Almost 140 years ago, a wave of bombs exploded in London. Though they killed a relatively small number of people, they attracted a lot of attention.
The work of Irish extremists hoping to shift public opinion and political thinking about the future of their nation lasted several years. In October 1883, one of their bloodiest attacks injured 40 people on a tube train pulling out of Paddington station. Other targets included the offices of the The Times newspaper, Nelson’s Column, the Tower of London and Scotland Yard.
Throughout the decade, there were other bombings elsewhere in Europe perpetrated by various extremist groups and hitting theatres, opera houses, the French parliament and streetside cafes. In 1920, Wall Street itself was bombed.
Simply striking in a capital anywhere is a bonus for extremists set on undermining confidence in the ability of a state to protect its citizens, or of occupying powers to keep order. Bombing campaigns as diverse as that against the British in Palestine in the mid 1940s, perpetrated by hardline Jewish activists, and that in Baghdad in 2003-2005, which was largely the work of Islamic militants aided by some nationalists and Ba’athist loyalists, show just how effective this can be.
The Zionist Irgun’s bombing of the King David hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, which killed 91 people, dramatically demonstrated the organisation’s capability and the weakness of the British authorities. Just over a year later, the British announced they would effectively abandon their rule in Palestine, allowing the state of Israel to come into being.
In Baghdad, almost six decades later, the early targets of the militants seemed indiscriminate – the Red Cross, the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations – until it became clear that they were informed by a careful strategy of isolating the US forces from all support or assistance in their project to control the Iraqi capital.
Islamic militants see similar perils in urbanisation. Often there is a historical factor; in Afghanistan, militants see Kabul as a city that has collaborated with successive overseas powers from the Soviets to the US. Or an ethnic or religious one; in Iraq, Sunni communities now see Baghdad as a hub of Shia dominance. The texts of many contemporary extremists reveal an outright animosity towards cities and urbanisation.
These are often contrasted with a lost rural idyll of social harmony and justice which, though entirely invented, is a powerful vision. Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian leader of the 9/11 hijackers was a student of town planning whose master’s dissertation focused on the destruction of old parts of Aleppo to allow modern, western-style development. He saw cities as a battlefield between the old and the new, but beyond that, between an authentic Islamic and Middle Eastern identity and a westernised, faithless one.
This vision of cities as a conflict zone, a place of moral and political contest, is not surprising.
Most experts now date the emergence of terrorism as we know it today to the second half of the 19th century. There were earlier violent activists which some suggest qualify as terrorists – the Jewish zealots who took on the Romans in early the imperial province of Judea in the first century, the medieval Assassins of the 12th century, even the religious Thuggee cult from the 14th to the 18th centuries in what was to become India. But the consensus is that it was around the time of the Paddington station attack that the strategy of using violence to sway public opinion though fear became widespread among actors such as the anarchists, leftists and nationalists looking to bring about dramatic social and political change.
This strategy depended on two developments which mark the modern age: democracy and communications. Without the media, developing apace through the 19th century as literacy rates soared and cheap news publications began to achieve mass circulations, impact would be small. Without democracy, there was no point in trying to frighten a population and thus influence policymakers.