‘Empress of terror’: Japanese Red Army founder released from prison

The founder of one of the most feared terrorist organisations of the 1970s has walked free from a Japanese prison after completing a 20-year sentence for the siege of the French embassy in the Netherlands.

Once described as “the empress of terror”, Fusako Shigenobu founded the Japanese Red Army, a radical leftist group that carried out armed attacks worldwide in support of the Palestinian cause.

On Saturday, 76-year-old Shigenobu left the prison in Tokyo with her daughter as several supporters held a banner saying “We love Fusako”.

“I apologise for the inconvenience my arrest has caused to so many people,” Shigenobu said after the release. “It’s half a century ago … but we caused damage to innocent people who were strangers to us by prioritising our battle, such as by hostage-taking.”

Fusako Shigenobu during her arrest in Osaka in 2000.
Fusako Shigenobu during her arrest in 2000. Photograph: Toshiyuki Aizawa/Reuters

She is believed to have masterminded the 1972 machine gun and grenade attack on Tel Aviv’s Lod airport, which left 26 people dead and injured about 80.

Shigenobu had lived as a fugitive in the Middle East for around 30 years but was arrested in Osaka in November 2000 after secretly returning to Japan using a false passport and checking into a hotel disguised as a man.

The former soy sauce company worker was sentenced to two decades behind bars six years later for her part in the 1974 siege of the embassy in the Hague.

Shigenobu maintained her innocence over the siege, in which three Red Army militants stormed into the embassy, taking the ambassador and 10 other staff hostage for 100 hours.

Two police officers were shot and seriously wounded. France ended the standoff by freeing a jailed Red Army guerrilla, who flew off with the hostage-takers in a plane to Syria. Shigenobu did not take part in the attack personally but the court said she coordinated the operation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Born into poverty in post-war Tokyo, Shigenobu’s odyssey into Middle Eastern extremism began by accident when she passed a sit-in protest at a Tokyo university when she was 20. Shigenobu quickly became involved in the leftist movement and decided to leave Japan aged 25.

She announced the Red Army’s disbanding from prison in April 2001, and in 2008 was diagnosed with colon and intestinal cancer, undergoing several operations.

Shigenobu said on Saturday she will first focus on her treatment and explained she will not be able to “contribute to the society” given her frail condition. But she told reporters: “I want to continue to reflect [on my past] and live more and more with curiosity.”

In a letter to a Japan Times reporter in 2017 she admitted the group had failed in its aims. “Our hopes were not fulfilled and it came to an ugly end,” she wrote.

Reign of terror

February 1971: Shigenobu founds the Japanese Red Army in Lebanon

May 1972: Group kills 26 people and injures 80 in an attack at Lod airport in Tel Aviv

September 1974: French embassy stormed in The Hague. Ambassador and 10 others freed in exchange for release of jailed member

August 1975: More than 50 hostages taken at embassy in Kuala Lumpur

September 1977: Japan Airlines plane hijacked and forced to land in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Japanese government releases six members and pays $6m ransom

April 1988: Five killed in Red Army bombing of US military social club in Naples

November 2000: Shigenobu arrested in Osaka


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