Today in terrorism: September 24, 1981

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In the late summer of 1982 I was driving back to London (Ontario) after having finished an intern job as a Spanish translator with the Multilingual Bureau at the Canadian Secretary of State department in what was then called Hull, Quebec (now known as Gatineau).  I had had my first real exposure to a government job and, what’s more, my first real experience working in a foreign language. It was a great four months! Less than a year later I began my career in several languages at CSE, so I suppose my summer post was prescient.

As I came over the rise on Highway 417 west coming into Kanata I was stopped at an RCMP roadblock.  A uniformed officer with some pretty serious guns came over, asked me who I was and what I had been doing, looked into the car and waved me on.  To say I was spooked would put it mildly!

 I later discovered why I had been stopped.  Earlier that day a man approached a car sitting at a red light along Ottawa’s scenic Sir John A McDonald river parkway, fired upon and killed the driver and ran off into nearby trees.  He were never found.

The victim was a military attache at the Turkish embassy in Ottawa.   The assailant was likely an Armenian terrorist seeking to punish Turkey for the 1915-1916 Armenian ‘genocide’ and itching for an independent Armenia (at the time it was part of the Soviet Union). Unbeknownst to me this was my first real exposure to terrorism, although it did not become my professional passion and crusade until 2001.

On this day in 1981 four gunmen from the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) open fire on the Turkish consulate in Paris before taking 56 hostages. One guard was killed and two other people were wounded.  Founded in Lebanon in 1975, ASALA was responsible over many years for 84 attacks in which almost 50 people were killed and 300 wounded.  While the majority of its actions focused on Turkish-related targets other innocent people were killed. By the late 1980s the group was more or less defunct.

ASALA was an example of what US political scientist David Rapoport would call a ‘second wave’ terrorist group, albeit one that was active during his fourth wave (religious terrorism).  The second wave featured groups that sought retribution for colonialism or occupation (think IRA) and had its heyday from just after WWI until the aftermath of WWII.  These actors’ goals were well-defined and narrowly circumscribed for the most part.

Now that Armenia is an independent state groups like ASALA have outlived their function. Does this mean they achieved their goals and thus terrorism works?  Not necessarily as Armenia gained its freedom with the dissolution of the USSR, not because of the effects of terrorism. Besides, Turkey still denies its role in the Armenian genocide for the most part. This means a grievance is still outstanding.

Does this mean ASALA or analogous organisations could rise (again)?  Maybe.  Where there is a cause there are those willing to go to extreme ends – including the use of violence – to make their point.

When it comes to terrorism never say never.

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