There have been suggestions we face a 50 or 100 year war against Islamist extremists. Is this alarmist? History suggests not, and we have seen it before. Fighting a terrorist structure that is loosely based on an ideology rather than any one person or construct is a long-term commitment and the duration is dictated by the terrorists not governments.
The most relevant example is the Anarchists who, aligned with a loose coalition of leftist, nihilist, anti-government and ethno-separatist groups, conducted a terrorist campaign of bombings and shootings that lasted, literally, generations.
Some history, similarities to the last decade or so may be apparent:
- The start of Anarchist attacks may be marked by a number of attacks in Europe in 1878 which built on previous assaults by nationalists.
- There were numerous thought leaders, some better published or more charismatic than others, but there was no one central leader.
- Anarchists were loosely formed groups of common themed activists that had no central command or geographic base although for a while Russia was portrayed as the source of international terrorism.
- They were effective and efficient targeting individuals, organisations and the general population.
- They were not limited by national boundaries as they were fighting a cultural construct rather than any specific jurisdiction but this varied depending on the particular individual or group.
- The generic media term “anarchist” encompassed aligned groups with a shared belief but with varied interpretations of the end result and the means of achieving it.
- There individuals willing to commit violence but not necessarily members of any specific group such as Leon Czolgosz who assassinated US President McKinley, one of five Heads of State assassinated by Anarchists.
- They had a preference for using explosives supported by small arms weapons in urban environments.
- They were able and willing to convert military munitions into terrorist devices, consider the classic image of the anarchist with his cloak and big hat carrying a ball with the burning fuze – which was a modified gunpowder-filled cannon ball.
- Some were willing to commit suicide if likely to be caught and were willing to cause casualties amongst the “innocent” in the name of the greater good.
- Similar to Nihilists that out siders had difficulty in differentiating, particularly as the terrorist acts were similar.
- The UK and US were frequent targets as they were seen to represent all the Anarchists were against. For example, the attack on Wall St in 1920 which was to remain the US largest bomb incident until Oklahoma City.
- In 1919 they sent 36 mail bombs within the USA, a technique used by Anarchists in Greece and Italy in 2010.
- On May Day 1886 in Chicago, bombs were thrown into a labour protest march. Some blamed anarchists others said it was a government/police conspiracy. It was in effect the 911 of the Nineteenth Century and remains the international workers’ day.
- In 1911 the “Bin Ladin” of the anarchists, Peter the Painter, was believed to be holed up in Sidney St London after murdering a policeman. The military, including artillery was deployed in the middle of London.
- Media reports were often inaccurate: attributing incidents to different organisations; confusing or failing to differentiate between groups; allocating all incidents to the most recent activists.
- There were generic names such as “Black Hand” which could mean anarchists, nihilists or (Serbian) separatists. Similar to grouping Arabic ethno-separatists, religious extremists, Shia/Sunni sectarian fighters, and Caliphate empire builders all as “Islamists”.
- It was the activities of the anarchists and their co-travellers and the fear they generated that led to most counter terrorist Acts and capabilities that form the basis of our legal and physical responses today. Bomb squads, heavily armed police sections, police “Special Branches”, and government domestic intelligence agencies can trace their roots back to the Anarchist period of terror.
If any of this sounds familiar – it is from the media report of the Islamic extremists.
As for longevity: the Anarchists started their acts of violence across Europe in the 1870’s. The violence spread to the US, Canada and Australia. Often is was not possible to determine which group was responsible and a number of left, wing, communist, anarchist or other groups may claim responsibility for an attack. Their attacks against Heads of State, other office holders and functions of government were part of the unease that led to the tensions triggering WW1. It is possible the Serbian separatist “Black Hand” group that assassinated Archduke Ferdinand had links to anarchist groups or at least shared skills with them.
The movement faded after WW1 as other motives came to the fore such as nationalists seeking independence. Their reputation and spectre remained; the testing of a large flash bomb developed by the US military and Kodak over Rochester, New York in 1925 was initially reported as an Anarchist/Black Hand attack.
The punchline is: while Islamic extremists and anarchists are different there are enough similarities to be of use when considering the future. The Anarchists and their co-travellers kept the western world in a state of fear through the active and constant use of bombs for 40 years and only wound down after the horror of WW1. Anarchists are still around today and willing to commit violence through “propagation of the deed” as the mail bomb attacks of 2010 shows. This is some 140 years after they first started bombing, shooting and stabbing.
Governments, society and people should prepare themselves for a conflict overseas and in our cities that will last for well over 50 years,
“Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times.” — Gustave Flaubert, French author (1821-1880).