Top 10 Terrorist Attacks in History

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When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, the American government officially stayed neutral, and while many in Washington and along the eastern seaboard harbored strong feelings for the United Kingdom, the U.S. government found it hard to convince the general American population of the war’s benefits, mostly due to the presence of a massive German population in the republic’s middle section (America’s first “silent minority,” the Germans encompassed roughly one-tenth of the entire population of the U.S. in 1914).

To make matters worse, the German government established the first terror cell in the United States in 1915, two years before the two countries would officially go to war with each other. The German terrorists were targeting munitions factories, horse farms, and railroads due to the fact that the United States, while officially neutral, was sending massive amounts of supplies to the British and French.

Woodrow Wilson was determined to drag the United States into the war, and the terrorist cells were as good excuse as any. Instead of rehashing the details of America’s entrance into World War I, and the results of that entrance, I thought I’d draw your attention to 10 terrorist attacks that deserve more attention.

10. Air France Flight 139: June 27 - July 3, 1976. On a hot summer day near the end of June in 1976, a flight from Tel Aviv was hijacked by Palestinian militants and left-wing Germans and diverted from Paris to Benghazi, Libya and then to Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, an East African country then ruled by dictator Idi Amin. The ensuing carnage - four dead hostages, one dead Israeli commando (Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother), seven dead hijackers, and 45 dead Ugandan soldiers - belies the insane nature of the whole terrorist act. Conservative Palestinians and German anarchists joined forces with the anti-colonial leaders of Libya and Uganda (Muammar Gaddafi and Idi Amin) to hijack a French commercial flight from Israel and threaten to execute all of the Israelis on board unless their demands were met. The Israeli military then got involved and virtually destroyed the Soviet-built Ugandan air force, and the Kenyans living in Uganda were slaughtered or purged from Ugandan territory by Uganda's security services because the Kenyan government was an ally and trading partner of Israel’s. Wow.

9. Grand Mosque Seizure: Nov. 20 - Dec. 4, 1979. Terrorism in the 1970s garnered so much press because the acts were so bold. Security wasn’t what it is now, and terrorist groups were able to do some pretty crazy things, like raid the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in the Muslim world, and announce that their leader is the new Messiah and all Muslims must begin following him. That’s exactly what members of Al-Ikhwan did. The reality on the ground is a bit more complex than that, though. Al-Ikhwan was a clan in Saudi Arabia that helped the Sauds gain control over the entire country in the 1920s. The Ikhwan clan was so successful and loyal to the Sauds that it was rewarded with the responsibility for internal security in the new country of Saudi Arabia. Some members of the clan thought that the Sauds were becoming too westernized and the seizure of the Grand Mosque was the end result. The French and Pakistanis helped the Saudis wrest control of the mosque away from the terrorist group, but not before hundreds of people - civilians, terrorists, and commandos alike - were killed. The seizure of the Grand Mosque marked the beginning of a conservative turn towards political Islam by Saudi Arabia’s leaders that has gone on up until the present day.

8. Russian apartment bombings: Sept. 4-16, 1999. In the late 1990s Russia was struggling with democracy and the rule of law. In addition to learning (the hard way) how to better govern themselves, Russians had to deal with many small polities in the Caucasus that wanted to leave the Russian Federation and establish their own countries (much like many of their neighbors did less than a decade earlier). Russia was then mired in a war in Dagestan thanks to Islamist guerillas from a neighboring province, Chechnya, who had invaded Dagestan in order to continue their war against Russia. In early September, four apartment complexes in four different Russian cities were bombed and Vladimir Putin, then the prime minister of Russia, ordered an aerial attack on the Chechen capital city of Grozny, thus initiating the second Russo-Chechen War. Here is where things get interesting though: local police forces arrested the bombing suspects in one of the cities and they turned out to be Russian intelligence (FSB) agents and were immediately released. The few attempts at public, or parliamentary, investigations have been squelched and many of the leaders of these potential hearings have died under mysterious circumstances, and many more have been imprisoned. The recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in London was connected to the apartment bombings, too. Putin’s popularity soared for his handling of the terrorism, and he was voted into the office of president in 2000.

7. Bombing of Plaza de Mayo: June 16, 1955. More than 300 people died at the Plaza de Mayo after elements within the Argentine air force flew 30 fighter jets over a large, supportive crowd of Juan Perón that had gathered in the plaza (home to the seat of the federal government at the time) and dropped a bunch of bombs. This heinous terrorist act marked the beginning of a period of dark times in Argentina, as Perónists and the military (along with its ally, the Catholic Church) clashed violently for decades and began to use the state itself to commit terrorist atrocities against ideological enemies. On the night of the terrorist attack, several properties belonging to the Catholic Church were burned to the ground in retaliation for the bombing of the Plaza de Mayo. It was a sign of things to come.

6. Air India Flight 182: June 23, 1985. Babbar Khalsa (BKI) is a militant Sikh organization that was founded after violent clashes with another Sikh sect in 1978 left several people dead. BKI quickly emerged as a leading proponent of violence against India in the name of Khalistan, a region in India populated mostly by Sikhs that often harbors secessionist tendencies. Air India Flight 182 was headed from Toronto to Bombay when it exploded over the skies of Ireland, killing all 268 people aboard. Canadian intelligence services quickly determined that BKI was responsible for the bombing, but due to the global nature of both the terror network and the Sikh diaspora, it took decades for Ottawa to prosecute the case and in the end, only the bombmaker himself served any time in prison (15 years for manslaughter). The bombings were believed to be in retaliation for Indira Gandhi’s heavy-handed approach to militancy within India (See RealClearHistory’s treatment of Gandhi’s governance here.) Gandhi herself was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, but the anti-Sikh campaigns carried out by Hindu hardliners only got worse and BKI believed blowing up a plane packed with innocent civilians would help, not hinder, the long process of learning to get along with each other. Anti-Sikh violence eventually subsided, but not until the mid 1990s.

5. Occupation of the Ottoman bank: Aug. 26, 1896. Armed with pistols, dynamite, grenades, and small, throwable bombs, 28 Armenian men and women stormed the largest bank in Constantinople, which was then the capital city of the Ottoman Empire, and proceeded to take hostages and issue demands. The Armenians wanted to bring the plight of their people under Ottoman rule to the world, and the Ottoman bank - run as it was by Europeans - was the perfect place for such a deed. The occupation lasted a mere 14 hours, but in that time mob violence in the city began to erupt between Armenians (and some Jews) and Muslims. The Ottoman military quelled the mob with some ease, but did so violently. The press in Europe reacted positively to the terrorism, but the governments of Europe would do nothing about the anti-Armenian pogroms going on in Ottoman territory. Armenian terrorists had embarrassed Constantinople, and the Armenian people were made to pay for it with their lives and their property.

4. Luxor Massacre: Nov. 17, 1997. Sixty-two people were murdered in cold blood at a tourist site in Egypt. The terrorists, an Islamist group wanting to provoke further government repression (so as to make recruiting easier) stormed an ancient Egyptian temple and murdered everybody inside. The terrorists were dressed up like Egyptian security services when they committed this atrocity, but when they ran into a checkpoint run by the actual Egyptian security service, a gunfight erupted and the terrorists had to flee to the hills. Their dead bodies were found in a nearby cave, and it is assumed that they committed suicide. Egypt’s government, long dominated by secularists and westernizers, did indeed crack down even more harshly on Islamist groups, but the terror group itself split due to the attack and eventually became irrelevant. The Luxor Massacre highlights the struggle that reformers in the Arab world face: on the one hand these reformers would like to see secular nation-states governed by democratic principles, but on the other hand they face Islamist groups who are dedicated to overthrowing secular nation-states and establishing religious “caliphates.” The reformers are thus forced to govern ruthlessly, and become dictators in the name of secularism and development. The Islamists, with terror on their side, have nothing to lose but their lives since reform is stifled by the dictatorial measures taken to repress anti-democratic Islamism. It’s a vicious circle, and one that’s not likely to go away any time soon.

3. Los Angeles Times bombing: Oct. 1, 1910. In the early 20th century labor unions had significantly more power - politically, economically, and socially - than they do today. The iron and steel industries began to assault labor-union power in 1903 and by the end of the decade labor’s power in these industries had declined precipitously. In 1906, labor unions began blowing up iron and steel factories, as well as bridges, with dynamite. The goal of these terrorist acts was not to kill or maim anybody but simply to level the playing field when it came to negotiations with management. However, the owner of the L.A. Times was stridently anti-union and thus became the first target of a new campaign to target non-industry marks. Twenty-one people died when the bomb exploded and started a fire. The terrorist campaign of the labor unions soon ceased after that, and unions themselves lost what little cultural capital they had left with the killing of 21 innocent people. However, terrorism continued after the first few months of the L.A. Times bombing because the perpetrators had not been caught. In fact, nobody had even been hauled in for questioning by the police. An ironworks was bombed on Christmas Day in 1910, and the masterminds of the L.A. Times bombing were not arrested until April 14, 1911. Even then, the terrorists were not brought to a police station but to the private home of a Chicago police sergeant, where they were imprisoned for a week! Eventually, the soon-to-be guilty men were persuaded to go on trial in California, but not before a full-court press by the American Federation of Labor to the American public went into effect. When the terrorists pleaded guilty, American Labor began its sharp decline.

2. Saint Nedelya Church assault: April 16, 1925. The Communist Party of Bulgaria was on the ropes in 1925. Communists were loathed by elites and plebes alike in the country, and on April 16, at a funeral for a popular General who had been killed in a previous terrorist attack made by communists, the roof of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s main cathedral was blown up by communist terrorists, killing 150 people and maiming a further 500. Many of the victims were friends or family of the general, elites, and much of the population did not appreciate the communists blowing up a church.The end result was a clampdown on not only the official Communist Party, but on any kind of activity deemed “anti-Bulgarian” by the government. The communists of Bulgaria eventually got the last word when the Soviet Union invaded their country and established a dictatorship.

1. Chamber of Deputies bombing: Dec. 9, 1893. In the 19th century, terrorism belonged to anarchists. Through terrorist activities, anarchists killed heads of state, policemen, bureaucrats, soldiers, heads of companies, and aristocrats. Auguste Vaillant’s bombing of the French Chamber of Deputies (the French equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives) is perhaps the best known historical example of anarchist terror. The bomb he threw killed no one, and injured only 20, but it sparked a draconian new set of laws that restricted the freedom of the press. Anarchist literature was banned and eventually snuffed out in France (as were anarchists themselves), and the anarchist movement as a whole lost ground to its socialist rivals thanks to the terrorist campaigns. Vaillant’s last words before the French state chopped off his head were “Death to the bourgeoisie! Long live anarchy!” The anarchism of the late 19th century eventually fizzled out after several decades of bloody, uncoordinated terrorist attacks all over the world, but these anarchists played a role very similar to the one played by Islamist terrorists of today.

Further thoughts

There is much more to discuss about the history of terrorism, and state-sponsored terrorism (Iran Air Flight 655, Hiroshima, Dresden), far-right groups, the Saigon bombings of 1965, and the King David Hotel bombing will get more attention soon enough. Keep checking in this summer to get your dose of real, clear history!


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