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Home > Reviews > The Alphabet Bomber

The Alphabet Bomber

Author Jeffrey D Simon

ISBN No 978-1-61234-996-1

Review date 03/07/2022

No of pages 238

Publisher Potomac Books, imprint of University of Nebraska Press

Publisher URL https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/potomac-books/9781612349961

Year of publication 18/08/2019

Brief

Our Review

price

£ -

The Alphabet Bomber is an exceptional book - exceptional in its style and content, writes Mark Rowe.

It's such an exceptional book, it deserves to have a movie made of it; and the Alphabet Bomber was arrested in a fast-food restaurant in Hollywood. Except that, the story would not be easily, or even possibly, boiled down into an hour or two of film. It's a true crime story told with rare authority.

I'd go so far as to say it's one of, let's say, ten books that the well-read English-speaking security professional ought to read and carry around in his head. It's a remarkable true story of, to add the sub-title, 'a lone wolf terrorist ahead of his time', the proverbial story so incredible that you couldn't make it up; and told well, after painstaking, wide-ranging and long research. As the sub-title hints, while the story dates from Los Angeles in 1974, an era well within living memory yet in so many ways irretrievably distant, it also offers lessons for our time - why does someone turn to terrorism?

The author, the American, California-based, security consultant Jeffrey D Simon, answers that question briefly during his introduction; the bomber, like lone wolves since, 'was driven by anger and revenge' (page 6). He had grievances, and 'lofty but unattainable political goals', that he set out in audio tape cassettes (as it was 1974, remember). As Simon adds, this is a story we can and should learn from: "How he was able to terrorise a city and toy with the authorities holds important lessons for today, as we are faced with the growing threat of lone wolf terrorism."

As for the 'ahead of his time', that's true not only because he killed people without the backing of any organisation; as an engineer, he was well able to build bombs, in his apartment, and had also built a 'potential nerve agent factory', which he duly threatened to use. The 'Alphabet Bomber' was nicknamed because his first target had been 'A', for Los Angeles Airport, and he intended to go on spelling out the name 'Aliens of America'. He systematically used the media of the day - newspapers, TV - 'to communicate his message and to spread fear among the public'.

The author, by putting in the work on the sources - thousands of pages of court papers, speaking decades later to police and justice people to do with the case - has brought out the very human side of this story, and not only the most obvious, the emotions of the bereaved. The bomber, like any lone wolf, 'accountable only to themselves', was free to invent and carry out what he liked; that innovation was dangerous. The bomber was at once mentally unstable, 'yet highly intelligent and effective' in his attacks. Other examples from the United States have made it into the world's popular memory, such as the 'Unabomber'.

The book also has wise things to say about whether terrorists are criminal or mentally ill. A lone wolf does not have to go through a group's recruitment or screening; it stands to reason, once you read Simon setting it out, that a terrorist group does not want the mentally unstable in their ranks. As Simon adds (page 8), this raises questions about how 'psychiatrists, psychologist, social workers and others in the mental health community could play in trying to uncover the early warning signs of lone wolf terrorism'.

And last but not least - what of the media, giving publicity to causes, skilfully used by the Alphabet Bomber.

Simon rightly takes his time to set out where the Alphabet Bomber came from - postwar Sarajevo. As Simon points out, the Bomber could have (like so many other immigrants to the United States) made a good life, bettering himself; he was a good employee, skilled in engineering, he entered the US in 1967 and settled in hip LA. However, he became alienated. He was savvy and self-disciplined enough to pretend to be a mute, to get out of being drafted during the Vietnam War.

As that suggests, even though the Bomber was a loner, Simon gives us a fascinating slice of American society. The Bomber was, for example, hired by the company owned by Robert P McCulloch, the man who bought London Bridge and famously set it up again in Arizona.

Although the Bomber planted three devices that caused arson at three houses in 1973, 'the last straw' was that his application to become an American citizen failed in 1974 (page 44). By August 1974, he was planting a bomb in a locker at Los Angeles Airport, which turned out to be two days before Richard Nixon resigned as president, which says it all about how uncertain and jittery the United States was at the time.

Simon's book is also about terrorism investigation - that airport bombing was a world first. Collecting the debris, interviewing witnesses was at the same time standard police work to seek clues, and yet - not least in the days before public space CCTV, let alone in libertarian America - offered few hopes of finding any suspect. As with terrorist bombings in Britain, the airport bombing prompted crank and prank calls. The Bomber the same evening rang an LA newspaper, and the media began to serve two masters - passing on what it learned to the authorities, and serving the ends of the terrorist, by passing on in print what he told them ('a terrorism story is always good for the media').

As an aside, the act of terrorism led to changes in site security; the airport spent dollars on security, and removed public lockers.

Readers may be asking, how did the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) catch the Bomber, when data was in paper files, before computers that could store and compare data (consider the years that the Yorkshire Ripper was at large in northern England around this era; and the hoax voice that diverted police detectives). An LAPD unit through sheer hard work was able to narrow down hundreds of suspects to seven. A 'stealth unit' put the Bomber under surveillance and established that his voice sounded like the anonymous tapes he left for the authorities.

The book is only just over halfway over when the Bomber is arrested, because then comes the years-long to-and-fro in court, that ended only in 1980 with the Bomber found guilty on all 25 counts including murder. He got life in prison; which has (into his seventies, so far) meant life. The last chapter but two asks, almost endearingly; just how crazy was he? Simon's cold verdict; the Bomber was 'a master of deception', who fooled many psychiatrists.

Simon begins the last chapter but one, on 'what the story of the Alphabet Bomber can teach us' with something personal; he was finishing high school as the Bomber arrived in LA, and one classmate later joined a leftist terrorist group 'and is currently serving time'; another in 1970 was a passenger on a hijacked plane. It's another reminder of how terrorists and their victims are all humans with stories. Simon closes with how much we can learn from the story of the Alphabet Bomber, who was 'savvy, cunning, creative and dangerous'. A lone wolf terrorist can be Muslim (as the Alphabet Bomber happened to be), Jewish, left or right wing, or a single issue fanatic; or like the Alphabet Bomber and the Unabomber, one of a kind. Both of them exploited the media. Lone wolves love to talk - a lot, although the Alphabet Bomber had the self-control, remember, to act as a mute for months. The Bomber could not resist taunting police on tapes, and giving names and details that enabled LAPD to single him out.

Simon - without ever straying from being the neutral author - makes the valid point that the Alphabet Bomber was 'a smart and creative terrorist'; the Bomber came up with the idea of bombing an airport by leaving a bomb in an coin-operated, unsecured locker. Simon reminds us of the need to prepare for mass casualty events; and the resulting public anxiety. A further sign of the author's overriding humanity is his reminder, 'don't make the mentally ill the scapegoat for lone wolf attacks', which in recent years have included mass shootings in the US.

Simon closes rightly with the most important question of all; why did the Alphabet Bomber do it, kill innocent people? Even if the Bomber said, could we be sure he was telling the truth. And the book ends with the Bomber as the original lone wolf who could make explosives and 'hold a city in fear'; a story 'that will continue to resonate in a world where the threat of terrorism has become a permanent fixture in all our lives' (page 188).