This week in terrorism history: Jan. 27-Feb. 2

Reem Salah Riyashi, mother of two, and Palestinian suicide bomber. (Credit: Getty Images)

Sometimes, when I look at the possible incidents that I could include in this feature, interesting commonalities pop out. This is one such week.

Suicide bombings are nothing new in the mix of incidents for any given week. But for this week, three such cases (and their may in fact be more) involve female suicide bombers. While there is a long history of women involved in terrorism, as scholar Mia Bloom has pointed out in her groundbreaking work on the subject, the average person is often still surprised when women perpetrate acts of terror. This is especially true for suicide bombing.

While historically women had mostly played supporting roles in terrorist movements and campaigns, Bloom in 2007 writes:

Women are now taking a leading role in conflicts by becoming suicide bombers – using their bodies as human detonators for the explosive material strapped around their waists. …

Out of the approximately seventeen groups that have started using the tactical innovation of suicide bombing, women have been operatives in more than half of them. Between 1985 and 2006, there have been in excess of 220 women suicide bombers, representing about 15 percent of the total. Moreover, the upsurge in the number of female bombers has come from both secular and religious organizations, even though religious groups initially resisted using women.

Their participation in suicide bombings starkly contradicts the theory that women are more likely to choose peaceful mechanisms for conflict resolution than men are — that women are inherently more disposed toward moderation, compromise, and tolerance in their attitudes toward international conflict.

As with men, Bloom writes, the motives for women to become suicide bombers vary. Some, like Tamil and Chechen suicide operatives, are driven by a desire to seek revenge, either for the oppression and suffering of their people, or more personally, to avenge the death of loved ones at the hands of their own government. Others may seek to change their society’s gender norms through their involvement in terrorism. In short, Bloom argues, gender empowerment through violence, in these cases, suicide terrorism.

Groups, she writes, choose women to carry out suicide missions for very practical reasons. First, it can be a tactical response to the need for more manpower. At the same time, in many settings, women are also less likely to be stopped and searched by security forces than men, making it easier for them to reach their preferred targets. Finally, Bloom notes, groups have found that attacks carried out by women often generate greater media coverage, multiplying the publicity effects of an attack.

This discussion helps us think about something that I try to get across to my students. In understanding terrorism it is important for us to consider not just the strategic and tactical choices that groups make, like the decision to adopt suicide methodologies at all, but also the motivations of the individuals who become terrorists. While both sets of motivations can be described as rational, that rationality stems from very different sets of calculations.

And now on to this week’s examples:

  • Jan. 27, 2002 — Jerusalem: An attack carried out by female suicide bomber from Fatah kills one and injures more than 150.
  • Jan. 29, 2982 — Belfast, Northern Ireland: Gunmen from the Irish National Liberation Army assassinate John McKeague, a protestant political activist.
  • Jan. 30, 2010 — Kahr, Afghanistan: A female suicide bomber kills 14 civilians and three soldiers. No group claims responsibility.
  • Feb. 1, 2009 — Baghdad: A female suicide bomber kills 46 Shia pilgrims.
  • Feb. 2, 1992 — Mahima, Bangladesh: Fourteen people are killed and 10 injured in the bombing of a ferry by the group Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, a political organization agitating for greater rights for the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

This week in terrorism history: Jan 20-26

Bernardine Dohrn, leader of the Weather Underground.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when the United States celebrates the life of the slain civil rights icon. King was assassinated in April 1968. In June, 1963, King was in Detroit, where he delivered an early draft of what would become his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at Cobo Hall.

The Detroit version of the speech includes the elements we remember today from his powerful address at the March on Washington two months later. But the Detroit speech is also noteworthy for King’s emphasis on the essential strategy of nonviolence to advance the cause of civil rights. It is worth quoting that section at some length:

Now the other thing that we must see about this struggle is that by and large it has been a nonviolent struggle. … For we’ve come to see the power of nonviolence. We’ve come to see that this method is not a weak method, for it’s the strong man who can stand up amid opposition, who can stand up amid violence being inflicted upon him and not retaliate with violence. …

This method has wrought wonders. As a result of the nonviolent Freedom Ride movement, segregation in public transportation has almost passed away absolutely in the South. As a result of the sit-in movement at lunch counters, more than 285 cities have now integrated their lunch counters in the South. I say to you, there is power in this method.

And I think by following this approach it will also help us to go into the new age that is emerging with the right attitude. For nonviolence not only calls upon its adherents to avoid external physical violence, but it calls upon them to avoid internal violence of spirit. It calls on them to engage in that something called love. And I know it is difficult sometimes. When I say “love” at this point, I’m not talking about an affectionate emotion. It’s nonsense to urge people, oppressed people, to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. I’m talking about something much deeper. I’m talking about a sort of understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. 

I quote this from King’s speech because it stands in stark contrast to the words of Bernardine Dohrn, one of the leaders of the Weather Underground, who less than a year after King’s assassination was engaged in an unapologetically violent struggle to overthrow the government of the United States. Speaking in front of a phalanx of television cameras in 1969, Dorhn said:

There’s no way to be committed to non-violence in the middle of the most violent society history has ever created. I’m not committed to non-violence in any way.

This kind of justification, blaming circumstances, or their opponents, for their decision to take up arms, is typical of groups that adopt violence as a means to advance their preferred political or social ends. All of the groups and individuals highlighted in this space all, at some point, came to the same realization about their particular cause. It is worth thinking about on a day when America celebrates an apostle of nonviolence.

And now, on to this week’s list.

  • Jan. 20, 1994 — Pamplona, Greece: A bomb is discovered and defused at the offices of UNK bank. No one is injured in the incident. The bomb is attributed to the Basque separatist group ETA (Basque Fatherland and Freedom).
  • Jan. 21, 1978 — Thessalonika, Greece: A bomb explodes, damaging offices of the US Information Agency. No one is killed or injured. There is no claim of responsibility.
  • Jan. 21, 2009 — Brockton, Mass.: A white supremacist, Keith Luke, shoots three black immigrants from Cape Verde, killing two, as part of what was a planned racially motivated killing spree. Luke, who told police that he was “fighting for a dying race,” was convicted of the killings in 2013 and died in prison in 2014, apparently by suicide.
  • Jan. 22, 2012 — Tafawa Balewa, Nigera: Suspected Boko Haram gunmen attack a police station in Bauchi state. Nine are killed and another 10 wounded. This was one of several attacks carried out on the same day across Bauchi state.
  • Jan. 25, 1978 — Milan, Italy: Red Brigades gunmen carry out an attempted assassination of the labor relations supervisor at a Siemens Telecommunications plant near Milan. The target survives the attack.

photo above

This week in terrorism history: Jan. 13-19

Northern Ireland Catholic civil rights activist and MP Bernadette Devlin McAliskey (left) survived an assassination attempt by UFF gunmen, Jan. 16, 1981.

Last week I found myself on more than one occasion bringing up in conversation the 1993 failed attempt to destroy the World Trade Center. While the bomb went off beneath the North Tower, the explosion failed to bring the structure, and its twin, down as intended. Six people died and more than a thousand were injured in the attack.

As I told my students last week, in the 1993 attack investigators were able to identify and apprehend most of the conspirators when one of their number, Mohammed Salameh, returned to a Jersey City, NJ, Ryder truck rental office to try to recover the deposit he had put down on the truck which carried the bomb. That led to his arrest, and then to the others.

Twenty-four years ago this week, one of the primary conspirators in that effort, the Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the plot. The attack on the WTC was only part of the holy war that he had intended to help launch.

In October 1995, Rahman, along with nine others, was convicted of a broad conspiracy to carry out a “day of terror” across New York City, five bombs that were intended to destroy the United Nations headquarters, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and 26 Federal Plaza, the US government’s main office building in the city. The evidence in the trial included testimony from a government informant, secret audio recordings, and a video tape showing defendants mixing diesel oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a Queens, NY, garage, ingredients that were to make up one of the bombs.

So with that quick bit of added background, here’s this week’s look back.

  • Jan. 13, 2015 — Volnovakha, Ukraine: Assailants fire a rocket-propelled grenade into a civilian bus near a military checkpoint, killing 12 and injuring another 11. The attack is attributed to militants of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
  • Jan. 16, 1981 — Coalisland, Northern Ireland: Members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a loyalist paramilitary group, carry out a failed assassination attempt on Catholic civil rights activist and Member of Parliament Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and her husband. Both are wounded in the attack, which took place in the family’s home while it was under surveillance by British soldiers. The troops did not intervene to prevent the attack, and waited more than 30 minutes before summoning ambulances to the scene.
  • Jan. 17, 1996 — United States: Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheihk,” is sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. He died in prison in February 2017 at the age of 78.
  • Jan. 17, 2002 — Spain: ETA militants send a mail bomb to Enrique Ibarra, vice president of Grupo Correo in the Basque region of Spain. No one is injured in the attack.
  • Jan. 19, 1977 — New York City: Members of a Puerto Rican separatist group called the Independent Armed Revolutionary Commandos carry out a firebomb attack on an FBI office. This was one of four separate attacks in New York City carried out by the group on the same day.

Our new old terrorism

Watertown, N.Y., Ku Klux Klan members, c.1870. (Library of Congress)

In April, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security released a report on domestic terrorism in the United States during 2018. They documented 32 terrorist attacks, disrupted plots, threats of violence, or weapons stockpiling by individuals motivated by a radical social or political agenda and who had not been influenced or directed by any foreign terrorist organization or movement.

All 32 cases were driven by far-right political or social ideologies. Thirteen of the 32 were perpetrated by race-based extremists, another 17 by right-wing anti-government extremists. African-Americans were targeted in 29 percent of all incidents, Jews in another 10 percent. Nineteen percent of incidents targeted law enforcement.

In short, what the NJOHS reported in April is perfectly consistent with what I have been asserting for nearly all of the four years that I’ve been writing this blog. The primary threat of terrorism in the United States comes not from wild-eyed jihadists but from the ranks of America’s anti-government and racist far right.

But lest we think this is some kind of recent development, a new dataset on terrorist organizations that formed between 1860-1969, compiled by University of Iowa Ph.D candidate Joshua Tschantret, reminds us that this is nothing new at all. It is, rather, the historical norm.

According to Tschantret’s data, 28 terrorist groups formed and were active in the United States between 1860 and 1969. Of those 28, nearly half, some 13 organizations, carried out acts of violence, including bombings and assassinations, in support of right-wing ideologies. All but one of these were motivated by white supremacist ideology. The lone exception was the Secret Army Organization, formed in California in 1969 and targeting the organizers of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. All of the rest used violence in pursuit of explicitly racist goals.

The earliest of these groups came together in the South during the early years of Reconstruction, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, groups like the original iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, and others such as the Southern Cross and the Knights of the White Camellia. The White Line would spring up a decade later, in 1874 in Mississippi, and the Klan would be reborn in Atlanta in 1915. A decade later would come the Black Legion, a Klan splinter group organized in Bellaire, Ohio by a doctor named William Shephard.

Atlanta would also see, in 1946, the emergence of the Columbians, a racist and anti-Semitic pro-Nazi organization. Edward Folliard of the Washington Post would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his reporting on the group. The 1950s would bring yet another rebirth of the Klan, this one still in existence today, along with more offshoots, like the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, born in 1955 in Birmingham, Ala., followed by the United Klans of America in 1960.

The 1960s would spawn two more white supremacist organizations. The Silver Dollar Group emerges in Louisiana in 1964 as a Klan offshoot organizing in leaderless resistance cells which assassinated African-Americans and bombed the cars of NAACP organizers. The White Knights of Mississippi, another Klan branch, also organized in 1964 and continues in existence today.

The definitions of terrorism that scholars like me adopt when we study and teach about this phenomenon tend to point to 1860 as the birth of the modern era of terrorism. That brings us face to face with a sad but inevitable conclusion:

Our past history of racist, right-wing terrorism in America is consistent with our present reality of racist, right-wing terrorism in America. El Paso is just the bloodiest, most recent example.