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.

Music for a Friday: A song of emigration

An immigrant family on the dock, Ellis Island, 1925. (Credit: Getty Images)

In January 1988 The Pogues released If I Should Fall from Grace with God, their third studio album and what would end up being their best-selling. The first single off that album, “Fairytale of New York,” may be the best known, and while it has become iconic, to my mind it’s not the best song on the record. That honor goes to the subject of this post.

“Thousands are Sailing” is a beautiful song of loss, longing, bitterness, joy, and hope. In short, in two 16-line verses and three varied choruses, the song captures the experience of emigration like few others.

While the specifics reference the 20th century Irish experience, the sentiments, I suspect, are universal to those who have come to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Guitarist Phil Chevron’s lyrics take us from the days of 19th century “coffin ships,” where as many as 30 percent of those set sail from Ireland to America died in transit, to Ellis Island, and then the 1980s when the “open door” policy is replaced with a system of immigration quotas and lotteries which forced many Irish to come illegally and live their lives in the shadows. The first chorus paints a picture of both the perils and the promise of a new world:

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
To a land of opportunity
That some of them will never see
Fortune prevailing
Across the western ocean
Their bellies full
Their spirits free
They’ll break the chains of poverty
And they’ll dance

It’s a brilliant song that will stay with you long after it’s over. You can listen to it here.

#ADWD — An update

No, Joe Biden was not the Democratic moderate I was looking for either. Yet, here we are. And I’m OK with it.

Candidates that I liked dropped out of the contest either early (Booker and Harris) or more recently (Klobuchar and Buttegieg). Another that I really couldn’t stomach (Bloomberg) dropped out today, proving that you really can’t buy your way to the nomination no matter how much of your own money you spend. Even if that’s a quarter of a billion dollars.

But Super Tuesday has made the outlines of the rest of the race for the Democratic nomination pretty clear. Despite how fiercely Elizabeth Warren will persist, the choice has been narrowed to Biden or Bernie.

My state, Michigan, will vote next Tuesday. Four years ago I crossed party lines to vote in the Republican primary, and urged other Democrats to do so as well in, as it turned out, a vain attempt to slow Donald Trump’s cancerous takeover of the Republican Party.

Once again, I am going to cast my vote with one thought in mind: What is the best way to stop Donald Trump? From what I can tell, that’s Joe Biden, so that’s where my vote will go.

But, if it turns out that Bernie takes it after all, my strategy in November is unchanged. #ADWD.