We can defeat the jihadists, just as we did the anarchist terrorists

Summary:  Today’s violence from Islamic extremists has many similarities to the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Using standard police and intelligence methods, Western governments defeated the anarchists — without massive restrictions on civil liberties, without military operations. We can defeat today’s Islamic extremists using similar methods — reversing the results from 16 years of failed wars.

“Wars are measured in body counts. The news carries a running tally. You change the world with rivers of blood.”
— Terrorist leader Saleem Ulman, from the NCIS-LA episode “Truth Or Consequences”.

Jihad flag


The violence of anarchist terrorists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been largely forgotten, as seen in this quote from Wikipedia:

Some revolutionaries of this time encouraged acts of violence such as sabotage or even assassination of heads of state to further spark a revolution. However, these actions were regarded by many anarchists as counter-productive or ineffective.

This is the only mention of violence in the Wikipedia entry, which grossly misrepresents their significance in that era.  A more accurate historical viewpoint is this comment by Stefan at Matthew Yglesias’ blog:

“Consider that over about a 20 year period, anarchists assassinated, among others, Russian Czar Alexander II (1881), French president Sadi Carnot (1894), Spanish prime minister Canovas (1897), Elizabeth of Bavaria (Empress Consort of Austria-Hungary) (1898), King Umberto I of Italy (1900), and US president William McKinley (1901). If Islamist terrorists had managed to murder an equivalent number of Western heads of state, we’d all be living under martial law by now.”

Police work and international coordination successfully suppressed the anarchist extremists, without the military action we have used to fight jihadists since 9/11. Many anarchist terrorists were from Italy, but we never bombed Italy. We could learn much from their success.

19th century anarchist terrorists: bombs, beards, and backpacks.

19th C anarchists: bombs, beards, and backpacks

Lessons from the fight against anarchist terrorists

The value of lessons from that era has been mentioned many times. Too bad our leaders do not listen.

(a) For jihadist, read anarchist” in The Economist, 10 December 2009. Here’s the opening…

“BOMBS, beards and backpacks: these are the distinguishing marks, at least in the popular imagination, of the terror-mongers who either incite or carry out the explosions that periodically rock the cities of the western world.

“A century or so ago it was not so different: bombs, beards and fizzing fuses. The worries generated by the 2 waves of terror, the responses to them and some of their other characteristics are also similar. The spasm of anarchist violence that was at its most convulsive in the 1880s and 1890s was felt, if indirectly, in every continent. It claimed hundreds of lives, including those of several heads of government, aroused widespread fear and prompted quantities of new laws and restrictions. But it passed. Jihadism is certainly not a lineal descendant of anarchism: far from it. Even so, the parallels between the anarchist bombings of the 19th century and the Islamist ones of today may be instructive.”

The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism
Available at Amazon.

(b) Cloaks, Daggers and Dynamite” by Matt Carr in History Today, December 2007 — Gated.

“A century ago international anarchists were causing public outrage and panic with their terror tactics.  Matt Carr considers the parallels with Al-Qaeda today.”

“It has become something of a cliché to claim that the world has changed irrevocably in response to the unique and deadly threat of al-Qaeda. But if the current crisis appears unprecedented, its essential parameters are not entirely new. The spectre of violent nihilists intent on the destruction of civilization and established order; a hidden hand conducting acts of mayhem across national frontiers; draconian anti-terrorist legislation and the official use of torture – all these formed part of the ‘anarchist terror’ that began in the last decades of the nineteenth century and ended with the First World War. In these years anarchism became indelibly associated with violence in the popular imagination on both sides of the Atlantic, as presidents and royalty, policemen and ordinary civilians were shot, stabbed and blown up.

President Carnot of France (1894), King Umberto of Italy (1900) and US President McKinley (1901) were among the ‘illustrious corpses’ claimed by anarchist assassins. Anarchist ‘infernal machines’ exploded in cafés, restaurants, opera houses and even the French Chamber of Deputies. The scale of violence was magnified by sensationalist press coverage that at times reduced whole cities to a state of psychosis. The ‘anarchist terror’ constituted the world’s first international terrorist emergency.

“On the surface, there is no obvious connection between the Islamic holy war pursued by Osama bin Laden and a secular ideology that regarded organized religion as a reactionary superstition. It is true that transnational jihadists are sometimes inspired by the utopian promise of a stateless society, albeit one in which sovereignty is divine rather than human. But the real connection between the two movements can be found in their strategic conception of violence.

“In the period after the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, with the European left subjected to severe official repression and the revolutionary movement at a low ebb, a number of anarchists began to advocate acts of conspiratorial violence by small underground groups as an alternative policy to failed insurrections and absent revolutionary armies. The new strategy was called ‘propaganda of the deed’, a term borrowed from a socialist follower of the Italian republican leader Giuseppe Mazzini and which, for anarchists, essentially meant that political homicide could transmit an inspirational message to a wider audience: by targeting the highest representatives of the bourgeois state, the propagandists of the deed sought to demonstrate the vulnerability of their enemies and to rouse the dormant proletarian masses from their passivity.

“A similar philosophy underpinned the decision by al-Qaeda to attack American civilian and military targets in the early 1990s. These attacks were intended to mobilize a wider political constituency at a time when the jihadist offensive had stalled across the Middle East. The 9/11 hijackers combined technology and the mass media in ways that were obviously not available to nineteenth-century anarchists, but the choice of symbolic targets belonged to the same tradition.

“…To its proponents, the advantage of propaganda by the deed was the fact that it did not require central organization but could be emulated by anyone without logistical support. Yet for years the authorities searched in vain for a ‘Black International’ behind anarchist violence without finding evidence that such a conspiracy existed. {There was the International Working People’s Association, sometimes called the “Black International”.} The closest to reality this imagined anarchist cabal ever came was in July 1881 when forty-five anarchist delegates from various countries met in a London tavern to discuss the possible formation of an international anarchist organization. Though resolutions were passed to seek greater coordination between different anarchist groups, there is no evidence that these ever bore fruit,

“The attempt to establish nebulous ‘linkages’ behind anarchist violence had political advantages that reactionary governments did not fail to exploit. …”

About the author: Matt Carr is journalist and author of The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism from the Assassination of Tsar Alexander II to Al-Qaeda (2007).

Front page of Le Petit Journal on 16 April 1892, showing the arrest of French anarchist assassin known as Ravachol (1859-1892).

Arrest of Ravachol in 1891.

(c) The World’s First ‘Terrorists’” by Johann Hari in the Huffington Post, 11 October 2009. — Excerpt:

“From the 1920s on, the anarchist attacks began to dwindle, and by the late 1930s they were over. Why? What happened? Nobody is entirely sure — but most historians suggest a few factors. After the initial wave of state repression, civil liberties slowly advanced — undermining the anarchist claims. The indiscriminate attacks on ordinary civilians discredited anarchism in the eyes of the wider public: after a young man blew himself up in Greenwich Park in 1892, his coffin was stoned and attacked by working class people in the East End. The anarchists’ own cruelty and excess slowly deprived them of recruits.

“But, just as importantly, many of the anarchist grievances were addressed by steady reforms. Trade unions were finally legalized, and many of their demands were achieved one by one: an eight-hour working day, greater safety protections, compensation for the injured. Work was no longer so barbaric — so the violent rejection of it faded away. The changes were nowhere near as radical as those demanded by the anarchists, but it stripped them of followers step-by-step.

“Could the same be done with Islamism? The lesson from the death of violent anarchism is that the solution lies beyond blanket violent repression of them or its polar opposite, capitulation to their demands. The answer is gradual reform that ends some — but not all — of the sources of their rage. Clearly, many of Islamists’ “grievances” should be left unaddressed: we must never restrict the rights of women or gay people or end the freedom to discuss religion openly, as they demand. But there is plenty we can do.”

River of blood


Anarchist terrorists’ list of hits

I have assembled a list of the attacks by anarchist terrorists. It is incomplete but illustrates the scale of their operations. Unlike today’s jihadists, they went for leaders — not just numbers of deaths. My major source was “The First Great Terror” by Kim Seabrook at SocyBerty, 3 November 2009.

  • 1878 — Bomb thrown into monarchist parade in Florence. Bomb thrown into crowd at Pisa.  Assassination attempts on King Alfonso of Spain and Wilhelm I of Germany.
  • 1881 — Assassination of Tsar Alexander II by Ignacy Hrnywiecki.
  • 1886 — The Haymarket Affair – bomb attack on Chicago Police. The resulting riot kills 7 police and 4 civilians, plus dozens of wounded.
  • 1892 — French anarchist Ravochol bombs the Lobau Barracks in Paris, and attempts to assassinate a prosecutor and judge (nobody died in these attacks).  Several bombings in reprisal follow his execution (e.g., the bombing of Restaurant Véry in Paris). Assassination attempt on American industrialist Henry Clay Frick.
  • 1893 — Bomb attack by Auguste Vailant on French Chamber of Deputies injures 20. Bomb attack at The Liceo Teatro in Barcelona kills 22.
  • 1894 — Emile Henry blows up the Cafe Terminus killing 2.
  • 1894 — Italian anarchist Sante Jeronimo Caserio assassinates French President Marie-Francoise Sade Carnot.
  • 1899 — Bomb attack at the procession during Feast of Corpus Christi in Barcelona kills 12.
  • 1897 — Machele Angiolillo assassinates Spain’s Prime Minister Antonio Canovas.
  • 1898 — Luigi Lucheni assassinates the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary.
  • 1900 — Gaetano Bresci assassinates King Umberto I of Italy.
  • 1901 — Leon Czolgosc assassinates President William H. McKinlay.
  • 1902 — Gennaro Rubino attempts to assassinate King Leopold II of Belgium.
  • 1909 — During La Tragica Semana (The Tragic Week) 120 people are killed and many hundreds of others wounded as anarchists battle the police and army on the streets of Barcelona.
  • 1911 — Dmitri Bogrov assassinates Russian Prime Minister Piotr Stolypin.
  • 1912 — Manuel Padrinas assassinates Spanish Prime Minister Jose Canalejas.
  • 1913 — Alexander Schinas assassinates King George I of Greece.
  • 1916 — A bomb explodes during the San Francisco Preparedness Day Parade killing 10 and injuring 40.
  • 1918 — The anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno leads his Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine to victory over the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Tsarist White Russian Army.
  • 1920 — The Wall Street bombing leaves 38 dead and injures more than 400 others, the worst terrorist attack in America until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It would have killed scores more if it had exploded a little later.

For more information

Other interesting articles about anarchists…

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about jihadists, and especially these…

  1. Who will find the key to power: America or the Middle East’s jihadists?
  2. The revolution comes to the Middle East: about the past & future of ISIS — by Prof Hugh Roberts.
  3. Business 101 tells us what to expect next from jihadists: good news for them, bad for us.
  4. Jihadists will prosper using the methods of America’s entrepreneurs.
  5. Stratfor: Why ISIS lost Fallujah. What will jihad 3.0 look like?

For more about the anarchists

See Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh (2009).

Blood and Rage (cover)
Available at Amazon.

“In this sweeping and deeply penetrating work, distinguished historian Michael Burleigh explores the nature of terrorism from its origins in the West to the current global threat fueled by fundamentalists. Burleigh takes us from the roots of terrorism in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Russian Nihilists, and the London-based anarchists of Black International to the various terrorist campaigns that exist today. He also explores the lives of people engaged in careers of political violence and those who are most affected by the scourge of terrorism.

“Authoritative, illuminating, and masterfully written, Blood and Rage sheds an unflinching light on the global threat that we are likely to face for decades to come.”


11 thoughts on “We can defeat the jihadists, just as we did the anarchist terrorists”

  1. FM-

    Great post. When discussing the anarchists, I’d also submit that one should add context and consider the Civil Rights Movement and Southern Conservative Whites Movement as insurgencies who sometimes used terrrorism as a tactic. In some ways, these are all revolutions and counter-revolutions in the longer arc of the modern age.

    I interviewed Mark Grimsley about it some time ago. “Rethinking Revolution: Reconstruction as an Insurgency“.


    1. Mike,

      Thank you for the link to that interview with Dr. Grimsley. I knew in broad terms about the sad history of Reconstruction-era America, but the details are fascinating. This is what I call “lost history”, important aspects of America’s past that its citizens don’t know — which makes us weak. The successful counter-revolution by whites in the South is another act in the long tragedy of American racism, baked in at the Founding and still potent today.

      But was the Civil Rights Movement an insurgency? The DoD dictionary defines insurgency as “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.” I don’t believe that well characterizes its methods or goals. They sought to modify one aspect of America’s laws and culture, not take control. While the Civil Rights Movement had its episodes of violence (being a national, unorganized, multi-generational phenomenon), they were not a major part of the project– until the late 1960s, when it had accomplished many of its initial goals. And that period, with large-scale use of violence, was brief. For example, the large race riots were mostly during summers of 1967 – 1971 (with armed troops occupying our inner cities).

    2. FM- Thanks much.

      “But was the Civil Rights Movement an insurgency?”

      We don’t know yet. This is still relative new history, and we do not have the data points. I think that it is worth exploring and pushing the boundary on the definition in order to better learn our history and how society changes.

      One could make a case that is was at least subversive with non-violence. But, we keep discovering more and more points of violence. Many of which will be lost to history since they were embarrassing to the South and needed to be squashed.

      Free State of Jones was one of my favorite movies last year. “Free State of Jones“.


      1. Mike,

        “This is still relative new history, and we do not have the data points.”

        I agree that we’re too close to the civil rights era to properly evaluate it. But I suspect that historians will work with less data than we have today, not more. That is, more will be lost than retained. Time provides perspective, which sometimes/often/usually (I don’t know which) offsets the loss of data.

        “But, we keep discovering more and more points of violence.”

        My guess (emphasis on guess) is that we already know about most of the violence by the civil rights movement, but that some violence against them — especially by US government agencies — remains hidden. For example, I believe (but could be wrong) some of the Federal government’s surveillance of and pressure against Martin Luther King Jr. only came out in the last decade or so. I doubt we’ve seen it all.

  2. I remember making this argument to my brother after 911, that going in with a military response would be self defeating and make matter worse, that the US should look at the British reaction to the IRA or the response to the Anarchists in the 19th century. Unfortunately we have forced an evolution on Islamic Terrorism and at this point in the struggle we have large areas such as in Syria, Yemen, Iraq where Islamic terrorist control territory and are organised as an effective military force. Those grouping if unchecked have the power to militarily engage and defeat local states. This is a different kind of threat than a campaign of assassination. Police work has a role, but it is limited in its application outside of the home jurisdictions.

    I would guess that if the Anarchists had controlled a geographical base, say they held northern spain. In which they gathered taxes, nationalised industry, and raised revolutionary armies. From this base they issued threats, sent out bombers, drove back the forces of the Spanish and French governments, and exhorted anarchists worldwide to attacks. Then in this scenario I could imagine the governments of Europe and America embarking on a sustained campaign of military pressure aimed at crushing this security threat. Similar to how the barbary pirates crushed in the 19th century, or the hassassins were destroyed by the mongols.

    I would guess that the growth of the surveillance state is as much a part of technology, as it is a response to terror. Google, Apple, and the assorted tech giants don’t need terrorism to drive surveillance, they just need profits.

    1. merocaine,

      “at this point in the struggle we have large areas such as in Syria, Yemen, Iraq where Islamic terrorist control territory and are organised as an effective military force.”

      “Large areas” is imo an exaggeration.

      “Those grouping if unchecked have the power to militarily engage and defeat local states.”

      But they are not “unchecked.” Quite the opposite. They have generated massive responses against them, which are successfully pushing them back on all fronts.

  3. “If Islamist terrorists had managed to murder an equivalent number of Western heads of state, we’d all be living under martial law by now.”

    Well, they haven’t and so we are not. Yet the authorities have managed to erode the heck out of our basic previous freedoms. NSA anyone?
    Gallup claims 54% of us are worried about some terrorist attacks. That is odd. Are You? If so why Is DoD doing the same Old same old? That is odd, also.
    Maybe it is as simple as if you are a hammer or have a hammer, everything you see is a nail?
    Maybe it’s is as simple as Sunni Shia and Sykes-Picot.
    America was founded as a subversive act. And the story goes on.


    1. sflicht,

      Anarchist theory has heavily influenced thinking on the left back to the French revolution. But that’s not the subject here, which is the terrorist element of anarchists.

      Conflating “anarchist terrorist” with anarchist is like conflating “abortion bomber” with Christian, or “jihadist terrorist” with Muslim.

    2. I was merely pointing out a potential omission on your list of “hits”, although as I acknowledged, the case for including it is not entirely clear-cut.

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