This week in terrorism history: Dec. 5-11

Anti-Semitic extremists attacked a kosher market in Jersey City, killing 3, Dec. 10, 2019.

Tonight marks the final night of teaching my course on terrorism and political violence, and so this will be the last of this series until the next time I teach the class. So I’ve decided to wrap things up a little differently than usual.

When I started this series I decided that I would do two things differently than before. First, I’d focus only on terrorist incidents that occurred in the United States, and second that I’d choose the examples from the years 1970 to 2000. Both of these were intended to drive home to my students, and those of you who read this, that the United States’ experience of terrorism long predates the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that, in the vast majority of cases, attacks were carried out on Americans, by Americans, in pursuit of goals deeply embedded in the political and social culture of the United States.

In short, our terrorism problem has historically been a domestic one, not one rooted in foreign attackers coming here to strike American society in the name of causes foreign to our soil. The dozen posts in this series (which began here) make that point pretty clearly. When we talk about the experience of terrorism in the United States, we are generally talking about Americans at war with America.

For this final installment in the series, I decided to look at the week Dec. 5-11 for every year from 1970 through 2019 (the Global Terrorism Database has been updated to include all of 2019). What I found was interesting, and not terribly surprising. In all I found 55 separate incidents, 40 of them from 1970-2000, and a further 15 from 2001-2019. The most active decade was the 1970s, accounting for 19 incidents. The fewest attacks occurred in the 1990s (seven incidents) and 2000s (three incidents).

Ominously, things start to escalate in the mid-2010s, however, with 15 separate attacks in the week of Dec. 5-11 from 2014-2019. This is consistent with the overall pattern we see if we look at all attacks in the United States from 1970-2019. The Global Terrorism Database records 3,004 over this timeframe, with peaks in the 1970s, and a steady state through the 1980s and 1990s when incidents averaged around 50 attacks a year, give or take. There is a big decline after 2001, approaching low double digits in some year. But starting around 2012 or 2013 the number of attacks begins to dramatically tick upwards.

The trends become clear if we break it down by 5-year periods. From 2005-2009 there were 65 separate terrorist incidents recorded. From 2010-2014 that number rises to 96. But from 2015-2019 that number soars to 316 separate terrorist incidents, a whopping 386 percent increase from 2005-2009.

The takeaway is clear, and chilling. If these kinds of increases continue, we are looking at the possibility of terrorism in the United States rising to levels we haven’t seen in nearly a half century. That worries me.

And now, for this week’s final look back, we turn to the most recent representative week available in the GTD, Dec. 5-11, 2019.

  • Dec. 5, 2019 — El Paso, TX: Unidentified perpetrators broke into and set fire to St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church. It was the fourth attack on an El Paso church that year. No one was injured in the incident, but damage to the church was extensive.
  • Dec. 5, 2019 — Memphis, TN: A cellphone tower was set afire in the Hayden Place neighborhood of Memphis. While no group claimed responsibility, law enforcement officials believe the fire was set by extremists who embrace the conspiracy theory linking 5G radio waves to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Dec. 5, 2019 — Memphis, TN: In the second arson attack on a cellphone tower in Memphis on the same day, unknown perpetrators set fire to a tower in the Binghampton neighborhood. As with the other attack, 5G conspiracy theorists were suspected. No one was injured in either attack.
  • Dec. 6, 2019 — Pensacola, FL: A member of the Saudi Arabian Air Force opens fire on a classroom at the US Naval Air Base in Pensacola. Four people, including the attacker, were killed and another eight were wounded. The Islamist group Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility. The attacker posted criticism of US wars and praise of Osama bin Laden on social media just hours before the shooting.
  • Dec. 7, 2019 — Fayetteville, AR: A gunman ambushed and opened fire on police officer Stephen Carr while he was standing outside a police station. Carr was killed instantly and the gunman was killed by responding police. No group claimed responsibility, but the attacker was identified by sources as an anti-police extremist.
  • Dec. 10, 2019 — Jersey City, NJ: Two gunmen opened fire on the JC Kosher Supermarket in Jersey City. Three people were killed and three others were injured in the attack. The gunmen, anti-Semitic extremists, left a note in their vehicle which said: “I do this because my creator makes me do this and I hate who he hates.” The two were subsequently connected to the killing of a police detective earlier in the day, and a taxi driver the previous week.
  • Dec. 11, 2019 — Franklin Lakes, NJ: An assailant set fire to the Roman Catholic Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Franklin Lakes. The assailant was injured in the attack, which destroyed the church. In his trial a year later, the attacker was described as trying to achieve “religious purity” by setting fire to the church.

This week in terrorism history: Nov. 28-Dec. 4

Burned school buses in Pontiac, MI. The aftermath of a 1971 Ku Klux Klan firebombing.

This week’s look back at the recent history of terrorism in the United States hits pretty close to home for me. And I mean that literally. The two attacks that will be described below both took place in Michigan, the state where I hang my hat.

It got me thinking about the extent to which Michigan has been the site of terrorist incidents over the last few decades, and so I dove into the Global Terrorism Database for some answers. Here’s what I found.

From 1970 through 2018, the time period the GTD covers, 47 separate terrorist attacks were recorded in the state of Michigan. Geographically, there are few areas of the state which aren’t represented in the data, from Escanaba and Houghton up in the Upper Peninsula, Grand Rapids on the westside, Mesick in mid-Michigan, and Detroit in the southeast.

Detroit, in fact, was the location of the most recorded attacks, 14 in all with the most recent in 2009. Coming in second was Ann Arbor, the scene of six attacks, followed by East Lansing with five. In the cases of both Ann Arbor and East Lansing, incidents there are most likely a function of their status as home to the state’s two largest universities, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University respectively. The connection to the universities emerges when we look at the perpetrators of Michigan attacks.

Of the 47 incidents captured in the GTD, 27 percent, the largest fraction, are attributed to leftist militants, including so-called “student radicals,” and occurred during 1970 and 1971. The second largest fraction of attacks is attributed to the Earth Liberation Front, at 23 percent. That percentage rises to 27 percent if we combine ELF attacks with those attributed to the Animal Liberation Front and other radical animal-rights groups. Most of those incidents occurred between 1999 and 2003.

Rounding out the rest of the perpetrators, anti-abortion militants accounted for 12 percent of attacks, white supremacists 10 percent, jihadists 2 percent, others (such as the Jewish Defense League, the Black Liberation Army, and anti-technology militants) account for 8 percent, and in the final 12 percent of cases attribution could not be determined.

To summarize, Michigan is no stranger to the phenomenon of domestic terrorism. We’ve experienced it since 1970, long before the self-proclaimed Wolverine Watchmen plotted to kidnap and murder Gov. Gretchen Whitmer just year ago. Now on to this week’s examples:

  • Dec. 1, 1986 — Kalamazoo, MI: Militant anti-abortion activists carry out an arson attack against the Reproductive Health Care Center of Planned Parenthood in Kalamazoo. There were no casualties, but the building was destroyed in the fire.
  • Dec. 4, 1986 — Lathrup Village, MI: A bomb is planted in front of the Woman’s Care Clinic of Southfield in Lathrup Village, a Detroit suburb. The bomb was discovered by a clinic employee and defused by state police. Anti-abortion radicals were blamed in the attack.

This week in terrorism history: Nov. 21-27

The Grito de Lares flag, flown during an unsuccessful 1868 Puerto Rican uprising against Spanish occupation.

Violent ethnonational liberation and separatist movements are common across the terrorism landscape and have been for decades. The examples are well known, from the FLN in Algeria to the Provisional IRA and its successors in Northern Ireland, ETA in the Basque regions of Spain, to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

What we might not realize, however, is the experience of domestic terrorism in America includes attacks against the United States in the name of national liberation. Puerto Rican separatist groups, fighting for the independence of the territory from the U.S., have been among the most active. In a 1986 report produced for the Department of Justice, noted terrorism expert Bruce Hofmann wrote:

For more than three decades, Puerto Rican separatists have waged a sporadic, but persistent campaign against U.S. possession of their island. Their goal is to establish an independent and sovereign Puerto Rico. Their first operation, the attempted assassination of President Harry Truman, occurred more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1950. Four years later, separatists attacked the House of Representatives Chamber in Washington, D.C., injuring five Congressmen.

According to a 2014 report produced by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 31 percent of the groups carrying out domestic terrorist attacks in the United States between 1970 and 2013 were motivated by an ethnonationalist/separatist agenda. Many of these were the work of Puerto Rican nationalists, the bulk of whose attacks were occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. The most active of these groups was Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), responsible for 120 attacks between 1974 and 1982.

This week’s look back at the history of terrorism in the United States features two attacks carried out by one of the precursor organizations to the FALN. The Armed Commandos of Liberation (Comandos Armados de Liberacion) organized in 1969, launching its first attacks against U.S. businesses in Puerto Rico. By 1974, police on the island had dismantled the organization. But remnants of that group and a second, the Armed Independence Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento de Independencia Revolucionario en Armas) regrouped and united to form FALN later that same year.

The Armed Commandos of Liberation were responsible for 13 attacks, all on the island of Puerto Rico, over their five-year lifespan. Their deadliest attack came in April of 1971, when two bombs detonated at a shopping center killing three and causing extensive damage to the complex. The group was also implicated in the March 1970 assassination of two U.S. Navy personnel. That attack was believed to be in retaliation for the killing of a student protester by police the day earlier at the University of Puerto Rico.

Now on to this week’s look back.

  • Nov. 21, 1970 — Portland, Oregon: Suspected left-wing militants bomb a replica of the Liberty Bell located behind City Hall. The bell was destroyed and the building damaged. A janitor was injured by flying glass.
  • Nov. 21, 1970 — Chattanooga, TN: A bomb was thrown through the window of the chief of security of a TNT manufacturer. At the time, the company was embroiled in a bitter labor dispute. Striking workers were suspected. No one was injured in the attack, but the home suffered extensive damage.
  • Nov. 22, 1970 — St. Petersburg, FL: John Allen Brown, described as a left-wing militant, planted a high explosive bomb in the waterfront Shore Acre/Snell Isle neighborhood of St. Petersburg. The bomb failed to detonate due to a faulty timing mechanism. Police believe Brown was also responsible for the bombing of a St. Petersburg police car several days earlier.
  • Nov. 23, 1970 — San Juan, Puerto Rico: The Armed Commandos of Liberation carry out a bombing attack against the Dominican Consulate, the diplomatic offices of the Dominican Republic in Puerto Rico. No one was injured in the attack.
  • Nov. 25, 1970 — New York City: The Jewish Defense League is blamed for a bombing attack at the offices of Aeroflot, the Soviet Union’s national airline. No one was injured.
  • Nov. 25, 1970 — New York City: The Jewish Defense League is blamed for a second bombing attack, this one directed against the offices of Intourist, which organized tours to the Soviet Union. It was the primary travel agency for foreign tourists to the USSR.
  • Nov. 25, 1970 — Berkeley, CA: A bomb is discovered in the men’s restroom of a gymnasium at the University of California, Berkeley. The bomb was disarmed by a US military bomb squad. Student radicals were suspected.
  • Nov. 25, 1970 — San Juan, Puerto Rico: A bomb was planted in the R.O.T.C. building of the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. The fragmentation device was discovered and removed thirty minutes before it was set to detonate. The Armed Commandos of National Liberation were suspected as the attempt came two days after the group’s bombing of the consulate of the Dominican Republic.

This week in terrorism history: Nov. 14-20

The Falls Church Islamic Center was the target of a terrorist attack, this week in 2015.

In my experience, many Americans have the unfortunate tendency to think that the story of terrorism in America begins with 9/11 and continues in the years since with one episode of jihadist-inspired terror after another. Of course, as I’ve long argued in this space, this narrative is about as far from reality as you can get.

What it ignores is the extent to which Muslims, and especially Muslim places of worship, have themselves been the target of domestic terrorism.

A few years ago, after a series of high-profile attacks on churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, I wrote a post looking at the record of attacks on places of worship here in the United States over the 20-year period from 1998 to 2017. What I found was not surprising. Overall, the pattern fits with the larger trends in domestic terrorism here.

There were 80 such attacks during that 20-year period, most targeting places where minority communities worship. Mosques were the most frequently attacked, followed by synagogues, and then Black churches. In all, two-thirds of attacks on places of worship were directed against religious and racial minorities.

Mosques continued to be in the crosshairs in the years after 9/11. The Global Terrorism Database identifies 37 such incidents between September 2001 and the end of 2019. This is in marked contrast to the period prior to 9/11. My quick look through the data allowed me to identify only a single obvious case of a mosque being the target of attack.

One June 22, 1985, two bombs detonated in the prayer room of the Daar Us Salaam mosque in Houston, Texas, about an hour after worshippers left the mosque. There were no injuries, but the building suffered extensive damage. Three men, all Houston residents, were convicted of building and detonating the bombs. They claimed the attack was carried out in retaliation and anger over the holding of American hostages in Beirut, Lebanon by Shiite Muslim militias. The bombing came in the midst of a series of threatening phone calls to several area mosques and Islamic society offices after the hostage situation in Beirut.

This week’s look back at terrorism in the United States highlights two more such attacks, falling on the same day, but occurring hundreds of miles apart.

  • Nov. 15, 2015 — Falls Church, Va.: An attacker, identified as Chester H. Gore, was arrested after throwing firebombs at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center. He was also accused of planting a fake bomb at the mosque. No one was injured in the attack, though the building suffered structural damage.
  • Nov. 15, 2015 — Meriden, Conn.: Ex-Marine sharpshooter Ted Hakey, Jr. fired several shots into the Baitul Aman Mosque on Main Street in Meriden. No one was injured in the attack. According to news reports, Hakey’s attack was in apparent retaliation for attacks by ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Paris, which killed 130 the day before. He posted on social media the day of that attack: “What is gonna be the breaking point to go ‘weapons free’ against Islam.” Investigators found other anti-Muslim diatribes on his computer, including a message to a friend in which he wrote, “”If we all kill just 1 Muslim each tonight it will make a dent!” Hakey was sentenced to six months in federal prison in the incident.