Terrifying Historical Acts of Terrorism

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Terrorism seem to be everywhere these days, but in reality, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon. Terrorists have lurked among us at least since Biblical times, and tons of cultures can point out some faction or another that has indulged in terror activity. Let’s take a look at some of the most fearsome terrorists in history. 

Hasan-e Sabbah and the “Hashishim”

The Nizari Ismaili was a fairly small sect that lived in the impenetrable mountain castle of Alamut, the ruins of which still exist and are located in Iran. They were led by a man called Hasan-e Sabbah (or Hassan-i Sabbah, depending on the source). He was a member of the Ismaili Shia muslims, who were extremely persecuted by the ruling Seljuk Empire, and he had decided to make Alamut a safe space for his followers. 

Hasan-e Sabbah started out with a series of good guy moves. In 1090, he concocted a cool plot that allowed him to take over the Alamut fortress without bloodshed, and it is said that he even financially compensated  the old ruler he was replacing. Then, he improved Alamut’s irrigation systems, built a great library for a vast collection of scientific and philosophical texts, and turned the site into a stronghold. 

Having established a state of their own, Hassan and his followers moved on to the next stage of their plans, which was to rain merry doom all over the leaders of the Seljuk Empire. Operating from a network of carefully chosen mountain and valley bases, they clashed with and killed many prominent members of the powers that be, muslim and and christian alike. Because of this, they became known as fearsome thugs, and thanks to reports that they drank a drug potion before their lethal missions, history has come to know them as the Hashishim. However, modern historians tend to prefer the term “assassin,” because it turns out the whole hashish thing (which, incidentally, was popularized by none other than Marco Polo) was likely just a nasty rumor their enemies liked to spread. Also, yeah, these guys are what the term “assassin” originally meant.    

The Nizari were eventually snuffed out when chief Hülegü of the Mongols decided to pay Alamut a typically destructive visit in the 13th century. 

French anarchists and Émile Henry

The French Revolution of 1789 let all sorts of brand new movements loose upon the unwary world, and they were still running strong over a century later. Anarchism was one of the many “isms” running around in the country, but its approach was radically different from all the other movements, which were seeking control. Anarchism was all about wrecking the state so the man could be free and live harmoniously, which proved popular among the youths with a certain amount of education but no real prospects for the future that France was teeming with at the time.   

in late 19th century, the ideology took steps toward terrorism territory when some anarchists abandoned their words and pamphlets and adapted what they called “propaganda by deed.” This, of course, meant bombs. Between 1892 and 1894, anarchists carried out no less than 11 explosive attacks all over Paris. They mostly targeted military barracks and official buildings, though one particularly proto-terrorist called Émile Henry eventually upped the stakes by throwing a home-made bomb into a cafe full of ordinary workers, killing one person and wounding 20. When he was caught, Henry merely declared that the “petty bourgeois with a steady salary in their pockets” he had attacked were just as guilty as the politicians and military men that were traditional targets for anarchists.

According to historian John Merriman, Henry’s terror attack — and, more importantly, his reasoning that ordinary people are acceptable targets — pretty much makes him the originator of terrorism as we know it today. 

The Sicarii dagger men 

Rome was kind of a big deal during the 1st century, and the Jewish people weren’t all that happy about some foreign emperor presiding over them. Around 6 A.D., the descendants of a prominent revolutionary called Judas of Galilee decided to do something about the Roman rule. Said something was the Sicarii, a.k.a. “dagger men.” Led by Judas’ grandson Menahem ben Jair, the Sicarii were notorious for the small, concealed daggers they carried around so they could carry out assassinations in the blink of an eye. 

Although they were closer to guerrilla fighters than terrorists in the modern meaning of the term, there was a clear, premeditated terror element in their actions. Instead of attacking their targets in secluded areas and at night, they tended to carry out their murders in broad daylight and crowded places, only to slip away unnoticed among the panicking people. They also used shock tactics, such as raiding and burning down pro-Roman villages and kidnapping people.  

The Sicarii are occasionally lumped together with groups such as the Zealots, who were a political party that often clashed with the powers that be. However, unlike Zealots, who targeted Romans, the Sicarii dagger men preferred to attack prominent Jewish people who they felt were too friendly with Rome. 

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Ireland’s Great Famine and his own experiences in British-ran prisons made Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa a radicalized man. He was affiliated with the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization of Irish nationalists that oppose British rule of their lands. The Fenians didn’t exactly rule the use of force and terrorism out of their tactics, but while their masterplans were known to be armed uprisings and conquest attempts — for instance, they once planned to seize Canada to trade it for Irish independence — O’Donovan Rossa was interested in the terror attack side of things. In fact, historian Dr. Shane Kenna has this to say about the Irishman:  “He sees himself as the progenitor of terrorism. He’s the man who develops the strategy, and he said that future terrorist groups should pay him a royalty for it.” 

“O’Dynamite Rossa,” as he was colloquially known because of his love of explosives, certainly seems to have adapted a lot of the tactics that can still be found in the modern terrorist’s playbook. He was constantly updating his knowledge of new ways to communicate and to wreak havoc. He loved his status as a despised Bin Laden-type figure in Britain, and because he lived in the U.S. for his most notorious years, commonly organized bombings from afar. He was also extremely happy to take responsibility for his explosive campaigns on British soil: O’Donovan Rossa openly operated both a “dynamite school” and a “dynamite fund,” and even owned a newspaper where he openly told everyone about his acts of terror. Because of his bombastic speeches and constant presence, he soon became the face of the Irish resistance, and his death in 1916 was a significant event that acted as a catalyst for the Easter Rising rebellion.   

Viet Cong

Most everyone is at least passingly familiar with the Viet Cong because of the Vietnam War, but this North Vietnamese communist guerrilla force did a lot more than engage American forces in brutal jungle warfare. Terrorism was an important part of their arsenal, and in 1965, the world found out just how far they were willing to go. 

Up to that point, Viet Cong terror attacks were already fairly commonplace in rural parts of South Vietnam. However, terrorism had also started to bleed into the capital city, Saigon: by the summer of 1965 the VC had already bombed a hotel where American officers often stayed, an air terminal and even the U.S. Embassy building. However, on June 25, things got really out of hand when they targeted a popular floating restaurant, My Canh, during its busiest hours. 

Viet Cong had selected the My Canh because it was populated by foreigners and newsmen, and attacked it with two bombs specifically designed to cause maximum carnage. Their plan was tragically successful, and apart from the global headlines the shocking attack made, it’s body count was significantly high: The total casualties are estimated to be as high as 123 people from six different countries, and it has been said that up to 51 of the dead were affiliated with the CIA. 


Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

Perhaps the most famous unsuccessful act of terrorism in history, the Gunpowder Plot, took three years to put together. From 1601 to 1603, several Catholic English gentlemen formed a close-knit group that met regularly and tried to figure out ways to wrest the country away from its Protestant rulers. However, Earl of Essex and his unsuccessful rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I made it clear they’d have to be a little sneakier. When King James I took the throne in 1603 and failed to be any more sympathetic toward Catholics, the group decided that enough was enough. 

Fawkes was not a part of this original group of disillusioned gentlemen. Instead, he was a schoolmate of one plotter, and was recruited to the cause because he was a staunch English nationalist who opposed the king’s plans to unite England and Scotland … and also happened to be a military man and an explosives expert. However, he was one of the five core conspirators who swore an oath of secrecy to each other. 

Having decided to destroy the king and the entire political establishment by blowing up the Parliament, the conspirators got to work. Some, including Fawkes, acquired prestigious positions that allowed them to case the Parliament area. Others gathered and stored gunpowder. In December 1604, as more and more conspirators trickled in, they started digging a tunnel to the Parliament from a nearby house in their control, though they eventually decided to abandon that route and instead just rented a vault under the House of Commons and moved the gunpowder there. Plans were made to kidnap the king’s daughter, so she could act as their puppet monarch after the explosion, which was set to  

Unfortunately (for the conspirators), someone in the know sent an anonymous letter to a member of the Parliament just days before the opening, warning him to stay away because a “terrible blow” was about to take place. The letter ended up in the hands of the king, who suspected the “blow” in question was referring to a gunpowder explosion and ordered an investigation. On November 4, they caught Fawkes and a suspicious amount of firewood at the vaults, but the conspirator managed to talk his way out. However, the king ordered a second search on November 5, and this time, they discovered no less than 36 barrels of gunpowder … and Fawkes, who was carrying a bunch of matches and fuses. He was arrested on the spot, and confessed four days later after horrendous torture. The rest of the gunpowder plotters were either killed or captured soon afterwards.

The Palestine Irgun

Irgun Zvai Leumi, also known as Etzel, was founded in Palestine in 1931 as an underground right-wing organization that was originally supported by Zionist parties, but after just five years, it fell under the influence of an extremist group called the Revisionist Party. Their aim was to make Palestine a Jewish state, and use of force was very much on the menu. Since Palestine was occupied by Great Britain at the time, Irgun unleashed a wave of terror attacks and assassinations against the British, who captured and executed many Irgun members, whose comrades went on to return the favor on British hostages.

Irgun’s most defining characteristic was their horrifying efficiency, which was especially apparent during the last years of the British mandate. In 1946, their explosive attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem killed 91 people, both civilians and soldiers. Irgun also managed to capture a portion of the city of Jaffa, and in 1948, they even managed to conquer Akko — an impenetrable fortress-prison that Napoleon himself had failed to take.    

Tamil Tigers

Some call them the Ellalan Force. Others prefer their official name, which is Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. However, most people know them as the Tamil Tigers. This Sri Lankan separatist group has been around since 1676, and was given a Foreign Terrorist Organization ranking in 1997 because of their increasingly terroristic strategies. These were particularly common between 1985 and 2009, when the organization carried out dozens of bomb attacks (which often had hundreds of casualties) and surprise offensives (where the death tolls could reach four digits). They often specifically targeted senior officials and strategic locations. 

However, the Tigers eventually lost their fight. In 2009, the Sri Lankan military essentially wiped out their fighting forces and took control of the key areas they controlled, which pretty much neutralized their threat. Although the group still almost certainly exists in some capacity, and reportedly planned an attack as recently as in 2014, their threat level is low enough that the European Union decided to remove the Tamil Tigers from their terrorism list in 2017. 

Rengo Sekigun, the United Red Army

When the words “Japan” and “terror attack” are mentioned together, most people probably think of Aum Shirinkyo’s sarin gas attacks in 1995. However, when you look back in the history of Japanese terrorism, you’ll find Rengo Sekigun, a.k.a. the United Red Army,   

The far-left Rengo Sekigun began its existence when two other militant factions merged in 1969. Just one year later, they started a string of terror attacks that involved hijacking multiple Japan Air Lines planes, occupying various embassies and, perhaps most notoriously, massacring 24 people in an attack against Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport. However, it turns out the United Red Army was slightly less united than its name implied. The organization was never particularly large, and by 1971, its member factions started fighting against each other. By the time the dust settled, the Rengo Sekigun had executed 14 of its own members, freaking out the whole country and prompting government response. 

As with so many other communist-affiliated groups, United Red Army took a heavy blow when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The organization reportedly broke up in 2001.

Narodnaya Volya

Before the Communist movement managed to topple the Russian royals and set the tune for the country’s strange Soviet adventures during the 20th century, the clock was already ticking for the Tsarist regime … at least if you ask the Narodnaya Volya, or “People’s Will.” This group of Populist party revolutionaries started its operations in 1879 after its members had realized propaganda and agitating the commoners just wouldn’t cut it. Instead, they turned to assassinations in order to scare the ruling class into giving in to their demands of reform. 

In 1881, Narodnaya Volya successfully attacked the biggest target it could when affiliates of the group managed to assassinate the Emperor of Russia himself, Alexander II. However, this proved to be their undoing. The organization had already attempted to kill Alexander multiple times with bombs and guns, and even by trying to derail his train. When one bombing plot finally managed to take the ruler’s life, Russia didn’t exactly treat the People’s Will as liberators. Instead, the assassins were promptly hanged, and the entire country turned against the terrorists. Before the year 1882 was over, Narodnaya Volya was no more.


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