Terrorism and terrorist groups are a big problem of our modern world. To some people, particularly to Americans, it may feel like terrorism is a new phenomenon, because in their lives it largely has been.
But actually, political or religious terrorism is very old. Not just religious or political violence, or guerrilla warfare, but organized terrorist groups dedicated to terrorist attacks and assassinations.
So in today’s article, we check out 8 of history’s most infamous terrorist movements, from ancient history until 100 years ago.
1. The Sicarii
The Sicarii (“dagger-men”) were one group within the Jewish Zealot movement in Roman-occupied Judea. They were like the Al-Qaeda of their age; the subject of fear and paranoia all over the Roman world because of their brutal tactics. The “sica”, a small easily concealed curved dagger, was their weapon of choice. And their favorite terror tactic was to move in very public places in large crowds, their sica concealed in their cloak. There they would kill a Roman (or a Jewish collaborator) in broad daylight in front of everyone, sneaking back away into the crowd. It was literally “cloak and dagger” terrorism.
The Sicarii were the most fanatical and extremist of all the Jewish rebel groups, often seen as too extreme even by other anti-Roman movements. They were very willing to kill any Jews who they felt were ‘helping’ the Roman occupation, even by just doing their job; these were considered traitors to the cause of freedom. They would also sabotage food or water supplies to try to cause anti-Roman unrest among the complacent population.
Their most famous victim was probably Jonathan, the Temple High Priest (like most of the Zealots, the Sicarii felt the Temple priests were betraying the Jewish people by working with the Romans). And their most famous member was probably Judas, the disciple of Jesus who betrayed him in the gospel accounts. In the gospel he’s called “Judas Iscariot”, but “Iscariot” is not a last name, it’s rather a term that identifies him as a Sicarii. This is interesting, because if you were to analyze the Gospel not as a believer but as literature, it would have been the perfect ‘bad guy’ identifier for selling the Jesus story to the Roman world. If you can believe that some parts of the Gospels were done with artistic license, then making Judas a Sicarii would be like if you made a movie today where one of the characters is in ISIS.
But there’s also good reason to believe it could have been potentially historical, since its likely that a lot of Jesus’ followers were brought over from radical groups fighting Roman rule and looking for the Messiah.
The Sicarii survived the crushing of the Jewish Revolt in 69ad, the destruction of the Temple, and being scattered all over the Roman world. For at least several decades more they continued to be the main group dedicated to terrorizing Romans under the claim of fighting for the restoration of an independent Jewish homeland.
The Assassins were one of history’s most infamous terrorist groups. It was a sect founded by Hassan Al-Sabah, the “old man of the mountain”, who ran his cult from the mountain fortress of Alamut. His cult was properly called the “Hashshashin”, and they belonged to a particular sect of Islam known as the Ismailis, a subset of Shia Islam. This is a particularly esoteric and mystical sect of Islam, and today they’re known as being relatively moderate, and their modern leader (the Aga Khan) is known for his charity work and promotion of secular pluralism.
But in the 11th century, the Ismailis were religious warriors engaged in a struggle with their Sunni Muslim rivals (as well as with Christian crusaders) for control of the Middle East. The Assassins were dedicated to targeting and killing enemies of Ismailism, particularly prominent Sunni commanders, scholars, and political leaders. Legend has it that Assassins were brought into the order at a young age, trained in religious doctrine, subterfuge, combat and assassination techniques, and received special initiations that may have involved the consumption of hashish to receive visions of paradise. From his base on the mountain, the Old Man would send his assassins to terrorize and murder anyone who threatened the Ismaili cause.
In fact, the Assassins outlived Hassan, and there was more than one “old man of the mountain”, as the successive leaders of the order took on that title, giving the leadership of the assassins the appearance of immortality. The Assassins met their doom when they tried to murder an invading Mongol Khan; the assassination attempt failed, and the Mongols besieged the Assassins’ mountain fortress, killing all those inside.
3. Guy Fawkes
Today the face of Guy Fawkes has become the symbol of “Anonymous”, the mostly-online activist group with anarchist leanings. Which is ironic, because Guy Fawkes was part of a Catholic Terrorist plot whose goal was to restore the very un-anarchist repressive Catholic religious rule in England. The difference between Fawkes’ beliefs and those of “Anonymous” are so vast, it’s like if 400 years from now people start wearing Osama Bin Laden masks to fight for the right to legalize man/pig marriage.
Fawkes was just one member of a secret cell of Catholic terrorists, he wasn’t even their leader. That was Robert Catesby, a member of a prominent knightly family. Their plan was to murder the Protestant King James I, and blow up parliament with gunpowder, wiping out most of the English Protestant political establishment in one blow. In the chaos that would follow, they would lead an uprising in central England, capture and take control of King James’ 9-year old daughter, and place her on the throne as a Catholic Queen; forcing the kingdom back into Catholic rule, with the support of foreign Catholic forces.
Fawkes became the most famous member of the plot because he’d been put in charge of the gunpowder. He was chosen for the job because Fawkes had military experience, having fought for Catholic Spain in the Netherlands (against the Dutch Protestants who were trying to overthrow their Spanish rulers). The terrorists got access to a cellar directly under the House of Lords and moved 36 barrels of gunpowder right under where almost the entire government of England was due to gather for the 1605 opening of Parliament. The plot was only uncovered and stopped because the terrorists had sent warning letters to some of the Lords who were Catholic, and one of these letters made its way to the authorities. Fawkes was caught guarding the barrels, and Catesby and his remaining men were hunted down and eventually killed in a shootout in a manor house.
Fawkes was executed. If he could somehow know the values and causes his face was meant to stand for in the modern age, he would have been absolutely horrified. Which, frankly, is just what the prick deserved.
The Thuggees were the secret terrorist cult from which we derive the word “thug”. You might know them from movies about ‘temples of doom’. In this case, the stories are not so far off from reality. The Thuggees were originally a sect that existed between the 14th and 19th Century in India. They were followers of the Goddess Kali, and believed that they were chosen ones, created from Kali’s sweat. Their secret teachings held that if men did not kill other men for Kali, then she would kill all the world. So, they reasoned, when they went around murdering lonely travelers or entire merchant caravans, they were actually helping to save the world. Of course, it’s more likely that this was just a convenient excuse for murdering and robbing people; a lot of historians think the Thuggees’ “religious” trappings were just a ‘black magic’ cover story to increase the public’s fear.
Thuggees’ preferred method of killing was strangulation, with a special yellow cloth. Again, just how ritualized this really was is up for debate. What isn’t is that the Thuggees killed a whole lot of people over 450 years (maybe as many as two million!) before they were finally taken down by even bigger badasses: the British Empire.
By the 1830s, when the British were ruling most of India, the stories of the Thuggees became a source of hysterical panic in the British imagination. Even though the vast majority of Thuggees’ victims were Indians, and not westerners, they came to be seen by the British as a kind of opposition to British rule and a danger to the stability of British India. The East India Company, which was effectively ruling British India at the time, passed a law to set up a special department in charge of eliminating the Thuggee cult completely.
Even then, it took the British almost 40 years to wipe them all out.
5. The Fenians
Long before the IRA, Irish Catholic radicals had been committing acts of terrorism in the name of Irish independence. But the Fenian Brotherhood wasn’t even located in Ireland. It was founded in the 1850s in the United States, by American (Catholic) Irishmen. Huge numbers of Irish peasants had been forced by the great Irish famine of 1840 to emigrate to the USA. And they were pissed right off about it, mainly with the British who they blamed for the famine. The Fenians formed a kind of Irish “government-in-exile”, raised huge amounts of money from American Irishmen (as well as other US Catholics or people with anti-British sentiments), and used that money to buy a crapload of weapons.
Then in 1866, smack-dab in the middle of the Civil War, they moved on to the second step in their plan: they invaded Canada. Or rather, the British Colonies in what would come to be known as Canada. In what was a great example of shaky logic, their master plan involved engaging in armed terrorists raids on the British colonies until Britain agreed to give up Ireland. This plan eventually built up to a pipe-dream of full-scale invasion of the colonies. In theory, they had at least 6000 militants, 15000 guns, and three million bullets. So while their plan was nuts, the threat was real.
Unfortunately for the Fenians, their raids didn’t go well. British spies among their ranks helped the colonial forces to intercept the raiders, and the undisciplined Irishmen had a tendency to flee in panic after a single volley from Canadian/British militia troops. Their less-ambitious terror tactics were slightly more successful, however. Their most notable victim was the Canadian politician Thomas D’arcy McGee, who was shot dead by a Fenian assassin for the crime of being a fellow Irish-Catholic that nevertheless condemned the Fenians in the Canadian Parliament.
The Fenians failed miserably to create a free Irish nation. However, they did end up totally accidentally creating a totally different country: Canada!
The various British colonies of North America had long thought of the idea of confederating into a single nation, but it wasn’t until the threat of a Fenian invasion that they finally got off their butts and did it, becoming the Dominion of Canada in 1867.
As for the Fenians, even though they never managed to be a serious threat again, they kept on making plans and raising money for another 20 years or so, for intended uprisings or attacks against Canada (seriously, how sad do you have to be for your hated nemesis to be Canada?!).
6. The KKK
The KKK have always been horrible, but most people today think of them more as a hate group than a real ‘Terrorist’ group. But there were several incarnations of the KKK over the years. And the earliest one, the original KKK, were definitely full-blown terrorists.
The first incarnation of the KKK was founded right after the end of the Civil War, by a group of ex-Confederate Army officers, with the tacit support of many powerful southern Democrats. The goal of the group was directly to act as a terrorist insurgency movement, against the ‘occupation’ of the south by northern troops and especially by the Republican administrators who had come to the south to oversee Reconstruction and to protect the rights of the freed slaves.
The vast majority of the KKK’s early membership were former Confederate soldiers, exacerbated in part because many of these soldiers were shut out from any role in the new post-war reality. The early Klan definitely engaged in many horrific acts of violence against freed blacks, committing arson and murder, particularly to intimidate blacks into not making use of their new voting rights to try to stop the election of Republican candidates.
In addition to purely racially-motivated violence, the KKK also engaged in acts of terrorism against both black and white organizations and politicians dedicated to the federal government, the Republican party, or Reconstruction. And also against white northerner businessmen or politicians who had moved to the south as part of the Reconstruction, who the Klansmen despised as “carpetbaggers”. It’s estimated that over a 5-year period they killed thousands of people. The result was that in 1870 a federal grand jury ruled that the KKK was an illegal terrorist organization.
In 1871, President Grant responded to national outrage over the violence by using the new Civil Rights Act (also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Act”) to send in federal troops and engage in specific limited suspension of habeas corpus to arrest hundreds of suspected Klan leaders.
By 1872 the original KKK had been largely crushed, although they’d return in different forms, equally vile though much more focused on racist violence than on actual political insurgency, in the 20th century. Although this new incarnation of the Klan may have had as many as 6 million members by 1924, today it is just a tiny shadow of its former self. The KKK today has no central organization and a comparatively tiny membership (probably less than 5000 ignorant hicks). Even so, they’re the only group in this entire article that still, at least technically, exist in some form in the present day.
7. Narodnaya Volya
Narodnaya Volya was a 19th century revolutionary “populist” socialist terrorist group in the Russian Empire. They were allegedly advocating a socialism of the peasant classes, though in fact almost everyone in their movement were middle-class intellectuals from the cities.
They believed in a utopian ideal of peasant communes and cooperation, and naturally figured the best way to achieve that dream would be by violent revolution and assassinations. They also called for a “complete freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association” while plotting and executing the deaths of political enemies. You know, because of the “Social Justice”.
Now, being a pre-Bolshevik Russian socialist movement, the vast bulk of their activity consisted of discussion circles so they could debate whether they were socialists, anarchists, or socialist-anarchists. But over time they were increasingly directed toward more extremist views, probably as a product in part of brutal Czarist repression, and partly because the official membership of the Narodnaya Volya organization was only about 500 people at its peak, though far more people were sympathetic to them without having been card-carrying members.
Their peak moment, and their most famous act of terrorism, came about when a group of Narodnaya Volya agents assassinated Czar Alexander II. The Czar had been present at a military procession, riding in his bulletproof carriage (this wasn’t the first time someone had tried to kill Alexander II, in fact, not even the first time this group tried to kill him; so he’d started taking precautions). One of the assassins threw a bomb under the carriage. The bomb wrecked the carriage but the Czar emerged largely unharmed, praising God. That’s when the second bomber threw his bomb at the Czar’s feet shouting “It is too early to thank God!”
The bomb exploded and the Czar was brutally mangled, dying a short while later.
Alexander II had actually been a great reformer, by Russian Imperial standards; he’d emancipated the serfs and made progressive constitutional reforms. His brutal murder lead his successors to take a much more reactionary view. Of course, that was pretty much the point. If the Czars started to get all reasonable about human rights, no one would like the insane violent socialist revolutionaries anymore.
Although a great many members of Narodnaya Volya were executed, imprisoned or forced into exile, it wasn’t the Imperial Russian forces which doomed the group. They broke apart only a couple of years after the assassination of Alexander II, due to the endless internal squabbles that plagued all socialist revolutionary movements (especially the Russian ones) in that era. These various groups would remain divided and squabbling right up until the Soviet Revolution in 1917, where the Bolsheviks would solve the problem by murdering anyone who disagreed with them.
8. The Black Hand
The Black Hand, also known as “Unification or Death”, was a Serbian radical terrorist group originally founded in 1911 as a secret society by a group of Serbian military officers. Serbia had already been a fully independent Kingdom since 1882, but the goal of the Black Hand was to incorporate all the various regions populated by southern Slavic peoples (some of which were independent states and some of whom were under the control of either the Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire) into one single state of “Greater Serbia”.
Their work consisted of sponsoring terrorist activity in the regions of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Istria; encouraging agents and terrorist cells to engage in assassination, bombings or sabotage with the goal of destabilizing these areas to set the stage for the expansion of the Serbian state. Although the group was technically illegal, they were in fact sponsored by extremely powerful figures in the Serbian Kingdom. Their most powerful patron was the Serbian Crown Prince Alexander, granting the Black Hand protection and financing their efforts.
By far, their most famous victim was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in June 1914. This was carried out by a trio of Black Hand agents, with the one who actually killed the Archduke being Gavrilo Princip, when Franz Ferdinand was touring Bosnia. Although that hadn’t actually been their goal, by murdering the Archduke in a terrorist attack, the Black Hand accidentally caused the start of World War I, leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people.
The Black Hand continued to conduct assassinations or other acts of terrorism in the early years of World War I. But eventually their interference in internal Serbian politics and the war effort proved too much for the Serbian authorities to stand. In 1916 they engaged in mass arrests of Black Hand leaders, and crushed the entire organization. The end-result of WWI turned out pretty good for Serbia, with the goal of “greater Serbia” being fulfilled after the war’s end with the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Prince Alexander, who had helped fund the Black Hand, got to be the King of Yugoslavia eventually. But he got his comeuppance in the end, being himself assassinated by political radicals in 1934. He was, at least until now, the last European King to be assassinated.