This week in terrorism history: Oct. 17-23

Black Liberation Army recruiting poster, circa 1981.

This week is all about New Left and Black revolutionary terrorism. That’s 1970 for you. The key group in the spotlight is the Black Liberation Army.

The BLA was an underground Black Power revolutionary organization active from 1970 to 1981. Its membership was initially drawn from former members of the Black Panther Party and the Republic of New Afrika. It emerged, in part, as a consequence of a split in the leadership of the Black Panther Party and a dispute over “reformist” rather than “revolutionary” nature of the party’s social programs. It’s aim was to wage war against the United States with the stated goal of taking up arms for Black liberation and self-determination.

The Black Liberation Army carried out a range of attacks including bombings, the assassination of police officers, jail breaks, and robberies, which the organization characterized as “expropriations.” The organization ultimately collapsed after the robbing of a Brinks armored truck, assisted by former members of the Weather Underground, resulted in the killing of a guard and two police officers.

  • Oct. 18, 1970 — Irvine, CA: An unknown group, though suspected anti-Vietnam War protesters, detonates a bomb at the Stanford Research Institute, a lab facility owned by Stanford University. SRI, which was largely funded by the US Department of Defense, had contracts for work on chemical and biological agents with military applications. It was a regular target of violent anti-war activism during the 1970s.
  • Oct. 19, 1970 — Irvine, CA: A second bomb targets a virus research center at the Stanford Research Institute. As in the attack the day before, no one was injured in the bombing.
  • Oct. 20, 1970 — Cairo, IL: Black militants set fire to the Veterans of Foreign Wars building and then open fire on police and firefighters responding to the blaze. Police fired hundreds of rounds into the neighboring Pyramid Courts housing project, taking more than an hour to secure the area. No one was injured in the gun battle, but the building was destroyed.
  • Oct. 21, 1970 — Cairo, IL: In a second day of racial violence, black militants armed with automatic weapons open fire on the Cairo police headquarters from locations in and around the Pyramid Courts housing project. Police returned fire in what would turn into a three-hour gun battle. No one was injured in the attack.
  • Oct. 22, 1970 — San Francisco, CA: Members of the Black Liberation Army plant a time bomb outside St. Brendan’s Church, which was packed with mourners attending the funeral of a San Francisco police officer killed in the line of duty while responding to a bank robbery. The bomb detonated, but none of the worshippers were injured.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 10-16

An Oregon lumber company’s offices burn after an ELF arson attack.

Sometimes when I’m teaching my terrorism course the stars align to provide a historical example that is directly relevant to what I’m covering this week in the classroom. This is one of those occasions.

This week we’re talking about the connections between terrorist organizations and political parties and/or non-violent political movements. Such ties, whether formal or informal, are more common than you might think, including here in the United States.

In an article originally published in 1991, political scientist Leonard Weinberg argues that terrorism and terrorist groups emerge in situations when an alienated and highly motivated elite confronts the indifference of the population they hope to lead in challenging those in power. In short, terrorism can emerge from the failure of non-violent politics to produce a desired change in the status quo.

This is key to understanding why terrorism is so common to democratic societies. The political scientist Ted Gurr argued that campaigns of terrorism in democracies grow out of larger political conflicts, and that they reflect the political beliefs and aspirations circulating within a larger society. Under these circumstances, some may lose patience with conventional politics and look for new tactics that will have greater impact. This, Gurr argues, may include experimenting with terrorism.

Given this, how do links between political parties and terrorist groups happen? Weinberg argues there are several common patterns:

  • A party deliberately forms a violent subsidiary to pursue its goals by terrorist means.
  • A terrorist group promotes the formation of a political party to pursue its goals above ground.
  • Factional split, where some segment of a party, dissatisfied with the direction leadership is taking it, breaks away to pursue its goals independently through violence.
  • Strategic shift, where a violent group concludes its operations and reconstitutes itself as a political party participating in normal electoral politics.
  • Origins in a shared political movement, where some of the movement’s followers favor legal, political-party means to achieve their goals while others, who doubt the efficacy of this approach, choose the terrorist alternative.

It is this later kind of group that is our focus this week. The Earth Liberation Front grew out of the radical Earth First! environmental movement in Great Britain in the early 1990s. As sociologist Paul Joosse explains in a 2007 article in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, ELF emerged out of a burgeoning ideological cleavage within Earth First!, with those who would become ELF committed to advancing the cause of radical environmentalism through “direct action.”

There is a terrific 2011 documentary which tells the story of an Earth Liberation Front activist in the Pacific Northwest and his pathway into and back out of violent radical environmentalism. I’ll be showing it to my students this evening, and you can watch it by clicking on the link below.

Now on to this week’s look back at the recent history of terrorism in the United States.

  • Oct. 11, 1998 – Rock Springs, Wyo.: In a joint operation, seven members of the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation front free horses and attempt to burn down the federal Bureau of Land Management wild horse corral in Rock Springs. The perpetrators placed incendiary devices near buildings and vehicles, specifically targeting a truck used to transport horses, but while the devices were being planted, one of the perpetrators prematurely opened one of the gates, and the horses started running loose, at which point, the group aborted the plan, and left behind sponges, gas cans, buckets of fuel, and some timing devices before fleeing the scene. The perpetrators were part of a group which called themselves “The Family,” which was responsible for some 20 cases of arson and eco-sabotage over the six year period.

Toyota war wagons, take 3!

The vehicle in question. (Credit: US Army via Task & Purpose)

The military-focused website Task & Purpose brings us a new chapter in the never-ending saga of apparently indestructible Toyota trucks on the world’s dusty battlefields.

I first wrote about this exactly six years ago when it became clear to US anti-terrorism officials that ISIS was really fond of Toyota pickups. They just couldn’t figure out how they got their hands on them. Apparently, with ISIS monopolizing the supply of Toyotas, other jihadist groups in Syria had to look elsewhere for their war wagon needs, like scoring a used Ford F-250 traded in at a dealership in Houston.

When tricked-out Toyotas showed up on both sides of the Yemeni civil war in 2018, I wrote about that too. As I noted in 2015, the Toyota Hilux and Toyota Land Cruisers have long enjoyed devoted fan bases across the rebel-jihadist-insurgent-revolutionary-guerrilla spectrum, not to mention cash-strapped militaries.

So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to find this new story, which unfolds at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul during August’s hurried evacuation of Americans and allies from Afghanistan.

Here’s the details, as reported by T&P:

Most of the security posts around the perimeter of the airport had been abandoned, said Lt. Col. Andy Harris, commander of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Soldiers with the battalion quickly set about bolstering the airport’s defenses, yet the situation remained volatile — Taliban fighters were just meters away, outside the airport’s gates — and much of the equipment they’d typically use, like heavy vehicles and machine guns, had yet to arrive at the airport.

What they did have, however, was a green pickup truck outfitted with an anti-aircraft gun. 

The obvious question, of course, is how American paratroopers managed to get their hands on a fully tricked out Toyota technical. Well, apparently, they traded for it. Two cans of “dip,” i.e. smokeless tobacco, to be exact. Skoal, brother!

Task & Purpose continues the story:

Because Harris and his soldiers were some of the first to arrive in Kabul, they were light on equipment. The focus was getting troops into Kabul, he said, which meant there wasn’t much room for “our heavy equipment or vehicles with our heavy machine guns.” 

“We just had our basic weapons, we didn’t have any heavy machine guns, any gun trucks or anything,” said [Iraqi-born] Pfc. [Alsajjad] Al Lami.

But the Afghan forces had their own gear, including an olive green Afghan National Army truck mounted with a Russian-made 14.5mm ZPU-2 anti-aircraft gun. On Aug. 17, when the Afghan troops informed Bravo Company that they were moving to another area of the airport, the paratroopers asked if they wouldn’t mind handing over the keys. 

“There were two guys standing by the truck, and we asked them if they had the keys,” Al Lami said. “They were like, ‘Yeah we do have the keys.’ And they gave us the keys for two cans of dip.”

This whole episode may end up memorialized at the 82nd Airborne Division Museum at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. If the unit gets permission to bring it into the United States, that is.