northwestern Russia, on October 31, 2018. Zhlobitsky, a 17-year-old student, died at the scene, while three FSB officers were injured. See, for example, “Russia Arkhangelsk blast: Teen blows himself up at FSB office,” BBC, October 31, 2018.
 Michael Loadenthal, “Cells, communiqués and monikers: The insurrectionary networks of antistate attack,” in Ruth Kinna and Uri Gordon eds., Routledge Handbook of Radical Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), pp. 326-340 (p. 336).