Home-grown terrorists have a long pedigree

August 28th, 2006
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From the op-ed pages of the Calgary Herald, Friday, August 25, 2006 (originaltext version):

The realization that Canada could produce native-born terrorists in the 21st century triggered bewilderment and confusion. Canadians are so nice. How could anyone, especially someone born here, want to blow us up? In seeking answers, some commentators have compared today’s Canadian Muslim accused terrorists to previous groups such as the Neo-Nazis and white supremacists of Canada’s Lumpenproletariat, or to Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas.

A look at history suggests next-door-neighbour terrorists have been fairly common. Historian Walter Laqueur’s masterful analysis, “The Age of Terrorism”, draws a continuous line charting 19th century anarchists, ethnic nationalist or separatist groups, leftist revolutionaries and the many modern forms. Laqueur, a German Jew who immigrated to Israel decades ago, believed modern terror to be no more than the “revival of certain forms of political violence…used previously in many parts of the world.”

Despite our continuing consternation here in Canada, examples abound of middle-class kids turning into sociopathic killers. Laqueur lamented how the “frailty of human memory” caused each new iteration to be regarded as a novel phenomenon.

In struggling to define the “terrorist personality”, Laqueur found only one trait common to all movements: the youth of their membership. (The leaders could be much older.) Some had unhappy childhoods or came from fatherless families. Lucien de la Hodde, a French commentator writing in the 1800s, identified students, with their long tradition of rebellion, as integral to that era’s “secret societies”. Motivations ranged from idealism to “free-floating aggression, boredom and mental confusion.” Familiar characteristics to many Canadian parents of teen-agers.

A case in point was Germany’s 70s-era Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Red Army Faction), whose members started as the proverbial “average kids”. They showed no hesitation in killing government officials, businessmen or bystanders – plus at least one “traitor”. A famous German banker was gunned down on his doorstep by a group that included his own goddaughter.

Even in the pre-Internet era, terrorist groups had linkages to the outside world. Protests over the Shah of Iran’s visit to Germany helped inspire Baader-Meinhof’s founding. Later the gang attempted to blackmail West Germany into breaking its NATO alliance and kicking out American troops. The politics of the Cold War were dominant, with the East Bloc supplying money, arms and training. The terrorists also forged alliances with Middle Eastern counterparts.

Years after the Soviet Union’s fall, an anonymous letter faxed to Reuters declared that Baader-Meinhof had finally disbanded. In a uniquely Canadian twist, one of its members turned up in the Northwest Territories six years ago. Residents of Yellowknife were stunned that Lothar Ebke, who ran a bed-and-breakfast with his wife, could be accused of plotting a kidnapping. In press reports his neighbours called him “a man of integrity…with a strong sense of community” and “knowledge and respect for Canada’s North”. Indeed.

History includes terrorist groups, such as the old Russian anarchists, that fretted constantly over the morality of what they were doing. But for most of them, killing as many people in as horrific a fashion as possible was always the point. The bomb has long been a popular means of doing this. At London’s “International Anarchists Conference” in 1881, one of the “delegates”, a man named Ganz, urged his peers to make a priority of studying chemistry, to improve the movement’s ability to manufacture weaponry.

Key goals and methods remain unchanged well over a century later. Raids on terrorist hide-outs routinely uncover bomb-making manuals and materials.

The previous era’s plotters were also keenly aware of the news media’s role in determining the public effects of terrorist carnage. Laqueur cited one Latin American killer: “If we put even one small bomb in a building in town we could be certain of making headlines…But if the rural guerrillos liquidated some 30 soldiers there was just a small news item on the last page.” Some of today’s terrorist strikes in Iraq appear to be timed to the news cycle 10 times zones away.

Nor has the basic terrorist personality changed much. “Most contemporary terrorists are fanatics,” Laqueur wrote. “Only they know the truth, they are the moralists and ordinary law does not, therefore, apply to them any longer.” As Ulrike Meinhof declared: “If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offence. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire, that is political action.” One recalls France in recent months.

Judging by the longevity of history’s terrorist groups, even the smaller ones, we’re in this for the long haul. Terrorists can spring up almost anywhere, and Canada appears to be no exception. Many Canadians will continue to be baffled. But history has some answers, if we’re willing to look.

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