This week in terrorism history: Sept. 11-17


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.

Yes, it will happen again. Yes, it can happen here


A few thoughts in the aftermath of the Bastille Day carnage in Nice:

  • Terrorists, and terrorist organizations, are incredibly flexible, adapting their choices of weapons, tactics, and specific targets in response to the security environment in which they operate. A “weaponized” semi-truck driven at speed along a seaside promenade can be just as deadly, or even more so, than a gun or bomb in a nightclub, concert hall, sports arena, or office building.
  • Terrorists determined to create mass casualties will always prefer soft targets, like crowds gathered to watch a fireworks display, over defended or hardened targets.
  • No democratic society can defend or harden every possible target. Taking away one set of targets inevitably leaves others vulnerable. Determined terrorists will always have an array targets to choose from.
  • Terrorist organizations must act in order to maintain their credibility and thus their viability as political organizations. This is particularly true in situations in which an organization must compete against other terrorist groups for the allegiance of activists and supporters.
  • A terrorist organization that is suffering significant setbacks or defeats will be under particular pressure to act in order to demonstrate its continued relevance.
  • France, because of its high rate of urban youth unemployment, its aggressive programs and culture of secularization, and the alienation of its Muslim population from society and government, is especially vulnerable to radicalization and homegrown attacks. Increasing that vulnerability is the fact that thousands of European citizens, as many as 900 from France, have traveled to Iraq and Syria as foreign fighters. Hundreds have since returned home.

The United States is immune from none of these forces. Our society is open and potential targets are too numerous to count. As we have seen at Fort Hood, in Boston, San Bernardino, and in Orlando, the means for homegrown terrorists to inflict mass casualties on innocent civilians are easily, and generally legally, obtainable.

Working to our advantage is the fact that far fewer Americans have joined ISIS or other jihadist ranks as foreign fighters. At the same time, and for the most part, Muslim-Americans tend to be well-integrated into mainstream American society, and we have so far avoided imposing the kinds of self-defeating anti-Muslim policies that are seen in parts of Europe, like France and Belgium. There is no guarantee, however, that this will continue.

We are hearing far too many calls for draconian crackdowns on the rights and liberties of American Muslims, from aggressive police patrols and surveillance of Muslim communities and neighborhoods, to the closing of places of worship, to roundups and forced loyalty tests, to bans on entry, to deportation.

What happened in Nice could happen here. Decisions that we make, as a government and as a society, will go a long way toward affecting whether more such tragic events will happen here.

The direct line connecting Oklahoma City to Orlando runs through the far right

Police direct family members away from the Pulse nightclub. (AP photo)
Police direct family members away from the Pulse nightclub. (AP photo)


For all their differences, the two most serious instances of domestic terrorism in modern American history — the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the shooting massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning — have one significant thing in common.

Both attacks were carried out by lone-wolf terrorists engaged in acts of “leaderless resistance” on behalf of but not directed by larger political movements.

While today we associate lone wolf attacks with homegrown Islamist terrorism, like the Ft. Hood, Boston Marathon, San Berndardino, and now Orlando killings, the strategy of leaderless resistance has its origins in the American white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and paramilitary far right groups of the 1980s.

While Tom Metzger, of White Aryan Resistance, is credited with coining the term “Lone Wolf,” it was a fellow white supremacist, Louis Beam, an Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan activist who in 1983 wrote an essay titled, “Leaderless Resistance,” describing the strategy.

Beam republished his essay in 1992 in the wake of seditious conspiracy cases brought by the federal government against himself and other leaders of the American far right. Recognizing the vulnerability of organizations with traditional pyramid structures, Beam instead urged his compatriots to act independently, either alone or within self-contained cells, in accord with their shared ideology and in pursuit of their common goals. Here are some selected excerpts:

The concept of Leaderless Resistance is nothing less than a fundamental departure in theories of organization. The orthodox scheme of organization … the pyramid, is however not only useless, but extremely dangerous for the participants when it is utilized in a resistance movement against state tyranny. … Experience has revealed over and over again that anti-state, political organizations utilizing this method of command and control are easy prey for government infiltration, entrapment, and destruction of the personnel involved.

An alternative to the pyramid type of organization is the cell system. … The value of this is that while any one cell can be infiltrated, exposed or destroyed, such action will have no effect on the other cells.

Utilizing the Leaderless Resistance concept, all individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization. … No one need issue an order to anyone. Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them.

Ironically, while this approach to political violence emerged out of the anti-government and white supremacist right, it was also embraced by the eco-terrorists of the far left, in particular Earth Liberation Front. Sociologist Paul Joosse explored this in an article he published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence where he quotes from the ELF website:

Because the ELF is non-hierarchical, there is no centralized organization or leadership. There is also no “membership”  in the Earth Liberation Front. In the past … individuals have committed arson and other illegal acts under the ELF name. Individuals who choose to do actions under the banner of ELF do so only driven by their personal conscience. These have been individual choices …

From an operational standpoint, leaderless resistance can be particularly effective and even harder for authorities to prevent compared to conventional terrorism. Contrast what happened in Orlando, or San Bernardino, to the attacks last November in Paris. In the later case French authorities were already on highest alert due to earlier attacks as well as two years’ worth of mounting intelligence pointing to significant, imminent attack. Lone wolf terrorists typically leave far fewer, if any, tracks prior to striking.

To bring us back to where we started, the direct line connecting our deadliest cases of domestic terrorism is leaderless resistance, the brainchild and still the favored strategy of the violent American far right. And so Nidal Hassan, (Ft. Hood), the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon), Farook and Malik (San Berndardino), and now Omar Mateen (Orlando) have followed in the well-worn footsteps of Timoth McVeigh (Oklahoma City), Eric Rudolph (Atlanta Olympic Park), Wade Michael Page (Sikh temple, Oak Creek, WI) and Dylann Roof (Emanuel AME Church, Charleston).

In February 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a comprehensive report on the phenomenon of contemporary lone wolf terrorism. It is sobering reading. They also produced the video below as a training tool to help law enforcement combat lone wolf domestic terrorism. It is well worth watching.