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A History of Modern Terror – by John Reitzell

Part I



The history of man is the history of terrorism. From his early cave days, man has sought to extort, steal, or otherwise gain something from other men by means of terror.

Webster defines terrorism as: "the systematic use of violence, terror and intimidation to achieve an end;" and terror as "violence promoted by a group to achieve or maintain supremacy."

For whatever reasons (and an entire treatise could be written just on reasons) men have terrorized other men or groups in societies since time began. So, placing a date on the beginning of "modern" terror might tend to bound the process of analyzing it a bit too much. Since we find ourselves embroiled with Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists; I will recognize that Baader-Meinhof, Shining Path, M 19, the IRA, ASALA, FLN, the Red Brigade, et. al., exist and pose a threat; but I will focus on events and terrorist acts primarily that lead to the events of 9-11-01 and beyond.


Many events in history will be omitted here, not because they had no bearing but rather to place parallel pertinent events that contribute to the Islamic Fundamentalist use of terror and our actions, counter-actions, reactions, or no actions to terror on a time line. Some events will be included that have no bearing whatsoever but that draw attention to the “place in time.” I will not delve at any depth into all the events that are on the line. Once again, books have been written on many of these events and the second and third order effects they had on history. One could also place the ups and downs of the American Economy on this line to do a study¾the Stock Market, the coming and going of politicians on the world stage, or perhaps the effect that these events had on technology development would also be useful.


One can make the case that the genesis of modern terror, from an Islamic fundamentalist perspective, was the formation of the Nation/State of Israel in Palestine in 1947. The impetus for getting this done by the United Nations is generally accepted as the Balfour Declaration. It is reprinted below.

“The British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, wrote to Jewish leader Lord Rothschild, to assure him that his government supported the ideal of providing a homeland for the Jews. The British hoped thereby to win more Jewish support for the Allies in the First World War. The "Balfour Declaration" became the basis for international support for the founding of the modern state of Israel. The letter was published a week later in The Times of London as reproduced here.”

Foreign Office

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild:

I have much pleasure in conveying to you. On behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:

His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.


Arthur James Balfour

This declaration, which became the basis for the formation of a Jewish State in Palestine in 1947, was proffered by the British for a number of reasons. Among these (and not the least of which) was for Jewish support of the allies in WW I and an unmistakable religious sentiment for "God's chosen people" to reoccupy the area around Jerusalem.  Volumes have been written on the whys, wherefores, and causes and effects of the formation of Israel, but suffice it to say that the Arab world was not happy. This unhappiness coupled with the takeover of Islam by Wahabi fundamentalists is the root of the use of terror by those that believe that to believe any other way than their way is to be an infidel.


1947 was a big year. The U.S. Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the United States Air Force were all created by the Truman Administration. Werner von Braun married his 18 year old first cousin. Jackie Robinson played his first game as a Dodger, the Marshal Plan was outlined, and Pakistan and India were given independence by the British. A UFO was reported to have crashed in Roswell, New Mexico and Chuck Yeager, the Spruce Goose, and a “Streetcar Named Desire” became household words. The Truman Doctrine of Containment aimed at stopping the “Domino Effect” of spreading Communism fostered our first involvement with Vietnam. In addition, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into areas for Jews and Arabs.  Muslim Pakistan achieved independence from Hindu India, and Liaquat Ali Khan was made the first Prime Minister of Pakistan--the first Islamic Republic.  The start point?

1948 was even bigger in terms of flash points and related incidents that were the underpinnings of what is to come. Arab “militants,” laid siege to the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by an extremist, and The Marshall Plan was signed. By April the first so called “Arab–Israeli” war had heated up to criticality. On the 9th of April, an incident known as the “Deir Yassin Massacre” occurred. Over a hundred Palestinian “civilians” were killed by a Jewish “paramilitary” force, labeled by the British as terrorists. This event had an impact on the Arab States that had a presence in the region in the form of the “Arab Liberation Army.” This incident also crystallized the “Mandate Palestine” which was the Arab world’s mandate to thwart establishing Israel as a sovereign nation.  On May 16, Chaim Weizman was elected President of Israel. Weizman had established a close relationship with Lord Balfour 35 years earlier. Enough said. On June 24, the Berlin Blockade began, leading to the Berlin Airlift, perhaps the first battle of the Cold War, which motivated President Truman to institute the second peace time draft in history. On September 17, Folke Bernadette, the UN mediator between the Arabs and Israelis, was assassinated by a “Jewish terror group” of which Yitzhak Rabin, a future Prime Minister of Israel, was a member. On December 28, “The Muslim Brotherhood,” the group that spawns Al-Qaeda and other extremist elements, assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud Nokrashi for his reforms that were perceived as “west leaning.” This group will assassinate Anwar Sadat for his participation in the Camp David Accords 33 years later, in 1981.

1949 was characterized by politics and diplomatic maneuvering. David Ben-Gurian became the first Prime Minister of Israel, the first Israeli parliament convened, and in May Israel was admitted to the United Nations. This sent the irrefutable signal to Muslims everywhere that Israel was here to stay, supported by the West, and that Jihad may be the only answer. Also in 1949, China formally split, Red Byron won the inaugural NASCAR championship, and Geoff Bodine was born.

1950 was overshadowed by the 27 June invasion of South Korea by the North Korean Peoples Army. This “Forgotten War” would come to represent the beginnings of a helplessness the U.S. government was to experience in dealing with future conflicts. It was not, however, the first time we (the USA) had trouble closing the deal on war. Significantly distracted by the “Police Action” in Korea, the world paid little attention to the area coming to be known as “the middle-east.” There were, however, some things occurring that would affect us later. In November, Puerto Rican Nationalists attempted to assassinate President Truman. They would strike again in 1954. Somaliland was placed under the “Italian Mandate,” “Jordania” annexed the “West Bank,” and Egypt ordered all British troops to withdraw from Suez. This latter act will be repeated in 1957, and the pattern of historical “repeats” in the region begun. Finally, the Chinese counterattacked in November and all attention was on S.E. Asia.

1951 saw Seoul change hands twice and Armistice negotiations began. It will be 1953 and countless deaths before the shaky Armistice is signed¾an armistice that signals what would become a pattern of American behavior regarding ending wars. That same year, Remington Rand delivered the first “UNIVAC” computer to the U.S. Census bureau and William Shockley invented the junction transistor. Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in Pakistan, but his assassin was killed before anyone can find out why. King Farouk of Egypt declared himself king of Sudan, the largest country in Africa. He got little support for this action, and as Sudan hits the world stage, it lapses into the civil strife which characterizes its existence even now. Sudan became a country split in two by the Northern Muslims and the southern Christians. Libya gained its independence from Italy.

In May of 1952, King Farouk of Egypt proclaimed that he was a direct descendant of the profit Mohammed, but in July Farouk was overthrown by Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser. Nasser vowed to retake Palestine, and across the Middle East Nationalism and Pan Arabism takes root as more and more “colonies” of Western Europe gained independence. Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan were included in those numbers.

In 1954, the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu and the Viet Minh took over North Vietnam. This, of course, will become the focus of U.S. foreign policy for years to come. Later that year, Puerto Rican Nationalists struck once again at the U.S. Capitol in a shooting incident that left five Congressmen wounded. (They were later pardoned by President Carter.)

In August 1955, members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), a group fighting for the liberation of Algeria, massacred 125 French (colonial) citizens in the town of Philippeville. This incident characterized what some would call a “successful terrorist incident” because it led to a massive French retaliation. The retaliation itself led to the galvanization of the Muslim population and eventual freedom from France. One could also make the case that the “law of unintended consequences” applies here as well, because the FLN had no idea that this act would be the one that started them on the road to eventual power in Algeria.

In 1956, Nasser “Nationalized” the Suez Canal and claimed it as Egypt’s own. This began what became known as the “Suez Crisis,” resulting in Israel invading the Sinai and Britain and France bombing Egypt and sending troops to force reopening of the canal. The U.N. adopted a resolution calling for withdrawal of all French, British, and Israeli forces from Egypt, but the whole episode only fostered more resentment for Jews, Europeans, and “the West” among Arabs in general and Muslims specifically. Later that year, the FLN set off bombs at the office of Air France and elsewhere in Algiers. Andreas Baader turned 10 years old in 1957 and will lend a new face to terror in the future. Werner von Braun talked about a manned flight to Mars and Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, the 17th of 56 children. He will come to symbolize the struggle of Islam against the West and Israel.

In 1958, Egypt and Syria united to form the United Arab Republic and Gamel Abdel Nasser became its first President. Faisal Al Saud became the King of Saudi Arabia 38 years after huge quantities of oil were discovered there, making the land of Mecca a very rich country and a major player in the world’s industrial development. In Iraq, a revolution overthrew the monarchy and set up Abdul Karim Qassim as that nation’s leader. He would refuse to join the UAR, thereby becoming the target of an assassination attempt by a group of which Saddam Hussein was a member. Qassim was accused by the “pan-Arabists” of repressing the Baath party in Iraq. Later, in 1963, the Baath party would split, becoming the ruling party in Iraq and Syria. In July 1958, U.S. Marines landed in Beirut to support and help protect the pro-western government. This would be repeated 24 years later with similar results. At home, NASA was created and the U.S. successfully launched 3 satellites. European colonialism continued to crumble, as numerous fledgling countries gain independence.

In 1959, Cape Canaveral was on-line and successfully launched its first Titan ICBM. Barbie debuted, and Fidel Castro’s new government in Cuba was recognized by the U.S.  Lee Petty, father of the great Richard, won the first Daytona 500.

In 1960, the U.S. deployed its first troops to far off and little heard of Vietnam. John F. Kennedy was elected as the youngest ever U.S. President and President Eisenhower formally dedicated the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Charles de Gaulle visited Algeria, a visit which touched off large scale riots by Muslims.

In 1961, Ham the Chimp, Yuri Gregarin, and Allan Shepard all went into space. On June 25th of that same year, Abdul Karim Qassim, Iraqi Chief of State, announced that he would annex Kuwait. The situation escalated to the point that British troops were sent to Kuwait to protect it. This will happen again 30 years and 1 dictator later. Two months later, in an unrelated event, with great fanfare, construction of the Berlin Wall begins. On October 17th the so-called “Battle of Paris” occurred. French police attacked some 30,000 protesting a curfew that applied only to Algerians. By the end of October the “Arab League,” took over protection of Kuwait and British troops were redeployed. Formed in 1945, The “Arab League” initially consisted of seven Arab States, including Iraq. It was formed primarily to foster cooperation and coordination among members. One tenet of the organization was that member states were forbidden from using force against one another¾part of the Charter that seems to have been ignored many times since. Today, the organization is considered a “regional” arm of the United Nations, which may be one of the reasons the U.N. has been so ineffective in the region. The Marshall Plan expired after dispensing $12B dollars, a number unheard of at the time; and the Vietnam War officially began with the arrival in country of U.S. aircraft and troops.

In February 1962 John Glenn orbited the earth 3 times and became the first American to do so. In March, France and the FLN of Algeria agree to peace at the “Evian Accords.”  The OAS (Secret Army Organization) a French right wing terrorist group bent on resisting granting independence to Algeria exploded over one hundred bombs per day and attempted to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. In fact it is an assassin hired by the OAS that is the villain in Frederick Forsythe’s novel The Day of the Jackal. The FLN came to power in Algeria and the OAS disbanded in 1963.  The Ranger 4 Spacecraft crashed into the moon. In May Scott Carpenter orbited the earth three times ending the Mercury Space Program and Adolph Eichmann known as the “chief executioner in ‘the final solution’” of Hitler’s Third Reich was hanged in Israel. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayer in public schools is unconstitutional. The Russians agreed to supply Cubans with weaponry which eventually ended in October in the highly volatile and much publicized “Cuban Missile Crisis.” This explosive event placed the world on the brink of nuclear destruction. Also in October, James Meredith registered as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. Pantyhose became available for sale in Department Stores.

 In January 1963, George Wallace was inaugurated to his first term as Governor of Alabama. On June 11th he stood at the front door of the University of Alabama to preclude the entrance of the first 2 black students. Back on March 4th six people were sentenced to death in the aforementioned assassination attempt of Charles de Gaulle. While Governor Wallace was blocking the door at the University of Alabama, an event unfolded that was the first of several like it. This event would help steer U.S. foreign policy to war. Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc publicly set himself on fire in Saigon, Republic of South Vietnam to protest the policies of Catholic Prime Minister Ngo Diem. The next day Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot and killed in Mississippi. On June 17th the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8:1 against allowing the recitation of Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer in public schools. On the last day of June a terrorist group known as La Cosa Nostra exploded a car bomb in Sicily killing 8 policemen.   

In August James Meredith graduated from Ole Miss and 10 days later Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Seventeen days after the “I Have a Dream” speech the single most horrific terrorist event of 1963 took place. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is bombed by, it is later discovered, a terrorist group known as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). One of the four little girls killed that day is the best friend of future U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Ngo Diem was assassinated in early November an event that was later proven to be under written by the U.S Government.  

Perhaps the single most world changing event of the century occurred on November 22d when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. U.S. policy and our view of the world changed that day.   Part II (coming soon)




John Reitzell is a Ranger and Airborne veteran of Vietnam, served in Special Operations Forces on anti-terrorism operations in the Mediterranean and Lebanon, Grenada, and Somalia.  He commanded at every level from platoon to brigade.  John now works for Dynetics Inc, a Soldier centric Company that specializes in R&D and engineering for the guys at the pointy end of the spear.  He serves as the Vets for Victory Veterans Coordintor and is a founding member. He speaks across the country as a motivational and military affairs speaker with both Vets for Victory and Young America's Foundation.


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