This week in terrorism history: Sept. 25-Oct. 1

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Today, four years of negotiations will culminate today in the signing of a peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, ending 52 years of brutal conflict which left more than a quarter million people dead.

Assuming the agreement is ratified in a public referendum in early October, and most signs indicate that it will pass easily, the FARC will hand over its weapons to UN inspectors and transform itself into a political party. This agreement effectively ends Latin America’s longest running insurgency, one that featured kidnappings and urban terrorism (like the bombing noted below) alongside guerrilla warfare.

  • Sept. 25, 2002 — Pakistan: Seven killed in attack on a Christian charity in Karachi.
  • Sept. 26, 2004 — Syria: Car bomb kills HAMAS leder Izz al-Din Shaykh Khalil.
  • Sept. 27, 1987 — Greece: Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA) bombs a US commissary, killing one.
  • Sept. 28, 2000 — Philippines: Abu Sayyaf Group leader killed, two others wounded in Philippine military operation to rescue hostages.
  • Sept. 29, 2003 — Colombia: FARC motorcycle bomb kills 10, wounds 54, including three police officers.
  • Sept. 30, 2011 — Yemen: Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and became a leading promoter of jihad against the West and an attack planner for AQAP, is killed by an American drone strike.
  • Oct. 1, 2005 — Indonesia: Jemmah Islamiya blamed for Bali resort bombings that kill 26 and wound more than 100.

 

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 18-24

Investigators at the scene of this weekend's explosion in New York City.
Investigators at the scene of this weekend’s explosion in New York City.

 

A homemade bomb went off over the weekend in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, injuring 29 people, and a second was found nearby. Meanwhile five pipe bombs were found near a train station in Elizabeth, N.J. The FBI has identified a suspect and a search is under way.

If this seems particularly troubling, it might be useful to put the weekend’s effects in some historical context. I will try to write a longer post about this later today, but here’s a tiny little slice.

In 1970 alone there were 54 terrorist bombings in New York City. Three of those occurred on successive days from Sept. 24-26. March saw 10 separate terrorist attacks in New York City. (Data comes from the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland).

In short, and as with most things terrorism-related, we’ve been there before.

And now on to this week’s history:

  • Sept. 18, 1997 — Egypt: Bomb attack on Cairo tourist bus kills nine Germans. Muslim militants are blamed.
  • Sept. 20, 1984 — Lebanon: Islamic Jihad Organization detonates a truck bomb at the US Embassy annex in Beirut, killing 23.
  • Sept. 21, 2013 — Kenya: Al-Shabaab gunmen kill more than 70 and wound 200 in an attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi.
  • Sept. 23, 2010 — Colombia: FARC military commander Victor Julio Suarez Rojas is killed in a Colombian military operation in Meta Department.
  • Sept. 24, 2002 — India: Attack on a Hindu temple kills 31. Lashkar-e-Taiba is suspected of responsibility.

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 11-17

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For Americans, and frankly a lot of others, this week is “the big one” in terms of our consciousness of terrorism and the awareness of our own vulnerability.

As noted at The Atlantic’s website yesterday, prior to Sept. 11, 2001, few Americans thought much about terrorism, let alone considered it a significant threat either to themselves personally or to the United States generally. With that in mind, here’s this week’s look back:

  • Sept. 11, 2001 — United States: Three hijacked passenger jets are crashed into targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., with a fourth hijacked airline crashing in rural Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 are killed. Al Qaeda responsible.
  • Sept. 14, 2003 — Colombia: Four Israelis, two Britons, a German, and a Spaniard are all kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (ELN) of Colombia.
  • Sept. 15, 1981 — West Germany: US Army Gen. Frederick Kroesen is injured in a rocket propelled grenade attack in Heidelberg. Red Army Faction member Gudrun Ensslin claims responsibility.
  • Sept. 16, 2009 — Afghanistan: Suicide bomber kills two civilians, wounds five others, along with three soldiers. Taliban claims responsibility.
  • Sept. 17, 1992 — Germany: Four Iranian Kurds are killed in a Berlin restaurant. No claim of responsibility.

To briefly get back to the piece at The Atlantic noted above: In it three eminent scholars of terrorism, Brian Jenkins, Martha Crenshaw, and Bruce Hoffman, engage in a discussion of what we know, and still don’t know, about terrorism. Equally unanswered is the question of what to do about it. Jenkins starts the conversation this way:

The fundamental philosophical questions remain: How much security can a government be expected to provide its citizens? What is the obligation of a nation to its citizens if they are held hostage abroad? Do targeted killings differ from assassinations? And are such killings a preferable, even more moral alternative, to less discriminate military operations? How do liberal democracies effectively deal with violent adversaries capable of great violence and remain democracies? Or will perpetual war incrementally push us toward tyranny?

Hoffman, in part, notes how little we know about why individuals become terrorists:

For decades, scholars and analysts have searched for this holy grail of terrorism studies that would unlock all the mysteries about why individuals embrace violence in this manner. I am reminded here of the massive study undertaken by the West German government in the early 1980s in hopes of divining such an answer. The result was a multi-volume, meticulously detailed compendium of years of research that, as I recall, identified no single reason or universal explanation of why someone becomes a terrorist (or, in the contemporary vernacular, how one is radicalized).

And Crenshaw reminds us that for all our fears and worries about terrorism, it remains what social scientists call a “rare event” except in a very small handful of places under very specific circumstances:

Terrorism is actually rare except in certain concentrated spaces like Northern Ireland in the past, and perhaps Iraq now. Also, there aren’t many terrorists (or jihadists in contemporary idiom). There are many people who fit whatever profile can be drawn up, and a tiny number resort to violence. And within that small subset there can still be immense variation in motivation.

The whole lengthy discussion is well worth taking the time to read. Here’s the link again in case you don’t want to scroll back up to the top.

 

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 4-10

Black September gunman, Munich Olympic village, 1972.
Black September gunman, Munich Olympic village, 1972.

 

One of the points that I try to impress upon my students when I teach my course on terrorism 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.

With that class set to begin again next week, I am launching a weekly feature here at the blog highlighting some of this history. The information will mostly be taken from the National Counterterrorism Center’s 2016 counterterrorism calendar. Because I have a long-standing interest in political violence in Northern Ireland, I will occasionally add events or incidents taken from the chronology maintained by CAIN project at the University of Ulster. Given the primary source, it is important to acknowledge some built-in biases that can be seen in the events reported by the NCTC:

First, there is an automatic tilt toward recounting incidents targeting either the United States, US citizens, or US allies.

Second, there is a tendency to focus on incidents perpetrated by groups whose ideologies and motivations are seen as currently threatening to the United States, or by groups that have some kind of historical connection to present security challenges facing the US. Together, these first two biases mean that there is an overrepresentation on the calendar of post-9/11 attacks perpetrated by groups espousing an Islamist ideology.

Third, there is a tendency to emphasize acts of transnational terrorism targeting the US or US interests over acts of domestic terrorism within the United States that lack some sort of transnational link, either ideological or material. This despite the reality that the vast majority of terrorist incidents the United States has suffered historically, and the primary threat of terrorism confronting the US today, comes from domestic groups, mainly but not exclusively, on the far right of the political spectrum.

Finally, when there are multiple incidents for any given date, I will try to choose examples that run counter to the biases discussed above to show some the wider geographical, ideological, or operational diversity that we see when we consider terrorism as a global phenomenon.

Despite all these caveats, there is value in keeping in mind the reality that as much as Americans might think that terrorism is a new phenomenon, or tend to see ourselves as uniquely at risk, terrorism has been with us for a very long time, and there are countries that have faced far worse than we face today.

With all that in mind, here we go.

  • Sept. 4 — 2007, Denmark: Police in Copenhagen arrest eight al Qaeda-linked individuals accused of plotting terrorist attacks.
  • Sept. 5 — 1972, West Germany: Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics are held hostage by Black September; 11 are killed on Sept. 6 in a failed rescue attempt.
  • Sept. 6 — 1986, Turkey: Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) kills 21 in an attack on an Istanbul synagogue.
  • Sept. 7 — 1995, France: Car bomb explodes outside a Jewish school in Lyon, wounding 14; Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria is suspected.
  • Sept. 8 — 1999, Russia: Bombing of apartment building in Moscow kills 94; Dagestan Liberation Army claims responsibility.
  • Sept. 9 — 1969, Northern Ireland: The government announces that the British Army will build the first “peace line” in Belfast separating Protestant and Catholic areas in an effort to prevent rioting.
  • Sept. 10 — 2001, Colombia: German Briceno, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is sentenced in absentia to 40 years in prison for the killing of three Americans.