Last week’s arrest of the top leader of the Japanese Red Army marked the virtual end of decades of terrorism by Japanese leftist extremists. Ms. Fusako Shigenobu, who had been on the international wanted list for a series of terrorist acts, is charged with, among other things, masterminding the occupation of the French Embassy in The Hague in September 1974. For the past 26 years, the 55-year-old terrorist has been at large, living an underground life in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Her arrest has dealt a fatal blow to the Japanese Red Army, which terrorized much of the world in the 1970s in the name of “revolution.” With its founding leader in police detention, the group appears to have been reduced to a “non-entity.” Attention is now focused on the person of Ms. Shigenobu, who allegedly directed a series of violent assaults in the Netherlands, Israel, Malaysia and other countries in the Cold War years.

Many questions remain as to why she behaved as she did — including why she risked returning to Japan, and probable arrest, after so many years. She is now undergoing interrogation at the Metropolitan Police Department, and it is hoped that investigators will unravel the whole truth about her activities as well as those of the leftwing Japanese — and international — terrorist group she commanded.

The JRA had been steadily losing clout in recent years. In February 1997, five of its members — including Kozo Okamoto, who mounted a 1972 suicide attack in Tel Aviv — were detained by Lebanese security authorities on passport-forgery and other charges. All five were subsequently sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, which they completed in March. The Lebanese government granted Okamoto political asylum but deported the other four to Japan, where they were arrested.

Japanese investigators gained tips about Ms. Shigenobu only recently. According to the National Police Agency, the Osaka prefectural police discovered her hiding place while investigating pro-JRA groups in Japan. Police believe the terrorist leader entered Japan some time this summer and settled in Osaka, where she had sympathizers.

The JRA, which was founded by Ms. Shigenobu and others in 1971 when she was a key member of a new leftwing revolutionary group, expanded in the 1970s, operating from bases in the Middle East, where the JRA forged close ties with Palestinian guerrillas. In May 1972, Okamoto and two other members attacked Lod airport in Tel Aviv, killing 24 people and wounding 80 others. In July 1973, JRA members hijacked a Japan Air Lines plane over the Netherlands, and in September 1974 another group seized the French Embassy in the Dutch capital. In 1977, JRA terrorists hijacked a JAL plane in Dacca and forced the Japanese government to free imprisoned comrades back home who had been charged with bombing office buildings; they also got away with $6 million in ransom.

Following the end of the Cold War, however, international antiterrorist efforts gained momentum, reducing the scope of JRA activity and weakening its organization. The progress in peace talks between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel dealt it a further blow. Ms. Shigenobu and other JRA leaders left their stronghold in Lebanon and reportedly began exploring possibilities for collaboration with antigovernment guerrillas in other parts of the world.

A climate of peace also seems to have something to do with recent moves toward a return to Japan by former Red Army members who, stirred by a different doctrine from that of Ms. Shigenobu and her followers, hijacked a JAL plane in 1970 to seek asylum in North Korea. These moves — which also indicate the international isolation of terrorist groups — seem to reflect a desire on the part of North Korea to normalize relations with the United States and other signs of detente on the Korean Peninsula.

On her way to Tokyo under police escort, Ms. Shigenobu made a mysterious gesture to waiting reporters, lifting and waving her handcuffed hands over her head. Had she been a different person in a different situation, that might have been taken as a gesture of triumph. But Ms. Shigenobu has no reason to be elated. She looked as if she was trying to show, however vainly, that she is, if not fighting, at least still alive.

Twenty-nine years ago, as a young woman dreaming of the “triumph of world revolution,” Ms. Shigenobu left Japan for the Middle East to establish overseas bases from which to launch that “revolution.” Her sudden return to Japan, following as it did the progressive disintegration of the JRA, cannot but convey a pathetic message: The decades of antiestablishment student activism, of which she was such a staunch advocate, are long past.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.