The most lethal terrorist attacks tend to be carried out with explosives. These are the most lethal for the simple reason that explosives can be very powerful and hence can kill and wound dozens if not hundreds, whereas other terrorist tools are less dangerous. For example, a guy with a knife can stab only so many people, most of whom will probably not die (unless a major organ or blood vessel is hit). Another with a gun can kill more but is still limited by the type of weapon, the size of the magazine and the need to reload.
A bomb is in a different category. It can be built, put on a timer and left to go off at a strategic time. The bomber himself can be very far away when that happens. And, if the initial explosion leads to another, the death toll can be horrific: this is what happened in October 2017 in Mogadishu when a truck bomb ignited a fuel truck. The original blast and the ensuing fireball killed more than 300.
Of course some bombs are driven to their destinations (or carried in the case of body-worn devices) by those who die in the process of perpetrating the attack. These are the ‘suicide bombers’ we hear so much about. Then there is everyone’s nightmare scenario: a nuclear or radiation bomb. We all shudder to the think of the extent of destruction should one of those go off (thankfully none have to date to the best of my knowledge).
A bomb can also set off a ‘normal’ fire. On this day in 1910, a time bomb built of 16 sticks of connected to a cheap windup alarm clock exploded in an alley next to the Los Angeles Times. It detonated with such violence that for blocks around, people ran panic-stricken into the streets, believing that an intense earthquake had hit the city. The explosion destroyed the Times building, taking the lives of 20 employees, including the night city editor and the principal telegraph operator, and maiming dozens of others. Two other time bombs — intended to kill the publisher of the newspaper and the head of a Los Angeles business organization — failed when their mechanisms jammed.
As the following photos taken at the time demonstrate the damage was catastrophic
What was the motive behind the bombing? Two brothers named McNamara, the man who planted the bombs and an official of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers union who ordered the attacks, were arrested shortly after. The plot could have been tied to the labour movement in the US. The LA Times for its part immediately blamed ‘unionists’ for the explosion: the newspaper had been the most vocal opponent of labor union activity in Los Angeles. The technique deployed was reminiscent of the anarchist wave of terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But was this act terrorist in nature? Hard to say.
In the end the brothers unexpectedly were not given capital punishment but rather sentences of life and 15 years after a trial beset with controversy. It is hard to believe in our post 9/11 era that a similar attack in the US would not end with the execution of the perpetrators.
Today also marks the first anniversary of the brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi. This could be seen as an act of state terrorism ordered by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. In addition today is the second anniversary of the Las Vegas shootings in which 58 were killed and more than 600 injured when Stephen Paddock opened fire from his 32nd floor room at the Mandalay Hotel. As the gunman killed himself rather than face arrest and trial authorities were unable to determine motive.
And there is still more (October 1 appears to be a popular choice for terrorists):
- At least 31 people were killed and 75 wounded yesterday as Jaish-e-Mohamed claimed a massive car bomb outside the state assembly building in Srinagar (Kashmir) on this day in 2001;
- Nine people were killed and fifteen injured when members of the Communist New People’s Army (NPA) ambushed a medical mission in the Philippines in 2000;
- The Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah claimed a 2005 series of bomb blasts in tourist areas on the island of Bali, killing at least 25 people and injuring 101;
- A male suicide bomber disguised as a woman and wearing a burqa set off a blast that killed at least 15 people and injured 22 others in 2007 in Pakistan;
- In 2010 car bombs in Abuja during ceremonies marking Nigeria’s 50th year of independence killed 12. A group active in the Niger Delta which is seeking a fairer distribution of oil revenue claimed the attack;
- In 2012 a suicide bomber killed 3 US soldiers, 6 Afghan policemen and 10 civilians after he detonated his explosives vest in the eastern city of Khost. More than 50 others were injured in the attack, most of them civilians;
- A man with a knife attacked and killed two women in Marseilles before he was shot dead by police officers on this day in 2017. The perpetrator is alleged to have yelled “Allahu Akbar” during the attack. Islamic State claimed the assailant as one of its members.
That is more than enough. Let’s hope October 2 is not as deadly.
- September 20, 2008: Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan - September 20, 2020
- A better way to look at terrorism - September 19, 2020
- September 19, 1988: Downing of French UTA Flight 772 over Sahara - September 19, 2020