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Weather Underground

When SDS collapsed in 1969, the far-left Weather Underground (a splinter group of the Weathermen) stepped forward, inspired by communist ideologies and embracing violence and crime as a way to protest the Vietnam War, racism, and other left-wing aims. “Our intention is to disrupt the empire ... to incapacitate it, to put pressure on the cracks,” claimed the group’s 1974 manifesto, Prairie Fire. Originally called the Weatherman or the Weathermen, a name taken from a line in a Bob Dylan song, the Weather Underground was a small, violent offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a group created in the turbulent ‘60s to promote social change.

On January 29, 1975, an explosion rocked the headquarters of the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. No one was hurt, but the damage was extensive, impacting 20 offices on three separate floors. Hours later, another bomb was found at a military induction center in Oakland, California, and safely detonated. A domestic terrorist group called the Weather Underground claimed responsibility for both bombs.

Three Weather Underground members were killed when a bomb they had built exploded in the basement of a townhouse in Greenwich Village on March 6, 1970. In the days following the explosion, police found 57 sticks of dynamite, four completed bombs, detonators, timing devices, and other bomb-making equipment.

The Weather Underground planted a bomb in the Department of State on 28 January 1975 to protest President Gerald R. Ford’s policy towards Vietnam. The Weather Underground claimed responsibility and was targeting AID, which was “an instrument for U.S. domination and control throughout the world, not a charitable agency.” In a 12-page manifesto, the Weather Underground charged that President Gerald R. Ford “continues to wage war in Vietnam and Cambodia,” that “US involvement in Vietnam is a chain of lies,” and that the Ford Administration “grossly violated” and was “repudiating” the Paris Peace Accords.

By the next year, the group had claimed credit for 25 bombings—including the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the California Attorney General’s office, and a New York City police station. The FBI doggedly pursued these terrorists as their attacks mounted. Many members were identified, but their small numbers and guerrilla tactics helped them hide under assumed identities. In 1978, the Bureau arrested five members who were plotting to bomb a politician’s office.

On October 20, 1981, in Nyack, N.Y., a dozen members of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army robbed an armored Brink’s truck of $1.6 million. They killed a Brink’s guard and wounded two others. At a police roadblock five miles from the robbery, they killed two police officers and wounded a third. Four of the robbers were captured, but eight escaped. The combined forces of the two major terrorist groups named their alliance the May 19th Communist Organization (M19CO), an alliance that also included members of the Black Panthers and the Republic of New Africa (RNA).

Key to disrupting the group for good was the newly created FBI-New York City Police Anti Terrorist Task Force. It brought together the strengths of both organizations and focused them on these domestic terrorists. The task force and others like it paved the way for today’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces—created by the Bureau in each of its field offices to fuse federal, state, and local law enforcement and intelligence resources to combat today's terrorist threats.

By the mid-'80s, the Weather Underground was essentially history. Still, several of these fugitives were able to successfully hide themselves for decades, emerging only in recent years to answer for their crimes. Once again, it shows that grit and partnerships can and will defeat shadowy, resilient terrorist groups.

The Weatherman faction of SDS took its name from a line of singer Bob Dylan's song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" -- “You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows' -- which served as the motto for a 16,000 word manifesto of the faction. The Weather Underground waged a low-level war against the U.S. government through much of the 1970s, bombing the Capitol building, breaking Timothy Leary out of prison, and evading one of the largest FBI manhunts in history.

The Weatherman took control of SDS in the summer of 1969 and a number of its members traveled to Cuba in August, where they met with Cuban and North Vietnamese officials who encouraged them to make use of violence to oppose US participation in the Vietnam war. Thereafter, the Weatherman planned and led its first violent action, the "Days of Rage" rioting in Chicago on October 8-11, 1969, and carried out its first bombing (of the Haymarket police memorial statue in Chicago) on October 7, 1969. In December 1969, the Weatherman held a "national war council" in Flint, Michigan, at which an ideological line and tactical plans for terrorism were formulated. Thereafter, in February 1970, the Weatherman faction closed the national office of SDS and went underground. At this time the WUO was believed to consist of some 400 members. From October 1969 to September 1975, the WUO claimed responsibility for approximately 40 bombings, including the bombing of the US Capitol Building on March 1, 1971, of the Pentagon Building on May 19, 1972, and of the US Department of State on January 28, 1975.

From the mid 1970s, however, the WUO appeared to become less active as a terrorist organization. In 1977 several members and associates of the WUO were arrested in connection with a conspiracy to bomb the offices of California State Senator John Briggs, and this action was the last known terrorist effort of the WUO.

Several of its better known members surfaced in the late 1970s: Mark Rudd in 1977, Bernardine Dohrn, William Ayers, and Cathlyn P. Wilkerson in 1980. In 1979 the FBI closed its investigation of the WUO, and on December 29, 1981, Judge Webster stated publicly that "The Weather Underground Organization is not a viable organization. There is no evidence that such an organization is functioning."

The Weather Underground Organization (WUO), formed in 1969-70 from members of the Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was the parent group and probably the principal component of the most important underground terrorist network for the next decade. By the early 1980s this network consisted of three main components: (1) the WUO and its aboveground support apparatuses; (2) black terrorist groups (the Black Liberation Army or BLA and the Republic of New Afrika or RNA) to some extent descended from the violent “Cleaver faction' of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and similar groups of the 1960s; and (3) the Puerto Rican terrorist organization FALN and associated groups.

The most notable act of terrorism perpetrated by this network was the so-called "Brinks robbery" of October 20, 1981 -- the armed robbery of a Brinks armored car of $1,589,000 in Clarkstown, NY, and the murders of two Nyack, NY, police officers and one Brinks Company guard. This incident was significant not because it was a success (in fact, it was a failure) but because the apprehension, trial, and conviction of its perpetrators and the subsequent investigation revealed for the first time a highly organized, clandestine, and nationwide terrorist network.

Since the early 1970s the WUO had undergone an extensive internal schism over its organization, ideology, and tactics. In 1974, a new tactical line emerged in a manifesto of the WUO entitled Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism. The new line consisted principally of an effort to build a mass party using all means of revolutionary struggle rather than to operate exclusively as a terrorist group. This change, which was called the “weather inversion" or "strategy of inversion" corresponded to a move closer to orthodox Leninist tactics and away from the “New Left" or "revisionist" tactic of Che Guevara and Regis Debray of reliance on a revolutionary "foco" that engages exclusively in 'armed struggle' or terrorism. The latter tactic had originally been the basis of WUO strategy.

The Weather Underground Organization (WUO) broke apart in 1976 because of internal dissension. Some former WUO members wanted to continue the struggle alone and adopted the PFOC name, which had been the name of an aboveground WUO support organization. These individuals resided principally on the west coast. Other former WUO members wanted to inleract with other radical elements in the struggle and adopted the M19CO name. These Individuals were generally located on the east coast.

Neither group was more radical than the other, as both were stili deeply committed to the cause. Each had aboveground members whose activities generally were nonviolent, and underground members whose identities and activities were not known to law enforcement. Other former Weathermen, including Bernardine Dohrn, Kathy Wilkerson, and Bill Ayers, resurfaced to face charges.

By the mid-'80s, the Weather Underground was essentially history. Still, several of these fugitives were able to successfully hide themselves for decades, emerging only in recent years to answer for their crimes.

To implement the new strategy an aboveground support group, the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), was founded. Internal disputes over the new strategy continued, however, and in 1978 the New York chapter of the PFOC became the May 19th Communist Organization, while the West Coast PFOC retained its old name. Despite the internal disagreements among the factions and personalities of the WUO, public demonstrations in the early 1980s suggested that all elements of the organization continued to cooperate.

In 1980, after nearly eleven years living underground, Ayers and Dohrn surfaced together. Criminal charges pressed against the radical duo were later dropped due to prosecutorial misconduct. This was big news. Although not proven to have been involved, Dohrn served eight months in federal prison after refusing to talk to the grand jury investigating the 20 October 1981 Brinks robbery. Ayers brandished his unrepentant radicalism for years to come, as for example in his now notorious 2001 interview with the New York Times—published one day after the 9/11 attacks — in which Ayers stated, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”

After Ayers and Dohrn emerged from hiding, they became university professors in Chicago; Ayers specialized in education reform and served as an advisor to Chicago mayor Richard Daley. Through this work Ayers became acquainted with Barack Obama in 1995. Ayers hosted a meet-the-candidate gathering at his home as Barack Obama prepared for his initial run for the Illinois state senate. The two worked with the same charity and social service organizations in Chicago (particularly the Chicago Annenberg Challenge), and Ayers contributed $200 to Obama’s re-election campaign for the Illinois state senate in 2001.

In April 2002 University of Illinois-Chicago forum panel — ”Intellectuals in Times of Crisis: Experiences and applications of intellectual work in urgent situations” — included both Obama and former Weather terrorist leader Bill Ayers. Obama told talk radio host Michael Smerconish in an interview on October 9, 2008. Barely a month before the general presidential election, candidate Obama told Smerconish and his listeners of Ayers: “I assumed that he had been rehabilitated.”




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