A Spectacularly Failed Terrorist Attack on the United States
From my column at Suite 101.com’s Military History Channel http://suite101.com/article/a-spectacularly-failed-terrorist-attack-on-the-united-states-a410671
Foreign Terrorists, bent on disrupting the entire US government, institute a series of more than 30 powerful mail bombs all set to go off on the same day. The hope is that these weapons will decapitate the most reactionary elements of the government and send a clear message that the terrorists are here to stay.
Sound like a plot from the latest Tom Clancy or Dan Brown novel? It very well could be, however this plot already occurred. Did the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, or the FBI foil it? No- because it happened in 1919 and none of those organizations existed yet. In April 1919, it was not al-Qaeda and the Global War on Terrorism; it was the insurrectionary anarchist movement. The movement’s radical leader was not the bearded 52-year old Saudi Osama bin Laden; it was the bearded 58-year old Italian Luigi Galleani.
Who was Galleani?
Galleani was a radical who dropped out of law school at the University of Turnin as a teenager. He was subsequently expelled from a number of European countries for seditious activities before finally immigrating to the United States in 1901. There he settled into something of a messiah figure to scores of disaffected anarchist immigrants and their domestic converts. He gave speeches calling for direct action, published a newspaper called (rather blatantly) the Subversive Chronicle that was one of the first ‘Anarchist Cookbook’s and incited riots.
Starting in 1914 this group, which was referred to as Galleanists, undertook a number of terrorist attacks with mixed results from New York to Milwaukee to San Francisco. The attacks included the poisoning of 200 people at a banquet for an Archbishop to the bombing of police stations.
When the United States entered World War 1 in 1917, the Justice Department rapidly formed a law enforcement group to monitor what were felt to be subversive aliens. This group was known as the Enemy Aliens Registration Section and included as one of its rising stars a young man named J Edgar Hoover.
When agents raided the offices of the Subversive Chronicle in 1918, they seized it’s membership lists which gave them a who’s who of the Galleanists organization and its supporters and champions. This led to increasing pressure on the anarchist movement. This pressure led to the April 1919 bombing campaign.
The Galleanists identified some 30 individuals whom they marked as targets. These men included the industrialists JP Morgan and John D Rockefeller, the US Attorney General, a Supreme Court Justice, the Postmaster General, the Commissioner of Immigration, a number of vocal US Senators and Congressmen, the governors of Pennsylvania and Mississippi and even Agents of the Justice Department and the Commissioner of the New York Police Department who were investigating their organization.
The method of attack was through a series of identical bombs that were packaged to look like a small paper-wrapped box and labeled with a fake toy company’s logo. The bombs were set to explode when opened by means of an acid switch, which was rather advanced for the time of improvised explosive devices. The charge was small and was only meant to kill or maim the addressed recipient.
They were carefully assembled and all mailed at roughly the same time and place required to be delivered simultaneously just in time for May Day. A powerful blow was coiled and timed perfectly to destroy some of the most hated individuals to the terrorist’s cause in one masterful strike. It was an attack the like of which the world had never seen.
So why it is that no one remembers this awesome blow for the proletariat? Well, there is a lesson learned here: when you mail a letter bomb, please remember to put enough postage on it. The terrorists dropped off the vast majority of the bombs quietly with postage already affixed. However, in most cases it was of insufficient denomination for delivery.
When one of the bombs did make it through, it blew the hands off a Senator’s housekeeper. Another bomb was opened wrong side first and failed to detonate. These two instances led Postal inspectors to locate the other 28 bombs still being delayed in the system. The subsequent investigation led to Galleani and more than 500 other aliens classified as being revolutionaries being deported within a few months.
Ackerman, Kenneth D Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties. Da Capo Press (April 1, 2008)
Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, AK Press (2005),