This week in terrorism history: Sept. 26-Oct. 2

White supremacist terrorist Byron De La Beckwith (Credit: Associated Press)

This week’s look back at the recent history of terrorism in the United States is an excellent example of the some of the trends that we continue to see when it comes to political violence in America. One that I want to highlight here is radicalization and terrorism linked to current and former members of the US military.

An April 2021 report produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shines a spotlight on military and law enforcement involvement in domestic terrorism. As the report points out:

Individuals with a military or law enforcement background have skills that extremists want – such as proficiency in firing weapons, building explosive devices, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance, training personnel, practicing operational security, and performing other types of activities.

As with so much when it comes to terrorism in America, this is nothing new. For example, in 2008 white supremacist leaders were reported to be aggressively working to recruit active-duty members of the military and recent combat veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several years earlier, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups were encouraging their members to enlist in the US military for the explicit purpose of acquiring the skills they would need to wage war at home. In the mid 1980s the US military realized it had a problem with far right radicalization in the combat arms of both the US Army and Marine Corps, and sought to purge the ranks of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

This is a phenomenon I’ve written about before in this space. Several times.

For example, Army veteran Wade Michael Page, who in 2012 murdered six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Page, a committed white supremacist, was killed by a local police officer, ending his rampage at the temple.

Or Army and Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people including 19 children. He was sentenced to death and in June 2001 was executed by lethal injection. McVeigh’s was the single deadliest act of terrorism in American history prior to 9/11, and remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism we’ve ever experienced.

Or active-duty Coast Guard officer Christoper Hasson, who was accused by federal prosecutors of plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” in order to trigger a white nationalist revolution. He pleaded guilty to drug and weapons charges and is currently serving time in federal prison.

This brings us to the perpetrator of one of the historical terrorist incidents highlighted this week, Byron De La Beckwith, who in 1963 assassinated NAACP and civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Like the terrorists mentioned above, De La Beckwith was also a veteran of the US military.

In January 1942, De La Beckwith enlisted in the US Marine Corps, and subsequently served as a machine gunner in the Pacific theater in World War II. He fought in the brutal battles of Guadalcanal and Tarawa, where he was wounded. He was honorably discharged at the war’s end.

De La Beckwith eventually returned home to Mississippi, and 1954 plunged into white supremacist activism in response to the Supreme Court’s order ending racial segregation in public schools. He joined his local White Citizens’ Council, a racist organization founded to fight desegregation which at its peak boasted more than 60,000 members, and then the Ku Klux Klan.

The state of Mississippi twice in 1964 tried De La Beckwith for the murder of Evers. Both trials ending in hung juries. In the years after his unsuccessful prosecutions De La Beckwith went on to identify with a movement called the Phineas Priesthood, an offshoot of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement, which claims that those of white Anglo-Saxon and Nordic blood are the true children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and thus are the real descendants of the Israelites, making them, not Jews, God’s chosen people.

He was finally convicted of Evers’ assassination in 1994 and spent the rest of his life in prison, dying of heart disease and other ailments in January 2001. But before his conviction and imprisonment, De La Beckwith continued to participate in white supremacist activism and terrorism. As we see below.

  • Sept. 26, 1973 – New Orleans: De La Beckwith is stopped and arrested at a police checkpoint on Interstate 10 as he was driving across a bridge into New Orleans. In his car was a ticking time bomb, firearms, and a map with highlighted directions to the home of A.I. Botnick, the head of the New Orleans-based B’nai B’rith Anti Defamation League. De La Beckwith had been under surveillance for several days after informants tipped the FBI that he was plotting to assassinate Botnick in retaliation for statements Botnick had made about white Southerners and race relations. In 1975 De La Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the case but was subsequently paroled in 1980.
  • Sept. 28, 1973 – New York City: The Weather Underground claims responsibility for the bombing of the offices of International Telephone and Telegraph’s Latin American operations. In a call to the offices of The New York Times 20 minutes before the blast, the caller identified himself as the Weather Underground and said the bomb would go off in retaliation for I.T.T. “crimes they committed against Chile.” I.T.T., a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate was widely viewed by Weather and other leftist groups as a symbol of United States exploitation of Latin America.

20 years of 9/11 is enough

I am done with commemorations of 9/11. I have been done with them for a very long time.

I’m going to cut to the chase here. I have never felt an emotional response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Not on the day it happened. Nor on any of the increasingly fetishized, politically and emotionally manipulative annual commemorations that we inflict upon ourselves year after year.

For me these ritualized remembrances ring hollow. Our self-pitying refrain of “no one has suffered from terrorism the way we have” smacks of the most offensive kind of American exceptionalism. We claim from societies that have long suffered from terrorism the mantle of victim-in-chief. And I am tired of it.

I know this is a sentiment that is out of step with many. 9/11 and its commemoration does not resonate with me the way that it does for others. I have always, from the moment it happened, thought about it only in academic, analytical, terms. I can tell you exactly how I came to that point.

At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, at the moment the first airliner hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I was sitting in my office at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., preparing to teach a class later that morning. There was an initial news report that suggested a small plane had accidentally crashed into the building, which I payed little attention to. I had no radio in my office, and when internet connectivity slowed markedly and then was lost altogether, I shrugged my shoulders and went about my work.

Then the phone rang. It was just after 10:30 a.m. and my wife, badly shaken and in tears, was calling to tell me that the towers had collapsed. And that I needed to get to a television.

I made my way to the student center, saw live images of the smoking heaps of rubble, learned that the South Tower had also been hit and fallen. And the Pentagon. And that a fourth plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. And it was time to go to class.

My students were, of course, full of questions. Who could have done it? Why? Will there be more attacks? Having spent a fair portion of my time in graduate school studying terrorism, I had answers.

I asked my students to consider the meaning of the target selections, symbolic representations of American economic, military, and political power. I asked them to consider the methodology of the attacks, sophisticated, well-planned, and coordinated suicide operations. Given the combination of meaning and methodology on display, I told them that the most likely perpetrators were al Qaeda, the only organization I knew of that had demonstrated the necessary capability coupled with the determination to attack American interests. Follow-on attacks, I thought, were highly likely.

We took a moment or two to refocus and gather our thoughts, and then I taught my scheduled lesson on international economic development.

By the time I got home that night, my initial speculation had been confirmed, and that, thankfully, no secondary attacks had occurred. I also found that my wife was deeply, deeply affected. Because, unlike me, she watched everything, live, as it happened. She saw the second plane hit the South Tower. She watched people leaping to their deaths to escape the intense flames. She watched lines of cops and firefighters filing into the buildings in an effort to find and evacuate survivors. And she watched those towers collapse, obliterating their lives.

I saw none of it in real time. What I saw was how the attacks had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the plotters. I saw how the golden ring that every terrorist organization reaches for, unlimited attention to themselves and their cause, was delivered by the wall-to-wall media coverage the attacks generated. Every network. Every channel. MTV. Home Shopping. ESPN. Video of the planes hitting and the towers collapsing on an endless loop. Talking heads naming al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and explaining to their audience why they would have the United States in their crosshairs. For days, and days, and days after.

This is my frame of reference for 9/11. This is how I talk about it with my students, who today are too young to have any memory of the day but who have grown up with its consequences. And what consequences.

The stoking of existential fear of terrorism by what scholar John Mueller has called “the terrorism industry” — security and defense contractors, media conglomerates, think tanks and research centers, pols and policymakers — which profits from that fear and leverages it to advance policy objectives the American public would otherwise never countenance. Like the creation of a surveillance state and erosion of our civil liberties at home. Like the abandonment of our core values and the embrace of torture and indefinite imprisonment of “enemy combatants” held without charge or trial. Like an open-ended authorization for two decades of American presidents to wage war anywhere on earth so long as they can draw a line, no matter how tenuous, to the events of 9/11 and those who carried out the attacks.

But wait, there’s more. Because 9/11 also unleashed suspicion and fear of our fellow Americans simply because of their Muslim faith. And with that fear and suspicion came discrimination, hate, and violence. That fear and suspicion led us to turn our backs on immigrants and refugees from majority Muslim countries. For many Americans, the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” became synonymous. Because of 9/11.

The celebrated unity of the first few days after 9/11 quickly gave way to division as the attacks were politicized and leveraged for partisan advantage by cynical and ambitious parties and politicians. To question the policy responses to 9/11, or to decry the discrimination and hatred directed against our Muslim neighbors, was to be unpatriotic, to undermine America, to side with and give comfort to our enemies.

We are not unique. Other countries have suffered far more from terrorism than we have. We have ignored, and continue to ignore the reality that 9/11 was the exception not the rule about terrorism in America. The rule about terrorism in America is 160 years of Americans turning their guns and bombs against fellow Americans in the name of causes deeply embedded in American culture, society, and politics.

Sept. 11, 2001 bestowed upon us no special virtue, no privileged claim of unique victimization that should have empowered us to lead a global war on terror which adversaries like China seized upon to justify genocidal campaigns against their own Muslim minorities.

And yet, in our arrogance, we did claim those things. And we did, and continue to do, all these things. And every September, on the 11th day of the month, we wrap ourselves in flags and ritually remind ourselves of our own pain and suffering while refusing to confront the consequences of our response.

That’s why I’m done with 9/11 commemoration.

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 19-26

The logo of the Puerto Rican nationalist terrorist group Fuerzas Armadas Liberacion Nacional (FALN). The slogan roughly translates to “Struggle Until Victory”

Before getting into this week’s look back, it is worth noting some terrorism news that came to light over the weekend here in Michigan.

In incidents reminiscent of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s decades-long bombing campaign against industrialization in general, and big tech in particular, two explosive devices were discovered outside cellphone stores Michigan’s Upper Peninsula late last week. According to the FBI, the devices were in USPS priority mail boxes and sealed with black duct tape. They were accompanied by threatening notes addressed to Verizon and AT&T.

The letters “CMT” were written on the outside of both boxes. The FBI and Michigan State Police believe the bombs are connected to a series of letters found last month at multiple telecommunications tower sites across the Upper Peninsula. According to the FBI the letters, signed by the “Coalition for Moral Telecommunications,” make specific demands to the telecommunications companies. No details, however, have been released.

The planting of bombs at cellphone stores is similar to two of the attacks carried out by Kaczynski. In December 1985 a Sacramento, Calif. computer store owner was killed by a nail-and-splinter bomb that Kaczynski had planted in the store’s parking lot. In February 1987, the owner of a Salt Lake City, Utah computer store was severely injured by another of Kaczynski’s bombs.

Kaczynski is currently serving eight life sentences in federal prison in Colorado. The University of Michigan Special Collections Library houses correspondence between Kaczynski and more than 400 others since his arrest.

And now on to this week’s look back to the week in American terrorism history.

  • Sept. 20, 1976 — San Francisco: The residence of the Consul General of South Africa is targeted in a bombing attack carried out by the New World Liberation Front, a small California-based militant revolutionary anti-capitalist terrorist group. No one was injured in the attack. The NWLF formed in 1970 and was responsible for nearly 90 separate attacks in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the American West between 1974 and 1978.
  • Sept. 21, 1976 — New York City: A bomb explodes on the 24th floor of the Hilton Hotel. An hour later, a caller to the New York Post claims responsibility for the bombing in the name of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), a Puerto Rican nationalist group. In a note taped to a phone booth near the hotel, FALN stated that the blast was an attempt to protest the appearance of Rafael Hernandez Colon, the Governor of Puerto Rico, who was attending a political fund-raising dinner at the hotel. Between 1974 and 1982, the FALN carried out 120 separate attacks, mostly in New York City, Chicago and in Puerto Rico itself.

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 12-18

Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League (Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center)

Whenever I teach my course on terrorism and political violence, it has become my practice to post here a look back at the recent history of terrorism. The last time I launched this weekly series was January 2020. As I explained in an earlier take on this:

[O]ne of the points that I try to impress upon my studentsĀ 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.

In this year when we are marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (a topic I’ll return to later in the week), I think it is especially important to give ourselves a little perspective about the extent to which terrorism has, or has not, been a part of our own country’s history. To that end, I am making a change in the source that I am going to use for each week’s installment.

In the past I have relied mainly on the counterterrorism calendar that had been produced annually from 2003-2016 and made available to the public by the National Counterterrorism Center. Unfortunately, this office, like many others, became a casualty of the flight of competent people out of government service during the Trump era and the calendar is no longer produced. Go online to look for it now, andĀ you wind up here, at a literal dead end.

One of the handicaps of that resource, however, was its fairly narrow focus on terrorist incidents targeting the United States and its friends, especially if the attacks were perpetrated by Islamist groups. In the first years after 9/11 I suppose that myopic look made some sense. But frankly, it was far too limited to give a real picture of the extent to which terrorism has been a global phenomenon fueled by a wide array of ideological motivations, not just jihadism.

The NCTC calendar also overemphasized terrorism perpetrated by transnational actors compared to our own homegrown domestic terrorists. This shortcoming misrepresents the reality of terrorism as it has historically been experienced in the United States. As I’ve written many times in this space, the story of terrorism in the United States is largely characterized by attacks on Americans, by Americans, in pursuit of goals deeply embedded in America’s social and political culture.

In short, Americans have literally been at war with America for as long as we care to remember.

So for this series of This Week in Terrorism History posts, I am relying solely on incidents compiled in the Global Terrorism Database, widely considered the gold-standard data source for academic and policy research on terrorism. Each week I will randomly select a year from 1970 to 2001 and then search for attacks for that specific week that occurred within the United States.

With that long introduction out of the way, here’s this week’s entry.

  • Sept. 14, 1972 — Los Angeles, CA: Members of the Jewish Defense League bomb the apartment of Palestinian activist Mohammed Shaath. After the bombing, the Los Angeles Times received a phone call taking responsibility for the attack. The caller signed off with the phrase “never again,” the slogan of the Jewish Defense League. The JDL claimed that Shaath was targeted because he was a member of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. No one was injured in the attack, and at least one perpetrator, Robert Manning, was convicted in the incident. He received a suspended sentence after he disavowed the JDL in the courtroom during his trial.