The recent attack on New York City’s World Trade Center has once again reinforced in Western minds that terrorism is a purely Middle Eastern phenomenon, and that terms like “Palestinian,” “Shi’ite,” and “Muslim fundamentalist” are virtual synonyms for “terrorist.” There is no room here to discuss the damage that such a view has had on American Middle East policy over the years, but it is beyond doubt that this selective interpretation has led most media and government sources to ignore many quite deadly terrorist movements that do not fit the Arab/Iranian mold. Only thus can we explain the ludicrous (if often heard) question “Can terrorism come to the United States?” when this nation has for 30 years been rife with all manner of terrorist activities, committed by white leftists and anti-Castro Cubans, Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups, black militants and Puerto Rican nationalists. Throughout the Western world, many of the most lethal and persistent campaigns of international terrorism have been carried on for decades by groups of which the American public seems quite unaware. Such groups can also have an importance far beyond their numbers, when they do so much to shape attitudes toward the domestic and international conflicts in which the United States has a powerful interest.

Among the “other” terrorist groups that have earned little celebrity in comparison with the Palestinians, perhaps the most significant are the Croatian networks, which have been active in most Western countries for decades and which have carried out some of the most daring and ruthless attacks. How many Americans recall that during the 1970’s Croat terrorists carried out attacks on American soil that resulted in even heavier casualties than the carnage at the World Trade Center? Since the 1930’s, Croat paramilitary groups have constantly demonstrated an implacable hatred toward the former Yugoslav state, and more recently toward its Serbian-dominated successor, and they have shown little compunction about expressing this hatred through armed violence.

It is essential to understand this history if we are to appreciate the ongoing civil wars in the former Yugoslav republics. These conflicts are frequently blamed on the attitudes and ambitions of the Serbian people, but we cannot understand these concerns without reference to the perceived (and quite plausible) external threat posed by Croat militias and terrorist groups. For the Serbs, the Croats represent yet another chapter in a long history in which the mere survival of the Serbian people seemed at stake, and in which no outside force could be found to prevent recurrent attempts at genocide—physical and cultural. In such a context, it is inevitable that the Serbs draw such grim lessons from their history, that they place such a premium on armed self-reliance, on taking vigorous and active defensive measures, and above all, that they wish to insure that never again will the Serbian people be placed at the mercy of those who hate them. There is an obvious (if unpopular) analogy here to the attitudes that have shaped the modern state of Israel; in this model, the Croat terrorists thoroughly fulfill the demon role played by the Palestinian guerrilla groups for the Jewish state.

As in the case of the Palestinians, we must not suggest that all actions or propaganda undertaken in the Croat nationalist cause be labeled simply as “terrorism.” However, the terrorist strand in that tradition can be traced to the very origins of modern Croat nationalism, with the decision to undertake armed resistance to the Yugoslav regime in the late I920’s. Ustashi (“insurgent”) groups sprang up rapidly with the vigorous encouragement of foreign intelligence agencies, especially those of fascist Italy and dictatorial Hungary, representing perhaps the earliest example of the state sponsorship of terrorist campaigns. (It was also at this time that Italian intelligence sponsored the first armed guerrilla groups among the Palestinian people.) During the next decade, Croat nationalist groups undertook numerous armed attacks, bombings, and assassinations against Yugoslav targets, culminating in 1934 with the murder in Marseilles of the Yugoslav King Alexander and the French Foreign Minister Jean Louis Barthdu. The actual attack was carried out by a Macedonian guerrilla, but he was clearly “on loan” at the time to the Ustashi, who were—as was so often the case—executing the will of Mussolini’s fascists.

The Croat extremists reached the apex of their power following the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941, and the Germans established a puppet Croat state under its own indigenous Führer, in the form of Ustashi leader Ante Pavelic. It is well known that the new Croatia made every effort to carry out German plans by pursuing enthusiastically anti- Semitic policies. To their everlasting credit, many Italian soldiers and diplomats showed incredible courage in attempting to protect Jews in the hands of the Croat fascists, but countless lives were lost. The Croat state also massacred hundreds of thousands of Serbs, stirring national antagonisms that survive vigorously to the present day.

The Allied victory in 1945 left the Croat leadership in disarray. Some surrendered to the Western Allies, only to be handed back to the Yugoslav communist authorities for summary justice. Others sought help in the “rat line” operated by the Vatican and found exile in those countries that had shown some sympathy to the Axis, notably in Spain and Latin America: Pavelic himself became part of this diaspora, fleeing to Peron’s Argentina. In such congenial settings, Croat leaders formed alliances with other like-minded victims of the collapse of fascism. The Croats, like the exiled Ukrainians, Romanian Iron Guardists, and others, were encouraged to maintain their political and intelligence networks in alliance with Western governments, who were anxious to find potential foot-soldiers for the Cold War confrontation with European communism. The various emigre groups found an international focus in the World Anti-Communist League, an extreme right-wing coalition formed by the unholy marriage of European “captive nations” and Asian irredentists, largely drawn from South Korea and Taiwan. In addition, the Croat nationalists portrayed themselves as Catholic victims of communist persecution, a stance that helps to explain the sympathy their cause has attracted from the American right, most vociferously in the Reagan years.

These postwar events go far toward explaining the highly successful recrudescence of Croat nationalist and paramilitary groups in the 1970’s, when a new generation of militants was galvanized by the upsurge of nationalist and democratic radicalism following the continent- wide “events” of 1968. The new militants were able to capitalize on the “anti-Bolshevik” alliances formed by their parents, and Croat military groups emerged after 1971 as part of the new “Black International,” the fascist-tinged network of groups that found inspiration in Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina, Stroessner’s Paraguay, and Colonel George Papadopoulos’s Greece. There arose a bewildering proliferation of militant groups such as the United Croats of West Germany, the Croatian Revolutionary Brotherhood (HRB), and the Croatian Liberation Movement (HOP)—HOP, in fact, was led by Stejpan Hefer, a wartime aide to Pavelic. Even the Ustashi name reappeared sporadically.

All the groups sought to appeal to the moral and financial sympathy of ethnic Croatians in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. Today, there are perhaps a quarter of a million ethnic Croatians living outside their homeland. and many have prospered sufficiently to be able to give generously to “patriotic” causes. In addition, Croat guerrillas reaped rich rewards for services rendered to various clandestine agencies, and they served as mercenaries for right-wing causes around the globe.

The resort to armed struggle was exemplified by events in a dozen countries, above all in Western Europe. In 1971, for example, the Yugoslav consulate in Milan was bombed: significantly, the action occurred in one of the heartlands of the “Black”-oriented Italian groups. Shortly afterwards, 27 civilians perished in the bombing of a Yugoslav airliner over Czechoslovakia, and a Swedish airliner was hijacked. Croat extremists assassinated the Yugoslav ambassador to Sweden, and Croat activity would long be significant in this country. In 1986, it was hypothesized that Croat militants might have carried out the still unexplained murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, perhaps acting under orders from the Chilean or Paraguayan regime.

In 1972, a Balkan “Bay of Pigs” occurred when 19 guerrillas launched a comic-opera “invasion” of Yugoslavia itself. The incident drew particular attention to Croat activities in Australia, where the operation had been planned. The militants there go under the name of the “Croatian Brotherhood,” and through the 1980’s they were regarded as the group most likely to pose a domestic terrorist threat to Australia itself. In 1978, 13 men were arrested for carrying out paramilitary training intended to lead to the commission of terrorist attacks within Yugoslavia. The following year, Australian intelligence disrupted a plot to carry out bombings and assassinations.

In the United States, the most active group was the “Croatian Freedom Fighters,” CFF, whose most-celebrated act involved the 1976 hijacking of a TWA flight en route from New York City to Chicago. The flight was diverted to Montreal, and thence to London and Paris. The crew and 63 passengers were freed after statements supporting Croatian independence were published in leading American newspapers. This affair ended relatively bloodlessly, but other aspects of the CFF campaign were more lethal. One of the CFF activists linked to the hijacking was also said to be involved in planting a bomb that killed a New York City bomb disposal expert. Croat groups also carried out sporadic bombings through the early 1980’s, including an attack on a court building in Lower Manhattan and multiple attacks against the United Nations building, probably the world’s single most tempting terrorist target. Other actions included the kidnapping of a German consul in Chicago.

Much more seriously, there is now a consensus that Croat groups were guilty of the 1975 bombing at New York City’s La Guardia Airport, which led to 11 deaths. In terms of casualties, this crime remains the single most serious act of terrorism on American soil in modern times; the lack of outcry against the Croat extremists perhaps results from the long period that ensued before American authorities were able to assign blame. Interestingly, the La Guardia attack is rarely referred to in recent works on terrorism directed against the United States, and it seems almost to have slipped from public memory.

Croat terrorist campaigns were at their height between about 1972 and 1984, but they have since gone into decline. However, it is uncertain whether this is due to better counterterrorist policies by Western nations or to a deliberate decision by the militants to focus their efforts on the fragmenting Yugoslav republic. Whatever the reason, Croat international terrorism now appears moribund; but the heritage of these violent activities is a lively and indeed pressing issue. In the late 1980’s, a new Croat nation emerged from the wreckage of the old federation, and Croatia attracted widespread international support both for the justice of its cause and for its underdog status in the face of Serbian military assaults. However, Serbian hostility can only be understood in light of the Ustashi atrocities of the 1940’s and the suggestion that the contemporary Croat nation is a lineal successor to the Pavelic regime.

Of course, postwar Croat nationalists have sought to disassociate themselves from this bloody past, and they bitterly resent the Ustashi label, which is applied freely by the Yugoslav government, but their subsequent actions have made such a link plausible. In the late 1980’s, the new Croat government headed by Franjo Tudjman made a point of celebrating April 10 as Croatian Independence Day, and thus as a noble and laudable day in Croat history. The date commemorates the Axis victory over Yugoslavia in 1941 and the founding of the Pavelic puppet state. The Croat regime also tried to rehabilitate the memory of some of the nationalist leaders most associated with those ghastly years. The record of Croat terrorism therefore goes far in explaining Serbian reluctance to permit any of their people to live under Croat rule, and the desperate necessity to redraw frontiers accordingly. This is the paramount explanation for the horrors of “ethnic cleansing.”

The Croat experience also suggests a point that should never be forgotten in political debate over American intervention in any of Europe’s burgeoning ethnic struggles. Terrorism is a tactic, not a movement, and it is likely to spring from any situation in which a group or party finds itself in a sufficiently desperate plight, seeing no legitimate way to express its grievances. In the 1990’s, therefore, we are all too likely to see terrorist campaigns launched by any one of a dozen nations that believes its existence is at stake, ranging from Montenegrins and Bosnians to Armenians and (perhaps most likely) ethnic Hungarians. The nations that once were known as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Romania might therefore provide a base for international terrorism quite comparable to the Palestinian experience of the 1970’s.

In the case of the Yugoslav peoples, the Croat campaigns have left in place a network of arms, safe-houses, and funding, all merely waiting for the appropriate circumstances to reactivate the old military groups. In the event of a full-scale military confrontation between Serbia and Croatia, it is more than likely that the bloodshed will spill over into other countries, with the United States and Australia as likely to be affected as any European nation. And once Croat clandestine forces are in play, it is quite certain that the Serbs will respond in kind. Throughout the 1970’s, there were repeated charges that Yugoslav foreign intelligence (UDBA) was seeking to control the terrorist threat by assassinating Croat leaders in the nations in which they sought refuge, including the United States. Presumably, Serbian agents have now inherited most of the old UDBA networks. In the 1990’s, the ethnic wars of Eastern and Balkan Europe might well be fought out in the streets of Frankfurt and Sydney, Chicago and New York. This prospect should be considered very carefully by any government considering involvement or even armed intervention in the political morass of that region.

Obviously, the Croats are by no means the only villains of the Yugoslav disaster. There are rights and wrongs on both sides, though for some reason information about Serbian rights and Croat wrongs seems slow to penetrate to the outside world.