Intelligence Responses to Global Terrorism – 110 Years Ago

By Roger Davies / 7 May 2014 / History

Sometimes the view of our society’s challenges when facing terrorism is that they are immediate and new, demanding innovative responses in terms of intelligence, legal structures, international processes, approaches and technologies.   But we forget that frankly terrorism is not new.  Nor are responses to it.  During the period of roughly 1880-1914, and particularly in the 1890’s and early 1900s there was an endemic form of terrorism across the world that has largely been forgotten about.  There are some interesting parallels to the intelligence based responses to that terrorist threat to today’s responses that I think are worth pointing out.

Terrorism wasn’t unknown even in the early part of the 19th century – the IMSL database records numerous bomb attacks in this period.  Revolutionary politics drove the “Spring of Nations”,  the numerous revolutions or attempted revolutions  that occurred in 1848. Later these revolutionary politics morphed into themes – one being Irish republicanism, and another becoming international anarchism. Some of these revolutions utilised IEDs, such as the Orsini Bomb.

In the second part of the 19th century a series of anarchist thinkers crystallised a revolutionary mood. Then in 1884 Johan Most inspired a whole generation of anarchists with the concept of a violent “propaganda of the deed”.  The world became familiar with the fizzing black bomb of the anarchist.  Kings , queens, prime ministers and presidents were assassinated by bomb, bullet and blade in remarkable numbers, but today largely forgotten.   Seven European, Russian or American monarchs or heads of state or government were assassinated between 1894 and 1912. No other terrorist cause has assassinated so many rulers. By the early 20th century the anarchist threat appeared to be global, and pervasive.

A febrile press, of course, played a role in terms of precipitating responses, and it is these responses which are worthy of attention today to compare them to parallel responses to the current threat of terrorism that we feel (wrongly) is new.  This subject is I think worthy of a book and I cannot do it justice in a short blog post – but I’m going to pick out some specifics in some areas of interest.

There were considerable pressures on governments to address the threat of anarchist terrorism during the period 1880 – 1914. Some of the pressure was driven by news papers, the mass media of the time.  The consequent mobilisation of the public mood was signifiant. Since the anarchists specifically targeted the great and the rich, who by and large had greater influence over law making, that too provided a personal impetus to the political efforts to counter the threat.  One key factor is that the media generally over-simplified the nature and motivation of the perpetrators. An Italian nationalist, an Indian freedom fighter, a Russian populist or an Irish Fenian, when they threw a bomb, all became “anarchist” bombers in the eyes of the press and therefore the public.  One interesting aspect of the spread of the anarchist threat was the role of economics driven emigration and immigration and of rapid communications – both factors I think in today’s threats.

Many European nations passed legislation against the illegal use of explosives as a consequence of the perceived or the real threat. Much of this legislation lives on today and is applied to modern terrorists. In terms of international police cooperation, there are some interesting aspects.  It looks like international multi-lateral conferences had a limited effect – much more effective were bilateral cooperative agreements between two nations at a time.   In some cases international cooperation was prevented by a lack of a federal police organisation as was the case in a pre FBI, Pre CIA, pre DHS USA.  Interestingly other nations, frustrated by the constraints of their partner nations, set up unilateral international policing/surveillance capabilities – Russia, Italy and the UK certainly did this, and the ripples of these international-facing security and intelligence  organisations can still be felt today. The British , who had set up “Special Branch” to deal with the earlier Fenian bombing campaigns simply switched the organisation to be also concerned with anarchism.  In Europe there was close cooperation between a number of countries.  A series of bilateral agreements established anti-anarchist surveillance activities which passed intelligence across borders, in response to the international nature of terrorism (itself enabled by improved transport and communications). In an early parallel with flight passenger information today – many countries established bilateral exchanges of shipping passenger lists, highlighting suspected anarchists embarking for partner nations.

Controversies were common, especially with regard to extradition and the use of “agents provocateurs”.  There’s a reason why this is a French phrase, because of the number of foreign nations using them in France. In 1892, there was a “Great Bomb Panic” in Paris when a number of devices exploded. One assessment suggests there were 2400 anarchists living and operating in Paris at the time but another suggests a good proportion of them were agents provocateurs in the pay of the Paris Police or foreign intelligence services seeking to disrupt attempts on their own soil.  There were some international conferences – specifically the most important were the anti-anarchist police conference in Rome in 1898 and another in St Petersburg in 1904.  Usually attending nations were unable to all sign up to the end result of the conference, but it is clear that the conferences had an effect from the liaisons in the margins on a bilateral basis which belied the inability for the world to sign up to single pieces of international policy. The nature of some nation’s policing efforts in foreign countries is curious, in the perspective of today’s view.  For instance it was common knowledge and generally accepted that Russia had a huge police intelligence unit established from its Paris Embassy, running agents and surveillance operations against the “nihilists” it saw as a threat.  Indeed they liaised extensively with the Italian unit conducting similar operations in Paris. Of course the host nations knew of this activity but there was a willingness to allow it to continue to exist, most of the time. What we know of today as “CHIS” (Covert Human Intelligence Source) was a routine activity for these international police units, operating in foreign cities.


During the period the UK and France in particular developed ‘new science” to deal with the threat. In the late 1890s the French government deployed x-ray machines to key transportation hubs for checking baggage (yes 1890s! ).   France continued its history of the use of databases of suspects (first developed under Napoleon) with centralised police intelligence using card indexes, (and teams of human card indexers), supporting intelligence activities.  In London, the Chief Inspector of Explosives further developed a secret bomb defusing facility on Duck Island in the middle of St James’s Park. It utilised a mechanical device for dealing with some IEDs, and reportedly an identical device was used in Paris by the French police. This facility was torn down and lost to history in the 1980s.

One particular challenge of the period was the ability to specifically identify an individual by what we call these days “biometrics”. Whereas today we have DNA, fingerprints and the ability to transmit photographs instantly, at this time the technology did not permit this. One attempt to address this was a the use of a a system called anthropometry. This was a systematic and measurable method of describing an individual’s defining facial and physical features with actual measurement, and was developed by the famous and eccentric French criminologist Bertillon. The technique was strongly pushed at the Rome conference of 1898. Bertillon also played a very key role in developing other investigative techniques – including forensic document examination,  ballistics  techniques to investigate shootings and crime scene photography. He also worked on a commonly accepted standard for “mugshots’ .    Britain was the first country to introduce fingerprinting as a biometric technique in 1901. In doing so they dropped the French biometric anthropometry technique adopted after the Rome Conference of 1898, partly because it took a skilled operator four minutes to find a match, whereas Bertillon’s technique took, typically 20 minutes.  Although “mandrolic’ this focus on the speed of data analysis as a driver for new capabilities is very interesting.  Other nations rapidly followed Britain’s lead, but some countries continued with the “Bertillonage” system into the 1930s.    For students of databasing history, Bertillion’s complex cross reference system for sorting and filtering is fascinating. I promise to write more about Bertillon’s database structure in the future.

Bertillon's Biometric system

Bertillon’s Biometric system

Anarchism in the late 19th century was not a coherent single organisation, posing as a single structured threat. It was diverse, composed of fellow travellers with their own interpretations of social revolution, very loosely organised and so has modern parallels. I sense too a similarity in the lone wolf terrorists of today, motivated to undertake a personal statement for their cause, which is what “the deed’ is all about.  

The similarities between threats are interesting but we should be equally interested in the similarities and differences of counter-terrorist response, 110 years apart.


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