The Unabomber: A Domestic Terrorist with Post-9/11 Significance
By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
“You can’t eat your cake and have it too. To gain one thing, you have to sacrifice another.”—
Theodore Kaczynski, The Unabomber
Theodore Kaczynski’s emergence on the domestic terrorism scene came as a complete surprise to the world. Between 1978 and 1995, his ingeniously designed homemade bombs killed three people and injured 23 others. Kaczynski’s persistent attacks caused the Federal Bureau of Investigation to launch the largest manhunt in its history up to that time.
Although the FBI assigned 500 of its special agents to the case, they could not track down the unknown bomber. Ultimately, it was the suspicions of Kaczynski Kaczynski’s brother, David, that finally led law enforcement officers to Kaczynski’s isolated cabin in rural Lincoln, Montana, in 1995.
Why this mathematical genius and recluse turned to a life of terrorism may never be fully understood. But his expertise in and use of explosive devices, as well as his ties to anti-technologists and the environmental terrorism movement, certainly echo in the post-9/11 world.
A Happy, Outgoing Baby Became a Reticent, Resentful Child
Kaczynski was born to hardworking Polish immigrant parents in Chicago in 1942. His mother remembered him as an outgoing and happy baby until he contracted a serious case of hives at approximately nine months old.
At that time, hospitals did not allow parents to visit their children with this sort of ailment. His mother recalled that when Kaczynski returned home, he was a changed baby. He became reticent and seemingly resentful of her presence. His happiness and joviality never returned. This altered behavior is interesting from the perspective of early childhood development. Kaczynski remained aloof and solitary from that time forward, sometimes lapsing into a state in which he did not respond even to immediate family members.
Kaczynski Develops into a Talented Mathematician
Kaczynski, however, was extremely intelligent with an IQ of 167. He discovered mathematics at an early age and exhibited a great love for math. Even though he was from a working-class family, his intellectual abilities were recognized. Later, he was accepted to Harvard, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics.
Kaczynski went on to earn a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Philosophy in mathematics at the University of Michigan. As a result of his outstanding Ph.D. dissertation, Kaczynski was offered a position in the prestigious math department at the University of California at Berkeley.
But throughout his academic career, Kaczynski exhibited weak social interaction skills and remained aloof and introverted. He also exhibited a dislike for technology and opposed any form of psychological manipulation.
Although his family relations were strained, Kaczynski maintained contact with David. His colleagues admired his undoubted genius, but students complained that he never answered their questions in class. Kaczynski simply taught straight from the textbook with little or no class engagement.
Forsaking Berkeley, Kaczynski Moved to Rural Montana
Kaczynski resigned his position at Berkeley in June 1969 and moved to rural Lincoln, Montana, choosing to live in a remote cabin without electricity or running water. A frequent visitor to the local library, Kaczynski continued to focus on technology and the environment.
“To a large extent, I think the eco-anarchist movement is accomplishing a great deal, but I think they could do it better…The real revolutionaries should separate themselves from the reformers,” Kaczynski said in an undated interview with the website Primitivism.
At some point, Kaczynski moved from the reformer side of the environmental movement to the terrorist side. He turned a philosophical and psychological corner in the spring of 1978, when he made his first bomb attack. No one knows for sure what triggered the change in Kaczynski’s mental outlook. One psychologist who interviewed him said, “his early brilliance was ruined by paranoid schizophrenia.”
That same year, Kaczynski left Montana and obtained work at the same Chicago company where his brother was a manager. For a short time, it seemed Kaczynski might come out of his shell when he dated a female manager.
However, she soon broke off their relationship. Kaczynski then stalked her through the mail, was fired and soon returned to Montana. David, who was the bearer of the bad news about his firing, was disappointed because he had hoped that Kaczynski’s life would become normal.
Modus Operandi (MO) of a Master Bombmaker
Back in Montana, Kaczynski became a master bombmaker who built his unique devices from commonly available materials such as wood, metal pipes and rubber bands. He was careful never to leave any fingerprints on his bombs.
Kaczynski was often in the local library, sifting through postal service information. This habit is significant because he always sent his bombs through the U.S. mail. Kaczynski also did a lot of research in the library to determine who, in his mind, deserved to receive one of his bombs because of their interest in technology and their disregard for the environment.
First Attack Phase: 1978-1987
Between 1978 and 1987, Kaczynski conducted 12 bombings that resulted in eight injuries and one death. Hugh Scrutton was killed as he left his Sacramento computer rental shop. One of Kaczynski’s devices started a fire on a passenger airliner and another was discovered at a university in Utah. The FBI labeled the unknown perpetrator the “Unabomber,” a combination of university and airline bombings because those were his frequent targets.
At this point, the FBI had little to go on in solving the case. After the 1987 bombings, Kaczynski took approximately a six-year hiatus from his terrorist activities.
Second Attack Phase: 1993-1995
Between 1993 and 1995, Kaczynski, now widely known as the Unabomber, conducted four bombings. The FBI created Kaczynski a composite picture of him drawn from a witness at the scene.
The initial attack on June 22, 1993, was aimed at geneticist Charles Epstein at the University of California at San Francisco. Epstein was severely injured and lost several fingers in the attack. This bombing was followed two days later by an explosive device mailed to David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale. Gelernter lost one eye, part of his right hand and was wounded in his chest in the attack. Both bombs were contained in manila envelopes and both packages had the same mailing address of Sacramento.
Over time, Kaczynski’s skills in bomb-making became more sophisticated. In 1994, a Kaczynski bomb killed New Jersey advertising executive Thomas Mosser.
His final bomb was addressed to William N. Dennison, who served as president and chief executive officer of the California Forestry Association from 1980 to 1994. Dennison was “a highly visible figure in a number of contentious environmental issues,” according to the New York Times. But Gilbert B. Murray had succeeded Dennison as president and chief executive officer in 1995. Murray was killed in the bombing, and became Kaczynski’s last victim.
Kaczynski’s Manifesto Leads to His Capture
Between June 24, 1993, and September 19, 1995, the Unabomber corresponded with the New York Times and the Washington Post. He said the bombings would stop if the newspapers printed his manifesto.
The Post agreed to print the 35,000-word document called “The Unabomber Manifesto” and published it on September 22, 1995. In it, Kaczynski detailed the hazards of technology and the threat technology posed to mankind.
David began to suspect that his brother Ted was the Unabomber when, according to History.com, “David read the essay and recognized his brother’s ideas and language.” Kaczynski’s mother and brother had discovered documents authored by Kaczynski which contained disturbing content.
They hired Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler, to look at the documents. Van Zandt identified clear similarities between the Manifesto and the documents that Kaczynski’s mother and brother gave him. David Kaczynski then took his information to the FBI.
On April 3, 1996, FBI agents arrested Kaczynski at his cabin in Lincoln. He was later tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Today, Kaczynski remains an active letter writer from his cell.
To some, he is a media treasure trove. In fact, an eight-part limited series, “Manhunt: Unabomber,” premieres August 1 on the History Channel.
The Unabomber and Development of the Modern Lone Wolf Terrorist
Attacks by lone wolf terrorists are becoming a common thread in the media and world news today. These attacks tend to be quite different from the Unabomber’s in some respects and quite similar in others.
The two primary differences between the Unabomber and modern lone wolves are ideological and religious. The Unabomber gave no indication of being overtly religious or of using religion as a justification for his acts.
Kaczynski’s ideas on technology and its ill effects on the environment are reminiscent of the Luddite Rebellion of 1811-1816 in England. Skilled craftsmen and women rebelled against the encroachment of early Industrial Revolution machines that were replacing them in the workplace. (They took their name from Ned Ludd, who was said to have destroyed weaving equipment in protest of working conditions.)
In modern terms, the name Luddites is associated with any anti-technology movement and perhaps a return to a more eco-friendly and pastoral existence. The Unabomber was influenced by what he read and saw on television. He believed that technology was destroying the natural world and that decisive action was needed to stop the destruction.
Modern lone wolf terrorists are more likely to be religiously motivated , often imbued with devotion to fundamentalist Islam. Many of them believe that the U.S. and its allies should be expelled from traditionally Muslim lands.
Others believe that Islam must conquer the world and create a global caliphate. The threat level from radical Islamist lone wolves is often enhanced by the backing and perhaps even training and resources from groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The primary similarity between “old school” lone wolves like Kaczynski and modern Islamic lone wolves is that both favor bombs as their weapon of choice. In Kaczynski’s case, his academic background and expertise enabled him to construct devices from everyday items that had a unique “signature” all his own.
Modern lone wolf terrorists are more likely to use various devices, often crude but effective, which they have learned to construct on Islamic fundamentalist websites or other sources. For example, the bombs used in the 2013 Boston Marathon attack were crude devices constructed from pressure cookers packed with shrapnel. When they exploded within seconds of each other, they killed three spectators and wounded more than 260 other people. Household items that have been transformed into bombs are difficult to trace to an individual attacker.
Another commonality is the concept of unacceptance. Both the Unabomber and some modern attackers believe themselves to be apart from the society in which they live. While Kaczynski believed that the Western penchant for technological change was ruining the environment, many Muslim extremists believe the gross materialism of the West is destroying the world.
The Unabomber was a highly unusual and deadly individual who combined his own psychological problems with technological excellence and a hatred of technology. Fortunately, most modern lone wolves are neither brilliant nor especially reclusive.
This characteristic makes lone wolf terrorists easier to detect, apprehend or kill. In effect, they are amateurs, unwilling or unable to think through potential scenarios and how to avoid detection as the Unabomber did for so long.
Of course, there could be a Muslim extremist another Unabomber out there. If there is, he could be truly devastating and would require a long time to locate and eliminate.
About the Author
Dr. Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army Captain, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.