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.

This week in terrorism history: Nov. 7-13

The cover of the first issue of the NWLF’s journal The Urban Guerrilla

When looking back at the recent history of terrorism in the United States, the 1970s never fail to disappoint. This week we get a look at one of the most prolific, and probably least remembered, domestic terrorist groups in American history.

While some leftist radical groups of the 1970s, like the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground, are still well known today, thanks to numerous books, articles, and films about them, the subject of today’s look back dwells in obscurity, despite waging a four-year bombing campaign across the western United States targeting government offices, businesses, and utilities. The New World Liberation Front, from 1974 to 1978, carried out nearly 90 separate attacks, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A 1977 article in the publication Open Road, described the group this way:

The New World Liberation Front, a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist organization which has carried out an uninterrupted urban guerilla offensive around the Bay Area and Northern California for almost three years, may well be the most tactically advanced guerilla group in the United States.

The NWLF first appeared … with a bombing in September, 1974, directed against a San Francisco stock brokerage firm. From the beginning, the NWLF has distinguished itself from most other guerilla organizations in the U.S. by two characteristics. First, although the bomb has remained its primary weapon, the NWLF’s attacks have been focused mainly on local, concrete political issues rather than abstract symbolic protest; and, second, the group has made extensive use of a demand strategy, that is, revolutionary extortion.

As far as its paramilitary activities are concerned, the NWLF has a record of success which verges on the astonishing. The organization has carried out almost fifty successful bombings, including power stations, banks, office buildings and motor vehicles, without causing a single injury to anyone. Even more amazing is the fact that in the process of all these actions, not one underground member of the organization has ever been identified or apprehended.

This is one of the enduring mysteries surrounding the NWLF. Federal and local law enforcement were baffled by the organization. They had no idea how large the organization was, how it was funded, or how it acquired the explosives used in its attacks. While the group remained steadfastly underground, it did have an above-ground public facing outlet for its frequent communiques and statements. This was dubbed Public Information Relay-1 (PIR-1), which published its own journal, The Urban Guerrilla, competing against other leftwing media to be the go-to mouthpiece of the Bay Area radical left.

Interestingly enough, the core group of the NWLF, whoever they were, may have operated on something like a franchise basis, allowing other leftist terrorist groups to carry out operations under the NWLF name. A long discussion of the NWLF published several years ago at the blog acromaticonline, put it this way:

This suited the agenda of the NWLF perfectly. One of the primary drivers of the group had been to make itself appear bigger than it was. Any radical guerilla operating on US soil was free to utilise the NWLF [name] provided that its goals were in accord with those of the group. 

It is also not entirely clear why the group ceased its activities. The Open Road article from 1977, however, may provide some clues. Apparently the NWLF was making itself increasingly unpopular among the ranks of the radical left through its strident communiques and pronouncements on revolutionary theory by its Central Command. These were often highly critical of other leftist radical groups and especially their unwillingness to fall into step behind the NWLF’s leadership.

Then, as the radical left began to embrace new causes in the post-Vietnam War period, NWLF denounced them, at the cost of sympathizers and potential supporters:

The NWLF particularly outraged large segments of sympathizers, though, with a series of statements in mid-1976 on the role of feminism and homosexuality in the revolutionary movement. These edicts, passed down from the Central Command, relegated feminism and the struggle against sexism to a position subordinate to the economic struggles of poor and working people. The gay movement was essentially denounced as being entirely reactionary, the outgrowth of a petit-bourgeois sexual perversion. This “more oppressed than thou” position met with almost total condemnation from other revolutionary people and organizations. 

In short, the NWLF had hoped to be the vanguard of a revolutionary movement, but few people were willing to join the revolution. And now today’s look back.

  • Nov. 10, 1977 — Rodeo, CA: Members of the New World Liberation Front carry out a bombing attack against Union Oil’s San Francisco refinery facility. No one was injured in the attack, and the extent of damage done to the refinery is not known.