Today in Terrorism: November 15, 1979 and 1988

On November 15, 1979 Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber managed to sneak a bomb onto American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago to Washington D.C.

Terrorism usually evokes groups of wild-eyed fanatics but, on occasion, individuals can cause massive damage.

Q: When is a terrorist group not a terrorist group?

A: When it is a one-man show.

We read and hear a lot about terrorism in the news. Furthermore, and I can certainly attest to the truth behind this, if you go beyond your local or even national news outlet of choice you will see that the vast majority of attacks around the world are attributed to a group. Larger collections of terrorists are obviously more lethal as they can command more resources, give training and carry out bigger attacks.

Sometimes we hear of an incident that is almost immediately called a ‘lone wolf’ attack. This phrase has become ubiquitous of late and is, in my opinion, highly inaccurate. Not only is the notion of a ‘lone wolf‘ quite noble – and terrorists are not noble individuals – but it suggests that a violent extremist can act in a complete vacuum, with neither aid nor encouragement from anyone else.

RELATED > Can a lone actor be a terrorist? Of course he can!

It is my experience that this is very rare. Terrorists who appear to act on their own almost always belong to a larger entity, even if that membership is only aspirational on the part of the terrorist. Many receive financial or logistic support and few, if any, come up with their plans on their own. I, and many other scholars and practitioners, prefer to label these ‘lone actors’: the difference is small but significant.

On very rare occasions we are talking indeed of a lone wolf, i.e. someone who really dreams up attacks completely independently. And even more infrequently these individuals actually succeed in executing successful strikes.

Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber

This day in history bears witness to two such terrorists. The more famous of the pair is the so-called Unabomber, i.e. Theodore Kaczynski, whose campaign of terror spanned 1978-1995. He was a math professor and became an anarchist of sorts, hating anything to do with modern society. He was only caught after he wrote a 35,000 word ‘manifesto’ that his brother saw and told the FBI “Holy shit, that’s my brother Ted!” (NB I have editorialised here a bit)

On November 15, 1979, he managed to sneak a bomb onto American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago to Washington D.C. The device exploded but only caused a small fire. No one became a victim of the Unabomber that day (he ended up killing three people and wounded 22 over a 17-year period mostly with letter bombs).

Barend Strydom, 1988

In 1988, Barend Strydom, the self-styled leader of the ‘Wit Wolf’ (Afrikaans for White Wolves) organisation killed seven black people at Strijdom Square in the centre of Pretoria and injured more than a dozen others. A week earlier, he had killed a black woman in an informal settlement in De Deur, outside Johannesburg, to test his resolve.

Except that there was no such organisation. Strydom was a lone actor and a lone wolf – in his case literally in light of the name he gave himself. He was amnestied in 1992 but apparently still holds white supremacist views.

There you have it, two men who acted entirely on their own and who ended the lives of ten people. The Unabomber had a much longer career of course but both found themselves as footnotes in the annals of terrorism history.

Not very noble, is it?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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