Who Are The Anarchists Behind the Rome Embassy Bombs?

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Police cordon off the Chilean Embassy where a parcel bomb exploded on December 23, 2010 in Rome, Italy

The Italian anarchists who have claimed responsibility for the letter bombs that exploded in the Swiss and Chilean embassies in Rome Thursday want to make it clear that they consider themselves part of something bigger. "We've decided to make our voice heard once again, with words and with deeds," read a note written in Italian found in the remains of a crude bomb that exploded in the Chilean embassy. "We will destroy the system of domination."

The note was signed by the Informal Federation of Anarchy, a loose union of Italian anarchist groups that authorities say is the largest such organization in the country. It said the bombs were the work of the organization's "Lambros Founas Cell," named after a Greek anarchist killed in a shootout with police in March, and expressed solidarity with other anarchist groups in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Spain and Greece.

"Even the choice of targets was not an accident," said Alfredo Mantovano, vice minister of the interior, to the Italian daily Il Giornale. According to Mantovano, the bomb that exploded in the Swiss embassy a bit before noon, severely injuring a Swiss national's hands, had been sent in response to recent arrests of anarchists in Switzerland. The Chilean embassy — where a blast shortly after the one at the Swiss embassy injured a staff member in the hand, chest and eye — was targeted for the Chilean government's fight against anarchist Mauricio Morales, who died in Santiago in 2009 when a bomb he was carrying exploded.

But while there's little doubt the group shares an ideological affinity with violent activists in other parts of the world, it's less certain that their capabilities rise to the level normally associated with international terrorism. The bombs, made from video cassette boxes stuffed with gunpowder and metal shards, were triggered by a nine-volt battery. Officials say they were mailed from within the country, using the Italian postal system. "It is a small group of individuals, not really capable of organizing themselves," says Gianfranco Pasquino, a professor of political science and expert in terrorism at the University of Bologna, adding that the anarchists had few supporters in Italian society. "To throw a bomb or put one in a letter is not that much of a challenge."

According to Mantovano, Italy is home to a "few hundred" anarchists, who form part of a loose, miasmic network that exchanges information with groups in other countries. Thursday's attacks followed scares that morning in two government offices in Rome, after anonymous callers Warned that bombs had been planted. And on Tuesday, part of the Roman subway was briefly evacuated after what turned out to be a fake bomb was discovered under a seat in a train. Italian authorities have also blamed anarchists for riots in central Rome on Dec. 14, which shut down one of the city's busiest shopping streets as cobblestone-throwing demonstrators burned cars and clashed with riot police.

Thursday's bombing seemed to have been inspired by similar attacks in Greece in November, when letter bombs were sent to foreign embassies and top European government officials, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Prosecutors in Rome say they are looking into potential ties between anarchist groups in the two countries.

It's not the first time the Informal Federation of Anarchy has lashed out with yuletide bombs. In December 2003, the group launched what it called "Operation Santa Claus," mailing hollowed-out books containing explosives to four European Union bodies, including then-European Commission President Romano Prodi. And last year, again in December, the group claimed responsibility for a bomb that went off in the early morning in a tunnel in Milan's private Bocconi university.

Nobody was injured in any of the attacks. "This is something they have to do from time to time to show that they exist," says Pasquino. "But the level of threat they pose is minimal."