The Timing of Terrorism: The Obsessions with Dates
By Christopher C. Harmon
This month is the black anniversary of September 11, 2001. It has many meanings for us, but was that date in particular selected by Al Qaeda? A few suggest there is a link to the last day of battle in 1683 at the gates of Vienna, a titanic Moslem-Christian struggle for western Europe. Americans might also wonder whether 9/ll—numbers that cry “emergency” to this country—were a clever choice by the terrorists as psychological warfare.
Terrorism is very much about symbols and events—usually political, historical, cultural. Virtually every group has a date, or certain dates, which are sacrosanct. Among the most common: the birth or death date of some hero or martyr; the opening day of an insurrection; the formal founding date of a movement or political party; etc. Some terrorist groups name themselves after an awful date, a tragedy.
But, apparently, the nineteen men sent to their deaths by Khalid Sheik Mohammed were not thinking of a particular date for their attack. We have the meditative letter given to them called “The Last Night” and it was silent on that. Timing seems to have been based on operational needs. It may or may not have been coordinated with the team that murdered celebrated commander Ahmad Shah Masood in Afghanistan two days before airplanes hit American targets. But no Al Qaeda sources confirm special interest in Sept. 11, 1683--and in fact the Battles of Vienna finished the next day, the 12th.
Instead Al Qaeda’s action gave the day its significance. Having made the strike, then they did attach importance to it on anniversaries. Ten years on, in Sept. 2011, their magazine Inspire devoted an issue to recalling “The Greatest Special Operation of All Time.” Later the journal often had “terror timelines” with dates of various Al Qaeda strikes. Such considerations now make each new Sept. 11th a terribly attractive date to the Al Qaeda central group still run by Osama Bin Laden’s former deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri.
Politics & Motivation
First, the reasons to be alert to dates start with how they help us understand a terror group’s political essence and motivation. Second, certain groups may act on or about that day of the calendar. Linking dates with actions or attacks proves terror organizations remember, and it proves their potency: the action says to authorities ‘even when it’s predictable you cannot stop it.’ So the Puerto Rican group Los Macheteros timed an attack—the worst ever against American air forces in the continental U.S.—to mark the birth date of a Puerto Rican independence advocate, Eugenio Maria de Hostos (b. Jan 11, 1839). The attackers in 1981 were one day late but fully successful against Muniz Air National Guard Base, San Juan, P. R. To them, American war planes fit as a symbol of U.S. occupation.
Celebrating Birth Days
Mao Zedong, theorist of guerrilla war and victor in China’s civil war, was born December 26, 1893. That 19th century fact drove more than a few events in the 20th century. The Communist Party of the Philippines-Maoist took care to make its founding date Dec. 26 – in 1968, the 75th anniversary of the Great Helmsman’s birth. Jose Maria Sison was re-founding a staid and small Communist Party, traditionally pro-Soviet; he wanted his cadre fired by “Mao Tse Tung Thought.” His Filipino followers are still fighting democracy a half-century later.
Sison was not the only acolyte to be dazzled by Mao. In distant Peru, in 1980, the morning of Dec. 26 presented to citizens of Lima the spectacle of dogs hung dead from lamp posts, each wearing a placard: “Deng Xiaoping.” The point of this menace was to shame that current Chinese General Secretary for abandoning Maoist economics and deemphasizing class struggle and endless internal revolution. The right day--for such a salute and a shaming--was the 26th of December, 87 years after Mao‘s day of birth. In Lima, this agit-prop against “running dogs” in China and Peru helped open an incredible campaign of insurgent violence around Peru. It was led by Abimael Guzman: professor, purist in Maoism, and visitor to China. When he was finally captured twelve years later his converts in Shining Path had vast “liberated zones” in rural places, in line with Maoist strategy.
In the U.S., a “Revolutionary Communist Party, U.S” founded in 1968 by Bob Avakian affirmed membership in the broader, neo-Maoist “Revolutionary Internationalist Movement.” Shining Path of Peru was also a member; RIM was stretching across national lines; it had chapters from Sri Lanka to Turkey and inspired a vigorous magazine, A World To Win. RIM also did a manifesto in 1993, releasing the text on Dec. 26 because it was Mao’s birthday. Their document argued that Mao was so original and vital that “Today, without Maoism there can be no Marxism-Leninism.”i
Another important date has been May 19, birth day of Ho Chi Minh. That nom de guerre means “he who enlightens.” Ho was a dedicated Communist, working for the Soviets’ Comintern initially and later championing Maoist strategies of warfare to win back South Vietnam. In the American scene, radicals were transfixed by Ho and elevated his name in poster art and chants. Remnants of the Weather Underground Organization linked up with black power militants in 1978 to create a new “May 19 Communist Organization.” That date signaled support for “Uncle Ho.” Perhaps their best-known leader was Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard. She was quoted in the Weather Underground manifesto Prairie Fire of when she was still with the “Black Liberation Army.” Shakur was jailed for shooting of New Jersey state troopers. Sprung by revolutionary comrades, she found asylum in Cuba.
May 19th was also the date of the first attack by The Black Liberation Army. For black power advocates May 19 was not just Ho’s birthday but that of the 1925 birth of Malcolm Little, later Malcolm X. A fiery deputy of Louis Farrakhan in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X’s speeches helped make famous his phrase “by any means necessary,” an open door to all types of political violence beyond “self-defense.” But Malcolm X then made the Haj to Mecca and came back an orthodox Muslim. No less activist or articulate, he quit militancy and Farrakhan’s organization; apparently that rebellion cost him his life. Six years passed and in 1971 BLA made their first attack, selecting the birthday of Malcolm X, May 19. It was a deliberate hit on police officers. BLA would operate for a decade and kill more police than any other terrorist group in American history.ii
Modern eco-terrorists, who say they do not kill but specialize in sabotage, also pay attention to birthdays. Earth First! News, one of those how-to and hortatory magazines, notes birthdays of some terrorists totally outside of the eco milieu—apparently from commitment by journal editors to the idea of revolution. At other times there is a clear link to Earth First policy, as when they remind readers that May 22 is the birthday of anarchist and eco terrorist Ted Kaczynski. Such notices from allies help morale—a ray of recognition breaking into the isolation cell of the Unabomber. Public salute to so violent a man also raises the standard for readers of Earth First! News: The message is to the gentle liberal: ‘reading this on line in your apartment with a cup of tea is not really advancing our movement. We require action and violence to save Wild Nature.’
Publicity for Dates of Uprisings
As the Murrah federal building was reduced to rubble in Oklahoma City in 1995, a smart highway trooper arrested Timothy McVeigh as he drove towards Kansas. When the perpetrator presented his driver’s license, the birthdate (in a false year) showed as April 19—though McVeigh had been born five days later. Why?
April 19 had become a venerable day for the far right. Legends had been building up around it. On that day in 1776, patriots fought at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The far right of the late 20th c. perceived as patriots a violent group called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, raided in their compound in Arkansas by federal authorities--on April 19, 1985. And that same day and month in 1993 brought unskilled governmental overreach at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas, where ensuing fire suffocated or burned to death many inside, including children. This was appalling, and it was judged by some to be the crushing of a modest separatist community. Some also linked the date April 19, 1995 to a scheduled execution in Arkansas of the killer of a black state trooper. An event honoring state prisoner and white supremacist, Richard Wayne Snell was to be in Confederate memorial park that day, with the expected crowd to include veterans and Christian Identity adherents. Timothy McVeigh was both. And he had earlier made a pilgrimage to Waco McVeigh believed the Waco “take-down” had been planned by federal authorities based in the Murrah building. So his personal history made it appropriate to choose April 19 to drive his truck bomb into Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in a flash. He hoped to start an anti-federal war and a race war.iii
Insurrectionists of “FALN” were the best-armed and bloodiest of the Puerto Rican separatist organizations. This “Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation” did dozens of bombings in the eastern U.S. and Chicago. Their first communique came in late October 1974 with attacks in New York City and it read: “These actions have been taken in commemoration of the October 30, 1950 uprising in Puerto Rico against Yanki colonial domination.”
October 1950 had seen Puerto Rican separatists stalking President Harry Truman near the White House. Bumbling by the two assassins, and response by the Secret Service who fought a three-minute gun battle on November first, saved the man from Missouri. Puerto Ricans also shot up the House of Representatives, choosing March 1st, 1954. They had two reasons: the start of an Inter-American Conference in Venezuela; and the date in 1917 when Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship—something this armed minority now rejected. The pistol-carriers injured five people on the floor of Congress; for this they would be named with honors, on the month after 20 years, by the FALN’s October 1974 communique, which demanded their freedom. Ever-committed to symbolism, FALN also staged bombings on an anniversary of that March 1, 1954 attack by other Puerto Ricans on the U.S. House.
The Irish Republican Army annually memorializes an uprising. Its early 20th c. insurrection, initially suppressed, led into civil war that by 1922 did yield an independent 26-county southern republic, Eire. After centuries of British rule, this Easter Uprising of Irish nationalists in Dublin came in 1916. That this happened amidst World War One was no accident: rebels were counting on (a) British preoccupation elsewhere, and (b) German aid. The New York weekly The Irish People explained how Roger Casement worked with German diplomats including Arthur Zimmermann to arrange for a formal aid agreement. When the Irish received that promise it led into planning for an Easter Uprising on April 23, 1916. An Irish Brigade was to be to be formed in Germany and shipped over—although this effort failed. A German arms shipment sailed from Lubeck—but it was scuttled off the Kerry coast when the British Navy caught on.iv These frustrations carried on into Easter when Dubliners did rise…yet saw their leaders arrested.
For such Irish, Easter is politically-saturated. Of course, generally, Easter is always a major religious and cultural celebration for millions of Irish more attentive to the Holy Day and the church than to politics or war. Exemplary of the drive for unification of Ireland by military means is that New York paper The Irish People. In its run of three decades, starting in in 1972, the organ publicized each anniversary of the rising of 1916. Few historical occasions if any rated as much “ink” in the 16-page weekly. Second in its level of interest to Irish militants is an insurrection attempted in 1798 by Wolf Tone. That unusual Irish Protestant became gripped by the dual cause of Irish independence from Britain and his island’s unification. Recognizing an opportunity during conflict between royalist Britain and revolutionary France, Tone persuaded French authorities to invade Ireland to challenge British forces on home grounds. Although their effort disintegrated, there has been a gathering each summer at Tone’s gravesite in Bodenstown, County Kildare, Republic of Ireland. At such memorials, steady adherents are reinforced; young fans are created in conversation with veterans; old prospects of threatening British security in its Irish occupation of the north are “rebooted.”
Marking Founding Dates
The Soviet Union’s founding by Bolsheviks came with the “October Revolution,” dated on our calendars as November 7, 1917. That day was then recalled and elevated by groups all over the world. The first communist party of the Philippines took care to name its founding date as Nov. 7 (1930) due to Comintern influences and the USSR’s political impact. Although the Filipinos’ revitalized communist party of a later generation is explicitly named “Maoist,” they paid respects to the Soviets as their centenary approached (Fall, 2017). Jose Maria Sison, active in foreign exile, published a glowing account of Vladimir Lenin’s achievement in state-founding. The spread offered colored pages on the web site of the International League of People’s Struggle ( www.ilps.info ) which Sison founded as an outreach tool of his Maoists.
A hemisphere away, one modern terror group identifies its own founding with unwelcome landings of U.S. troops in the homeland. Puerto Rico saw U.S. troops arrive on July 26, 1898, as the U.S. wrapped up other Caribbean-area fighting of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans would stage independence drives in future decades—sometimes pacific, sometimes violent, always by minorities. Los Macheteros, the machete wielders, took their name from the agricultural tool fundamental to life on the Puerto Rican farms and estates. Three men, including the Cuba-connected Filiberto Ojeda Rios, formed Los Macheteros on July 26 of 1976.
They sometimes attacked on historic dates. A $7.2 million robbery of the Wells Fargo armored car company, Sept. 12, 1983, marked the anniversary of the birth in 1891 of Pedro Albizu Campos, a nationalist and independence activist. Much of the cash was smuggled to Cuba by an “insider” employee of Wells Fargo, who has lived on the island ever since. Another operation aimed to take down the television tower at Maravilla. Los Macheteros chose July 25/26 for links to both the initial U.S. invasion and the later adoption of the 1952 constitution which made the island a U.S. commonwealth.v
September 11 was not a well-known date in the U.S. until 2001. But a terror group of significance had been founded on that Fall day. Born on the far right, Omega 7 was part of a lengthy pattern of anti-Castro Cuban terrorism in the U.S. and occasionally in Cuba. Miami was the operating base but 1976 saw Omega 7 shift some resources to New York, where official Cuban connections were evident, e.g. a consulate, and the delegation at the United Nations. They murdered Cuban relief executive Eulalio Jose Negrin for his proponancy of normalization of Cuban relations. The same weapon used in the Negrin attack killed Felix Garcia Rodriquez, a diplomat with the Cuban mission to the U.N., on Sept. 11, 1980, the sixth anniversary of the founding of Omega 7. Never before had a diplomat at the U.N. been murdered in the U.S.vi
One strength of terrorism’s psychological warriors is how they “flip” defeats into mythical victories. If well-handled by propagandists, and if media are helpful or neutral, the worst of times may be portrayed as the best of times, heroism and progress. Chinese communism’s “Long March” was occasioned by defeat and weakness, and the human losses during the march itself were staggering. But from it emerged Mao as the recognized leader and prospects brightened. Decades later, one’s very credibility as a Chinese Communist was measured by whether he had (or had not) marched with Mao. Deng Xiaoping had; that mattered more than his un-Maoist ideas about economics when the time came for Deng’s elevation to General Secretary of the party.
The death of the Argentinian-turned-Cuban-guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 was seen as tragedy and even today is commemorated by the left and the militant left. There are iconographic photos, new runs of tee-shirts for the college market, retrospective articles, and conferences. For U.S. student radicals, this loss was deep and extreme. Among those pivoting from campus agitation to overt violence and a bombing campaign, and ready to elevate Che as icon and as guide to guerrilla war, were the Weather Underground. In memoirs, in the chapter called “Bring the War Home!,” their leader Mark Rudd describes planning for a “National Action” in Chicago:
We chose October 8 because that was the anniversary of Che Guevara’s murder in Bolivia, two years before. Cuba had proclaimed October 8 “El Dia del Guerrillero Heroico,” the Day of the Heroic Guerrilla. Che was my personal revolutionary saint, as he was for every Weatherman: we wanted his pain and glory for our own.”
In truth October 8 was the day Bolivian special forces captured Che; he was not shot until the next day. Weathermen followed Cuba’s example and opened their agit prop event on the 8th, the two-year anniversary. That night they met in a Chicago park. Bernardine Dohrn proclaimed: “This is the second anniversary of the death of Che Guevara.” A giant portrait of him carried the word “AVENGE.” As Rudd wrote later, “Fallen martyrs are always good for motivation.” Militants then rampaged down one of the city’s priciest shopping avenues; police and youth were injured in large numbers, while the radicals did vast property damage. Rudd’s team fulfilled their earlier pledge to set themselves apart from the “liberals” they abhorred and prove that white college kids would fight like Black Panthers or Young Lords, recounts Rudd’s memoir Underground.
“Black September” was a Palestine Liberation Organization sub-unit named for a month. It was the second most infamous in Palestinian terror’s books, comparable only to Abu Nidal’s “Black June” gang. What was the source of the name Black September? The PLO umbrella organization had a founding date of 1964 and was developing well in political and military ways, garnering notice and foreign allies. The Kingdom of Jordan—the actual ‘Palestinian state’—indulged the political newcomers and permitted them training camps. But the violent international activities of the PLO came under disapproval in Amman; Jordan was concerned about its sovereignty, law and order. In Sept. 1970, King Hussein I moved decisively, defeating Arafat’s guerrilla armies and driving them out.
That dark event Palestinian militants chose to hold in memory as “Black September.” They punished Jordan with assassinations and also carried out the first televised terror siege, at the Munich Olympics of 1972. Opportunism and Olympics schedules accounted for the date that operation began: Sept. 5. This time it was Israel that faced a black September. The terror group celebrated the Munich date on its anniversary the next year: Sept. 5, 1973 by storming an embassy in Paris and demanding release of Munich mastermind Mohammed Oudeh from jail. Years later, that man, a.k.a. Abu Daoud, still looked back with pride on how their play at the Olympics ‘put Palestine on the map” for T.V. audiences around the world.
European terrorist news of a generation ago often mentioned this date: Nov. 17. “Revolutionary Organization November 17” were Greek Marxist-Leninists. They published communiques and struck every year, often with the same .45 caliber pistol. Greeks, other Europeans and Americans made their target list. Nov. 17th took its name from the suppression by a military junta of the student occupation of Athens Polytechnic university in 1973. The Greek Colonels’ regime held back only for several days before sending tanks through school gates. Three dozen died, on university grounds or in the aftermath. Greeks recoiled; a political march the next spring brought a half-million into the streets; the junta gave up power. But in 1975 the new terror group opened its campaign, which lasted a quarter-century.
While making the strong case for the importance of dates to terrorists, it is important to hold certain reservations.
First, most terrorist attacks are timed for operational and other reasons—not anniversaries. Many of the above groups, who named themselves for particular dates, are not known for killing on those dates. The Tamil Tigers of LTTE in Sri Lanka had an anniversary kept with fidelity—Heroes Day, November 27. It was not for war-making, however, but speech-making; leader V. Prabhakaran always addressed cadres that day.
Second, the analyst must beware the distractions of coincidences. Appearances seem to link the 1980s U.S. group, May 19 Communist Organization, with men and women of a similar time and ideology in Colombia: M-19, the narco-terrorists. But no: In Spanish the “M” abbreviation is for the word “Movement”—as in 19th of April Movement. That day in 1970 was one of an electoral defeat, to which some responded by forming the Colombian Leninist group M-19.vii Later they morphed into a political party.
A third question is whether there are geographic or cultural limits on how insurgents and terrorists make ‘political play’ with months and days. The Islamic world has its own calendar and makes mere administrative use of our Gregorian calendar with its recurring months and days. And the “audience” may differ too: Muslims may register a given terror attack with deep seriousness but apart from any date.viii Certainly there is no fix on dates in the massive book of 2004/2005, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance. Its terror proponent Abu Musab al Suri recommends psychological or political levers, such as “playing up” the Crusades to throw Westerners onto the defensive. But al Suri makes no identification of such events and arguments with dates. His faithful Al Qaeda students on the past editorial team of Inspire did show interest in dates—but Inspire was an English-language magazine aimed at a Western audience.
Asian and African groups have their own range and variety but do not name themselves by days, months, or years. The most violent in Africa now, Boko Haram (Nigeria) and two called Al Shabab (Somalia; Mozambique) deploy names that emphasize other themes: the offensiveness of western education, in the first case, and youth in the other two cases.
BUT THE PATTERN IS REAL…
Whatever its variants, this pattern in publicizing dates is clear. Nearly two dozen further groups—most secular and western—went by names that included dates. There was the Revolutionary Organization May 1, which lasted until about 1992. The 15 May Organization did airline bombings ; it focused on the founding date of Israel; to terrorists this was a tragedy of 1948 which must be gripped in the mind. There were the Popular Forces of April 25 in the era of Portuguese decolonization. A plague in Spain, adjacent, was the First October Anti-Fascist Resistance Group, formed after the death of Franco.
SO, CAN WE PLAN BETTER?
If terrorists and insurgents have their dates to be commemorated, authorities, too, may plan, and be ready. Islamic groups have key days which can be identified in advance, such as Hezbollah’s “Martyr’s Day.” Any area plagued by terrorists (a) named for a given day, or (b) with a record of acting on a given day, would reasonably have intelligence specialists or analysts attending to such times of special meaning. After the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, it became commonplace for authorities and terrorism specialists to be alert in advance of April 19 as they surveyed the anti-federal and right-wing scenes. The very next day on the calendar is the one that most troubles Germanic countries, which have predictable ugly experiences with observers of Adolf Hitler’s birthday on or about April 20th. Austrians living in his 1889 birthplace in Braunau are weary of the political pilgrims each year. Authorities have now sealed off the building where Hitler was born and may tear it down.
In this vein, for the American scene, anniversaries that prompt considerations of prudence. The two April dates of 19 and 20 are both of value to the extreme right, and there is also good cause for alertness on the hours preceding and following those.
For many countries, May First is a day of heightened danger. For over a century it has been a marker for a good thing—the day of the working man. Weather Undergrounder Mark Rudd sniffs that it is honored world-wide, “except in the United States.” In 1886, as labor demonstrations stretched across the U.S., their legitimacy was stained red: shooting and a bomb ripped through police ranks in Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4. For that crime, anarchists were hung.ix What has followed underscores our theme.
The square inevitably courted future demonstrators, and in early October 1969, in the self-declared “Days of Rage” in Chicago, terrorists dynamited a large statue of a policeman that a guild had erected there to commemorate the May 1886 disaster. The city repaired the statue and reconstructed the monument in Haymarket Square. But they underestimated the stubborn, anniversary-tracking Weathermen, who returned precisely one year later (1970) and blew it up again!
Of course, when a date is exceedingly well-known, it pressures the group and also law enforcement and intelligence to “perform” on the day. The former’s efforts might be cancelled out by alertness by the latter. Dr. James Anderson of the Institute of World Politics suggests another angle on that: if a date is known to be a cause of action for terrorists, and thus to authorities, this could well prompt perpetrators to strike just before, or just after, the anniversary in question, to keep the element of surprise.
Perhaps this is what once happened with Hitler’s birthday and American devotees. Before the Oklahoma City catastrophe put a black square around April 19, on that date in 1987 a police vehicle was bombed in Missoula, Montana. The Aryan Nations telephone call claiming responsibility ended with “Heil Hitler.” The group may well have been “leaning into” their favorite holiday, the 20th of April, Hitler’s birthday.
Fortunately, in recent years these two anniversaries have been quiet. But here are many others, and many other groups, to consider.
About the Author
Christopher C. Harmon is the author of A Citizen’s Guide to Terrorism & Counterterrorism (Routledge, 2021). He wrote on the tactic of “Double Bombings” for our Winter 2005 issue. Dr. Harmon is a Distinguished Fellow of the Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare, Marine Corps University, Quantico VA.
The manifesto was published in issue 20 of A World To Win in 1995. Fraternal Order of Police data in Dennis A. Pluchinsky, Anti-American Terrorism, vol. 1 (Hackensack, N.J.: World Scientific Publ., 2020), 99-100.
McVeigh was among those obsessed with violence and the racial war novel The Turner Diaries; Christopher C. Harmon, Terrorism Today, 2nd edn. (Routledge, 2008), 18-19.
The Irish People, Dec 3, 1994, “German Aid for Rising,” and the essay on the newspaper in Christopher C. Harmon & Randall G. Bowdish, The Terrorist Argument (Wash. D.C.: Brookings Inst. Press, 2018).
Ronald Fernandez, Los Macheteros (N.Y.: Prentice Hall, 1987), 112.
As Pluchinsky, in Anti-American Terrorism, writes that the challenge of protecting U. N. delegates led to differences between the N.Y. metropolitan police and Congress—which New York asked to pay relevant security costs. On Omega 7 see Louis R. Mizell, Jr. who tracked them for the U.S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security: Target U.S.A. (N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons, 1998).
U.S. Dept. of Defense, Terrorist Group Profiles (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1988). 88-92. Anniversaries may be unconnected even where the two groups are linked. Los Macheteros marked the 26th of July for Puerto Rican reasons--without connection to that day in Cuba. Cubans look to July 26th of a different year—1953--and a different event--assault on the Batista government’s Moncada Barracks. For that, Raul and Fidel Castro were jailed and then exiled. Then they reorganized as the new “26 July Movement.”
The above lines reflect advice from Dr. Douglas Streusand, an expert on Islamic thought.
Chicago city web sites, and Joseph T. McCann, Terrorism on American Soil (Boulder, CO: Sentient Pubs., 2006), 18-23.