Kyle Orton, Syria and terrorism analyst
The world has been captivated this week by the scenes of an insurrectionary mob overrunning the United States Capitol at the behest of President Donald Trump. It is unlikely that many people remember or even know that nearly forty years ago, this building—the meeting place of the U.S. Congress, the place where laws are made—was bombed by a Communist terrorist group, a group remarkable for its all-female membership. A new book, Tonight We Bombed the Capitol: The Explosive Story of M19, America’s First Female Terrorist Group, by William Rosenau, a senior policy historian at CNA and a fellow in the International Security program at New America, examines this forgotten episode.
The May 19th Communist Organization (or M19) emerged in America out of the counter-cultural radicalism of the 1960s, particularly latching on to the civil rights movement and supporting the gruesome Soviet-directed Communist insurgency in Vietnam. It is not an accident that the name is derived from the shared birthday of Malcolm “X” Little (1925) and Ho Chi Minh (1890), the Vietnamese Communist leader.
The members of M19 who are still alive would not speak to Rosenau, but freedom of information (FOI) requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) meant he was able to gather thousands of documents, the FBI’s own and those captured from M19. Court records, affidavits, declassified wiretap transcripts, and contemporaneous press reports helped fill in the gaps, allowing Rosenau to put together an absorbing, in-depth narrative.
M19 emerged out of the Weather Underground Organization, whose most infamous member is Bill Ayers, and the Weathermen were themselves an offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), probably the largest Left-wing student organization in American history. As the Weather Underground faded away in the late 1970s, M19 was left as a kind of residue that then linked up for training and experience with “black power” racist groups, before emerging in the early 1980s as a capable, coherent organization of its own.
Rosenau sketches out the profiles of M19’s core members, and it is a very effective method of showing the profile of people drawn to the group, and how the radicalization process proceeded step-by-step. One possible criticism of the book is that it is quite difficult to keep track of the cast of characters and organizations; this is not really a criticism of Rosenau, however. As the below overview will show, the path to M19 was messy; to represent it otherwise would be to falsify the record.
The Cast of Characters
Judith Alice Clark (b. 1949) and Susan Lisa Rosenberg (b. 1955) were central to M19. Both were born in New York, both to middle-class Jewish families, and both to political, Left-ish parents—increasingly anti-Communist reformed Stalinists in the case of Clark, and progressive liberals in the case of Rosenberg. Both women pursued higher education, were radicalized at university, got involved in civil rights and Vietnam activism, and supported Fidel Castro’s transformation of Cuba into a Soviet satellite. Within the civil rights milieu, Rosenberg in particular found her way to the most violent fringe elements, the separatists and “black power” racists like the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the Black Panthers, and the Black Liberation Army (BLA)—groups that would later be important in building M19’s capacity. It is outside the scope of Rosenau’s study, but it is fascinating to recall that one way the Panthers provoked mainstream American society in the 1960s was by the open carry of weapons, proclaimed as necessary for defending themselves against the state, rather than helping to defend the state—a theme, one among many, that has now been absorbed by modern gun culture and its adherents who generally self-define as patriotic conservatives.
Later M19 members included the Italian Silvia Baraldini (b. 1947), a child of privilege who found SDS and the Black Panthers on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Donna Joan Borup (b. 1947-52) was one of the few genuine proletarians in the group, a native of New Jersey with a high IQ. Susan Vicki Tipograph (“Tip”) (b. 1950), another New Jersey native, was radicalized at Jackson State, with the Kent State shootings and Vietnam generally as her gateways, and then worked as a lawyer in New York where she had four women in her office: Baraldini, Rosenberg (with whom Tipograph was especially close), Eve Rosahn, and, later, Marylin Jean Buck (b. 1947).
Born to liberal parents in a conservative city (Austin, Texas), Buck had been briefly at Berkley, a centre of Sixties agitation, before moving on to neglect her Russian major at other institutions while she threw herself into SDS. In October 1967, Buck attended the 100,000-man protest at the Pentagon. “On the nightly news, all of America saw a parading rabble of peace creeps, potheads, and assorted deadbeats”, writes Rosenau. “Hippies conducted ancient Aramaic exorcism rites in the hope of driving out war-making ‘demons’ from the building.”
Inspired by Stokely Carmichael, the “black power” activist who created splits in the civil rights movement by challenging Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership, Buck gravitated to BLA, which conducted a murder spree against policemen from California to New York. Buck was imprisoned in 1973, but under the lax codes of the 1970s she was allowed out several times, the last time to see her lawyer, Susan Tipograph, in June 1977. Buck absconded and went underground, finding shelter among the radical communities in New York. Buck’s arrival “augured new revolutionary possibilities”, says Rosenau. Buck would reconnect with the BLA and this time she took the other M19 women with her.
The Black Power Origins
An important person M19 founders were close to was Jeral Wayne Williams (Mutulu Shakur), often called “Doc” because he was a part of the Lincoln Detox program in the Bronx that supposedly got people off drugs; its treatment through Marxism and acupuncture led the New York mayor to shut the place down in November 1978 on grounds it was using taxpayer money to run a Red re-education camp. Williams simply moved his “clinic” to his home in Harlem under the name of the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America (BAAANA).
Williams’ “Family”—unclear if named deliberately after Charles Manson’s gang—consisted of former Panthers and BLA operatives, men like Tyrone Rison (Osedrick Lalupe) and army veteran Sekou Odinga, who carried out armed robberies that they contended were “revolutionary expropriations” of capitalist exploiters. The stolen money, ostensibly being donated to RNA, went in considerable measure to cover the ever-escalating cocaine addiction of Williams’ crew.
The Family pulled off three major heists over the eighteen months from mid-1977 to the end of 1978—and would keep on into the early 1980s. The Family had help on one of the operations from Weatherman David Gilbert, and—with Buck as the intermediary, in contact with her old BLA comrades who were now working for Williams—M19 joined the Family as what they called “the white edge”.
M19 provided the Family with logistical support, some of it quite sophisticated: surveillance, false identifications and other documents, safe houses, perimeter security during operations, and “switch cars” for getaway drivers. And the Family provided a perfect revolutionary environment of non-stop indoctrination, where “bourgeois affectations” as minor as laziness could be stamped out.
The Puerto Rican Separatist Connection
Difficult as it is to imagine now, Croatians were a major source of terrorism in the 1970s, quite actively in New York, and another major source was Puerto Rican separatists. The Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) wanted to create an independent Puerto Rico modelled on, and aligned with, Castro’s Cuba, and carried out one-hundred-plus bombings in New York in service of this aim in the 1970s. FALN’s main bomb-maker was William Morales. Captured after mishandling explosives, Morales’ lawyer was none other than Tipograph, who promptly helped arrange his escape from Bellevue Hospital in May 1979. When Morales was captured in Mexico in 1983, he told authorities how Tipograph had slipped him bolt cutters.
Alan Berkman (b. 1945), a doctor treating Morales at Bellevue, conspired with M19 in breaking Morales out. Berkman had been born to a modest yet stable Jewish family in Brooklyn and seemed the picture of the all-American mainstream until he deviated into revolutionary politics in the early 1970s, becoming associated with SDS and then the Weather Underground. Combining his Marxism and medical training, Berkman had worked for a Black Panther-created clinic in the Bronx, and graduated from raising funds for Soviet and Chinese proxies in the Third World like the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) to rioting.
Berkman was technically not a member of the Weather Underground; he had been active with the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), the non-underground bit of the Weather Underground. Berkman was a Weather sympathiser but legitimately did not know PFOC was controlled by Weather. PFOC member Laura Whitehorn (b. 1945) did know that PFOC was a front for Weather; she was a Weather operative whose whole job was to steer PFOC on behalf of Weather. Whitehorn had the prototypical profile of an M19 member: born to a comfortable middle-class family in Brooklyn, Jewish, a lesbian, educated, an activist on civil rights and Vietnam, infatuated with the Black Panthers, and a member of SDS who had gone with the Weathermen when the movement fractured. Rosenberg was also a PFOC member. Berkman, Whitehorn, and Rosenberg became acquainted.
In January and February 1976, PFOC held a “Hard Times” conference, with the agenda set by the Weather Underground, and it was a disaster: sticking to the orthodox workers-first political line, the various other groups—Puerto Ricans, Palestinians, women, homosexuals—that comprised the far-Left of that period were informed that their role was strictly secondary, and it split the movement, just as the Black Panthers and so many other extreme-Left organizations had split earlier. The West Coast faction of PFOC kept the name; the East Coast section, under Rosenberg’s guidance, was renamed the May 19th Communist Organization. Berkman stayed with this nascent M19 and fully committed after the Morales breakout.
This organizational infrastructure inherited from PFOC allowed M19 to retain an overt existence to get its message out.
There is no clear founding moment for M19; indeed, its evolution into a separate entity was more a process than an event, and it always remained—at least until the very end, when it had separated itself from the world entirely—enmeshed in a broader milieu of Left-wing radicals.
The nearest to a founding document for M19 that Rosenau could find is a 1979 manifesto, “The Principles of Unity of the May 19th Communist Organization”, though M19 had clearly existed since at least 1978. M19 declared Marxism-Leninism to be its “science” and its creed to be “revolutionary anti-imperialism”, entailing a war with the ultimate “white oppressor nation”, the “parasite on the Third World”, i.e. the United States.
This anti-imperialism played out in M19’s loyalty to so-called anti-colonial “national liberation” movements in the Third World that were in fact generally instruments Communist colonialism, either the Soviet Union’s or Red China’s. M19 tended to veer closer to Mao Zedong’s China. One of the foreign causes for which M19 raised money was Robert Mugabe’s terrorist campaign in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, for example. Mugabe was backed by Peking (and North Korea). M19’s internal practices, notably the endless “struggle sessions” (public self-criticism), tended to be closer to Maoism, too.
M19’s discourse on anti-imperialism and anti-racism had a domestic dimension that conceived of the U.S. as having “internal colonies” of blacks, Natives, and Puerto Ricans that also had to be “liberated”.
M19 was feminist and anti-sexist, of course, but it rejected the mainstream women’s movement grouped around the National Organization for Women, figures like Betty Friedan, and causes such as equal pay and abortion rights. To M19 these were insufficient: the problem was systemic—the whole capitalist system and its rapacious, racist imperialism—and the only answer was violent revolution.
Related to this, many of the women in M19 were homosexual and, as was au courant in the 1960s-70s, rejected any distinction between the personal and political. This did not quite lead to an embrace of the lesbian separatism that was part of the radical landscape of the era; men were not excluded entirely from M19, but they had to know their place. Men could have various uses in the struggle—if they embraced the “correct” ideology. One use envisioned for men was as sperm donors, which was one of the first tasks for Berkman. Clark wanted to become pregnant as a “conscious lesbian” and Berkman made this possible; she had a daughter in November 1980.
More and Worse
In November 1979, M19 assisted Williams in breaking cop-murderer and former BLA coordinator Joanne Chesimard (Assata Shakur) out of prison and spiriting her down to Cuba. This was a rather more serious operation than, say, the Weathermen breaking Timothy Leary out of prison in September 1970 and getting him to a Black Panther commune in Algeria. Leary was one of the great spiritual gurus of the counterculture, disconnected from reality most of the time by the LSD he promoted. Meanwhile, in 1980-81, Williams’ Family engaged in a feedback loop of reckless robberies to feed a cocaine habit that made them more reckless and more in need of cash; any doubts the M19 women had about Williams’ leadership are not displayed in the record.
Timothy Adolf Blunk (b. 1957), son of a Presbyterian preacher from Princeton, had gotten an athletic and academic scholarship to Hampshire College in Amherst Massachusetts, a very “experimental” place where he took up modern dance and studied jazz. Blunk joined the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC), a front for M19, to which he was soon recruited by Rosenberg, with whom he remained close as a protégé. Blunk, the second male in the group, soon had a use: to marry Baraldini so she could remain in the country.
Blunk had been on a sponsored trip to Castro’s Cuba and had been drawn into a particularly virulent hatred of the National Party government in South Africa. One of his first acts with M19 was disrupting the September 1981 North American tour by the Springboks, the South African rugby union team. A bomb went off at the Eastern Rugby Union clubhouse in Schenectady on 22 September; it was never solved but it is likely it was a Family-M19 operation. And on 26 September, a crowd of sixty people, including a handful of M19ers, broke into John F. Kennedy International Airport to protest the Springboks on their way home, except that they were not there. Undeterred, they protested anyway, during which Blunk punched a policeman and Borup threw acid in the face of another. Blunk would later try to portray his hooliganism in the righteous language of resisting “white supremacy” and “killer cops”, a pattern of behaviour repeated over the summer with the Black Lives Matter-led disturbances in various American cities. Blunk, Borup, Rosahn, Mary Patten, and Margo Pelletier were charged and dubbed the “Anti-Springbok Five” by M19. Borup skipped bail and is still missing.
The end of the line for the BAAANA Family came on 20 October 1981, when Williams organized a raid against a truck from the private security firm Brink’s as it was making its last collection of the day from Nanuet National Bank in New York. It was a fiasco. Several policemen were murdered. Williams managed to get away. Clark, Rosenberg, and Buck were arrested, with Rosenberg having lost her nerve during the getaway and Buck accidentally shooting herself.
While M19 was concentrated in New York, it had other branches around the country, notably in Austin, Boston, and Chicago. The group had about thirty core members, though with affiliates and its above-ground networks it could claim about one-hundred members. The Austin branch would prove important after 1981 since it had been immunized from the New York catastrophe, enabling M19 to rebuild from the outside-in.
Elizabeth Anna Duke (Betty Ann) was in Texas during the Brink’s disaster and thus not on the FBI’s radar, and the same was true for another Texan, Linda Sue Evans. The duo formed the Austin-based wing of M19 and their story mirrored the others, moving in the civil rights milieu in the 1960s, encountering more extreme ideas on campus, getting into trouble at university, and then moving on to radical agitation with respect to Vietnam.
Evans’ trigger event was finding out via a sensational story in Ramparts in 1966 that her university, Michigan State, had run a program, discontinued in 1962, trying to reform and professionalize the police for Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in South Vietnam. Evans’ scruples about autocracy might be easier to take seriously had she not gone to Hanoi to speak at a rally for the Ho regime that was used as propaganda across Southeast Asia. (Whitehorn would also go to Vietnam to speak in favour of the Communists, in July 1975, three months after they had conquered the South and begun the bloodbath.)
Evans had easily moved on from SDS after it collapsed in 1969 to the Weather Underground and was soon arrested, being described rather unkindly in the FBI files as looking “hard, like a man”. Moving back to Texas after her trouble with the law, Evans had eventually come to represent M19 locally.
Originally serving important above-ground messaging functions—the Texan M19 branch focused on agitation against the Ku Klux Klan, as opposed to overt Communist propaganda—eventually Evans became M19’s armourer, as Buck had been earlier via BLA.
Terrorism had been an enormous problem for the U.S. in the 1970s. In 1971, there were more than four-hundred terrorist attacks. In March 1976, the FBI was conducting nearly 5,000 domestic security investigations and by then the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) had destroyed the KKK and helped splinter and collapse the Black Panthers. Yet, by 1978, under the weight of public opinion, there were just 102 investigations ongoing. What had happened?
In the mid-1970s, between Watergate, the Church Committee, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations that undermined some of the earlier findings about the Kennedy assassination, American trust in government institutions was low, and lowest of all in the intelligence services. Previously secret parts of the government were brought into the light, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and FBI were exposed to scrutiny without precedent in the history of state intelligence services. The Soviet State Security Committee (KGB), which suffered from no democratic accountability, was able to use the West’s process of self-criticism to portray U.S. intelligence as malevolent, leading to further calls for restraints on them and even less trust in them from Americans . All the while, the Soviets were taking advantage of the détente policy to press ahead with advances around the world.
Rosenau has a chapter in the middle of the book (number nine) on the way the accession to power of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in January 1981 reversed this trend. Authority was restored to American intelligence agencies and Soviet subversion was met head-on in the Western Hemisphere and beyond, including by uprooting a Soviet-Castro colony from Grenada in October 1983. The importance of this to the M19 story is that the FBI director William Webster put counter-terrorism on the same footing as counter-intelligence and organised crime—and did so because inter alia the Reagan administration acknowledged that these were not entirely separate issues.
During the Cold War, it was often considered a “conspiracy theory” to say the Soviets were at some level supporting, let alone coordinating, terrorist groups around the world like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Except that it was true, as the records showed once the Berlin wall came down. Someone like Samuel T. Francis, a far-Right former Heritage analyst, who proposed that the Leftist terrorist groups in the U.S.—the Weather Underground, BLA, FALN, and so on—formed a single, if loose, milieu, with Soviet support feeding into this broad network, was far nearer the truth than much mainstream reportage and analysis that favoured the “lone nut” explanation of terrorism.
As an example: it is clear from the records that, in 1986, M19 hosted operatives from the Red Army Faction (“Baader-Meinhof Gang”), a group supported deniably by the KGB through its East German satellite service, the Stasi. How often this happened and how far the coordination went we will now never know because the documents are lost and none of the M19 survivors will speak, but it can be assumed this is the tip of the iceberg.
The Brinks job in October 1981 had taken the FBI off-guard; they knew essentially nothing about M19 at that time. With the recovery of the Family’s documentation, the arrest of Rosahn a week after the Brinks raid had happened, and the discovery of Evans fingerprints at the scene, the FBI became aware that M19 was something separate to the Family and the Bureau was determined to use their new-found public trust to win confidence by redoubling their efforts to suppress Leftist terrorism. The investigation was dubbed NYROB, and efforts were made to institutionalise cooperation between federal and state law-enforcement, heretofore an ad hoc process, resented by both sides.
Williams just evaded police in March 1982, but Berkman was arrested soon after; he could only be imprisoned for contempt since he refused to speak, but, as soon as he was let go, the FBI run him in on conspiracy-after-the-fact charges for treating Buck’s gunshot wound, the first time such a charge was used since Dr. Samuel Mudd treated the fractured leg of John Wilkes Booth in 1865 after he had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Baraldini was picked up in November 1982 after Rison had become a state informant and disappeared into witness protection.
All or Nothing
While it might have made sense for M19 to have disbanded at this stage and melted away, given that most of its members were probably untraceable, there was the “sunk cost” consideration—the sacrifice of all that time in the underground, which, as Rosenau wonderfully explains, is above all else boring, and it would all be for nothing if they called it quits. And, obviously, they were believers, so M19 went the other way: they would go for all-out revolution.
M19 now staged five rather daring attacks:
- January 28, 1983: At 22:30, a bomb was detonated in the women’s bathroom on the second floor of the FBI’s New York office on Staten Island.
- August 18, 1983: At four minutes past midnight, Building 196 at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., was blown up after a warning call eight minutes earlier.
- November 7, 1983: At 22:58, ten minutes after a warning call, a bomb went off on the second floor of the Capitol Building’s north wing, leaving a fifteen-foot crater, shredding a picture of John C. Calhoun, and in total doing about a million-dollars’ worth of damage. In the message claiming responsibility, M19 made clear they had considered a lethal attack but had decided against it on this occasion. This was just a fortnight after the 23 October Iran/Hizballah bombing against the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and Senator Jeremiah Denton of the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism fulminated that it had taken the Beirut attack and now this to get the media to take terrorism seriously.
- April 6, 1984: Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) was bombed at 1:45 AM after a five-minute warning. The M19 communiqué said it was because the Israelis had supplied weapons to the governments of Guatemala and South Africa, and attacked Nixon, Reagan, Jerry Falwell, and New York mayor Ed Koch.
- April 20, 1984: About 2 AM, the officer’s club at the Navy Yard was blown up, “retaliation” for the OCEAN VENTURE 84 exercises that were partly meant as psychological warfare against the Communist insurgency in El Salvador and the Soviet-dependent Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua that supported it. M19 believed the exercises were a preparatory move for a full-scale invasion of Central America. “Their officer’s club is gone, let them hide in their homes”, the post-attack communique said.
The first attack was claimed by the Revolutionary Fighting Group (RFG), the second two by the “Armed Resistance Unit” (ARU), and the last two by the “Red Guerrilla Resistance” (RGR). The FBI, while was reasonably sure from the bomb signatures that all these attacks were by one group, needed evidence.
Decline and Fall
It was quite a blow to morale for M19 when it was reduced to holding up a Stop & Shop supermarket near Hartford on 2 September 1984. Well-planned as the operation was, with Buck doing reconnaissance, and Berkman and Blunk robbing the place, netting $20,000, it broke their mystique of not being common criminals, and it also underlined just how far removed they were from anything like society; nobody, even on the hard-Left, cared about them enough to help keep them afloat.
Still, they continued the “armed campaign”:
- September 26, 1984: At 00:23, after a call fifteen minutes earlier, the South African government’s Consulate in Midtown, New York, was blown up with the most powerful bomb of M19’s. The statement to The Associated Press said the attack was “in solidarity with resistance to South African human rights violations. Down with apartheid.”
Rosenberg and Blunk were arrested while moving an enormous trove of explosives in November 1984. Blunk wrote an excoriating self-criticism about how easily he had given himself up to the police.
Buck, Whitehorn, and Evans moved to Baltimore in February 1985, and Berkman and Duke followed suit soon after. Buck and Berkman were among the most-wanted criminals by the FBI at this time, but M19 had one last attack left in it:
- February 23, 1985: At 1:03 AM, a bomb targeting the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA) on the twenty-first floor of 250 Broadway in Manhattan wounded two maintenance workers and did considerable damage. “PBA … promotes racist murder and killer cops”, said the communique taking responsibility.
During the three months in Baltimore, says Rosenau, M19 looked most like a cult. The Maoist war against Wrong Think was always a feature of M19. Now the group was five people, trapped together, on the run, with legitimate reasons for paranoia as authorities closed in, while already believing in fanatical and fantastical things: every scrap of information from the outside world was filtered, ideologically, and it made the world around them totally incomprehensible. The main phase of M19’s terrorist operations was during the Reagan era; it is doubtful they ever knew what that meant. Even decades later, when some were released from prison in the twenty-first century, they decorated their homes as if it was the 1970s.
Buck and Evans were arrested in Manhattan on 11 May 1985 and Whitehorn was arrested back in Baltimore the same day. Berkman and Duke, professional revolutionaries, had not panicked but sought to get out of the country; they failed and were arrested in the evening of 23 May 1985.
Duke was a “cleanskin”—she had never been in trouble with the law before—and family, friends, and clergy successfully used that fact to lobby for her to be granted bail, which Duke promptly skipped in October 1985; she has not been seen from that day to this. Rumours have surfaced occasionally that she is travelling with Borup, who also remains at large.
In the cult-like atmosphere of the final few months, M19 was preparing to become more extreme. The last thing M19 had been contemplating was “targeted assassinations” of U.S. government officials, specifically Berkman was musing on this, and bombing the supermarket at the Goldens Bridge Shopping Centre.
The above-ground infrastructure of M19 dissolved at this point.
In 1988, Evans, Whitehorn, Buck, Rosenberg, Blunk, Berkman, and Duke were indicted for the New York and D.C. bombings. For reasons never explained, the government accepted a plea deal in September 1990 that meant there was no trial: Evans, Whitehorn, and Buck took the rap in exchange for charges dropped against Blunk, Berkman, and Duke. All six were already in prison for long stretches for other offences. Duke was excluded from the plea since she was (and is) on the lam.
The story did not quite end there. Dianna Block, an old comrade of Rosenberg, Evans, and Baraldini in the Weather Underground before the 1976 split over PFOC, was involved in an attempt to break the former FALN leader Oscar Lopez Rivera out of jail in 1985. Block was part of a nameless terrorist group the FBI called SEQUEL SIX that was inspired by the 1979 Chesimard breakout. Ultimately, the FBI was able to turn this into a sting since Lopez’s accomplice got cold feet and Lopez had fifteen years added to his sentence.
Lopez turned down a commutation offer from President Bill Clinton in 1999 when he found the conditions too strenuous but was given a commutation without conditions and allowed to walk free by President Barack Obama three days before he left office in 2017. As we have been reminded recently: a President’s pardon power is constitutionally unrestricted and as such they do not even have to put forward a reason for their decisions. Nonetheless, this was very strange.
On President Clinton’s last day in office in January 2001, he pardoned Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army member (she was already out of jail after a commutation to time-served by Jimmy Carter in 1979), and commuted the sentences of Rosenberg and Evans, who were soon free.
Clark’s sentence, which included a conviction for second-degree murder, was commuted by New York governor Andrew Cuomo after a meeting between the two in September 2016 and she was free by April 2019, to the utter fury of the New York police and the victims’ families.
Berkman got out in 1992 and died in 2009, the only one who showed signs of ideological deceleration. Whitehorn had walked out of jail after completing her sentence in August 1999. Baraldini was transferred back to Italy in 1999, after sixteen years in U.S. prison, and served the remainder of her sentence to 2006 under house arrest.
Rosenau’s book gives a very good look at what tradecraft looked like in the pre-internet age. Things like “hijacking” a life story by using the birth certificate of a deceased child cannot be done any more; it is too easy to check digital databases. Technology has changed terrorism and espionage in that sense; a legend has to be constructed differently now.
The false wigs and disguises, taking mundane jobs to hide in plain sight and avoid suspicion, the tedium, and the bad diet (one M19 operative, Cathy Wilkerson, said she ate “oatmeal, candy, doughnuts, coffee, the occasional egg or grilled cheese sandwich, and red wine and bourbon”, plus endless cigarettes) are constants.
Rosenau makes a crucial point for American readers: they should not consider terrorism a foreign phenomenon, and he gives the examples of the white supremacists who tried to overturn the outcome of the Civil War through terrorism during the Reconstruction period and the anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This very American factor can be seen in the clemency granted by various Democratic officials: the M19 terrorists became symbols within U.S. politics and there was popular political gain from being seen to support them.
That said, the anarchist analogy demonstrates somewhat the opposite point: they were a worldwide phenomenon; one murdered the liberal Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, for instance, and such “triumphs” fed anarchists in other countries. Something similar can be said of M19: it wasn’t purely a domestic phenomenon; it fed from a placenta of Communist global support and if there is an area where the book could have benefited from more depth of study it is on the Soviet and Cuban links to M19.
Possibly the most contemporaneously relevant element of M19 is its “anti-Zionism” and its belief that Israel—which was always referred to in quotation marks—is a “white settler” country, a racist ethnostate from its inception, just like the U.S., where the police uphold a systemic oppression of non-white people, thus violence is legitimate against them and dehumanizing language (“pigs”) is morally defensible. The Soviet-derived phenomenon of Left-wing antisemitism under the name of “anti-Zionism” has afflicted politics in many places, notably in Britain, and the U.S. has been convulsed for some time now with the question of whether violence (and looting) can be counted as a form of “protest” and whether the police have any right to stop this behaviour. It is an interesting reflection that ideas once confined to an underground terrorist group of less than three-dozen people are now considered debateable in the mainstream.
Finally, it is notable that the U.S. intelligence services waged war against M19 scrupulously within the law, and, as has been demonstrated elsewhere, there are great advantages to pursuing this course; whatever short-term security gains there are in extra-judicial methods, over the long-term this is a political loser, and with insurgencies politics is far more important than any military engagement.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.