Progress is being made on a followup film to 7/7: Seeds of Deconstruction and among the discoveries that will be detailed in the sequel is the fact that July 7th 2005 was not the first time London had suffered a suicide bombing. To many people familiar with the 7/7 issues this may seem like it is a point that has already been made. As we know, within days of the explosions the police had already identified the supposed culprits and were describing the attacks as suicide bombings. This BBC report from the 12th July 2005 sums it up:
Police knowing whodunnit? Check. Suicide bombers? Check. Encouraging of Racial/Cultural/Religious disharmony? Check. Tedious Muslim analyst cowing to the media, being all apologetic, and failing to talk about the real questions? Check. The piece even says that this was the first suicide bombing in Western Europe, thus making the attacks a categorical game-changer or paradigm-shifter, and of course presuming the West vs Islam Clash of Civilisations idea. Indeed, if you're looking for a 4 minute summary of everything that's wrong about how the conversation on 7/7 progressed, this little video has it all.
But hang on a minute. A little over a year before 7/7 we had the Atocha bombings in Madrid, carried out by a bunch of crackpot Islaminformantists, killing nearly 200 people. On the 11th of March 2004 they attacked the Madrid public transport system early in the morning - in many ways identical to the 7/7 bombings. A few weeks later, so we're told, several of the suspects blew themselves up when cornered by the authorities, killing themselves and one special forces agent and wounding about a dozen other police. So, presuming that time didn't go backwards between April 2004 and July 2005, then the April 2004 incident was Western Europe's first suicide bombing? Right?
Wrong. The first suicide bombing took place over a century earlier, in 1894. In the period 1870-1930 the Western world fought a 'war on terror' against the first red menace - the radical and/or militant aspects of the labour movement, communism and anarchism. The anarchists in particular seemed to like bombing stuff - indeed, the first fatal bombing on the London underground was the work of anarchists, though it seems at the time they blamed the Irish. But their violence was in many ways the product of infiltrators and provocateurs. The head of the Russian secret police in Paris, Peter Rachkovsky, and senior members of the British Special Branch ran numerous double agents.
As with so many other stories of this kind throughout history, this process did not only produce violence including the death of random citizens, it also produced some woeful miscarriages of justice. The way justice systems deal with the fallout from covert operations will be the main underlying topic of the sequel to 7/7: Seeds of Deconstruction but the best example from the Victorian period is that of the Walsall Anarchists. They were six men arrested in 1892 who were accused of manufacturing bombs and running a bomb factory. Four were convicted and received sentences of up to ten years in prison.
The whole thing was a set up. The key evidence at the trial were letters from members of the group to an police provocateur called Auguste Coulon. Coulon was an unemployed dreamer who was obsessed with dynamite and explosions who was recruited by Special Branch man William Melville. Melville went on to head up the forerunner to MI5. The letter included diagrams of possible bomb cases that Coulon provided advice on and encouraged the group to make. They never actually made any cases, though that didn't stop the police making some to be used as evidence at the trial. The judge supported the detectives who testified at the trial when they refused to answer any questions about Coulon, who of course was never arrested and got paid a large sum of money for his role in the plot. A nice summary of the case can be downloaded here, in the form of a fact sheet provided by the museum of Walsall.
A couple of years later, in February 1894, a young French anarchist called Martial Bourdin blew himself up in Greenwich Park, not far from the Royal Observatory. The explosion blasted off one of his hands and caused a large injury to his stomach but he was found moments after, still alive. He was taken to hospital and died about half an hour later. So what the hell was Bourdin doing? Various theories have been put forward. One is that the anarchists were targeting the Observatory, which the global meridian line runs through. As a symbol of modernity and global organisation, two things anarchists didn't like very much, it isn't a bad target. This became the basis for Joseph Conrad's fictional adaptation of the Bourdin story in his book The Secret Agent.
According to this version, Bourdin's brother-in-law HB Samuels, who was then-editor of the anarchist journal The Commonweal, gave the bomb to Bourdin so that he could go and throw it at the Observatory. Bourdin presumably tripped up or had some other accident and so the bomb went off prematurely, killing him. Another similar intepretation is that Bourdin was supposed to be delivering the bomb to other anarchists who were to use it overseas, perhaps in France or Russia, and again that Bourdin died in an accident. This account was put forward by Patrick McIntyre, another Special Branch officer who had fallen out with Melville over his role in setting up the Walsall Anarchists. McIntyre found himself demoted for his protests, so he quit the police and published his memoirs in the newspaper, blowing the whistle on the infiltration operations.
When writing about Auguste Coulon he commented:This same description could of course be applied to numerous such provocateurs. On the basis of what informants had told him, McIntyre offered this summary of the Bourdin plot:
A yet further version is that Samuels set up Bourdin in a sting operation and that police were waiting nearby to arrest Bourdin in possession of a bomb. This is suggested by a contemporary NY Times article that details how police had seen Bourdin and another man leaving a house near the Autonomie Club (the London anarchist hub) earlier in the day.
So, what happened? For even more on the problems with the Bourdin story I recommend this paper, but there is some key information largely overlooked by the existing discussion. For one, confirming suspicion at the time, Bourdin's brother-in-law HB Samuels was an associate of Auguste Coulon and a police agent of some kind. Author Alex Butterworth used the FOIA to obtain a copy of a police ledger of informants that substantiates not only McIntyre's claims but many more.
Perhaps more importantly, there was political pressure for Bourdin's death to be ruled a suicide. From Hansard, the only mention of Bourdin is from Charles Darling (the 1st Baron Darling) who said:
MR DARLING: I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department a question of which I have given him private notice. It is whether his attention has been called to the statement that the coroner for Greenwich has been asked to deliver up the body of Martial Bourdin, and that the Anarchists of London propose to make it the occasion of a public funeral; whether there is not reason to suppose that Martial Bourdin came by his death in the course of a felonious act; and whether his own death, resulting from this, would not properly be found to be felo de se? In that case, does not the law provide for the disposal of the body? I wish further to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will interfere in this matter, having regard to the action which the French Government found it necessary to take in the case of the Anarchist Vaillant?
The reason was that at the time suicide was still a crime (felo de se, to be a felon against oneself, a self-murderer). If Bourdin's death were ruled a suicide then the State could confiscate his possessions and decide how to dispose of his body. Darling was concerned that a public funeral for Bourdin would provide a means for public demonstration by anarchists, hence he wanted the Home Secretary to 'interfere in this matter'. In the event, the Home Secretary refused the request, saying:
MR. ASQUITH: That would certainly be a most extraordinary proceeding, considering that the jury have not yet found a verdict of felo de se. I do not know whether the hon. Member proposes that either I or the coroner should keep the body above ground until the jury has found a verdict.The funeral took place a few days later, and there was a large demonstration by anarchists who clashed with police. The New York Times reported that when one senior anarchist tried to deliver an oration when Bourdin's coffin was being lowered, he was seized by police and removed from the cemetery.
MR. DARLING: Yes.
MR. ASQUITH: I certainly decline to do anything of the kind.
So what was the inquest verdict? From The Mercury:
Despite virtually no evidence showing that Bourdin had any intention of dying (and large amounts of money in his pockets suggesting he actively intended to live), the verdict was suicide. That's right, over a hundred years ago Britain suffered its first suicide bombing. Bizarrely, historian David Rooney denied this, saying in a 2009 podcast that 'It wasn't a suicide bomb, it had gone off by mistake'. One wonders if he would have said that before 7/7, or whether he is actually aware of the inquest verdict in Bourdin's case.
So, we have a supposedly radical movement heavily infiltrated by provocateurs and spies. We have a man in London blown to pieces by a bomb, who never explained what had happened and died shortly after the explosion. We have political pressure for a verdict of suicide that is born out at the inquest, and we have widespread ignorance/denial from both academics and the mainstream media. Even though Bourdin almost certainly did not intend to kill himself, by the official record he was Europe's first terrorist suicide bomber.
There is one other possibility, not explored above. Bourdin could have been what the IRA called a 'human bomb' or 'proxy bomb'. Typically, a man's family would be kidnapped and he would be threated with their torture or death and be forced to drive a car-bomb into a military checkpoint or other installation. Along with the 'real' suicide bomber there is the 'unwitting' suicide bomber and the 'unintentional' suicide bomber and the 'unwilling' suicide bomber. To the naked eye, after the explosion, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference which has occurred. Yet, as the video at the top of this article shows, it was only a matter of days before the police had decided not only who was responsible for 7/7, but that it was Britain's 'first' (to the very forgetful/ignorant) suicide bombing. We have to wonder: did they even consider any other possibility?
In a couple of weeks we will have the verdict from the inquests into the 52 certain victims of the 7/7 bombings, at which point Lady Justice Hallett will decide whether to hold inquests in the deaths of the four alleged bombers. The J7 group posted a lengthy explanation of the reason why inquests into the four should take place, indeed, must take place. They submitted the same to Hallett, who now has no excuses for deciding against holding them. If the last few months are anything to go by then what we'll get is more gameshow-style inquests where everyone in the audience knows what the answer is but for some reason none of the contestants, I mean witnesses and evidence, seem to be able to remember it.
To finish this time, another little extract from McIntyre's memoirs. He was a very early whistleblower into this sort of police/security service corruption, and therefore is of far more historical significance than he is recognised as being. This is his impression of the actual spirit of the anarchists and the danger they posed (or rather, didn't pose):