or 20 years now, from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to the 2013 Boston Marathon massacre, domestic-terrorism concerns have centered almost exclusively on right-wing fanatics and Muslim extremists. We have forgotten that the most active and long-lived domestic terrorists in American history were driven by an entirely different set of ideas and ideology. They were left-wing radicals who bombed buildings, robbed banks, and murdered dozens of people from the late 1960s into the 1980s. As the investigative reporter Bryan Burrough recounts in his fine new history, Days of Rage, these terrorists, unlike today’s “lone wolves,” did not operate alone. Rather, they were functionaries and leaders in organizations with grand ambitions to overthrow the government of the United States.
In one 18-month period between 1971 and 1973, the FBI counted 2,500 domestic bombings, an average of five per day. The targets of these bombings were often police officers. The Black Liberation Army (BLA) executed seven policemen in a 10-month period from 1971 to 1972. A Puerto Rican separatist group, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, launched a multi-year bombing campaign in 1974; in 1975, it blew up a Revolutionary War landmark on Wall Street, killing four and wounding dozens. The Symbionese Liberation Army, which became world-famous when it kidnapped the heiress Patty Hearst in 1974 and then turned her to their cause, assassinated the black superintendent of schools in Oakland, California, killed people in bank robberies, and planted bombs under police cars.
The New World Liberation Front, which targeted “capitalism,” detonated more bombs than did any other group. It finally collapsed in 1979 when its leader, a small-time criminal and marijuana grower named Ronald Huffman, used an ax to kill his girlfriend; only after that trial did the FBI indict him for the bombings. A tiny outfit grandly named the United Freedom Front bombed courthouses and corporate offices, robbed banks, and killed a policeman. As late as 1981, seven people were killed, including two Brinks security guards and a policeman, during a botched holdup in Nyack, New York, by a motley collection, including several veterans of the Black Liberation Army and a handful of ex-Weathermen.
The Weathermen had been perhaps the most famous of the domestic terrorist groups. They were children of privilege who broke off from the radical campus group Students for a Democratic Society and then thinned their own ranks when three of their number blew themselves up while fashioning explosives in a Greenwich Village townhouse.
Apart from the Weathermen, none of these groups ever had more than 100 active members; most had far fewer. But even they had no more than a few hundred followers in 1968. And its forced sexual orgies (designed to break down monogamy), its blood-curdling rhetoric (leader Bernadine Dohrn famously praised Charles Manson for killing the pregnant Sharon Tate by stabbing her in the stomach), and its penchant for purging anyone who expressed doubt about the necessity of violent revolution, drove most of its recruits away.
And yet many of these terrorists managed to evade arrest for years, even decades. How was that possible? In part, Burrough argues, because the FBI lacked informants within these tightly knit groups. And they avoided detection because America was far less security-conscious in those times. Dynamite was easily available, security in government buildings and most private office buildings was lax or nonexistent, surveillance cameras were rare, and, in the days before cellphones, tracking people’s movements was much harder. And there was no social media.
The New World Liberation Front, which targeted “capitalism,” detonated more bombs than did any other group. It collapsed in 1979 when its leader used an ax to kill his girlfriend.
The FALN was largely run from within an Episcopalian church group working in behalf of Hispanics. Church money was siphoned off to pay salaries and expenses to bombers. When the executive director was jailed for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury, church officials vociferously protested against government repression.
Law enforcement was often slow to react. The New York media, nervous about inflaming race relations and pressured by city officials who were worried that the subject of domestic terrorism might damage Mayor John Lindsay’s fanciful presidential hopes, for months downplayed evidence that the BLA even existed. When the FBI had a chance to arrest several Weathermen in San Francisco, agent confusion and bureaucratic regulations allowed the fugitives to escape. Frustrated and under increased pressure to get results, the FBI set up a special unit based in New York, Squad 47, that installed illegal wiretaps and conducted “black bag jobs,” break-ins to search apartments and homes of sympathizers and relatives. These tactics produced nothing of value; when they were exposed in 1978 during the Carter administration, three senior FBI executives were indicted and two were convicted and fined.
After President Reagan pardoned both men in 1981 (one was Mark Felt, later revealed to have been Deep Throat), Dohrn turned herself in to Illinois authorities and received probation and a fine for rioting. Neither she nor any of the underground Weathermen was ever prosecuted for the bombing campaign, and she and Ayers have since gone on to enjoy celebrity careers in the academy. Most of the ex-Weathermen did just fine in their post-terrorist days, with careers in education, law (in one case, an administrative law judge), and even psychiatry (Leonard Handelsman, who was medical director of the Duke Addictions Program). Their chief bomb-maker, Ron Fliegelman, who passed on his knowledge to the FALN, simply emerged from the underground and became a special-education teacher in New York.
The BLA was less fortunate; most of its soldiers ended up dead after shoot-outs with the police. Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, was sprung from prison in a daring 1979 escape and continues to live in Cuba. So does FALN bomb-maker Willie Morales, who lost nine fingers and most of his face after a bomb he was constructing accidentally detonated. Morales also escaped, in his case from Bellevue Hospital, using smuggled wire cutters with his hand stumps and rappelling down a sheet, falling the final 20 feet. President Clinton granted clemency to 14 imprisoned FALN criminals, but its leader, Oscar López, remains in jail. Last year the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York honored him. Several members of the Brinks gang remain in prison; the most famous, Kathy Boudin, was released several years ago.
Burrough does not hide his contempt for the “misplaced idealism, naiveté, and stunning arrogance” of these terrorists or sympathy for the frustrations of FBI agents desperately trying to stop them before more innocent people were killed. He sometimes overstates just how new his account is; both the Weathermen and the SLA have been analyzed at great length. And several of these groups were little more than criminal bands who justified their activities with a veneer of left-wing rhetoric. But Burrough’s interviews with some of these aging terrorists are often revealing, since many of them have few or no regrets about what they did.
As Days of Rage makes extremely clear, terrorism is not a new danger to the United States. It has a long and ugly history.