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

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.