10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s

Peter Baxter - July 29, 2018

The 1970s was the ‘golden age’ of terrorism. Countless, fringe left or right leaning militant organizations were active in European, Asia and the Middle East, and in both North and Nouth America. Airline hijackings, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations were all the weapons of choice. In the United States, the period between 1970 and 1979 was probably the most active period of its history in terms of domestic terrorism. Some 184 individuals were killed and more than 600 injured in terror-related incidences, contrasting sharply with a mere seventy-four similar deaths in the decade and a half since 9/11.

An example was the Jewish Defense League, a right-wing religious organization that was responsible for forty-four bombing across the United States, hitting targets perceived to be anti-Semitic, mainly in New York, but also Los Angeles and Chicago. The Black Panther organization was another, being responsible for twenty-four known bombings. ‘Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional’, a Puerto Rican separatist group, and let’s face it, who ever heard of them, claimed responsibility for eighty-two bombings, mostly in the New York area.

In this list, however, we will look at ten of the most iconic fringe terror groups of the 1970s, long before the globalization of international terror.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
Baader-Meinhof, the poster child of seventies anarchy. Pacific Standard

The Red Army Faction

Anyone in the forties or fifties will no doubt remember the name ‘Baader-Meinhof’, the more recognizable name of the ‘Red Army Faction’. Baader-Meinhof, described usually as a far-left militant organization, was the brainchild of two narcissistic West Germans by the names of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, along with a revolving cast of other players. The organization never achieved much in terms of numbers, but it did gain considerable notoriety and claim responsibility for a disproportionate amount of the mayhem of the era.

Baader-Meinhof was founded in the 1970s, a period that was characterized mainly by the last of the liberation wars of the imperial age, the emergence of the anti-apartheid movement, the rise of Arab militancy and the greatest intensity of the Vietnam War. The core objectives of the organization were nothing if not vague. The Thirty-six-year-old Ulrike Meinhof, a well-born academic, was ‘radicalized’ while at university, and one of her earliest comments on the matter was simply: ‘Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.’

There is something chillingly succinct about this comment, and what did not please her at the time was the Vietnam War, and after several arson attacks in Frankfurt protesting the war, she made the acquaintance of the main perpetrator, Andreas Baader. Baader was another well-bred intellectual with violent inclinations, and although the chemistry took some time to mature, when it did, the yeast rose on one of the most notorious left-wing terror groups in modern European history.

There were many battle cries and slogans that emanated from Baader-Meinhof, and one such was: ‘Let the class struggle unfold! Let the proletariat organize! Let the armed resistance begin!’

It was all very stirring stuff, and a steady cast of student militants, left-wing extremists and vain-glorious psychopaths passed through the organization. The first major attack was a series of department store bombings in Frankfurt, followed three years later by a notorious bomb attack staged against as US military barracks, also in Frankfurt, that killed one and injured thirteen.

From then on, the most notable incidences tended to be kidnappings and killings designed to pressure the German government into releasing jailed members.

Did Baader-Meinhof achieve much? Not really. The organization was part of a wide network of similarly aligned groups, but apart from a relatively insignificant body-count, the organization died out with his founding members. It is interesting to note that one member, Horst Mahler, switched sides, and is now a neo-Nazi holocaust denier, so clearly, the ideology was not that important. In 1998, the organization dissolved itself after a decade or more of inactivity. Andreas Baader died in a suicide pact in a German prison in 1977, and Ulrike Meinhof likewise a year earlier. In her case, at least, suspicions of assassination linger, but there is something rather fitting that these two disturbed souls might find final communion in self-destruction.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
Black September, taking no prisoners. CNN

Black September

The Black September organization was rather edgier, and it was involved in a struggle where the stakes were a great deal higher. Again, anyone in their forties or fifties will remember the killing of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and this was probably the signature action of the Black September group. One of the key demands during this incident was the release from prison of Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, which as something the German authorities had absolutely no intention of doing, and after a bungled rescue attempt, all the hostages were killed.

Black September was named after a brief war that in September 1970 took place in Jordan between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Jordanian army. The background to this was the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Palestinian refugee crisis was created as a great many Palestinians took refuge in Jordan. Jordan, led by the Hashemite Dynasty, was seen as collaborationist and uncommitted to Arab unity, and the PLO, sensing an opportunity, tried by various means to take over the country. King Hussain of Jordan, pressed into a corner, reacted to oust the PLO from Jordanian territory, sparking a brief war that did indeed see the PLO pushed out of Jordan and into Lebanon.

From this emerged an extreme faction of the PLO, calling itself Black September. At the time, the PLO was not as militant and aggressive as it would later become, and Black September, which existed for only three years, in many respects was the pathfinder in that direction. Besides the Munich Massacre, numerous attempts were made on the life of King Hussein of Jordan, and it was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the immediate progenitor of Black September, that set the trend of Hijacking civilian aircraft. Three airliners were hijacked in a coordinated operation and flown to an abandoned airfield in Jordan, where they were dramatically blown up in front of the international press

Numerous other less dramatic, but nonetheless high profile attacks followed, but the leadership and cell structure of the organization was steadily undermined by a determined Israeli intelligence operation, ‘Operation Wrath of God’. No real effort was made to arrest anyone, and typically members and even suspected members were assassinated by Israeli agents. Before long the organization effectively ceased to exist, and even ex-members were hunted down and dealt with by the Israelis.

The last Black September operation was an attack in the passenger lounge of Ellinikon International Airport in Greece, killing three and wounding fifty-five.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
Japanese Red Army, revolutionaries without a cause. Palestine Poster Project

Japanese Red Army, or the Anti-Imperialist International Brigade

Another of the signature Palestinian Liberation Organization factions was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, extremely militant and very violent indeed. One of the signature PFLP operation was the Lod Airport Massacre that occurred just outside Tel Aviv in Israel in the spring of 1972. Twenty-six people were killed, including two attackers, and a further seventy-nine injured. What was unique about this attack was that it was staged on behalf of the PFLP by an obscure Japanese terror group known as the ‘Japanese Red Army’.

The genius of this operation, of course, was the fact the Israeli intelligence and security, bristling after recent hijackings, were on the lookout for known members of Arab terror organizations and had no idea that a Japanese group was involved in the planning of the next big operation.

The Japanese Red Army was, in this regard, a somewhat opportunist terror group ready to take on anyone, anywhere and for any reason. The objectives of the organization are described by Wikipedia as the ‘overthrow the Japanese government and the monarchy, as well as to start a world revolution.’

The organization was founded in 1971 by Fusako Shigenobu, a deceptively mild-mannered, twenty-six-year-old female student with roots in an older Japanese version of the Red Army Faction known in Japan as ‘Sekigun-ha’. This organization, extremely shadowy, was destroyed by Japanese intelligence and security services early in 1971, forcing Fusako Shigenobu and a core of loyalists to flee Japan for Lebanon, and it was there that the Japanese Red Army was founded. The organization, such as it was, was Maoist and Communist in orientation, and for more than thirty years, Fusako Shigenobu remained in the Middle East in an ongoing alliance with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Apart from the Lod Airport operation, the Japanese Red Army carried out numerous independent hijackings and an attempted takeover of the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Most of the JRA’s activities were aimed either at Japanese interests or were in one way or another in support of the Palestinian liberation movement. Fusako Shigenobu remained at large, and generally tolerated in various locations in the Middle East, until, in 2000, four members were arrested in Lebanon and deported back to Japan, where they were tried and jailed. Fusako Shigenobu herself appeared back in Japan soon afterwards, but whether she was deported or returned of her own volition is not known. Either way, she was tried and handed down a twenty-year prison sentence, confirmed by the Japanese Supreme Court in 2010. She remains in prison, has written extensively, and is, in many circles, regarded as an authentic revolutionary, and as such she remains highly influential. The organization, of course, is now defunct, but at its height, it probably fielded forty full-time members and was funded largely through PLO channels.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
Patty Hearst, a rich girl gone bad. Wikimedia

Symbionese Liberation Army

Those fifty-somethings that we have already referred to a couple of times will also remember the name ‘Patty Hearst’, even if the name of the ‘Symbionese Liberation Army’ remains somewhat obscure. On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, nineteen years old, and granddaughter of the American publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was violently kidnapped from her Berkley California apartment. Responsibility was claimed by an urban guerrilla group styled the Symbionese Liberation Army. The outpouring of national sympathy was turned on its head, however, when a few days later an audio tape was delivered to a local media outlet proclaiming her membership of, and loyalty to the SLA.

The word ‘Symbionese’ was taken from the word ‘Symbiosis’, implying interdependency and partnership, which was an odd correlation bearing in mind the violent overtones of the organization. It was brought to international prominence when soon afterwards, Patty Hearst was pictured in security footage robbing a bank with a sub-machine gun in her hand. She later claimed that she was brainwashed and coerced, which is not impossible, but she certainly walked the talk, and when arrested and booked into county jail, she described her occupation as ‘urban guerrilla’, operating under the name ‘Tania’.

The organization as founded and led by an escaped convict, Donald Defreeze, who went by the name ‘General Field Marshall Cinque Mtume.’ The slogan of the Symbionese Liberation Army was ‘Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.’ It was a left-leaning, at times communist organization, borrowing much of its rhetoric from left-wing rebel and guerrilla organizations active in South America. It was founded in 1971, and its operational method was to gain attention through selective violence, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and other random crime.

The SLA was of very minimal historic significance, and although it survived until 2002, it certainly would have achieved no particular notoriety had it not opportunistically staged the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

De Freeze was the organizations only black member, and his ideology was somewhat revisionist insofar as he looked very much to Africa for his inspiration. He died in a shootout with police, killing himself when the house he took refuge in caught fire.

Patty Hearst, in the meanwhile, was handed down a sentence of thirty-five years, reduced to seven at the final hearing. She was released in 1979 when her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
The Angry Brigades, thinking terrorists. Portland Mercury

The Angry Brigade, or the First Urban Guerrilla Group

The Angry Brigade was Britain’s answer to Baader-Meinhof, and with its foot-stamping name and rather hapless operational record, it is remembered more as an episode of Monty Python than a chapter in the book of 1970s terror organizations. None of their bombings ever hurt anyone, and they were careful at all times to use explosive devices small enough to create a bang, and maybe cause a little bit of damage, but not kill anyone if at all possible. The power was in the claim of responsibility, and these were sent to all any who would pay any attention.

The group never exceeded nine members, and most of the time it was the four original founders John Barker, Hilary Creek, Anna Mendelson and Jim Greenfield who held the fort. The Angry Brigade was responsible for a series of bomb attacks in the early 1970s, mostly aimed at embassies of far-right regimes and the homes of cabinet ministers. Also included in the long list of things and people that made the group angry were the British Army, the various British police forces, property speculators, sundry capitalists and even the Miss World Contest.

Each attack was followed by a lengthy communiqué detailing the individual motivation, written with a children’s letterpress system that became the group’s signature, and also what brought it down. Leaving behind a paper-trail of forensic clues, coupled with the distinctive writing style of the author, John Barker, the group was eventually tracked down and all of its members arrested.

What followed was one of the longest criminal trials in British history. The first to be tried was Jake Prescott, whose memorable testimony in court revealed that he was the only really ‘angry’ one and that the others belonged to the ‘Slightly Cross Brigade’. Nonetheless, John Barker, Jim Greenfield, Hilary Creek and Anna Mendleson all received prison sentences of ten years. While some of the evidence presented by the state was considered dubious, Barker, with disarming candor, admitted that the ‘guilty man has been framed’.

Probably the most important upshot of the whole Angry Brigade saga was the formation in Britain of a dedicated bomb squad, later the Anti-Terrorist Unit, and the arrest and imprisonment of dozens of other less high profile left-wing militant groups.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
IRA, politics and urban enforcement. Explosive Politics

The Irish Republican Army

If the Angry Brigade had a slightly farcical aura, then the Irish Republican Army, the iconic IRA, undertook its campaign of bombing in the 1970s and 1980s in deadly earnest. The IRA was, in fact, many organizations that came and went during the long Irish struggle for Home Rule.

For those interested, the background to the story was simply the persistent claim of the British political establishment to the control and government of Ireland. The British, to a greater or lesser extent, held sway over Ireland since the Norman Invasion of 1066. Various British Monarchs from then on infiltrated, and the English presence in Ireland was never entirely expunged.

The most bitter elements of the struggle, however, were religious. When England threw off Catholicism as a consequence of Henry VIII’s many peccadillos, the kingdom became Anglican or Protestant. In an effort to wean the Irish off Catholicism, Protestant ‘settlers’ were introduced in ‘plantations’ that were focused mainly in the north of Ireland, corresponding broadly with the county of Ulster.

Thereafter, these English Loyalists developed a deep antipathy to the Catholic Republicans of the south. Later, when southern Ireland was granted Home Rule, and later republican status the struggle became one to unite Ireland. The Protestant majority of Northern Ireland, however, would have none of it, preferring to remain part of the British Empire. The last iteration of the IRA was formed as the paramilitary branch of the Irish Sinn Fein party, and a program of positive action was rolled out that took domestic terrorism in the United Kingdom to unprecedented levels.

The IRA was in fact just one of a number of paramilitary organizations involved in the Irish ‘Troubles’, but it was certainly the most high profile. In Catholic areas of Northern Ireland it became a defacto community enforcement arm, severely punishing citizens for various crimes or misdemeanors, and in some respects, it was a benefit to an otherwise marginalized society. However, it was also extremely violent and responsible for numerous bombings both in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland. IRA bombs were intended to kill large numbers of people, and they almost always did. The British Army was deployed to Northern Ireland, and a virtual war was fought through the 1970s, 1989s and early 1990s.

The ‘Troubles’ came to an end largely because of the exhaustion of both sides, and in 1998, the God Friday Agreement effectively ended the role of the IRA and allied organizations in Northern Ireland. By then there was a stronger gangster element in the IRA, and it took some time for it to disappear, and some might say it never did and is still active on the streets of Northern Ireland.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
Basque Separatists, ATA. Euro Topics

Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA

Another European separatist organization that meant business was ‘Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’, or ETA, translated into English simply as ‘Basque Homeland and Liberty’. Basque, of course, is a region of northern Spain, but one with enough in the way of individual peculiarities for many Basques to believe that it represented a separate country. This sentiment has been alive for centuries, but a militant organization to achieve separation only began to emerge in the 1960s.

At the end of the nineteenth century, as Spain gradually slipped under the yoke of Fascist dictatorship, the Basque Nationalist Party was exiled, surviving the Franco era with its headquarters in Paris. By the late 1950s, however, in an era of turbulent European politics, member’s of the party’s youth wing broke away to form the much more militant and aggressive ETA. The organization was from its onset bedeviled by an ideological divergence, with one faction Marxist-Leninist in orientation, and the other purely nationalist. It was the former branch that was most actively engaged in the armed struggle.

Nelson Mandela once remarked that it is the oppressor that defines the nature of the struggle, and if ETA emerged as a violent organization, this is simply reflective of the violent and arbitrary methods used by the regime of General Francisco Franco to crush it. It was only after Franco’s death in 1975, with a liberalization of Spanish politics, that ETA’s campaign of violence began to accelerate. Bombings and assassinations increased tenfold, and to fund these operations, ETA resorted to bank robberies, kidnapping and ‘revolutionary taxes’, a cleaner word for blackmail and extortion.

By the late 1970s, the Spanish government had resorted to ‘dirty war’ tactics to try and deal with an organization that simply would not go away. Several ceasefires were declared, but none came to much, and the organization continued to be active into the twenty-first century. By 2010, ETA found itself weakened, depleted and increasingly unpopular and irrelevant. At that point, the organization morphed somewhat into a political front, but the issue upon which it was premised had largely fallen away, and in May 2019, it was formally disbanded.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
The killing of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade, Variety

‘Brigate Rosse’, or the Red Brigades

Somewhat in the mold of Baader-Meinhof and the Japanese Red Army was the Italian Red Brigades, active from about 1978 to the end of the 1980s. This was a period of ongoing political upheaval and instability in Italian politics, characterized by economic stagnation and numerous ad hoc left and right-wing terror groups.

The Red Brigades, as its name implies, was Marxist-Maoist in orientation, with additional ideological flourishes supplied by the likes of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and one or two of the more charismatic African revolutionary heroes.

The Red Brigades was an extremely shady and fluid organization, reputedly founded by a twenty-nine-year-old militant student by the name of Renato Curcio. The stated aim of the organization, not particularly original, was to provoke a proletarian uprising in order to overthrow the Italian government in favor of a Marxist workers republic.

The usual tactics of assassination, kidnapping and bombing achieved the usual results, and rather a significant body count was accumulated by the Red Brigades between 1971 and 1988. This included the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, and the successful kidnapping of a U.S. Army officer with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Brigadier General James Dozier.

There was, however, a misdirected and sinister mood that surrounded the Red Brigades, and because it was so secretive and so loosely organized, it was difficult for the authorities to get to grips with.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, the caring face of terror. Pininterest

The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground is probably the most enigmatic of all the militant terror groups we have visited so far. It really amounted to nothing more than an action group of militant students on the Anne Arbor campus of the University of Michigan. It never achieved a membership of more than 100, and its operations tended to be confined to detonating dynamite in such places as bathrooms in government buildings and various corporate headquarters. It has been estimated that only twenty-five of these were reported in the group’s seven-year of existence.

Yet, from about 1970 onwards, a year or so after the group was founded, it was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list, and there it stayed for most of the seventies. A great many historians and no fewer journalists have wondered why? It certainly did not seem justified.

The Weather Underground began as the Weathermen in 1969, and its founding leaders, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, resembled a couple of counter-culture revolutionaries gone wrong. In fact, both are still alive today, and could quite easily blend into the Sunday morning crowd at Starbucks, a ‘Black Lives Matter’ decal prominent on the bumper of the Subaru.

In the 1970s, however, the FBI ranked the organization as a major national security threat, estimating a membership of thousands. In fact, the Weather Underground was protesting the very same things as every other student protester, but just doing it with a bit more attitude.

When it all died down, most of the Weathermen simply disappeared, and years later, with no real serious Federal charges against them, came out and settled in as respectable ex-revolutionaries in the nouveau civil rights movement.

10 of the Deadliest and Strangest Terror Groups of the 1970s
Yasser Arafat, the face of Arab resistance. Aljazeera

The Palestine Liberation Organization

The Palestine Liberation Organization, with it’s front-man Yasser Arafat, was the organization that all western governments loved to hate, but that every student activist thrived on. Yasser Arafat’s black and white Keffiyeh became standard student-wear, and along with a Che Guevara t-shirt was the stuff of every middle-class parent’s nightmare.

But the PLO was, as it remains, an authentic organization representing a profound position. Founded in 1964, it was an attempt to organize and regulate the many anti-Israeli militant organizations active at the time. During the creation of Israel, and the first Arab Israeli War of 1948, a massive number of Arab refugees fled what was then Palestine, and in one way or another, they, and the generations that have followed have been stateless.

The PLO remained an umbrella organization, hosting some individual groups like Black September and the Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who were both responsible for some very dark deeds.

The PLO began to lose ground in the 1990s and early 2000s, although it is still recognized as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.’ The bombs, however, are largely silent, and the hijackings a thing of the past. Militant Palestinian Resistance has tended to be Islamicized in recent years, and organizations like Hamas have a stronger claim on Palestinian loyalty.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources…

“The golden age of terrorism” CNN, Peter Bergen. August 2015

“Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhof Group” Thought Company. Amy Zalman, Ph.D. May 2017

“Japanese Red Army (JRA)” Federation of American Scientists

“What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” Slate, Chris Suellentrop. January 2002

“The Angry Brigade’s John Barker, 40 years on: ‘I feel angrier than I ever felt then” Guardian, Duncan Campbell. June 2014

“What is Eta?” BBC. April 2017

“How the Weather Underground Failed at Revolution and Still Changed the World” Southern Living, Arthur M. Eckstein. November 2016