This week in terrorism history: Nov. 7-13

The cover of the first issue of the NWLF’s journal The Urban Guerrilla

When looking back at the recent history of terrorism in the United States, the 1970s never fail to disappoint. This week we get a look at one of the most prolific, and probably least remembered, domestic terrorist groups in American history.

While some leftist radical groups of the 1970s, like the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground, are still well known today, thanks to numerous books, articles, and films about them, the subject of today’s look back dwells in obscurity, despite waging a four-year bombing campaign across the western United States targeting government offices, businesses, and utilities. The New World Liberation Front, from 1974 to 1978, carried out nearly 90 separate attacks, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A 1977 article in the publication Open Road, described the group this way:

The New World Liberation Front, a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist organization which has carried out an uninterrupted urban guerilla offensive around the Bay Area and Northern California for almost three years, may well be the most tactically advanced guerilla group in the United States.

The NWLF first appeared … with a bombing in September, 1974, directed against a San Francisco stock brokerage firm. From the beginning, the NWLF has distinguished itself from most other guerilla organizations in the U.S. by two characteristics. First, although the bomb has remained its primary weapon, the NWLF’s attacks have been focused mainly on local, concrete political issues rather than abstract symbolic protest; and, second, the group has made extensive use of a demand strategy, that is, revolutionary extortion.

As far as its paramilitary activities are concerned, the NWLF has a record of success which verges on the astonishing. The organization has carried out almost fifty successful bombings, including power stations, banks, office buildings and motor vehicles, without causing a single injury to anyone. Even more amazing is the fact that in the process of all these actions, not one underground member of the organization has ever been identified or apprehended.

This is one of the enduring mysteries surrounding the NWLF. Federal and local law enforcement were baffled by the organization. They had no idea how large the organization was, how it was funded, or how it acquired the explosives used in its attacks. While the group remained steadfastly underground, it did have an above-ground public facing outlet for its frequent communiques and statements. This was dubbed Public Information Relay-1 (PIR-1), which published its own journal, The Urban Guerrilla, competing against other leftwing media to be the go-to mouthpiece of the Bay Area radical left.

Interestingly enough, the core group of the NWLF, whoever they were, may have operated on something like a franchise basis, allowing other leftist terrorist groups to carry out operations under the NWLF name. A long discussion of the NWLF published several years ago at the blog acromaticonline, put it this way:

This suited the agenda of the NWLF perfectly. One of the primary drivers of the group had been to make itself appear bigger than it was. Any radical guerilla operating on US soil was free to utilise the NWLF [name] provided that its goals were in accord with those of the group. 

It is also not entirely clear why the group ceased its activities. The Open Road article from 1977, however, may provide some clues. Apparently the NWLF was making itself increasingly unpopular among the ranks of the radical left through its strident communiques and pronouncements on revolutionary theory by its Central Command. These were often highly critical of other leftist radical groups and especially their unwillingness to fall into step behind the NWLF’s leadership.

Then, as the radical left began to embrace new causes in the post-Vietnam War period, NWLF denounced them, at the cost of sympathizers and potential supporters:

The NWLF particularly outraged large segments of sympathizers, though, with a series of statements in mid-1976 on the role of feminism and homosexuality in the revolutionary movement. These edicts, passed down from the Central Command, relegated feminism and the struggle against sexism to a position subordinate to the economic struggles of poor and working people. The gay movement was essentially denounced as being entirely reactionary, the outgrowth of a petit-bourgeois sexual perversion. This “more oppressed than thou” position met with almost total condemnation from other revolutionary people and organizations. 

In short, the NWLF had hoped to be the vanguard of a revolutionary movement, but few people were willing to join the revolution. And now today’s look back.

  • Nov. 10, 1977 — Rodeo, CA: Members of the New World Liberation Front carry out a bombing attack against Union Oil’s San Francisco refinery facility. No one was injured in the attack, and the extent of damage done to the refinery is not known.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 24-30

“White middle-class revolutionaries” Charles, Bryce, and Jonathan Tuller

White middle-class revolutionaries you say? Welcome to 1972!

Both of the incidents described below comfortably fall into the category of New Left revolutionary terrorism, which I mentioned last week. Generally speaking, leftist terrorism of this sort was intended by its perpetrators to be a means to reform (if possible) or destroy (if necessary) an existing social or political system so that a new, more just, system can be built on its ashes. In this regard it is both future-looking and idealistic if not utopian.

Of course the problem here was that there weren’t all that many folks interested in signing on to such a revolutionary venture. Exploited classes, the revolutionaries argued, don’t necessarily recognize the extent of their own exploitation. This was an insight that New Left groups garnered from writers like the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and particularly his influential 1964 book One Dimensional Man. In it Marcuse argues that capitalist society creates manacles of privilege that keep the public docile and content. Here’s a representative passage:

The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.

Under such conditions, the people are blinded to their own oppression. They willingly buy in to a system that controls them. The more comfortable they become in material terms, the more enslaved they are to a system that exploits them to maintain an unjust and unequal status quo.

It was this logic that allowed middle-class college students, and other seemingly unlikely revolutionaries, to justify their violent activism. In short, they were rejecting their manacles of privilege and fighting in common cause with oppressed peoples and other revolutionaries worldwide.

In short, New Left terrorists saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, who, through violence, could create the conditions that would lead to the political awakening of the masses who, under the leadership of the terrorist cadres, would then sweep away the corrupt and oppressive old world and create a new, and better, one. This is an old idea. We can trace it back to Italian socialist and revolutionary Carlo Pisacane, who wrote in 1857:

The propaganda of the idea is a chimera; the education of the people is nonsense. Ideas result from deeds, and not the latter from the former; it is not the case that the people will be free once it is educated, rather it will be educated once it is free. The only work a citizen can undertake to benefit his country is to contribute to the material revolution: conspiracies, plots, insurrectional attempts, etc.

Which brings us to Charles Tuller and his sons, Bryce and Jonathan, who in 1972 embarked on a years long spree of revolutionary violence, beginning with the incident described below. Charles Tuller, a 48-year-old native of Alexandria, VA and employee of the US Commerce Department, enlisted his teenage sons and one of their high school friends to form a revolutionary cadre aiming to fundamentally transform American society. A 2018 story posted at Boundary Stones, the history website of public TV station WETA, explains Charles’ rationale:

Concerned with systemic racism and poor socio-economic conditions in many strands of American society, Charles envisioned a grassroots movement that would upend existing power structures and establish a new, more equitable, and communally-based system of governance.

Some years later, in a jailhouse interview, Charles laid out the group’s vanguard strategy:

We decided to form a group and equip ourselves so we could eventually break with our government or what is called law, and try to do something about reconstructing a new system … we would be very security conscious and extremely mobile … able to get to any part of the country, where we would talk with local people and find indigenous leaders … we wanted to latch onto local situations and get people to take some kind of direct action (to) act as their own government, as their own political force … we wanted to act as catalysts …

The first step in their revolution, having stockpiled weapons and camping gear, was to raise the money necessary to live a life on the road while waging war against the status quo. That brings us to our look back at this week in US terrorism history.

  • Oct. 25, 1972 — Crystal City, VA: Four self-described white middle-class revolutionaries (the Tullers and friend William Graham) attempt to rob a branch of the Arlington Trust Company. Two of the perpetrators cut the branch’s phone lines, and then, dressed as telephone repairmen, entered the building asking to speak with the branch manager. When they told him they intended to rob the bank, the manager refused to cooperate. A struggle ensued in which the manager was shot to death. An Arlington police officer, responding to a report of the phone lines being out, was also shot to death, though one of the perpetrators, Bryce Tuller, was wounded in an exchange of gunfire. The four escaped the bank without managing to steal any money. Four days later, on Oct. 29, the group stormed onto an Eastern Air Lines flight at Houston Intercontinental Airport and hijacked it to Cuba. An Eastern ticket agent was shot to death, and another airline employee was wounded.
  • Oct. 26, 1972 — Houston, TX: A police officer is ambushed while leaving a restaurant by two reported members of the Black Panther Party. Officer Jerry Spruill was shot six times in the back, later dying of his wounds. One of the perpetrators, Marvin Fentis, was arrested in 1973 after a shootout with police in Garland, TX. He was paroled after serving 14 years in prison.

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.