Going postal

A history of parcel bombs

Sending explosives through the post has a long and murky history

Rogue mail in the Raj

PRINTER cartridges and air freight may be new, but lethal missives are not. The Bandbox Plot of November 4th 1712, foiled by Jonathan Swift (author of “Gulliver’s Travels”), was an attempt to kill Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford and Lord Treasurer. A hatbox left at his door was configured to fire cocked pistols when the lid was lifted.

On January 19th 1764 a Danish diarist, Bolle Willum Luxdorph, described perhaps the first successful parcel bomb. A Colonel Poulsen received a box by post. “When he opens it, therein is to be found gunpowder and a firelock which sets fire unto it, so he became very injured.”

Politicians have long been targets of such attacks. One was aimed at Senator Thomas Hardwick and exploded (unsuccessfully) on April 29th 1919. It was the first of nearly 30 devices sent by anarchist groups to politicians, judges and businessmen, all intended to explode on May Day. A campaign in June involved eight larger bombs that killed several people, including one of the anarchists.

In June 1939 50 letter-bombs exploded in postboxes and post offices in London, Birmingham and Manchester. The Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility, as part of their S-Plan campaign, encouraged by Nazi Germany, to disrupt Britain.

Governments have used parcel bombs too. In 1961 Israel’s secret service, Mossad, sent one to Alois Brunner, a fugitive Nazi; it cost him an eye. Another attack in July 1980 took four fingers.

On February 21st 1970 Swissair Flight 330 to Tel Aviv crashed after a parcel bomb exploded in its cargo hold; 38 passengers and nine crew died. This was a rare case of a parcel bomb (as opposed to a baggage bomb) crashing an airliner. The blame fell on Palestinian terrorists.

On September 19th 1972 a letter-bomb in London killed Ami Shachori, an Israeli diplomat. Almost all the 51 similar bombs posted to Israeli embassy employees around the world were intercepted. Following the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972, Israel launched the Wrath of God operation, which dispatched many parcel bombs to its foes.

In December 1977 Donald Woods, a journalist and anti-apartheid activist, received a package containing children’s T-shirts laced with acid: his young daughter was badly burned. He blamed the South African authorities, which were also probably behind explosive parcels that killed anti-apartheid figures, including Ruth First (in Mozambique in 1982) and Jeannette and Katryn Schoon, wife and daughter of the activist Marius Schoon (in Angola in 1984).

America’s best-known postal terrorist was the “Unabomber”, Ted Kaczynski, who sent 16 bombs, claiming three lives. One of his devices ignited, but failed to explode, in the cargo hold of an American Airlines passenger plane.

Letters containing anthrax spores were sent to American senators and news outfits in autumn 2001, killing five and infecting seventeen. The main suspect, Bruce Ivins, died in an apparent suicide in 2008, his motive unknown.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/node/17414389