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.┬áThe 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.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 3-9

Flag of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (Credit: Wikidata)

This week’s look back at the history of American terrorism provides a snapshot of some of the most common motivations for political violence, both in the United States and more generally. From this single week in 1977 we get examples of right-wing white supremacist terrorism, New Left revolutionary terrorism, ethnographic-nationalist terrorism, and religious terrorism.

In a 2004 publication, terrorism scholar David C. Rapoport proposed a framework for conceptualizing patterns of continuity and change in global terrorism. (You can read it here.) What he identifies are four “waves” of terrorism in the modern era, each lasting approximately a generation and characterized by a dominant (though not the only) motivating energy.

Rapoport identifies the first, “Anarchist,” wave as beginning in the 1880s, followed by a second “Anti-colonial” wave in the 1920s, a third “New Left” wave in the 1960s, and a fourth “Religious” wave beginning in the 1990s. In an article published earlier this year, Rapoport suggests we are now in a fifth “Right Wing” wave which began in the mid-2000s. You’ll note that the four attacks described below fit comfortably with these characterizations.

On to this week’s look back.

  • Oct. 3, 1977 — Los Angeles: The Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia plants a bomb at the home of historian Stanford Shaw in an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Shaw, a professor at UCLA, was best known for his work on the Ottoman Empire, but he received considerable criticism for a perceived pro-Turkish bias in his work and his denial of the Armenian genocide. ASALA, one of several pro-Armenian terrorist organizations active in the United States, was organized in 1975 with the primary objective of forcing Turkey to admit responsibility for the Armenian genocide of 1915. The group carried out nearly 200 attacks in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East between 1975 and 1997.
  • Oct. 6, 1977 – Seattle: A firebomb is planted at a Buick car dealership, but fails to detonate. The device was comprised of a white plastic timer, a gallon bottle of gasoline and sulfuric acid, wrapped in cheesecloth soaked with a potassium chlorate solution. In a communique released several days later, the George Jackson Brigade said the dealership was targeted because its owner was the head of the King County Automobile Dealers’ Association. The George Jackson Brigade was a leftist revolutionary organization formed in the mid 1970s and carried out a range of attacks on government and business targets between 1975 and 1977.
  • Oct. 8, 1977 — Los Angeles: Members of the group Jewish Armed Resistance bomb the Beth Sar Shalom Religious Center, a liberal Jewish temple in North Hollywood. In a letter sent after the attack, JAR claimed responsibility and said the motive for the bombing was opposition to the synagogue’s too liberal stance on anti-Semitism.
  • Oct. 8, 1977 — Richmond Heights, MO: Joseph Paul Franklin, a notorious white supremacist serial killer, fires five shots into a crowd of people leaving a Bar Mitzvah at the Brith Shalom Kneseth Israel Congregation synagogue, killing one and wounding two others. Franklin spent several days before the attack scouting synagogues in the St. Louis area before settling on the location for his attack, chosen because he could fire from concealment. He fled the scene on a bicycle. Franklin, who was a member of both the Neo-Nazi National Socialist White Peoples Party and the Ku Klux Klan, carried out a series of anti-Semitic and racist attacks between 1977 and his arrest in 1980. He was convicted of several murders, leading to five life sentences and two death sentences. He later confessed to the attempted assassination of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan. Franklin was executed by lethal injection in 2013.

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.