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Cloaks, Daggers and Dynamite

A century ago international anarchists were causing public outrage and panic with their terror tactics. Matt Carr considers the parallels with al-Qaeda today.

It has become something of a cliché to claim that the world has changed irrevocably in response to the unique and deadly threat of al-Qaeda. But if the current crisis appears unprecedented, its essential parameters are not entirely new. The spectre of violent nihilists intent on the destruction of civilization and established order; a hidden hand conducting acts of mayhem across national frontiers; draconian anti-terrorist legislation and the official use of torture – all these formed part of the ‘anarchist terror’ that began in the last decades of the nineteenth century and ended with the First World War. In these years anarchism became indelibly associated with violence in the popular imagination on both sides of the Atlantic, as presidents and royalty, policemen and ordinary civilians were shot, stabbed and blown up.

President Carnot of France (1894), King Umberto of Italy (1900) and US President McKinley (1901) were among the ‘illustrious corpses’ claimed by anarchist assassins. Anarchist ‘infernal machines’ exploded in cafés, restaurants, opera houses and even the French Chamber of Deputies. The scale of violence was magnified by sensationalist press coverage that at times reduced whole cities to a state of psychosis. The ‘anarchist terror’ constituted the world’s first international terrorist emergency.

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