June 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:41:49+01:00October 7th, 2010|Essays|
The Rome Fiumicino attack in December 1985 claimed 18 dead.

ince September 11, 2001, Western Europe has witnessed two spectacularly lethal terrorist incidents, the first the detonation of bombs on commuter trains in Madrid, Spain in March 2004, the second in July 2005, with suicide bombers setting off explosives on the London Underground. Together, the attacks killed 135 and injured 2,000. Both were attributed to Islamic terrorist cells.

Though their gravity reinforced already deep wariness toward the westward course of Islamic terrorism, the attacks were exceptions. The decade between 2000 and 2010 has in fact witnessed a limited number of high-profile terrorist incidents.

Governments have been quick to attribute the containment to increased security and vigilance in the aftermath of Sept. 11, as well as rear-guard policing put in play as a result of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But a recent statement by the U.S. State Department warning U.S. citizens of the renewed potential for terrorist incidents in European capitals has revitalized preexisting tension. The vaguely-worded statement urged Americans to “adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.” Soon after, the British, French, and German governments also urged vigilance among their citizens. As a result, terrorism-related media coverage increased in ampleness and gravity both in the U.S. and Europe.

At the same time, the CIA continues a counterinsurgency campaign that includes firing explosive drones into Pakistan, long a regional militant stronghold. Provocation is a harbinger of risk. Risk is what the warnings seek to preventively placate. It’s a slippery slope.

Another such slope is the obsessive politicizing of national security, which has witnessed the elevation of Islamic terrorism, miscellaneous by tendency, into a more bloc-like status. Marginally connected insurgencies are often lumped together to suit the more linear needs, methods and finances of the campaigns to destroy them.

Much of this was between the lines of a September speech given by British intelligence chief Jonathan Evans. While conceding a “serious risk” of future attacks, he criticized the British government for “importing from the American media the assumption that terrorism is 100 percent preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure.” Risk, he added, “can be managed and reduced but it cannot realistically be abolished, and if we delude ourselves that it can we are setting ourselves up for a nasty disappointment.”

A once-accepted part of everyday life, namely “that sometimes the terrorists would get lucky and there would be an attack,” had been replaced, he asserted, by “nonsensical” expectations. The nonsense, in this case, was the political hawking of an unreal assurance of complete security, as if such security once existed but had been let down or subverted.

As Europe, and Evans, know well, no such security ever existed. In fact, the hydra-like range of the terrorist intentions may be actually less menacing now than it was 30 years ago.

Evans’ unusually candid remarks — part stiff upper lip; part a plea for further intelligence funding — went underreported, particularly in American media, where portrayals of the terrorist menace generally use Sept. 11 as a monolithic (and malignant) benchmark, minimizing if not ignoring the role and substance of pre-existing conditions.

It’s a limiting approach, since the period between 1980 and 1990 produced a near-relentless stream of “across the pond” high-profile attacks, many of them linked to Europe’s closeness to Middle Eastern hostilities.

Then as now, the Muslim population of Western Europe was far higher than that in the United States, a spillover from colonial connections that introduced the Islamic mass-migration to Europe, which continues today.

While the source and nature of 1980s violence was scrutinized in European capitals, particularly in stricken France, it received short shrift in the United States, as yet untouched by a major attack on its own soil and regarded by many of its own citizens as remote from foreign nationalist movements, violent ideologies, and agents of religious extremism.

With the Cold War still in full swing, few State Department alerts were issued, since much of the violence was pigeonholed as either not ripe for transfer or the result of the foreign policies adopted by the targeted nations.

These days, a selective look at some of the ugliest terrorist incidents of the 1980s both chastens and enlightens. It demonstrates that a vision of the world as a “dangerous place” — the prodigal child of the media’s post-9/11 outlook — emerges from a time when threats were both secular and religious, putting the planet on far more precarious footing than it is today.


  • July 27: A member of the Abu Nidal Organization, a militant Palestinian group, throws two hand grenades into a group of Jewish schoolchildren waiting for a bus stop in Antwerp, Belgium, killing one and wounding 20.

  • August 2: A bomb attack at the Bologna train station kills 85 and wounds more than 200. A far rightist group claims responsibility.

  • September 26: A bomb detonates at the fairgrounds of the Oktoberfest in Theresienwiese, near Munich, killing 12 and injuring 213. Among the dead is the bomber, Gundolf Kohler, a member of the Military Sport Group Hoffman, a neo-Nazi group. Police later confiscate three armored personnel carriers belonging to the group.


  • October 20: A truck bomb attack by Islamists on a synagogue in Antwerp, Belgium kills three and injures 106.


  • August 9: Islamic extremist gunmen attack the Goldenberg restaurant in Paris, killing six and wounding 22.

  • October 9: Palestinian extremists use grenades and machine guns to attack Rome’s central synagogue. A child dies and 10 people are injured.


  • December 17: Six die and 90 are injured when the Irish Republican Army detonates a bomb in Harrods department store in West London at the height of the Christmas shopping season.

  • December 31: Two train attacks by Palestinian extremists kill seven and wound 70. The first explosion occurs on the Marseille-Paris high-speed TGV; the second at St-Charles station in Marseille.


  • December 23: A bomb placed on a Naples-Milan express train kills 17 and wounds 250. The attack is later attributed to the Mafia.


  • February 23: A bomb in the Paris branch of Marks & Spencer, kills one injures 18. Pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah takes responsibility.

  • March 9: Hezbollah detonates a bomb at the Paris Cinema Rivoli, injuring 18.

  • October 7-October 10: Palestinian Liberation Front gunmen hijack the Italian cruise liner “Achille Lauro” off Egypt. Wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old Jewish-American citizen, is shot dead and thrown overboard.

  • December 7: Two Paris department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Magasin Printemps, are bombed during Christmas season, injuring more than 50. Hezbollah claims responsibility.

  • December 27: Palestinian extremists open fire with assault rifles at the Vienna and Rome airports. In all, 19 die and 140 are injured.


  • February 3: A bomb in the Claridge passage under Champs Élysées injures seven. A second, fully-armed bomb on the Eiffel Tower doesn’t detonate. A pro-Iranian group takes responsibility.

  • April 5: A bomb destroys the LaBelle discotheque in West Berlin, killing an American man and a German woman. The disco is a known hangout for U.S. servicemen. In all, 150 are injured, including 44 Americans. President Ronald Reagan blames Libya and later bombs it in retaliation.

  • September 8-17: Paris is hit by five bombings: its police headquarters, the crowded Rue de Rennes, and the Casino Supermarket are all targets. Ten die and 142 are injured. Islamic extremists claim responsibility.


  • April 17: A left-wing Greek terrorist group explodes a bomb on an Athens bus, wounding 16 American military personnel and two Greeks.


  • April 12: Japanese Red Army terrorist Yu Kikumura, in possession of pipe bombs, is arrested at a New Jersey turnpike rest stop on his way to New York City. Kikumura had been detained and released at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam in 1986 after a bomb was found in his luggage. Though jailed in Japan, he was later released.

  • December 21: PanAm Flight 103, a Boeing 747 bound from London to New York, is blown apart in midair, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew members. In Lockerbie, southern Scotland, 11 people die from falling debris. Islamic Jihad claims responsibility, but later investigation suggests the attack was mapped out by Libyan intelligence.


  • September 19: A suitcase-bomb blows up a French jet flying from Niger to Paris, killing all 171 passengers and crew. Libyan intelligence services are blamed.


  • May 16: The IRA detonates a bomb under a military minibus in London, killing a sergeant and injuring four other soldiers.

  • October 24: A series of IRA car bombings in Northern Ireland leave six British soldiers and a civilian dead. Another 37 are wounded.

    In the decade between Jan. 1, 1980 and Dec. 31, 1990, more than 3,000 European nationals died as a consequence of terrorist acts.

  • About the Author:

    Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.