The Alphabet Bomber: A Lone Wolf Terrorist Ahead of His Time

The Alphabet Bomber: A Lone Wolf Terrorist Ahead of His Time

by Jeffrey D. Simon


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On August 6, 1974, a bomb exploded at Los Angeles International Airport, killing three people and injuring thirty-five others. It was the first time an airport had been bombed anywhere in the world. A few days later, police recovered a cassette tape containing a chilling message: “This first bomb was marked with the letter A, which stands for Airport,” said a voice. “The second bomb will be associated with the letter L, the third with the letter I, etc., until our name has been written on the face of this nation in blood.”

In The Alphabet Bomber: A Lone Wolf Terrorist Ahead of His Time, internationally renowned terrorism expert Jeffrey D. Simon tells the gripping tale of Muharem Kurbegovic, a bright but emotionally disturbed Yugoslav immigrant who single-handedly brought Los Angeles to a standstill during the summer of 1974. He had conjured up the fictitious group “Aliens of America,” but it was soon discovered that he acted alone in a one-man war against government and society.

The story of the Alphabet Bomber is about an extraordinary manhunt to find an elusive killer, a dogged prosecutor determined to bring him to justice, a pioneering female judge, and a devious mastermind whose heinous crimes foreshadowed the ominous threats we face today from lone wolf terrorists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612349961
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 03/01/2019
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jeffrey D. Simon, PhD, is president of Political Risk Assessment Company Inc., a security and terrorism research consulting company, and is a former analyst for the RAND Corporation. He is the author of The Terrorist Trap: America’s Experience with Terrorism and Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat. He is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Political Science at UCLA; has been interviewed about terrorism on CNN, CBS Sunday Morning, FOX News Channel, MSNBC, and NPR; and has been quoted in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. His writings on terrorism have appeared in many publications, including the Journal of the American Medical Association and Foreign Policy. 

Read an Excerpt


The Making of a Terrorist

There are many different roads to becoming a terrorist. Some individuals are born into the role, such as the members of the mysterious Thuggee movement that terrorized travelers throughout India from the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries. Between five hundred thousand and one million people are believed to have died at the hands of the Thugs, who killed in the name of the Hindu goddess Kali. Membership in the group was mainly hereditary, with the Thugs trained from childhood to murder by strangulation.

Terrorists can also arise from the ethnic-nationalist and religious conflicts that have long been a part of history, where hatreds and desires for revenge are handed down from one generation to the next. This will likely be the legacy of the recent wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries around the world. Political and social grievances are additional root causes for terrorism, with extremist groups exploiting various issues and using violence to achieve their objectives.

Then there is the phenomenon of the lone wolf. This is one of the most intriguing and least understood roads to becoming a terrorist. Lone wolf terrorism cuts across the entire political, religious, and social spectrum. There have been Islamic, anti-Islamic, white supremacist, black militant, anti-abortion, pro-environment, and many other types of lone wolf terrorists. There have also been "idiosyncratic" lone wolves, individuals who espouse their own ideologies to justify their violence. Their terrorism is often based on personal grievances and the desire for revenge. They answer only to themselves as they wage a one-person war against government and society.

This was true for Muharem Kurbegovic, whose journey to becoming a terrorist took many twists and turns, beginning in a city steeped in tragedy.

The Sadness of Sarajevo

When one thinks of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the former Yugoslavia, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the beginning of World War I. It was there on a sunny day — June 28, 1914, to be exact — that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by a member of the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist organization. The assassination set off a flurry of events that soon culminated with several countries declaring war on each other and the world experiencing a global conflict that would eventually claim more than seventeen million military and civilian lives.

Sarajevo was also the site of a forty-four-month siege that began in 1992, with Bosnian Serb forces, backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, encircling the city and firing cannons at schools, libraries, and hospitals while snipers shot at people who were gathering water, attending funerals, or just walking the streets. More than eleven thousand people were killed and fifty thousand wounded in the longest siege of a capital city in modern history.

These two catastrophes were bookends for yet another one: the invasion and occupation of Sarajevo and the rest of Yugoslavia by Nazi Germany and the Axis powers during World War II. Sarajevo, whose population at the time was divided among Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Roma (Gypsies), was incorporated into the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and placed under the control of the ultranationalist Croat Ustasha regime. Thousands of people living in Sarajevo were sent to death camps during this period, Jews being the main victims. Sarajevo's casualties during World War II, including those who were killed as Communist Partisans fighting the Axis occupiers, amounted to 10,961 people, which was 12.9 percent of the prewar population of the city.

The final months of the war were among the most debilitating for the people of Sarajevo. "From September 1944 to April 1945," writes historian Emily Greble, "Sarajevo experienced its most physically and psychologically devastating chapters of the war — one characterized by bombings, police occupation, total war, terror, and the introduction of a new revolutionary government." Knowing that it was on the verge of defeat, "the Ustasha regime lashed out at Sarajevans in irrational, vengeful acts of cruelty that left the town reeling in a state of shock. Sarajevo was on the brink of a psychological collapse when the [Communist-led] Partisans arrived in April 1945."

It was in this environment that Muharem Kurbegovic was born on June 1, 1943. His family, like most people in Sarajevo at the time, lived modestly. He grew up in a three-room apartment with his two sisters, one older and one younger, his parents, and his grandmother. His family usually rented out one of the rooms in the crowded apartment in order to earn extra income. While conditions under the new Yugoslav socialist regime of Marshal Josip Broz Tito were better than during the war, life was still difficult for most Sarajevans. "We grew up in poverty by American standards," Kurbegovic recalled.

Growing up in postwar Sarajevo as a Muslim was also not easy for Kurbegovic, even though Muslims accounted for over one-third of the population. He wondered why so few Muslims were in prestigious positions in government, industry, and other places. He believed the reason was that "there are no qualified Moslems around. We Moslems are just feebleminded." Although he did not consider himself religious, his parents sent him to an Islamic school from the ages of five to seven. He then attended a nonreligious school until he was fifteen, at which time he enrolled in the School of Engineering in Sarajevo rather than a regular high school. "I was bright," he said, "but never all the way to the top in any subject." He wrote a thesis on "Elements of Machines," for which he received a grade of "very good." Upon graduation, he worked as a design engineer for about a year and a half at a railway manufacturing company where his father and older sister were also employed.

Kurbegovic had a distant relationship with his father but was very close with his mother, who had a nervous breakdown when Kurbegovic was a teenager and was hospitalized for a few months. This had a strong effect on the entire family, particularly Kurbegovic. While he was close to his mother, he disliked his father, saying that he was "no good" because he was just a railroad employee with no ambition or desire to better himself. Kurbegovic also felt his father was too strict with him as a child. When his father died in 1968, Kurbegovic, who by then was in Los Angeles, chose not to attend the funeral.

As a child, Kurbegovic was ill with diphtheria and had severe anemia. He also suffered from headaches and seizures. His mother sometimes sent him away for inpatient treatments in order for him to receive rest and gain weight and strength. This upset Kurbegovic, who did not like these places and would write to her to take him back home. Kurbegovic was lonely growing up and often nervous. Most of his youth was spent alone, studying or writing poems. According to his mother, he "always had big ambitions and always tried to be somebody."

When he was twenty, Kurbegovic left Yugoslavia for Germany. He enrolled in the Engineering University of Munich, where he earned a certificate in oil hydraulics. He also worked part time for an engineering firm, where he was employed again as a design engineer. He worked on hydro pumps, cylinders, valves, and accessories. In a letter of recommendation, his manager at the Munich firm wrote that Kurbegovic "produced complete, systematic, comprehensive, constructive and very good solutions, and showed himself to be a very well trained and independent designer, rich in ideas. He was honest and reliable."

While Kurbegovic was living in Munich, however, his mental health deteriorated. He stated that he would hit himself repeatedly due to bothersome thoughts that he could not get rid of. He claimed that he was treated in 1966 for "a severe psychosis" and for "depressions and extreme lack of concentration." He also said that he was an outpatient for two months and was given the antipsychotic drugs haloperidol and tripodal.

Kurbegovic then spent a short time in Paris before immigrating to Canada in 1966 by ship. He first visited Toronto, where several of his relatives and a school friend from Yugoslavia were living, and then went to Vancouver. He traveled back and forth between Toronto and Vancouver for about eight months, working as a design engineer in both cities. On one of his train rides to Vancouver he met a student who had trouble pronouncing Kurbegovic's first name. He instead called him "Mu," which then became Kurbegovic's preferred way of being addressed.

Living and working in Canada, though, was not a joyful experience for Kurbegovic. One of his employers there wrote that he was "in some cases pedantic, a fellow who knows his quality and also willing to fight for his rights if necessary. I never saw him smiling or laughing and he always gave the impression he was unhappy."

Kurbegovic left Canada in January 1967 and entered the United States on a visitor's visa. He settled in Los Angeles and became a resident alien the following year. It would seem that life should have been good for the Yugoslav immigrant in his new country. He was bright and had marketable skills in mechanical and design engineering for the many aerospace, defense contractor, and industrial firms located in Los Angeles. He was also a young man living in a hip, exciting city at a time when cultural, social, and political mores were changing at a dizzying pace. Life in LA, however, would ultimately prove to be frustrating and alienating for the future Alphabet Bomber.

A Fish out of Water

The late 1960s was a watershed period in U.S. political and cultural history. From the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy to the anti — Vietnam War protests sweeping college campuses, it was a time of uncertainty as to where America was heading. An incumbent U.S. president, Lyndon Johnson, shocked the nation in March 1968 when he announced that he would not run for reelection that year. Following King's assassination in April there were riots in cities across the country as well as violent clashes at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. The leftist radical group the Weathermen would soon become responsible for hundreds of bombings on college campuses and other targets.

Compared to other countries, however, America's experience with violence and terrorism during the late 1960s was minimal. In Europe and the Middle East, Palestinian terrorists were hijacking and blowing up planes. In Germany, the Baader-Meinhof Gang was beginning a reign of terror on capitalist and military targets that would last several decades, with the group eventually becoming known as the Red Army Faction. Their first terrorist attack occurred in 1968, when they set fire to a department store in Frankfurt, stating they intended to set a "torch against the capitalistic terror of consumerism." The group also proclaimed that their objective was "to hit the Establishment in the face, to mobilize the masses, and to maintain international solidarity." In Italy, the leftist Red Brigades would soon be born and wage a terror campaign of assassinations and "kneecappings" (shooting their victims in the knees) against capitalists, government officials, military personnel, and journalists who opposed their movement. Their objective was to bring about a Marxist-Leninist revolution in Italy. Meanwhile, the provisional Irish Republican Army was also emerging at this time with the goal of driving the British out of Northern Ireland and creating a united Ireland.

One of the reasons the United States did not see a comparable growth of long-term extremist and terrorist movements within its borders was the absence of deep-seated ethnic-nationalist, separatist, religious, and political divisions that were the driving force for much of the terrorism around the world at the time. Extremist groups in the United States were thus not able to successfully use territorial, ethnic, religious, or political issues to build a significant following lasting beyond a few years.

Even amid the turmoil in America of the late 1960s, a sense of hope permeated the country. The economy was strong, women were making major strides toward equal rights, and the United States had beaten the Russians in placing a man on the moon. Even the woeful New York Mets, the worst team in baseball for much of their existence, won the World Series in 1969, making New Yorkers believe that miracles could indeed happen.

The counterculture revolution sweeping the nation also gave hope to the youth of America. Rebellion against authority and expressions of free will in all aspects of life made for an exciting time to be young in America. As the legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin points out, "Much of the discontent in the 1960s emerged from a sense of possibility — that blacks and whites could live in harmony, that the Vietnam War could end, and that there could be a better future for all."

A better future is what Muharem Kurbegovic hoped for when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1967. He was smart, ambitious, and now in the land of opportunity. But he likely knew before he came to the United States that aliens like himself (immigrants who have legally entered the United States) were required to register for the military draft after they had been in the country for six months. That was the last thing he wanted. He hadn't come all the way to America only to be shipped off to fight and perhaps die in Vietnam.

How, though, would he be able to beat the draft? For the savvy and bright Kurbegovic, that meant coming up with some type of disability that would enable him to obtain a 4-F classification, which was given to a person who was not acceptable for military service due to physical, mental, or moral conditions. Kurbegovic decided, therefore, that faking being mute might do the trick.

He did not know, however, when he would receive the notice from the Selective Service to register for the draft. It could be in six months or sometime later. But he apparently wanted to have a track record at work of being a mute in case the draft board inquired at his place of employment. The problem, of course, was how he was going to communicate with people. He didn't know sign language, and even if he did, it was unlikely any of his coworkers or supervisors at his various engineering jobs would know it. So he came up with a solution. He would simply write notes on a pad of paper very quickly, both in response to questions, when inquiring about something, or for any other type of communication that was necessary.

That, of course, would take an incredible amount of self-control and awareness at all times. It would be very easy to forget that you're pretending to be mute and say something to someone or bang your knee against a desk or chair and exclaim, "Ouch!" Kurbegovic, however, played his part exceptionally well. He even once accidentally burned himself without uttering a sound. He kept his lips sealed when he was communicating by writing notes, no matter how excited he became. Still, while faking being mute, Kurbegovic did nevertheless laugh occasionally and also grunt. He had one type of grunt for when he approved of something, and a different grunt to express disapproval. He would also throw his hands up in the air to communicate a "who knows" attitude. He had many other gestures he used when interacting with various people. When he wanted to gain someone's attention, for instance, he'd make a "che, chi" or "ch-ch" sound.

But writing quick, precise notes was his main form of communication. And he was very skilled at doing it. One employer noted that Kurbegovic "had a real talent for expressing himself with a minimum of writing." A coworker said that he had a "pretty good vocabulary for a guy who had not been in the U.S. very long." The coworker noted misspellings, but he attributed that to Kurbegovic's desire to write quickly as well as to not being familiar with English spelling.

There are, though, some problems that can arise when you're pretending to be mute and need to call in sick to work occasionally. If you don't have many friends or relatives, as was the case for Kurbegovic, what do you do? Since no one at work had ever heard his voice, he simply called in, said his name was "Hans Steiner," and then said that his friend, Muharem Kurbegovic, could not come to work that day because he was sick. No one ever caught on that it was actually Kurbegovic calling.

Kurbegovic's ruse in being a mute was successful, as he obtained a 4-F draft classification in August 1968. He had initially been classified 1-A when he reported to his local draft board in Hollywood in April. That meant he was eligible for induction into the military at any time. He had either forgotten or hadn't realized that he would need medical verification of his "disability." That spring and summer, he scurried around until he found a doctor who provided him with a certificate for the draft board attesting to his muteness.

Despite putting behind him the worries about having to serve in the military, Kurbegovic continued to play mute at work. He likely didn't want to risk being discovered to have lied to the draft board, which at the time would have meant a sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He might also have worried about being deported for his crime.


Excerpted from "The Alphabet Bomber"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey D. Simon.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. The Making of a Terrorist
2. Until Our Name Has Been Written on the Face of This Nation in Blood
3. A City in Fear
4. The Homemade Explosives Factory
5. I Shall Return!
6. Crazy Like a Fox?
7. What the Story of the Alphabet Bomber Can Teach Us
8. It’s a Horrible Shame What He’s Done with His Life

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