Meet the Weather Underground’s bomb guru

Bryan Burrough writes: Ever since 9/11, the threat of terrorist bombs on U.S. soil has become a major concern, drawing the attention of hordes of federal investigators and journalists. What few Americans remember clearly today is that barely 40 years ago, during the tumultuous 70s, such bombings were more or less routine, carried out by a half-dozen significant groups of underground radicals, from the Symbionese Liberation Army (best known for kidnapping the heiress Patricia Hearst in 1974) to lesser-known outfits like the F.A.L.N., a Puerto Rican independence group that bombed a Wall Street–area restaurant, Fraunces Tavern, killing four people in January 1975. Amazingly, during an 18-month period in 1971 and 1972, the F.B.I. counted more than 1,800 domestic bombings, almost five a day.

By far the best known of the radical underground groups was Weatherman, later known as the Weather Underground, which detonated dozens of bombs across the country from 1970 until it dissolved in late 1976. A splinter faction of the 60s-era protest group Students for a Democratic Society, Weather has been the subject of a dozen books, memoirs, and documentary films; its best-known leaders, Bernardine Dohrn and her husband, Bill Ayers, remain icons on the radical left to this day. Yet despite all the attention, very little has ever been revealed about the group’s internal dynamics, even less about its bombing tactics and strategies, a topic that few Weather alumni, mostly now in their 60s, have ever been eager to discuss publicly.

Partly as a result, Weather’s seven-year bombing campaign has been misunderstood in fundamental ways. To cite just one canard, Weather’s attacks, for much of its life, were the work not of 100or more underground radicals, as was widely assumed, but of a core group of barely a dozen people; almost all its bombs, in fact, were built by the same capable young man—its bomb guru. Nor, contrary to myth, did Weather’s leaders operate from grinding poverty or ghetto anonymity. In fact, Dohrn and Ayers lived in a beach bungalow in the seaside village of Hermosa Beach, California.

Of far greater significance is the widespread confusion over what Weather set out to do. Its alumni have crafted an image of the group as benign urban guerrillas who never intended to hurt a soul, their only goal to damage symbols of American power, such as empty courthouses and university buildings, a Pentagon bathroom, the U.S. Capitol. This is what Weather eventually became. But it began as something else, a murderous core group that was obliged to soften its tactics only after they proved unsustainable. [Continue reading…]

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