A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations

Khalid Elhassan - August 26, 2017

Terrorist groups that relied on violence to intimidate societies and governments in order to achieve political, ideological, or religious aims, have existed for millennia. History’s first clearly identifiable terrorists emerged in the Holy Lands during the 1st century AD in the form of a clandestine organization of fanatics who engaged in public murder and exemplary atrocities in a bid to gain freedom from a foreign occupier.

A few centuries later during the medieval era, a movement of fanatical religious fundamentalists, again in the Middle East, declared that most of their co-religionists were backsliders, sinners, and apostates deserving of death, and engaged in a protracted campaign of terror, atrocities, and massacres, in much of the same territory where ISIS is operating in the 21st century.

Before the 20th century made them common, underground secret organizations had emerged that relied on targeted killings, assassinations, bullets and bombs to intimidate or overthrow governments. Following are 12 interesting facts about historic terrorist groups spanning nearly 2000 years, from the days of the Roman Empire to the eve of WWI.

The Sicarii Were History’s First Terrorist Group

The Sicarii were a militant faction of the Zealots, a 1st century AD Judean political movement that agitated to spark a rebellion to free the Holy Lands from the Roman yoke, leading to the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 AD. While the Zealots were radical, their Sicarii splinter went to extremes that made them history’s earliest identifiable terrorists, with methods that meet modern definitions of the term.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Sicarii. Reading Acts

The Sicarii, meaning “dagger men” in Latin, earned their name from the knives known as sicae, with which they killed their victims. Their goal was to cleanse the Holy Lands of Romans and their Jewish collaborators, and their standard tactic was to blend into crowds at public gatherings, wait for an opportune moment, and when it presented itself, suddenly charge their target, stab him, and escape during the resulting confusion and panic by blending into the crowd.

They primarily targeted the pro-Roman Jewish aristocracy for killing, burned their estates, and eventually turned to kidnapping and hostage-taking for ransom. The Sicarii’s prominent victims included a High Priest of the Jewish Temple, after whose killing they went on an assassination spree that terrorized Judea’s upper strata of Jews and Romans.

Their victims, particularly Imperial officials, were frequently targeted in a deliberate attempt to provoke the Romans, who seldom needed much provocation before resorting to massacres and collective punishment of the Hebrew population. That in turn kept the embers of discontent smoldering, and lit new flames of resentment while providing a steady and steadily growing stream of new recruits and sympathizers from the families and friends of the Roman victims.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Destruction of Jerusalem’s Jewish Temple. History Origins

The Sicarii Burned Bridges to Force the Populace’s Hand

Adopting a strategy common among terrorists today, the Sicarii engaged in sabotage to worsen the populace’s living conditions and keep them disgruntled, and faced with an occupier ready to resort to indiscriminate violence, they committed atrocities that all but guaranteed massive Roman retaliation. That forced the hands of many fence sitters by presenting them with the choice of doing nothing and likely ending up massacred or enslaved by angry Romans in no mood to distinguish “good” locals from bad, or joining the resistance in the hopes of gaining freedom, or at least the dignity of dying while fighting.

That strategy was in evidence during the run-up to the Jewish Revolt, which began in 66 AD when the Roman governor responded to tax protests by arresting prominent Jews and looting Jerusalem’s Temple. The protests escalated into a full-blown revolt that forced the Romans and their pet king to flee Judea. Early on, the Sicarii attacked and seized the fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea, then descended upon nearby Roman enclaves to massacre whomever they could find, and slaughtered over 700 Roman women and children. That ensured that there would be no turning back and thus solidified their own ranks, and simultaneously confronted other Judeans with the prospect of massive retaliation and collective punishment of the innocent and guilty alike should the Romans win.

The Sicarii then joined the Zealots and other rebels to attack Jerusalem, which they liberated in 66 AD. Once in control of the city, the Sicarii began killing known and suspected collaborators en masse, as well as any opponents, suspected opponents, and those who failed to express the requisite enthusiasm in supporting their cause. Their extremism led to a backlash and uprising by the city’s population, and a falling out with the other rebels that culminated in Sicarii defeat, the capture, torture, and execution of their leader, and the group’s expulsion from Jerusalem. The survivors retreated to the fortress of Masada and contented themselves with plundering the surrounding countryside.

In the meantime, the Zealots and other radicals managed to crush the popular backlash and retained control of Jerusalem until it was besieged, conquered, and razed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Romans then began mopping up operations and eventually reached the final holdouts, the Sicarii in Masada, whom they besieged. Realizing that all was lost and that their fate would be unenviable if they were captured, the Sicarii resorted to mass suicide, killing their families and then themselves.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
The Khawarij’s ideological successors today. The Daily Express

The Khawarij Were the Forerunners of ISIS

The Khawarij (Outsiders), were a radical fundamentalist faction of early Islamic dissenters who emerged during a bitter succession dispute following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Their ideology, particularly their concept of Takfir, whereby Muslims who disagreed with them were deemed apostates and kafirs (infidels), and thus no longer covered by the prohibition against killing fellow Muslims, provides the philosophical foundations for modern terrorists such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.

Following Muhammad’s death, a succession dispute erupted between those who believed that leadership should be confined to Muhammad’s family and bloodline, and those who thought it should be open to whomever the Muslim community chose. The former, a minority, coalesced around Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali and became known as the Shiites, or faction, of Ali. The latter, the majority, became known as the Sunnis.

Muslims elected the first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, from outside Muhammad’s family, bypassing Ali each time. On the fourth try, following the murder of the third Caliph, Ali was finally elected. However, the third Caliph’s relatives accused Ali of being implicated in the murder and engineered the election of another Caliph. The rival Caliphs went to war, but before the issue was settled in battle, Ali was prevailed upon to accept arbitration.

The Khawarij, who until then had supported Ali, opposed arbitration. Viewing the Caliphate as the collective property of the Muslim community, they argued that Ali had no authority to make a decision regarding who gets to be Caliph. Election by the community was the sole legitimate process for bestowing the Caliphate, argued the Khawarij, and the Muslim community had already elected Ali. By accepting arbitration to decide who would be Caliph, Ali was overstepping his boundaries and usurping a power of decision that was never his.

Ali went ahead with the arbitration, but it turned into a fiasco without settling the dispute or producing a result other than weakening him politically. The Khawarij soured on Ali, whom they now viewed as much of a usurper as his rival. So they decided to get rid of both, and hatched an assassination plot to kill the Caliphs on the same day during Friday prayers. Ali’s assassins succeeded, but those sent after his rival only wounded him, and surviving, he emerged as sole Caliph.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Khawarij. Islami City

The Khawarij Waged a Centuries-Long Terror Campaign

The Khawarij rose in rebellion against the Caliph whom they had failed to assassinate, who was now Islam’s sole ruler thanks to a helping hand from the Khawarij’s botched plot that had killed his rival, Ali, but left him alive. They contended that he was illegitimate because he gained the Caliphate by force of arms, rather than election by the Muslim community.

Their democratic and egalitarian principles, commendable as they may have been, were more than counterbalanced by a fierce fanaticism that was off-putting to many. They contended that backsliding or sinning, such as drinking alcohol, fornication, missing the daily prayers, failing to fast on Ramadan, or even idle gossip, rendered the sinner an apostate deserving of death. The Khawarij launched a program of terror against the Caliph’s supporters, as well as those who did not meet their purity standards, viewing them as apostates.

As the struggle intensified, they grew in viciousness, and eventually viewed even neutral Muslims as enemies: their failure to support the Khawarij despite the glaringly obvious righteousness of their position proved their apostasy, rendering them kafirs and not fellow Muslims whose blood the Khawarij were prohibited from shedding.

Atrocities abounded, from widespread torture and disfigurement of captives to slitting the bellies of pregnant women, to massacres of entire villages and towns. Their most extreme subsect, the Azariqah in southern Iraq, separated themselves from the entire Muslim community and declared death to all sinners – defined as all who did not share the Azariqah’s puritanical beliefs – and their families.

Their rebellion was eventually crushed, but embers remained, and the Khawarij became the anarchists of Islam’s first centuries, an ever-present irritant and menace. Rejecting the authority of the Caliphate, they engaged in a campaign of terror and assassinations, combined with a low-level insurgency in backcountry regions that would flare up every generation or two into a major rebellion that required considerable expense and effort to beat down.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Pilgrims jostling to touch the Black Stone of the Kaaba. Wikimedia

The Qarmatians Sacked and Desecrated Mecca

The Qarmatians combined elements of Zoroastrianism with Shiite Islam to form a radical sect that was deemed heretical by other Muslims. Starting off as bandits who earned a living attacking trade and pilgrimage caravans, the Qarmatians got religion after coming under the sway of a mystic, became a millenarian cult that preached the End of Days was near, and began gathering a large following of fanatics.

They rose in the 9th century and captured eastern Arabia and Bahrain, where they founded a utopian religious republic in 899. From that base, they terrorized the Middle East for generations during which they pillaged their neighbors, engaged in widespread banditry, massacred pilgrims by the tens of thousands, and seized and sacked Mecca.

The Qarmatians believed that pilgrimage to Mecca, a Pillar of Islam, was a superstition, so they began sending raiding parties to interdict the pilgrimage routes. In one such raid in 906, they massacred over 20,000 pilgrims. In 930, as part of a millenarian quest to speed up and usher in the End of Days, the Qarmatians seized Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, and sacked both. They killed over 30,000 pilgrims in Mecca, desecrated religious sites, and ritually and literally polluted the holy Well of Zamzam by stuffing it to the brim with the corpses of massacred pilgrims. They also seized the Black Stone, a meteorite rock affixed to the Kaaba and deemed holy by Muslims, took it back to their republic, and smashed it to pieces. They held the shards for a huge ransom, which was paid by the Abbasid Caliphate, who then reassembled the bits and restored them to the Kaaba.

After the sack of Mecca and Medina, pilgrimage came to a halt for nearly a decade, and only resumed after the Qarmatians were paid protection money from the region’s states, the Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphates, to refrain from attacking the holy cities anew. The tribute payments continued until a defeat in 976 to the Abbasids, which initiated a decline in Qarmatian fortunes. Their radicalism waned along with their power, and by 1058 they had abandoned the beliefs deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims and reverted to orthodox Islam. A decade later, the Seljuk Turks inflicted a decisive and final defeat upon the Qarmatians, and brought their republic to an end.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Assassination of Seljuk Grand Vizier Nizam al Mulk. Quora

The Order of Assassins

The Order of Assassins was a politico-religious cult led by a shadowy figure known as “The Old Man of the Mountain”. Despised as heretics by most Muslims, relatively few, and geographically dispersed, they punched far above their weight and wielded considerable power and influence throughout the Middle East by terrorizing the region for generations during the Middle Ages.

Their origins trace to the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam. For much of the medieval era, there had been a rough balance of power, with the less numerous Shiites championed by the smaller but rising Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt, while the more numerous Sunnis were led by the waning Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq. That balance was upset when the Seljuk Turks, who had recently adopted Sunni Islam, fell upon the Fatimids with all the zeal of the recently converted and broke their power between 1056-1060.

The Fatimids, defeated militarily, responded with clandestine warfare, using assassination as a political tool against the Sunni leadership. The architect of that campaign was Sheik Hassan al Sabah (1034 – 1124), a shadowy and exotic Islamic scholar who led a radical Shiite faction, the Nizari Ismailis, and founded the Assassins cult. With Fatimid funding, in 1090 Sheik Hassan seized Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia, and from that base expanded to establish a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria – earning him the moniker of Old Man of the Mountain, a title passed on to his successors. From those holdfasts, he sent suicide squads of killers known as fida’is (“self-sacrificers”) against prominent leaders throughout the Middle East.

Initially, the killing campaign hewed to the goals of the Assassins’ Fatimid sponsors, and the targets were prominent Sunni opponents of the Fatimids. However, the Assassins soon asserted their independence, and while retaining a degree of Fatimid financial backing, went into the killing business on their own hook to further their own agenda and goals. The result was nearly two centuries of terror, during which the fear of Assassins was an ever-present concern for Middle Eastern leaders and prominent figures of all faiths and denominations thereof.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Assassin seductresses. Kolybanov Live Journal

The Assassins’ Remarkable Recruitment Methods

The Assassins adopted one of the most innovative recruitment strategies known to history, by convincing recruits that their leader, the Sheik known as The Old Man of the Mountain, held the keys to paradise. Potential recruits would be summoned to an Assassin fortress, and there they would be housed in bare cells, and attend daily religious lectures and education, during which it would gradually be hinted that Sheik Hassan al Sabah or his successors held the keys to paradise. Then, one day the more promising of the young men would be drugged and plied with hashish, earning the group the Arabic name “Hashashin – a word that was rendered into “Assassins” by various Europeans.

When the recruit came to, high on hashish, he awoke to find himself amidst carefully landscaped orchard gardens through which clear streams meandered between rows of vines heavy with grapes, and trees ripe with fruit. Cute animals such as lambs and tame deer frolicked about; peacocks wandered around, ruffling and spreading their gorgeous tails; while brightly colored birds flitted through the branches above, trilling and filling the air with their song. And amid the breathtaking surroundings were breathtakingly beautiful women to seduce the recruit, cater to his physical desires, and satisfy his sexual whims.

Plying the youth with wine, keeping him high on hash, and feeding him mouth-watering delicacies that most recruits never knew existed let alone tasted, the temptresses would convince the besotted young man that he was in paradise and that his seductresses were the houris promised those who made it into heaven. Then, after days of wallowing in delights and indulging in heavenly pleasures, the young man would be drugged senseless once more, and removed from the gardens.

He would wake to find himself back in his bare cell and austere surroundings, and informed that he had been in paradise, sent there by the grace of the Old Man of the Mountain, who held the keys to heaven. The recruit would then be told that he could return to paradise, provided he died while killing the Sheik’s enemies. It proved highly effective: suicide squads of horny young fanatics, high on hash and desperate to die while killing the cult’s enemies, descended from the Assassins’ mountain holdfasts to terrorize the Middle East.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Assassins’ attempt on Edward I of England when he was on Crusade. Wikimedia

The Assassins’ Trail of Terror

The cult’s first victim of note was Nizam al Mulk, a Grand Vizier who had held absolute power in the Seljuk Empire for 20 years before the Assassins got him in 1092. During their centuries of operations, the cult’s suicide squads killed many prominent Middle Eastern figures, including numerous sultans, viziers, generals, Crusader higher-ups including a King of Jerusalem, and at least two Caliphs. In his youth, King Edward I of England was grievously wounded and barely survived an attack from an Assassin who snuck into the royal tent when Edward was on Crusade.

The Assassins’ suicide hitmen, unlike modern suicide bombers, were carefully selected and well trained in combat and disguises. Aside from the requisite physical fitness, they had to be quick thinking, well-read, intelligent, patient, calculating, cold, and possessing no small degree of charisma in order to infiltrate their opponents’ defenses, and gain access to and come within striking distance of their target.

Early believers in and practitioners of “propaganda of the deed”, whenever possible, the Assassins were not content to simply murder their victims, but sought to do so in as dramatic and public a manner as possible – particularly when it came to targets who had enveloped themselves in the heaviest layers of protective security. By public killings in front of as many horrified witnesses as possible, the Assassins aimed to advertise their cult’s reach, and strike fear into the hearts of leading men by fostering the perception that those targeted by the Assassins were dead men walking, no matter the precautions taken.

The most common tactics were for Assassin killer squads to study the routines of a targeted leader, then lie in wait for him during a heavily attended public event, such as a festival or Friday prayers at the mosque. At a signal given at an opportune moment, they would spring into action to stab and slash their victim, while shouting the name of their cult’s leader and whatever offense the victim had given. Stories also abound of Assassin sleepers who spent years diligently working their way up the ranks and into the inner circle of a given court, where they would patiently await instructions that might take decades to arrive, if ever. In some instances, a victim would discover during the final moments of his life that one or more of his bodyguards were Assassin cultists.

Sometimes the Assassins resorted to intimidation in lieu of murder, such as with the Seljuk sultan Sanjar, who had rebuffed ambassadors from the cult. He changed his mind after waking up one morning to find a note pinned to the ground near his bed by a dagger, informing him that had the Assassins wished him ill, the dagger stuck into the hard ground could have easily been stuck into his soft breast instead. Peace reigned between Seljuks and Assassins for decades, during which the Old Man of the Mountain was paid protection money, face-savingly described as a “pension”, and permitted to collect tolls from travelers passing near his fortresses.

Another whom the Assassins intimidated was the sultan Saladin, leader of the revived Islamic resistance against the Crusades. After retaking Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, Saladin marched on the Assassins, who had murdered his predecessor, and sought to end the cult once and for all. However, while encamped near their holdfasts in the mountains of northern Syria, he awoke in his tent one morning to discover that the Assassins had bypassed all his bodyguards and layers of protection to leave a menacing letter pinned to his pillow by a poisoned dagger, advising the sultan that they could kill him whenever and wherever they wanted. Saladin turned his army around, abandoned the campaign, and sent officials to negotiate an understanding with the current Old Man of the Mountain. Via such means, a grudging live-and-let-live relationship developed between the Assassins and the region’s powers.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Ruins of Alamout Castle atop summit in center of photo. Note the rugged and difficult surrounding terrain. Wikimedia

It Took the Mongols to Break the Assassins

The cult was finally broken by the Mongols, under Hulagu, when they overran the region in the 1250s. The Mongols were an alien people from far away, with no connections to the Middle East, and their leaders were not surrounded by Middle Eastern courtiers, but by their own kind in armed and highly mobile camps in which strangers conspicuously stood out. As such, the cult’s tactics of patient infiltration and blending in, which had worked so well in a region they knew and whose peoples they understood, were useless against the Mongols whom they neither knew nor understood, and whose ranks they had neither the means nor time to infiltrate.

The Mongols appeared too suddenly, acted too swiftly, and were too alien for the Assassins to get a handle on them or work out viable strategies and tactics for getting to their leadership. The Mongols’ bloodthirstiness, savagery, speed of action and reaction, and lack of interest in negotiations, simply went beyond anything the Assassins had ever experienced.

In the runup to their invasion of the Middle East, the Mongols began attacking and seizing Assassin fortresses in 1253, and as a preliminary to his conquest of the region, Hulagu took a detour in 1256 to storm the cult’s strongholds in Persia. He captured the last Old Man of the Mountain and forced him to order the remaining Assassin fortresses in Persia to surrender. Forty of them, including the main fortress of Alamout Castle, did so, and the Mongols razed them to the ground. Hulagu then sent the Old Man of the Mountain in chains to the Grand Khan in Mongolia, who had him executed. The Mongols then slaughtered all whom they could lay their hands on of the Nizari cult to which the Assassins belonged, along with their families, in a thorough genocide that broke their power once and for all, and reduced them, according to a contemporary historian, to “but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world“.

Remnants of the Assassins survived in Syria, which lay outside the Mongols’ control, until the Egyptian Mamelukes first reduced them to vassalage in the 1260s, and finally forced them to surrender their last fortresses in 1273. They were suffered to live and kept on retainer as contract killers, but their independence was forever gone. In that final iteration of contract killers, the steadily dwindling cult existed for a few decades more, surviving into the following century before vanishing into the mists of history.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Execution of People’s Will members in 1881. Executed Today

Narodnaya Volya – People’s Will

Narodnaya Volya, or “People’s Will”, was an underground 19th-century revolutionary organization that sought to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy of the Russian Empire by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. They are best known for their assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and for being the forerunners of even bigger and more effective anarchist and socialist organizations in the following decades.

People’s Will had its genesis in radical student study circles in the 1870s, which openly sought to spread socialist ideas to peasants and industrial workers. They were quickly repressed by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, who swiftly arrested and jailed the agitators. That led to a rethink, a growing consensus that only revolutionary violence could overthrow Tsarism, and the adoption of more clandestine and aggressive tactics – specifically, “propaganda of the deed”, or terrorism.

The result was Zemlya I Volya (Land and Liberty), a radical organization which advocated political assassinations as self-defense and justified revenge against oppressive officials but stopped short of viewing terror as a means of political struggle against the government. People’s Will, which splintered off from Zemlya I Volya in 1879 after the latter was nearly wiped out by the secret police following a failed assassination attempt on the Tsar, was more radical and viewed terror as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime, and not simply as a reactive means of retaliation.

From the outset, People’s Will called for violence, announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government, and issued a proclamation declaring a death sentence against the Tsar, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. They established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began publishing underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers.

People’s Will attempted to kill the Tsar in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later, planting a bomb in his palace, but he was not in the room when the explosives went off. A frightened Tsar declared a state of emergency and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. Amid mounting repression, including the hanging of People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets, the group doggedly persisted with its relentless efforts to assassinate the Tsar.

On March 1st, 1881, they finally succeeded. Waiting in ambush along a route taken by the Tsar every week, a People’s Will assassin threw a bomb under his carriage. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, the Tsar was unhurt, and the bomb thrower was captured. A shaken Tsar emerged from the carriage, and a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd spotted him crossing himself as he surveyed the damage. Shouting “it is too early to thank God!“, the assassin threw another bomb, this one landing and going off directly beneath the Tsar’s feet. A third assassin in the crowd, ready with yet another bomb if the first two had failed, but his explosives were unnecessary.

The assassins were arrested and hanged, and in the aftermath intensified repression effectively crippled People’s Will as its members were rounded up and executed or jailed. Terrorism was kept in check for years, but the repression created even more enemies for the regime, drove more opponents into underground clandestine resistance, and transformed the Russian Empire into a pressure cooker that finally erupted into revolution in 1905, and into an even greater revolution that finally did away with Tsardom in 1917. Surviving veterans of People’s Will, who began emerging from prisons at the turn of the century as their sentences expired, played important roles in both revolutions.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Emblem of the Black Hand. Forbidden Symbols

Serbian Black Hand

The Black Hand was an early 20th-century irredentist secret society that employed terrorist methods in a bid to free Serbs outside Serbia’s borders from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule and unify them into a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and the group’s assassins would go on to murder the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

The group’s founders first came together when junior officers, led by a then-Captain Apis, launched a coup that culminated in the murder of the Serbian king and queen in 1903. In 1908, following Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, an act Serbia resented, the 1903 conspirators met with senior Serb officials to found a secret pan-Serbian organization to liberate Serbs living under foreign rule via a campaign of propaganda, sabotage, terrorism, and other clandestine means. The following year, a furious Austria-Hungary forced Serbia, under threat of war, to abandon those activities.

In 1911, the Black Hand was established to resume the anti Austro-Hungarian clandestine campaign, oversee its activities, and establish and coordinate nationalist revolutionary cells in Bosnia. The organization trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into the Hapsburg empire to destabilize it with terrorism and stirring up nationalism and resentment among its Serbian subjects.

Serbia was a full-blown state sponsor of terrorism in that era, as the Black Hand’s leadership was composed primarily of high-ranking Serbian officials and army officers, including the crown prince, and the Serbian government was well informed of the group’s terrorist activities. Apis, who had led the coup that murdered the royal family in 1903, had risen to colonel in charge of Austria’s military intelligence by 1914, and was the Black Hand’s primary mover and shaker. That year, he hatched a plot to send assassins to murder Austria’s successor to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Capture of Black Hand assassin Gavrilo Princep after shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. BBC

The Black Hand Committed History’s Most Impactful Terrorist Act

No single act of terrorism has had a greater impact than did the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo by Black Hand assassins. After a comedy of errors in which various assassins tried but failed to kill the Archduke, including one who threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then attempted to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide that had expired, and drowning himself in a river that was only inches deep, the royal’s convertible took a wrong turn that brought it within a few feet of Gavrilo Princep, an assassin who had given up on the affair and gone to grab a bite. Princep stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

Austria eventually declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That, in turn, dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally, which brought in France, Russia’s ally against Germany, which prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. That gave Britain a more palatable justification to join as an outraged guarantor of Belgium’s violated sovereignty, in lieu of the realpolitik European balance of power considerations which would have compelled her to fight Germany anyhow.

In the ensuing war, over 70 million men were mobilized and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. A staid age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a new fervent and fast-paced era of democracies juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism emerged in its place. The Black Hand’s bullets in Sarajevo irrevocably changed the world.

Serbia did not fare well. It stood off an initial Austrian onslaught, but in 1915 the Germans joined and helped the Austrians overrun Serbia. One-fifth of Serbia’s population perished during the war – the highest casualty percentage suffered by any country in WWI. Serbia’s prime minister finally had enough of the Black Hand, which had grown too powerful and too meddlesome. In 1917, its leaders, including Apis, were arrested and tried on trumped up charges for conspiracy to murder the Prince Regent. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and executed, and the group was outlawed.