This week in terrorism history: Jan. 13-19

Northern Ireland Catholic civil rights activist and MP Bernadette Devlin McAliskey (left) survived an assassination attempt by UFF gunmen, Jan. 16, 1981.

Last week I found myself on more than one occasion bringing up in conversation the 1993 failed attempt to destroy the World Trade Center. While the bomb went off beneath the North Tower, the explosion failed to bring the structure, and its twin, down as intended. Six people died and more than a thousand were injured in the attack.

As I told my students last week, in the 1993 attack investigators were able to identify and apprehend most of the conspirators when one of their number, Mohammed Salameh, returned to a Jersey City, NJ, Ryder truck rental office to try to recover the deposit he had put down on the truck which carried the bomb. That led to his arrest, and then to the others.

Twenty-four years ago this week, one of the primary conspirators in that effort, the Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the plot. The attack on the WTC was only part of the holy war that he had intended to help launch.

In October 1995, Rahman, along with nine others, was convicted of a broad conspiracy to carry out a “day of terror” across New York City, five bombs that were intended to destroy the United Nations headquarters, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and 26 Federal Plaza, the US government’s main office building in the city. The evidence in the trial included testimony from a government informant, secret audio recordings, and a video tape showing defendants mixing diesel oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a Queens, NY, garage, ingredients that were to make up one of the bombs.

So with that quick bit of added background, here’s this week’s look back.

  • Jan. 13, 2015 — Volnovakha, Ukraine: Assailants fire a rocket-propelled grenade into a civilian bus near a military checkpoint, killing 12 and injuring another 11. The attack is attributed to militants of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
  • Jan. 16, 1981 — Coalisland, Northern Ireland: Members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a loyalist paramilitary group, carry out a failed assassination attempt on Catholic civil rights activist and Member of Parliament Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and her husband. Both are wounded in the attack, which took place in the family’s home while it was under surveillance by British soldiers. The troops did not intervene to prevent the attack, and waited more than 30 minutes before summoning ambulances to the scene.
  • Jan. 17, 1996 — United States: Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheihk,” is sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. He died in prison in February 2017 at the age of 78.
  • Jan. 17, 2002 — Spain: ETA militants send a mail bomb to Enrique Ibarra, vice president of Grupo Correo in the Basque region of Spain. No one is injured in the attack.
  • Jan. 19, 1977 — New York City: Members of a Puerto Rican separatist group called the Independent Armed Revolutionary Commandos carry out a firebomb attack on an FBI office. This was one of four separate attacks in New York City carried out by the group on the same day.

Cue Inigo Montoya

The last week of nail-biting US foreign policy and flirtation with all-out war against Iran has served to highlight a couple of basic concepts that the Trump administration clearly does not comprehend. I’m going to touch on one here.

Let’s talk about the concept of “imminence.” The assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in Iraq a week ago was justified, according to President Trump, because Soleimani was planning “imminent and sinister” attacks that would kill Americans. The president elaborated:

“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump said during brief remarks at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “We did not take action to start a war.”

Without divulging details about what led to the early morning airstrike that killed Soleimani and nine others, the president said the United States “caught” the general “in the act and terminated him.”

OK, sounds serious. After all, the standard definition of “imminent” is that something is “likely to occur at any moment.”

Unless you’re Secretary of State Mike Pompeo …

Apparently the secretary also doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “consistent.”

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

At least that’s the implication of a new report in the Washington Post this afternoon:

On the day the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, U.S. forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.

The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.

If this latest report is accurate, then what the United States did in assassinating Soleimani was not a defensive use of pre-emptive military force, but an aggressive act of war. One which, so far, has not spiraled out of control.

So far.

This week in terrorism history: Jan.6-12

Female fighters at a Tamil Tiger training camp, some time in the early 2000s.

Once again I am teaching my class on terrorism and political violence, and so returning to the blog is “This Week in Terrorism History,” a series of posts that I started back in 2016 and returned to in 2018, the last time I taught this course.

As I wrote in the earlier incarnations of this feature:

[O]ne of the points that I try to impress upon my students is that, as a form of political action, terrorism has been around for far longer than our current post-9/11 awareness would lead most Americans to acknowledge. This weekly feature is intended to highlight some of that history.

In the past I have relied mainly on the counterterrorism calendar that had in the long-ago-time-before-Trump been produced annually starting in 2003 and made available to the public by the National Counterterrorism Center. Go online to look for it now, and you wind up here, at a literal dead end. So, where necessary, I will rely on the calendar produced in 2016, before the last group of competent people exited the NCTC’s building.

There are positives and negatives to losing that resource. The key negative is simply convenience. I have to scramble around more to find good examples to bring to your, and my students’, attention. That brings us to the positive. A key flaw of the NCTC calendar was its near-exclusive focus on incidents that targeted Americans, or American allies and interests. Likewise, it tended to highlight groups espousing ideologies seen as threatening to the United States and of significant contemporary security concern. Put these two flaws together and you get a rather myopic emphasis on Islamist groups to the exclusion of a lot of other relevant incidents and cases. One last point which I noted the last time I was working on this feature:

Third, there is a tendency to emphasize acts of transnational terrorism targeting the US or US interests over acts of domestic terrorism within the United States that lack some sort of transnational link, either ideological or material. This despite the reality that the vast majority of terrorist incidents the United States has suffered historically, and the primary threat of terrorism confronting the US today, comes from domestic groups, mainly but not exclusively, on the far right of the political spectrum.

To deal with these shortcomings and the biases they represent, this time I am going to draw incidents from what is generally considered the gold-standard for datasets for those studying or researching terrorism: the Global Terrorism Database housed at the University of Maryland. I’ll supplement these with additional information from the 2016 NCTC calendar, and data on domestic terrorism, mostly on the far right-wing, compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

So, with that, let’s get to the history.

  • Jan. 6, 1963 — Colombia: Founding of the National Liberation Army (ELN).
  • Jan. 6, 1974 — London: The Provisional Irish Republican Army attempts to assassinate British Maj. Gen. Phillip Ward, using an improvised explosive device.
  • Jan. 8, 2008 — Ja-Ela, Sri Lanka: A roadside bomb attributed to the Tamil Tigers kills a government minister; one more killed and a further 10 are injured.
  • Jan. 8, 2000 — Rome: The Revolutionary Leninist Brigades carry out an arson attack against the offices of the extreme right National Front movement.
  • Jan. 10, 1990 — Arequipa, Peru: A bomb is detonated at the Belaunde Gold Mine. Attack is attributed to the Shining Path.
  • Jan. 11, 2017 — Arish, Egypt: Gunmen open fire on a security forces vehicle parked in front of a hospital, killing three and wounding two more. The attack is attributed to the Sinai Province of the Islamic State.
  • Jan. 12, 1988 — Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: Members of the Pedro Albizu Campos Revolutionary Forces placed incendiary devices at a Citibank branch and a Mexican travel agency housed in the same building. No one was injured though both businesses sustained damage. 

A riveting hour of television

(Credit: BBC)

In November 1979, following the release of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, a remarkable debate took place on late-night British television. Forty years later, that debate, between representatives of the Britain’s Christian establishment and Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin, is just as riveting and relevant as the day it took place.

The film, which tells the story of Brian of Nazareth, unlucky enough to be born on the same day as the subsequently more famous Jesus of Nazareth. As the Irish Examiner summarizes:

After joining a Jewish, anti-Roman terrorist group, The People’s Front of Judea, he is mistaken for a prophet and becomes an unwilling Messiah. All this eventually produces the film’s most remembered line, courtesy of Brian’s mother Mandy (Terry Jones). “He’s not the Messiah,” she tells us, “he’s a very naughty boy”.

The movie was met with instant controversy when it was released. I remember local churches in my Florida hometown passing out leaflets denouncing the comedy as blasphemous. The film was banned in Ireland, Norway, and parts of Britain, and elsewhere in the US, crowds picketed outside theaters where it was showing.

With the controversy raging, Cleese and Palin, along with the Anglican Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, were invited on to the program Friday Night, Saturday Morning to debate the film and its merits.

What followed was, and remains, riveting viewing. Andrew Todd explains:

Perhaps the most famous element of Life of Brian blowback was a televised debate on talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning – a show whose host changed each fortnight, and whose hosts selected their own guests. Moderated by Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice, the debate pitted John Cleese and Michael Palin against Catholic bishop Mervyn Stockwood and broadcaster and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge (both of whom were likely selected, in part, for their stubbornness). The topic: Life of Brian, and the accusation that it was a work of blasphemy.

the first section simply has Cleese and Palin discussing the making of the film, speaking as eloquently and amusingly as you’d expect from legendary comedians at, arguably, their peak (Cleese had just wrapped Fawlty Towers as well). Upon Muggeridge and Stockward’s entrance, things become hostile, as the two old men demonstratively expound on their own faith and fire veiled (and unveiled) insults at the two Pythons. Stockward in particular rarely makes eye contact with his ostensible opponents, instead preaching to the audience or into the ether, refusing to allow the filmmakers to respond.

Cleese and Palin do their best to keep their cool, continuing to defend their film as it’s labeled to their faces as “a little squalid number,” “tenth-rate,” “buffoonery,” and “unworthy of an educated man.” Closing out with Stockward proclaiming that the Pythons would “get [their] thirty pieces of silver,” the sham of a debate is a fascinating insight into both the Pythons’ vision for the film and the closed-mindedness of certain elements of the Church. Indeed, Muggeridge and Stockward, for all their bluster, end up proving Life of Brian’s thesis without even a hint of satire.

Cleese and Palin make a fundamental point that goes right over the heads of their interlocutors. Far from making a film that was intended to undermine people’s faith, they wanted to, and did, make a film that would make its audience laugh, and but more importantly even think a little bit.

It is the kind of debate that is frankly unthinkable on television today, with serious people (yes really) dealing with a serious topic in way that is, for the most part, intellectually and spiritually honest. If you ask me to score the event, my card gives it to the Pythons, hands down. But you should watch it and make up your own mind.

That’s what Cleese, Palin, and the other Pythons wanted you to do all along.