September 21, 1976: Car bomb blew up driving up Embassy Row in Washington

What do you remember of the dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile? Even if you are not well versed in Latin American history you are bound to know that his reign, from 1973 to 1990, was not good. Thousands of opponents, dismissed as ‘Communists’ or ‘leftists’, were killed, tens of thousands were probably tortured and close to 100,000 were incarcerated. Chile’s economy may have thrived during his time on top but it came at the cost of horrific human rights abuses.

Pinochet’s critics were not safe outside the country either. On this day in 1976 a bomb blew up a car as it was driving up Embassy Row in Washington. Orlando Letelier, a leading opponent of Pinochet, who was living in exile in the US, was killed along with Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who was in the car along with her husband Michael, who worked for Letelier. This was “the first state-sponsored international terrorist attack on US soil.”

I found that phrase curious: ‘state-sponsored terrorism’. Normally when we see that term we go immediately to countries like Iran, or perhaps North Korea. Then again many would say that the US itself has acted as a state sponsor of terrorism over the years when it assassinated people it did not like abroad (or ‘allegedly’ assassinated: plausible deniability).

But was this truly an ‘act of terrorism’? I know I flog this a lot in this blog space but I maintain that it is important to get it right when we use this term. It has to be a serious act of violence perpetrated for political, ideological or religious reasons.

There is no doubt that the killing of Mr. Letelier is a serious act of violence: it is hard to get more serious than an assassination. But was it carried out for the aforementioned reasons? On that I am not too sure. It seems clear that the Chilean government took steps to eliminate an opponent, and maybe even a particularly pesky one, but does that constitute terrorism itself? Was it done to further a political, religious or ideological programme? Definitely not the latter two and only tangentially the first.

There seems no doubt that Mr. Letelier was eliminated to frighten others opposed to Pinochet to shut up. In that it can be said to have ‘terrified’ these activists. Yet, as I have said and written on many occasions, ‘terror’ is not a critical part of ‘terrorism’. Or is it?

I am sure the debate will go on. Perhaps I need to move away from the narrow legal definition of terrorism. Whatever we call it, Mr. Letelier suffered a horrible death.

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.

Leave a Reply