Amidst the social and political turmoil of the 1970s, a handful of women—among them a onetime Barnard student, a Texas sorority sister, the daughter of a former communist journalist—joined and became leaders of the May 19th Communist Organization. Named to honor the shared birthday of civil rights icon Malcolm X and Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, M19 took its belief in “revolutionary anti-imperialism” to violent extremes: It is “the first and only women-created and women-led terrorist group,” says national security expert and historian William Rosenau.
M19’s status as an “incredible outlier” from male-led terrorist organizations prompted Rosenau, an international security fellow at the think tank New America, to excavate the inner workings of the secretive and short-lived militant group. The resulting book, Tonight We Bombed the Capitol, pieces together the unfamiliar story of “a group of essentially middle-class, well educated, white people who made a journey essentially from anti-war and civil rights protest to terrorism,” he says.
After their formation in 1978, M19’s tactics escalated from picketing and poster-making to robbing armored trucks and abetting prison breaks. In 1979, they helped spring explosives-builder William Morales of the Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN and Black Liberation Army organizer Assata Shakur (née Joanne Chesimard) from their respective prisons. (Both Shakur and Morales remain on the FBI’s wanted lists for terrorism and are thought to live in Cuba.)