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Domestic terrorism – terrorism that has its origins in grievances unique to American society and conducted by citizens of the United States or resident aliens – has historically been directed against the federal government, with individual acts of terrorism often involving attacks on or engagement with local law enforcement agencies. Acts of terrorism can be said to have begun with attacks on British soldiers in the North American colonies, especially following the start of the Revolutionary War. The use of snipers, an effective means of instilling fear in a population or opposing military, was a common means of intimidating British soldiers, as was the use of guerrilla tactics throughout the conflict.
During the 19th Century, the most common form of domestic terrorism involved notions of racial superiority, although pro-abolitionist John Brown’s October 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry would stand as an aberration for its anti-slavery motivation. Following the end of the Civil War, white supremacists formed the Ku Klux Klan, the first truly wide-spread and highly-organized form of domestic terrorism in the United States. Night-time attacks on the homes and churches of blacks were common throughout the American South. It was the Spanish-American War of 1898, however, that provided the genesis of domestic terrorism that would come to symbolize opposition to U.S. policies both at home and abroad. The U.S. incorporation of Puerto Rico set the stage for a major act of terrorism half a century later when four Puerto Rican nationalists infiltrated the U.S. Capitol building on March 1, 1954, and opened fire on members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Five congressmen were wounded in the attack; all survived.
Isolated as well as organized serial terror attacks continued with some degree of regularity throughout the 20th Century. Pro-union activists bombed the Los Angeles Times building on October 1, 1910. Anarchists were active during the 1920s, most noteworthy with the bombing on September 16, 1920 of Wall Street that killed 38 and wounded 140. Subsequent terrorist attacks and organizations have included the Unibomber, the Symbionese Liberation Army, which famously kidnapped newspaper heir Patty Hearst, the Weather Underground, the Earth Liberation Front, the Aryan Nations and its various offshoots, Alpha 66, an anti-Fidel Castro group of Cuban exiles, the Black Liberation Army, and the Army of God, which carried out a series of bombings targeted against abortion clinics as well as planting a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. This is not a comprehensive list of groups or attacks. The Oklahoma City bombings on April 19, 1995, carried out by Timothy McVeight and Terry Nichols in response to government actions at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho and Waco, Texas, represented the most devastating single terrorist attack by a home-grown group in U.S. history.
There have always been fringe elements of society – although, the KKK was somewhat representative of a regional mindset during the post-Civil War era – that have resorted to violence in an effort at influencing government policy or simply intimidating a section of the population. Again, with the exception of the KKK, these groups have represented very minor percentages of the American population, at least with regard to their willingness to use violence. Their aims, on the other hand, have often been representative of wider portions of the populace.
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