Historical novelties

The BBC News magazine has an article by Professor John Merriman concerning an early terrorist act, the bombing of the Cafe Terminus in Paris in 1894 by a young anarchist Emile Henry. Merriman asks if Henry’s act, which killed one and wounded 20, was the first act of modern terrorism in that the target was a class of people, the bourgeois, rather than a head of state or one of his agents. I suspect there is quite a debate to be had about this, however my particular interest in this is the assertion that

Road-side bombs in today’s world have emerged as a weapon of choice. And then, as now, terrorist practitioners seek ‘revolutionary immortality’ – hoping to inspire others with their heroic demise. Suicide bombers, however, with the exception of Kamikaze pilots, are a new phenomenon.

Actually, this is not quite the case. There were a number of examples of attempted or actual suicide attacks not long after the period in question, specifically in Russia. For example:

  • in 1906, three Maximalists (two dressed as police officers), entered the anteroom of the Russsian prime minister Stolypin. They were challenged by guards and detonated the devices each was carrying. In addition to the three attackers, 27 people died, and 30 were injured.
  • the case of twenty-one-year-old Evstiliia Rogozinnikova, a member of the Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries (PSR) Northern Flying Combat Group, who in 1907 sought to assassinate the head of St. Petersburg’s prison directorate. She strapped 13 pounds of nitroglycerine to her body and carried a pistol and ‘was prepared to blow up the entire building‘. In the end she shot and killed her target, and did not resort to the explosives.
  • again in 1907, in a raid against the PSR Northern Flying Combat Group, police were confronted by one Mario Kal’vino, who ‘had been outfitted as a living bomb and was prepared to throw himself under the carriage of the minsiter of justice. At the time of his arrest, he shouted to the policemen “Be careful! I am wrapped around with dynamite. If I blow up the entire street will be destroyed“. The police apparently successfully disarmed and detained the man.

As can be seen, suicide bombers are not as novel a concept as one might think. And further, they were used to attack familiar targets in a similar manner to some of those today, including down to details such as using police uniforms to get past security measures, as we saw in Islamabad a few days ago.


Geifman, Anna ‘Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia 1894-1917, Princeton University Press, 1993.