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HomePoliticsGeopoliticsJuly 22: A Pivotal Day in Terrorism History

July 22: A Pivotal Day in Terrorism History

Seventy-five years ago today, at approximately 11:45 a.m. on July 22, 1946, a stolen delivery truck pulled up to the basement service entrance at the front of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Five terrorists from the Irgun Zvai Le’umi — a Jewish underground organization commonly known as the Irgun — exited the vehicle and, disguised as Arab workers, carried seven large milk churns into La Regence, the hotel’s chic nightclub located in the basement. Each churn contained approximately 50 pounds of high explosive. Fifty-two minutes later the bombs detonated, killing 91 people and injuring 45.

In Norway, on this date 10 years ago, white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik detonated a vehicle bomb under Oslo’s government quarter, killing eight. He then proceeded to open fire at nearby Utøya island, home to the Norwegian Labour Party youth wing’s summer camp, where he killed 69 people — most of them children — at short range. Before his attack, Breivik had released a 1,518-page manifesto, railing against “multiculturalists” and “cultural Marxists.”

Both the King David Hotel bombing and Breivik’s attacks had profound global repercussions. The former helped convince Britain to leave Mandatory Palestine and sparked a new era of publicized terrorism, while the latter played a pioneering role in ushering in an international wave of far-right terrorism. This July 22, accordingly, provides an important reminder of the enduring impact of terrorism and the threat it poses, not just to civilians, but to societal stability and the political status quo. Governments should continue to prioritize counter-terrorism and remain prepared to enact measured responses to acts of political violence.

The King David Hotel Bombing and the ‘Internationalization’ of Terrorism 

Although Menachem Begin — commander of the Irgun and a future Israeli prime minister — would repeatedly claim that warnings were given to evacuate the King David Hotel, questions remain to this day whether they were ignored or never communicated to the proper authority. The Irgun’s attack has always been controversial because the facility was not an ordinary hotel, but served as the nerve center of Britain’s administration of Palestine. It housed Britain’s military headquarters and government secretariat in the territory, as well as the local offices of Britain’s intelligence and security services.

Begin made daring and dramatic acts of violence an integral and innovative part of the Irgun’s strategy. The goal was to attract international attention to Palestine and thereby publicize simultaneously the Zionists’ grievances against Britain and their claims for statehood. In an era long before the advent of 24-hour cable news and instantaneous satellite-transmitted broadcasts, the Irgun thus deliberately sought to appeal to a global audience far beyond the immediate confines of the local struggle, beyond even the ruling regime’s own homeland. Like its nonviolent and less violent Zionist counterparts, the group sought to generate sympathy and marshal support among powerful allies such as the American Jewish community, U.S. representatives and senators, White House officials, as well as among delegates to the fledgling United Nations Organization. In this way, pressure would be applied on the British government to leave Palestine and allow the establishment of a Jewish state there.

The articulation of Begin’s strategy in his book The Revolt, first published in English in 1951, thus represented an important milestone in the evolution and “internationalization” of terrorism. Begin’s example appears to have resonated with other peoples struggling against Western colonial domination and continued occupation of their lands in the decade following World War II. The leader of the anti-British guerrilla campaign in Cyprus, Gen. George Grivas, adopted an identical strategy. The internationalization of Palestinian Arab terrorism that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s also consciously emulated the quest for international attention and recognition that the Irgun’s own terrorist campaign pioneered a quarter of a century earlier: It was a model that the Palestine Liberation Organization often cited.

The Brazilian revolutionary theorist Carlos Marighella’s famous Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, which was essential reading for various left-wing terrorist organizations that arose both in Latin America and Western Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, similarly embraced Begin’s strategy of provoking the security forces in hopes of alienating the population from the authorities. Whether Marighella had ever consulted or read The Revolt is not known. What is indisputable is that he advocated the same strategy that the Irgun had pioneered over two decades before.

More recently, when U.S. military forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they found a copy of The Revolt, along with other books about the Jewish struggle and the Irgun’s transformation from terrorist group pariah to a respectable political party, in the well-stocked library that al-Qaeda maintained at one of its training facilities in that country.

Anders Behring Breivik’s Attacks and the Threat of White Supremacist Violence

Breivik, like Begin, sought an international audience. The manifesto he released prior to the attacks was written in English, and he openly termed his attack a “marketing operation,” designed to draw attention to his manifesto and the ideology it laid out. He also aimed to use his trial as “a stage to the world” — he pled not guilty on account of self-defense, and sought to spread his views through the cameras gathered in the courtroom. He was convicted and sentenced to an extendable 21 years in prison — Norway’s maximum sentence.

Breivik’s assault marked the opening salvo in what would become a tsunami of far-right terrorism stretching from Christchurch in New Zealand to Pittsburgh and El Paso in the United States. Breivik’s template, including his release of a manifesto and his targeting of multiple locations, has become a model emulated by far-right terrorists across borders and oceans, and he has been “canonized” as a “saint” among the far-right online fringe — a badge of dishonor he shares with multiple other white supremacist killers. The deadliest far-right terrorist since Breivik, Christchurch gunman Brenton Tarrant, described “Knight Justiciar Breivik” as his “true inspiration.”

In Germany, another July 22 terrorist anniversary provides testament to Breivik’s impact: In 2016, a far-right gunman who had featured Breivik in social media profile pictures opened fire in Munich, killing nine. The Bavarian Ministry of the Interior surmised, “We can only assume, that [the gunman] purposefully selected the date.”

The Counter-Terrorism Challenge: Preventing and Responding to ‘Black Swan’ Events

The lasting legacies of the King David Hotel bombing and Breivik’s attacks are due largely to their combination of death toll and marketing. Both were extremely deadly and both, quite deliberately, captured the world’s attention, in turn publicizing the attackers’ grievances and radicalizing others to the cause. But there was little else that would have helped us to predict why these two events had such immediate as well as long-lasting impacts.

Both represented “black swan” events, which are marked by their rarity, impact, and efforts to retrospectively explain them. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb — who coined the term — explains, “A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.”

Some acts of terrorism fade into history, scarcely remembered outside the families of the victims — others change the world. The bombing of the King David Hotel and Breivik’s assault on Norway did the latter, catalyzing political upheavals and sparking new global trends. Both are important reminders that terrorism will always possess a powerful agenda-setting function and outsized capacity to drive political change. But, perhaps more concerningly, both are evidence that one never truly knows which terrorist incidents will spark the most long-lasting ramifications.

Counter-terrorism, accordingly, is not just a mission to save lives, but is essential to protecting political stability and societal predictability. This is why, at a time when many in America and elsewhere are anxious to close the book on the “Global War on Terror,” the need for continued vigilance remains vital. New challenges have arisen as older ones abate, and effectively countering terrorism will continue to be a preeminent concern of both domestic as well as international security in the 21st century. After the myriad intelligence failures of the past two decades, strengthening and improving the analytical and predictive capabilities of those agencies and departments charged with our protection will be critical. Better anticipating over-the-horizon threats and managing their outcomes can mitigate the black swan phenomenon that is terrorists’ stock and trade.

Terrorism analysts enjoy debating the question of whether terrorism is an existential threat. On its own, it is not. Instead, terrorism’s impact is defined by the response of governments and citizens. “Terrorism has prevailed in the past, but not because terrorists vanquished their foes with car bombs or assassinations,” scholars Walter Laqueur and Christopher Wall write. “They succeeded when government overreacted or when there was not a government to react, making a terrorist group the entity best positioned to govern and impose laws.” In an ironic twist, less immediately damaging attacks than 9/11, including the Oslo attacks of July 22, 2011, may pose greater long-term threats to Western liberal democracy — they force domestic audiences to pick sides, complicating cooperation and a nuanced government response, and slowly corroding democracies from within. Maintaining national cohesiveness when confronting individuals who seek to divide societies — a goal that in a post-Trump, post-Jan. 6 world has become increasingly difficult — is thus particularly vital.

Terrorists have always aspired to change the course of history. And through their calculated acts of violence they seek to have an asymmetrical, disproportionate impact on world events, government policies, and societal peace of mind. Both the bombing of the King David Hotel and Breivik’s twin attacks upset the status quo and compelled the targeted governments to rethink their policies. In the Irgun’s case, the bombing contributed to the complex chain of events that 14 months later led the British government to announce that it was leaving Palestine — and to wash its hands of attempting to navigate between Arab and Jewish claims for independence. The attack also sent a powerful message to aggrieved peoples elsewhere that terrorism could influence moribund Western colonial overlords in hitherto unimaginable ways. The Norwegian government’s response to Breivik’s attacks was far more measured: It implemented targeted changes across several ministries to better address the threat of white supremacist violence, and has avoided major follow-on incidents in the decade since.

Moreover, whereas the King David Hotel bombing marked the beginning of the end of British rule over Palestine and the failure of its security forces to contain, much less defeat, the terrorists, Breivik’s attacks highlighted the need for a more comprehensive and holistic approach to counter-terrorism. That type of approach should view threats as more polymorphous than monolithic, and not specific to one region or religion. The fundamental message of both attacks is that effective counter-terrorism requires long-term engagement, patience, national and international unity against extremism, and a commitment to never react to single incidents with an emotional rather than a measured response. Counter-terrorism will thrive when governments and citizens think proactively rather than reactively about societal weaknesses and shortcomings, and do so together.

Counter-terrorism also remains an essential national security priority: The anniversary of the King David Hotel bombing and Breivik’s attacks demonstrates the power of even less remembered terrorist acts to create profound and lasting effects.

Bruce Hoffman is the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis senior fellow for counter-terrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University. 

Jacob Ware is a research associate for counter-terrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: Imperial War Museum

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