Japanese Red Army clings to 'ultimate dream': Only 20 members are left of the organisation that cut its terrorist teeth on the 1972 Lod airport massacre. Terry McCarthy describes a revolution put on hold

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The Independent Online
THE Japanese Red Army is celebrating its 20th birthday this year - far from home. Its remaining hard-core members, whom the Japanese police estimate at a total of 20, are living in a camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, close to the main road to Damascus. 'Recently they have been a little bit quiet,' said Takehito Kobayashi, director of the National Police Agency division that monitors the Red Army's activities.

For the time being the heady days of international terrorism, hijackings of airliners for multi-million dollar ransoms and international anti-imperialist revolution have been put on hold. Instead, the Red Army members in Lebanon conduct seminars, publish two newspapers and hold holiday camps for a small group of committed supporters from Japan.

Their leader is still Fusako Shigenobu, a 46-year-old woman whom Mr Kobayashi calls 'a genuine Communist'. However, according to Japanese intelligence, their activities have been limited by Syria, which controls the Bekaa Valley and is eager to improve relations with the United States by cracking down on terrorism. The Red Army is thought to have been largely disarmed by Syria and allowed to carry only pistols.

But it has not given up its 'ultimate dream' of revolution in Japan, Mr Kobayashi said, and a change in its propaganda, calling for attacks on 'Japanese imperialism in Asia', has caused the Japanese police to step up their surveillance of the group. 'They are quite serious when they issue their propaganda,' Mr Kobayashi said. 'In the future I think they will target Japan again.'

In a book published in April, Kunio Bando, another Red Army member in Lebanon, shows that the nostalgia for the old struggle is still apparent. 'When I watch the Palestinian and Lebanese people's way of fighting, they have a clear vision of who their real enemies are,' Mr Bando writes. 'In their life, they hold guns the same way as they hold pens or hoes. I am very moved by the people because it seems they regard fighting as part of their everyday life.'

The Japanese Red Army originated from radical left-wing groups in Japan in the early 1970s. But infiltration by the Japanese police, and political infighting culminating in the torturing to death in 1972 of 11 comrades suspected of being informers, effectively ended its activities within Japan.

A number of members fled to the Middle East, where they established contact with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. To establish their anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist credentials, they carried out the massacre at Lod airport, Tel Aviv, in 1972. This attack was regarded as the birth of the Japanese Red Army in its current form, and is referred to in its own literature simply as 'the Operation'. After the massacre, the Japanese Red Army carried out a string of hijackings and armed attacks on embassies around the world throughout the mid- 1970s. In 1977 it hijacked a Japanese Airlines jet in Dhaka, and the Japanese government gave in to its demands for a ransom, reported to be dollars 6m ( pounds 3.1m), as well as the release of some of its members imprisoned in Japan. Then the Red Army dropped out of sight for nine years.

Assuming that it had ceased to be a danger, the Japanese police were taken by surprise when the comrades fired rockets at the US and Japanese embassies in Jakarta in 1986. The next year they kidnapped a Mitsui executive in Manila, whom they released for another ransom payment, said to be dollars 2m. Their last successful attack was the bombing of a US navy disco in Naples in 1988, which left one US servicewoman and five Italians dead. An attempt to bomb the US embassy in Bulgaria during the Gulf war in 1991 failed when the Bulgarian police discovered the plot.

Looking back on the history of the Red Army since 'the Operation' in 1972, an article in its newspaper, People's Revolution, asked the blunt question: 'What have we achieved after 20 years of struggle?' After discussing the collapse of Soviet Communism and conceding that the Red Army itself had made some mistakes, the conclusion was that now the people, and not the party, must be the 'masters of the revolution'. But whether the Japanese people are ready to be masters of a revolution, and not mere 'onlookers' - Mr Bando's word - is another matter.