This week in terrorism history: March 16-22

The late Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, perhaps my favorite movie terrorist of all time.

I debated whether or not to continue with this series of posts given all of the other things that are going on right now. The universities and public schools are sending students home, businesses are forced to shut down, the economy is teetering, people are panic-buying toilet paper of all things, and new cases of coronavirus are appearing at alarming rates pretty much everywhere.

I wouldn’t call these entries, running lists of past terrorist events, much of a diversion. But for me, writing this, and maybe for you reading it, this is a better use of my time than obsessively reading all of the bad news.

So I want to keep things this week on a relatively lighter note, and that means terrorism at the movies! For my money, the single most entertaining terrorist in recent film history has to be Hans Gruber, of Die Hard fame, the smoothly elegant leader of the “Volksfrei” movement, a left-wing West German terrorist group, played by the late, great Alan Rickman.

Of course, if you’ve seen the movie (who hasn’t?) you know it’s all a scam. Volksfrei isn’t a real group, the gang Gruber leads isn’t politically motivated at all (such a motivation central to any good definition of terrorism), and their demand for the release of “revolutionary brothers and sisters” imprisoned around the world in exchange for hostages is just cover for the real plan, the heist of some $640 million in “negotiable bearer bonds” from the safe of Nakatomi Plaza.

If you’d like to read more about my favorite movie terrorist and his plan to retire, “sitting on a beach earning 20 percent,” take a look at this appreciation from the online platform Medium. For a more academic take on Hollywood’s changing take on terrorism from the 1970s to the 2010s, give this piece, from the journal Perspectives on Terrorism, a read. Here’s a quick sample from the article:

When reviewing Hollywood’s output on terrorism, it is obvious that it correlates with the waves and historical development of political violence: previously sporadic encounters with terrorism in Hollywood cinema, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), became more frequent in the 1970s, at a time when international terrorism and especially hijackings of jetliners orchestrated by Palestinian groups made headlines and featured in newsreels. Thus, the Arab gunman, who threatens innocent passengers and strikes at Western installations, became a typical Hollywood villain …

And now on to this week’s look back.

  • March 16, 1985 — Beirut, Lebanon: Journalist Terry Anderson is kidnapped off the street in Beirut and held hostage by Hezbollah. He was released more than six years later, in December 1991.
  • March 17, 1978 — Maghera, Northern Ireland: David Jones, a British soldier working undercover, is killed during a gun battle with the Irish Republican Army. 
  • March 17, 1992 — Buenos Aires, Argentina: A car bomb destroys the Israeli embassy, killing 28 and wounding more than 200. Hezbollah claims responsibility.
  • March 20, 1995 — Tokyo: Aum Shinrikyo releases sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and sickening more than 5,000.
  • March 22, 2017 — New York City: James Harris Jackson, 28, is arrested after he turns himself in at a Manhattan police precinct where he confesses stabbing Timothy Caughman, 66, to death with a “Roman short sword” on a city street on March 20 after traveling to New York City to allegedly hunt and kill black men. He tells police the attack was a “trial run” for a series of killings he intended to carry off in order to deter white women from dating black men.

This week in terrorism history: March 9-15

Two images from Northern Ireland, Cumann na mBan volunteers.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, so in that spirit, today’s lead-in to our weekly review takes a quick look at the role of women in terrorism.

There is a long history of women’s involvement in terrorism, from the European anarchists of the late 19th century, through the national liberation and leftist revolutionary movements of the 20th century, to far-right and jihadist groups today. Scholar Karla Cunningham, in a 2003 article in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, argues that across ideological categories, more and more terrorist movements were recruiting women at the same time as women were themselves becoming increasingly motivated to join such groups.

A report produced last year by the Council on Foreign Relations summarizes some of this history:

Throughout history, women have joined and supported violent extremist groups, serving as combatants, recruiters, and fundraisers and in numerous other roles critical to operational success. Although women are often ignored in conventional depictions of violent political actors, they have been active participants in 60 percent of armed rebel groups over the past several decades. In Algeria, for instance, female National Liberation Front fighters evaded checkpoints in the 1950s to deploy bombs at strategic urban targets. In Sri Lanka in the 1990s, all-female battalions earned a reputation for their fierce discipline and ruthless combat. Women represented nearly 40 percent of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), serving in all operational roles, including as combat unit leaders, allowing the group to vastly expand its military capacity.

Women have also helped found militant groups, from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang to the Japanese Red Army. Even in cases where women’s leadership was invisible, they frequently provided operationally critical support, ranging from weapons transport to combatant recruitment. 

The report goes on to argue that women-led terrorist attacks are both on the rise and are especially effective. For example, the deadliness of female suicide attackers has led Boko Haram to turn to women for close to two-thirds of its suicide operations. A 2009 study found that suicide attacks carried out by women are more lethal, on average, than those carried out by men.

The CFR report also points to similarities between male and female terrorists, especially in terms of why they join violent political movements.

While some women are kidnapped and forcibly conscripted into violence, many voluntarily join extremist groups for reasons similar to those of male recruits, including ideological commitment or social ties. Others join in hopes of gaining freedom and access to resources; in Nigeria, for example, some women joined Boko Haram to receive Koranic education in a region where only 4 percent of girls have the opportunity to finish secondary school.

Now on to this week’s list, which features several entries on the Red Army Faction, an organization in which women played prominent leadership roles.

  • March 9, 1985 — Monchengladbach, West Germany: Air Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, commander of the British Royal Air Force in West Germany, escapes an assassination attempt carried out by a Red Army Faction gunman.
  • March 11, 2004 — Madrid, Spain: In a series of bomb blasts targeting Madrid trains, 198 people are killed and more than 600 wounded. The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade claims responsibility.
  • March 12, 1985 — Boblingen, West Germany: A bomb is discovered inside the officer’s club of a US Army base in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. The Red Army Faction is suspected.
  • March 13, 1981 — Heidelberg, West Germany: The Red Army Faction firebombs the home of journalist Franz Ruch, a writer for a Munich-based weekly new magazine.
  • March 14, 2004 — Ashdod, Israel: Near simultaneous attacks by two suicide bombers kill 10 and wound another 18. Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Bridge both claim responsibility.

This week in terrorism history: March 2-8

Taliban fighter with captured US equipment, shown in a 2017 propaganda film. (Credit: Military Times)

Two days ago, the leaders of the Taliban signed an agreement with the United States designed to end bring to an end a war that the US has been fighting for nearly two decades.

But that was Saturday. Now it’s Monday, and there’s this:

A deadly blast shattered a period of relative calm in Afghanistan on Monday and the Taliban ordered fighters to resume operations against Afghan forces just two days after signing a deal with Washington aimed at ushering in peace.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack at a football ground in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, where three brothers were killed, officials told AFP.

The blast occurred around the same time the Taliban ordered fighters to recommence attacks against Afghan army and police forces, apparently ending an official “reduction in violence” that had seen a dramatic drop in bloodshed and given Afghans a welcome taste of peace.

Whether this will scuttle the agreement, which lays out a timetable for the final withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan, or not remains to be seen. But the pact, negotiated without the participation of the Afghan government itself, had already suffered one substantial blow.

Part of the deal calls for the Afghan government to release as many as 5,000 Taliban fighters as part of a prisoner swap in exchange for 1,000 captive members of the Afghan security forces. But on Sunday

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, that a prisoner release was not a promise the United States could make, according to The Associated Press. “The request has been made by the United States for the release of prisoners and it can be part of the negotiations but it cannot be a precondition,” said Ghani.

More than 2,400 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan since the United States invaded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, toppling the Taliban from power and hounding al Qaeda from its camps and hideouts. If the peace deal holds, we could see all 12,000 US troops currently deployed there, and the nearly 7,000 NATO forces, leave once and for all. What happens after that remains anyone’s guess.

Now for this week’s look back.

  • March 2, 2001 — Corbett, OR: Federal and local law enforcement agents, as part of an ongoing probe into a white supremacist group, raid a home, seizing weapons, racist literature, and marijuana growing equipment. They also recover a binder notebook entitled “Army of God, Yahweh’s Warriors” containing what officials call a list of targets that include a local federal building and the FBI’s Oregon offices. 
  • March 3, 1991 — Cappagh, Northern Ireland: The Ulster Volunteer Force carries out a gun attack on a pub in County Tyrone, killing four Catholic men. Some time later the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announces that three of its members had been killed in the attack. The fourth person killed was a Catholic civilian. 
  • March 3, 2003 — Davao City, Philippines: A bomb attributed to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, hidden in a backpack, detonates inside an airport terminal, killing 22 and wounding 148. The organization denies responsibility.
  • March 5, 2018 — Beaver Dam, WI: A 28-year-old food company technician is killed in an explosion at his apartment. Bomb-making materials were subsequently found throughout his home, including a 40 gallons of acetone, a highly volatile substance that is commonly used as a component of terrorist bombs worldwide. Police recover white supremacist materials from the apartment.
  • March 8, 1995 — Karachi, Pakistan: Gunmen kill two US diplomats and wound another. The attack took place as the diplomats were being driven to work at the US embassy. No claim of responsibility was made and suspects were never identified.

This week in terrorism history: Feb. 24 – March 1

(Credit: Oakland University)

My university is on winter break this week, but that doesn’t mean a break from the work of looking back on the recent history of terrorism. It does mean, however, that this week’s entry gets a slightly different introduction than I’ve been offering.

Nearly five years ago I ran across an interview with Art Garfunkel that was loaded with poetic observations on life, music, the challenges of collaboration, and more. In it was this gem, a reflection on college campuses:

As I mentioned, I’ve walked across the U.S. and now Europe, so I know the land. There are many different versions of the land: industrial, wasteland, uninspired land. But campuses are a Walt Disney movie. They’re a dream come true. They’re such a cut above almost all of it. Campuses are so pretty, if only the kids realized it. The rest of the earth is something less than that. The skyscrapers downtown, the used-car lots, the hamburger chains, everything that makes up the normal American scene. But not the campuses. They’re pretty. Those trees …

I suspect that it’s the rare student who realizes just how much a world apart a college campus really is, not just intellectually, but aesthetically. Even one like mine, an under-funded state university in a state that has been systematically disinvesting in higher education for more than two decades.

Now on to this week’s look back:

  • Feb. 25, 1972 — Armagh, Northern Ireland: John Taylor, Minister of State for Home Affairs, survives an attempted assassination carried out by the Official Irish Republican Army. Taylor was hit five times in the neck and head when the two-man OIRA team raked his car with automatic weapons.
  • Feb. 26, 1993 — New York City: A truck bomb is detonated in the underground parking structure beneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Six people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in the incident. According to trial testimony, the plotters had hoped to topple one WTC tower into the other, leading to the collapse of both and what they believed could be as many as 250,000 casualties.
  • Feb. 27, 1980 — Bogota, Colombia: Seventeen members of the organization M-19 storm and seize control of the embassy of the Dominican Republic. They take 60 people, including some 15 ambassadors, hostage in a siege that lasts 61 days. The crisis ends when the 16 surviving members of the M-19 assault team and a dozen of their diplomatic hostages are allowed to fly to Cuba with a reported $2.5 million in ransom. All hostages are subsequently freed.
  • Feb. 28, 1985 — Newry, Northern Ireland: Nine members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are killed in a mortar attack on a police station carried out by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Another 30 RUC officers were wounded by the home-made weapon.