Twenty Years Ago Today: IRA Mortar Attack at Heathrow

Photo by Steve Duhig Twenty years ago today, Parliament was getting ready for its annual renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was largely designed to combat the threat from Irish paramilitary groups. There was little chance that MPs would vote against it, although the opposition would still make a token stand just on the general principle that they were the opposition. The news would doubtless be buried in the dismal middle pages of the next day's newspapers.

But not this time.

Late in the afternoon, a red Nissan Micra drove into the car park of the Excelsior Hotel at Heathrow. Inside were enough explosives to give the airport a really bad day. But they weren't intended to be used in a car bomb, for the car also carried a set of disposable mortar tubes.

Between 17:05 and 17:15, six major news agencies were called and a bomb threat was made using recognised code words. "Clear all runways," went the warning. "Stop all flights."

They didn't clear the runways. They didn't stop the flights. Instead, the authorities began a search, working on the assumption that the bombs - if they existed - were already in place.

At 17:40, a Concorde touched down after a flight from New York. At 17:57, four mortar bombs were fired at the runway. None of them exploded, though one shattered into pieces. Planes kept on using the runway, oblivious to the danger. It would take another forty minutes before the runway was closed and a search for the mortars began. The security services were not at their most efficient on this day in 1994.

The only explosion was back at the car park of the Excelsior Hotel. The Nissan Micra was almost completely destroyed when the mortars were launched, and cars around it were set on fire. Black smoke spilled into the sky. But not everyone had their daily routine immediately shattered; staff at the nearby Ramada Hotel couldn't hear the detonation because of the noise of ongoing refurbishment.

The actual mortar tubes used in one of the 1994 attacks on Heathrow.

The vote in Parliament went ahead, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act was duly renewed. No one was hurt in the attack, and the only damage was the disruption to flights while the runway was cleared. This was lucky for Heathrow, as these home-made mortars had often been used in Northern Ireland to lethal effect; like the security services, the IRA were not at their most efficient in this attack. But then they probably never intended to be.

Their true purpose was a political one. The Provisional IRA were saying: sure there's a peace process, but it's not going the way we want, so remember that we can still strike at will. The Troubles might have been about to transfer to the political sphere, but the combatants wanted to enter that sphere with as much advantage as possible from their days of violence. Attacking such a massively symbolic target as the busiest airport in the world just hammered the point home.

Similar attacks would happen again twice during March, both targeted at Heathrow. It didn't end the peace process; it just reminded everyone how much hard work still needed to be done to keep the bombers and killers from going back to their old ways.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Massacre in Hebron

Baruch_GoldsteinTwenty years ago today, an American-born Israeli called Baruch Goldstein died. The inscription on his gravestone runs a bit like this: Here lies The saintly Dr. Reb Baruch Kappel Goldstein Of holy and blessed memory, May God avenge his blood.


Murdered as God’s martyr On Purim 1994 May his soul be bound in the bond of life

...which is pretty rich for a man who walked into a mosque dressed in army fatigues and carrying an assault rifle, with which he sprayed bullets at the congregation until 29 people were dead and 125 were injured. His own 'martyrdom' came after a fire extinguisher was thrown at his head, stunning him. The angry crowd then disarmed him and beat him to death.

He was an emergency doctor working in the occupied territories, and often treated casualties of the ongoing conflict between the Jewish settlers and the Palestinians who objected to someone settling on their land. But he refused to treat any of the Arab victims; he hated them with a passion. He'd already acted on his hatred the year before, by pouring acid and blood onto prayer mats in the mosque. Letters were written to the Israeli Prime Minister in protest, but nothing was done.

Goldstein had long been an extremist. As a boy in Brooklyn, he'd joined the Jewish Defense League, a militant organisation created by Meir Kahane, a man who had a series of interesting views - for example, that a second Holocaust was about to happen in the US, so all Jews should get themselves to Israel immediately. Goldstein joined Kahane's political party Kach (now banned as a terrorist organisation) when he emigrated to Israel, and stood for the Knesset in 1984. Despite his participation in an election, he disliked the Israeli democratic system so much that he likened it to that of Nazi Germany. Just to make his point clear, he wore a yellow star with the word Jude written on it.

The massacre, in a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, was a blow to the peace process - as Goldstein perhaps intended. He was certainly troubled by the thought that there might be some kind of peace settlement, though it's hard to be clear about the mindset of someone who committed such a terrible act. Perhaps he thought he was striking before arab terrorists could do the same. In the event, his actions provided justification for other extremists to do equally abominable things, whichever side they were targeted at.

Perhaps most hideously, his tomb became a site of veneration for ultra-orthodox Jews who claimed, among other things, that he was '100 per cent perfect', and 'holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust'. A shrine was built by his grave, although that was torn down in 1999 after legislation was passed outlawing monuments to terrorism. The grave itself remained, and is still a focus for those who wish to celebrate Goldstein's murders - and continue the cycle of violence and hatred that continues to this day.

This video sums up the whole thing; it's very much from the Palestinian point of view, but it's about as close to being even-handed as such a thing is likely to get.

Twenty Years Ago Today: All of this has happened before. And all of it will happen again.

_1062358_sudan300 Twenty years ago today, five gunmen stormed into the Ansar Al-Sunna mosque on the outskirts of Omdurman, Sudan, and opened fire upon the worshippers. When the guns fell silent, there were 19 dead and 26 injured.

Ansar Al-Sunna (not to be confused with the Iraqi insurgents that have a similar name) are an Islamic sect that prefers pacifism to violence. The gunmen were adherents of the Takfir wal-Hijra, a group that positively loves violence. They especially delight in using it to impose sharia law on anyone and everyone, and were unhappy that Ansar Al-Sunna disagreed with this.

This isn't the most appalling thing, though. The most appalling thing is what I discovered through inconsistencies in the reports of the incident: a confusion that had arisen because the same thing happened again six years later.

On December 8th, 2000, a lone gunman opened fire in the mosque as people were praying, killing 20 people and wounding 33. He did this for exactly the same reason as six years previously (if we can dignify any of this with the word 'reason'). The Sudanese president then cracked down on Takfir wal-Hijra, and tightened security laws so that people could be held for up to six months just on suspicion - though the killings may have been more of an excuse than anything else.

1994 is looking to be a bloody year. And this is not the last massacre we'll see this week.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Murders in Northern Ireland

200px-Emblem_of_the_Ulster_Defence_Association.svg An average news day in 1994 features all the stories you'd expect in a world hungry for the least bit of pointless trivia. And somewhere on page seven, buried under all the stories about celebrity anorexics and complaints about the reorganisation of London's phone books, you'll likely find a little bit of news datelined from Belfast, telling how this Catholic or that Protestant was murdered yesterday at the hands of paramilitaries.

The terrorist campaign on the British mainland was a series of occasional atrocities, sometimes preceded by coded warnings that permitted the authorities to evacuate the area in time. Months or years could pass between attacks. Not so in Northern Ireland itself; there, the war kept boiling on from day to day and week to week as the self-appointed defenders of each side shot and bombed civilians or police or soldiers simply to enforce a regime of terror, all the while keeping organised crime under their control so they could keep the funds rolling in.

Today's victims are from the Catholic community, shot dead in separate attacks by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who were later understood to be no more than a trading name of the Ulster Defence Association, the largest Loyalist paramilitary group. Their names were John Doherty, an engineer who was shot as he slept in South Belfast, and Cormac McDermott of Ballymena, Co Antrim, who was killed by gunmen who walked into his house. His wife was left with neck wounds in the attack, though she survived.

Better things are coming in the next few years for Ulster. Most of the paramilitary groups will lay down their arms, albeit grudgingly. There will be some backsliding, and the real extremists will break away into their own groups to continue killing and bombing, but their numbers will be far fewer.

The situation has definitely improved. But that doesn't bring back John Doherty or Cormac McDermott, or any of the thousands of others who died during the Troubles.

Twenty Years Ago Today: 17 November

November_17Yes, I know, it's not November the 17th. It's the 24th of January. But 17 November (or 17N) is something else entirely, although the revolutionary organisation was formed in memory of that date, the final day of a student uprising against the military government of Greece in 1973. They were marxists, or at least they claimed to be. They struck targets of the Greek government and allied powers, beginning with the CIA station chief in Athens. Curiously, they were unable to convince anyone that they'd actually committed the murder until they went out and killed their next target. And then people started taking them seriously, from 1975 until the group was disrupted in 2002 and most of them were sent to prison.

On this day in 1994, they committed one of their many murders - the assassination of the banker Michael Vranopoulos, former governor of the National Bank of Greece. He'd handled the sale of AGET-Hercules, the cement company that had furnished postwar Greece with most of the concrete from which it was built, and not everyone was happy with the bargain basement price paid for a state asset that should have belonged to the people.

But all this is safely in the past, and Greece has entirely different worries: the economic crisis just for a start, still impoverishing people across the nation while neofascists like the Golden Dawn take advantage and polarise the population.

Except that four days ago, on the 20th of January, 2014, a member of 17N, Christodoulos Xiros, absconded from the prison where he'd been since 2002, and immediately released a video manifesto in which he promised to continue 17N's terrorist campaign. Does this mean that the Revolutionary Organisation of the 17th of November is back? We'll find out soon enough.

We may think the past is safely buried under the weight of the present. But it's always there under the surface, waiting to break free...