The belief that al-Qaeda represents a fundamentally new (and by extension, uniquely threatening) form of terrorism remains strong among scholars, journalists, and policymakers- a tendency that has helped to obscure the history of terrorism. After all, with al-Qaeda and the ‘new’ terrorism now in full swing, what was the point of understanding the ‘old’?
This article emerged from a desire to explore forgotten (or never surveyed) American historical terrain. It was also the product of personal and idiosyncratic interests. As a child of the 1970s, I admit to a lingering fascination with the political turbulence, physical seediness, and diminished expectations of the United States during that decade (evoked brilliantly in the downbeat, melancholy aesthetic of David Fincher’s 2007 film, Zodiac.) The 1970s was a period of revolutionary fanaticism and acute political violence—a time marked by what Philip Roth, in American Pastoral, called the ‘indigenous American berserk’. As Brian Jenkins points out, 60-70 terrorist incidents took place in the United States every year during the 1970s—15-20 percent more than have occurred since 9/11. These statistics must come as a surprise for those researchers and policymakers who equate ‘homegrown’ with ‘jihadist’ terrorism.
I don’t mean to suggest that terrorism in 1970s has been a completely neglected topic. Two groups active during this period—the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)—have been the subject of recent films and academic studies. The WUO, which gained fresh attention in 2008 as a result of then-candidate Barack Obama’s supposed ties with a former WUO member, continues to radiate a transgressive glamour, at least to some observers. For its part, the SLA is linked with the national spectacle surrounding the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who later emerged as ‘Tanya’, a bank-robbing SLA ‘urban guerrilla’.
Curiously, the far more violent Black Liberation Army (BLA)—exact contemporaries of the WUO and SLA—has remained largely obscure. (The only recent attention came in the form of a minor media flap over the 2011 White House appearance of Common, the hip-hop artist whose lyrics have valorized Assata Shakur—a BLA leader who killed a New Jersey State trooper, escaped from prison, and now resides in Cuba). Although later characterized with some plausibility as a “coast-to-coast cop-killing conspiracy,” the BLA was more than a criminal organization. Its members robbed banks and drug dealers and murdered policemen, but they did so in the name of revolutionary justice, community defence, and what was then known as Black Power.
Unlike other US terrorist groups of the time, the BLA’s violence was not merely symbolic. The BLA, according to a sympathetic 1972 article in Right On! (the organ of the East Coast Black Panther Party), was simply ‘brothers and sisters who have gone underground to put all the revolutionary rhetoric into practice’. Toward that end, the BLA carried out ambushes of policemen in New York and other cities. Their gunmen succeeded in sowing terror among patrolmen. Following the 1972 BLA killing of two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers, one policemen told a colleague ‘I’m carrying my police special [service revolver] plus two non-reg weapons and I’m still scared shitless to walk on my beat’.
In developing a counterterrorism response to the BLA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) framed the group as an urban insurgency ‘working toward revolution’. In the overheated political atmosphere of the time, the FBI saw the BLA as part of a widespread uprising intended to drive white occupiers from the nation’s ghettos—ghettos that the US government had saturated with narcotics in an effort to sedate restive populations. In other words, the FBI accepted the BLA’s revolutionary narrative. To counter this enemy within, the bureau cultivated an army of informants in the hopes of penetrating the BLA’s considerable operational security.
As an institution, the NYPD never achieved the consensus the FBI did about the BLA. To some officials, the BLA was a seditious conspiracy at the vanguard of an urban insurrection, while other policemen saw the group in narrower criminal terms as a heavily armed gang. Former members of the BLA would later claim that US police and intelligence agencies imported into American ghettos counterinsurgency techniques developed in Southeast Asia. However, the evidence suggests that it was less exotic methods—dragnets, traffic stops, long jail terms and, on occasion, brute force- that brought down the BLA.
I hope this article encourages specialists to excavate other overlooked ground in the history of terrorism. My own research is exploring a successor group to the WUO that carried out a campaign of bombing (including attacks on the U.S. Capitol) that ended in 1985(!) with the capture of two of its members outside a storage locker filled with explosives, ammunition, firearms, and blank government identification cards. For me, one of the fascinating questions about the group is why and how its members continued to wage the “armed campaign” long after other comrades had left the revolutionary scene. To put it another way, why did they stay on the field so long after the game was so clearly over?