Tag: domestic terrorism

At what point do we call this a right-wing terrorist campaign?

America is reeling from the horrific attack on a synagogue in Pennsylvania, in which an anti-Semitic man killed 11 people. And we were already reeling from a series of attempted mail bomb attacks by a right-wing man targeting important liberal figures. Meanwhile, another right-wing attack this week in Kentucky was nearly overlooked. Those on the right tend to view these as horrible but isolated events. Those on the left point, rightly, to the vicious rhetoric coming from Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies, as well as the country’s lax gun laws. But I wonder if we should go further: is America facing a right-wing terrorist campaign?

What would this mean? Here is a passage from Bruce Hoffman’s influential Inside Terrorism on the definition of terrorism:  “We may therefore now attempt to define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” Likewise, Audrey Cronin, in her important book How Terrorism Ends, defined terrorist campaigns as involving “three strategic actors—the group, the government and the audience—arrayed in a kind of terrorist ‘triad.’”

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Terrorism and Terrorists: Political, Analytical, and Methodological Issues

Some commentators have suggested posts that pose questions to our readers. I think that the discussion on Peter Henne’s piece, “A Modest Defense of Terrorism Studies,” provides just such an opportunity.

In Remi Brulin’s most recent comment, she asks:

… I am very much interested in better understanding why Peter (and others of course) do believe that the distinction between state and non-state “terrorism” is so important and necessary from an analytical point of view. 

For my part, I would tend to think that it could in fact add a lot to our understanding of “terrorism”, of the non-state or state variety. But even if it were not so, even if such difficulties do appear: that is a problem that scholars would deal with at their micro level, at the level of their case studies, of their datasets. I donot see how this can possibly be a reason or argument for defining a whole field of research and expertise.

My flip answer to Brulin is that there’s a significant literature on subjects such as the of targeting civilians, state repression, and mass violence that already engages with “state terrorism.” Some of that literature, I believe, extends its purview to non-state actors. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to begin with a premise, disaggregate some issues, and then throw things open to our readership for their opinions.

Let’s begin with a definition: terrorism is a strategy that seeks to instill fear in non-combatants for coercive purposes. This definition faces problems: what is fear? what is a non-combatant? But, for the sake of argument, let’s begin with a definition that does not render all violence in warfare as terrorism, yet is broad enough to include such disparate activities as nuclear deterrence, torture, collective punishment, and blowing up cafes.

So what is at stake — from an analytical and methodological perspectives — in limiting study to non-state actors that engage in terrorism? Will we learn more or less if we include every possible instances of terrorism in our universe of cases, or will we efface causal processes specific to different kinds of actors and contexts?

PS: for additional related arguments, see Phil Arena’s post on the matter.

Notes: First, Morning Linkage regularly runs Monday-Saturday, but only occasionally on Sundays. Second, due to Labor Day and the start of school last week, there will be no podcast this weekend. Podcasts will resume next week.

Will the IRA blow up Will and Kate?

Unidentified ‘British security officials’ are telling journalists there is a possibility that sections of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) could attack next Friday’s royal wedding in London. At an event I attended this week, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Mercer questioned the wisdom of holding a royal wedding so close to Easter, a time with historic significance for Irish republicans. The Easter Rising insurrection against British rule in Ireland began on 24 April 1916. The wedding date is also close to the 30th anniversary of the death of republican prisoner Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike on 5 May 1981. Don’t we understand ‘how Irish terrorists think’, asked Mercer. Yet, talking informally to journalists in London, I discovered many didn’t want to raise the matter because it might appear to strike a negative note and alienate readers at a time many view as one of national celebration.
If there is a threat of violent attacks on the wedding – and it is unlikely security services would make details public even if there were evidence that there was a threat – what would be an effective way to communicate it? Where does the balance lie between informing and scaremongering? Government and journalists will face the same dilemma at the Olympics in a year’s time so it will be interesting to follow how it plays out in the next week. 

7/7 five years on: Conflicting memories make an official record difficult

Aldgate station plan, London underground

A month into the official inquest into the ‘7/7’ London bombings of July 2005, it is clear that the governmental imperative to arrive at a clear, authoritative and final account of what happened on the day might prove impossible because of the unreliability of human memory. This was an event in which cameraphone footage from the scene was reaching the BBC within 20 minutes of the first of four explosions, and iconic images and memorial rituals were in place within days and weeks. Yet it took police four months to take witness statements and now five years for witnesses to testify in court. It is no wonder that discrepancies emerge. Not unlike 9/11, there are significant differences between sweeping media- and politically-driven narratives of national mourning and the local, particular perspectives of those involved.

An official record would offer some certainty to survivors, grieving relatives, and allow for objective assessment of how well emergency services performed. The inquest must be comprehensive and include as many voices as can offer salient information, it must be precise, and it must offer consensus and closure.  At a symposium, ‘Conflicts of Memory’ at the University of Nottingham last week, my regular co-author Andrew Hoskins, who has been following the inquest, talked about the inconsistencies emerging between individuals’ testimonies and even within individuals’ own accounts. One ambulance worker said he had drawn a diagram of where bodies were in a carriage on the day of 7/7; he now can’t remember where he drew the diagram or even whether it was someone else who drew it for him.
We can see this for ourselves; witnesses’ transcripts and the evidence in court are available online, the kind of transparency our new media ecology makes so easy. For instance, we can compare witness testimonies with visual representations of what they had seen. Survivors must now try to reconcile what they thought had happened with all of the conflicting verbal and pictorial versions being put before the court now.
For Hoskins, it is only by following how, over a long period, events become stretched and extended through complex relations and layers of objects, people and rituals that we can see how consensual memories may be formed. This is not dissimilar to Latour’s argument that law (and science) are merely a set of mediations which enough people can agree to go along with for pragmatic reasons. The result, as with the 7/7 inquest so far, is imperfect. Would it be better for the inquest to settle on a definitive set of technical drawings and edit out inconsistent testimonies in order to reach an official record? This might upset survivors who feel the memory they genuinely hold, and which they have lived with for over five years, has been crossed out as a mistake.
Alternatively, the British state could allow for a loose plurality of often-ambiguous accounts to stand together. There would be costs. But with the testimonies, diagrams and other evidence archived and publicly available online, they could decide to turn it over to the public to make connections and draw conclusions themselves. Inclusive but never definitive: judgement 2.0?
Cross posted from: http://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 

Driving Parents Crazy: Why are some violent radicals fathers?

My blogging has been light lately as I have been on the road travelling a lot. This recent period has had me travelling like something of a crazy person with trips all over the Centre/East Coast of North America.

Part of this trip included some time in Ottawa, where it was some interesting times. The week before I arrived there was a series of dramatic arrests here against individuals suspected of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks against the city. These are individuals who, from most media accounts, were largely raised in Canada and subsequently became radicalized.

This is not the first series of arrests that have been carried out by Canadian police and intelligence services in recent years. The case of the Toronto 18 (although only 11 were eventually charged) – seems to be similar in the sense that it was a bunch of individuals that became radicalized and eventually tried to carry out terrorist acts in Toronto. Although their efforts were almost comically bad – and full of screw-ups along the way – the plot to blow up Toronto office buildings was not really anything to laugh about.

This is kind of old news now, but a couple of thoughts on this latest series of arrests – with the caveat of course that I am no terrorism expert.

I suppose the main thing that has caught my attention is that one of the suspects, Khurram Sher, has young children. Initially, I found this somewhat shocking – but upon reflection I realized that this is not unlike recent London bombers (in the 7/7 attacks and the attempts of 21/7 ) – some of whom were married and some with children. And some of the lead suspects in the Toronto 18 case also had children.

I’ve been asking terrorism researching friends why this might be. Apparently the appropriate question is why, in these cases does having children not provide an “insulating” factor against radicalization? If there is some kind of parenting instinct, why is it not enough to overcome or prevent some individuals from wanting to carry out violent acts?

Based on some brief conversations, I’m not sure there is a straightforward answer. One explanation is that violent radicals have often married young and, naturally, have had children as a result. So in this sense it may just be something that has happened along the way, or during the process of violent radicalization.

Perhaps more interestingly it was also suggested to me that there is some research to support the idea that the women in the lives of violent radicals – such as their wives – may play a role in encouraging them to act. Kind of like a bad version of Macbeth, I guess. But in that case the question about the insulating effect of children then applies to the women as well – why don’t children discourage them from encouraging violent radicalism? Why would they prefer that their husbands act than their children to have a father?

But upon some (very light) investigation into this – it seems as though many women who actually execute terrorist acts (as opposed to only encouraging) are mothers as well. This is particularly the case with the Black Widdows of Chechnya where women are often in their mid-20s and may have 2-3 children. A depressing thought.

Another interesting question to come off of this is if there is a difference between fathers in the Middle East in harsh circumstances (such as Palestine) and Western radicals? While I could imagine that being the son/daughter/wife of a “martyr” might convey (however perversely) a certain social status in the Occupied Territories, would this hold true for the Canadian Muslim community (who have been very quick to denounce the supposed plot on a national level)?

I would be very interested in suggestions for research in this area. I’m fairly certain that if I asked my parents I would get some kind of sarcastic comment about myself and my brother being enough to drive anyone crazy. However, I have to think that there is more social-scientific research out there that doesn’t involve parental sarcasm.

This video of one of the London bombers holding his infant daughter is pretty chilling. He is literally making a video for her – spelling out exactly what he was about to do and that she should pray for him in heaven. I don’t like to think of myself as overly sentimental – but you would think that having kids would discourage someone from actively harming themselves?

The downsizing of WMD

What does the term “weapon of mass destruction” mean to you? A few years ago, I was part of a team of academics involved in a project examining the implications of the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of preventive use of force. The editors of the book we produced, William Keller and Gordon Mitchell of the University of Pittsburgh, wanted us to avoid using the phrase “WMD.”

In their introductory chapter, Keller and Mitchell noted that the phrase WMD misleadingly linked together chemical and biological weapons with nuclear weapons:

This semantic leveling obscures the fact that each class of weapons falling under the “WMD” umbrella varies significantly with regard to potential lethality and destructive power; the feasibility of protection and defenses; and potential missions. When dimensions of threat are blurred in this fashion, inaccuracies are easy to introduce. For example, the rhetorical flexibility afforded by the omnibus category “weapons of mass destruction” enabled Bush administration officials to support claims of an Iraqi “WMD” threat (replete with ominous “mushroom cloud” imagery) by pointing to evidence of possible Iraqi chemical weapons development. Obviously, chemical weapons lack the capacity for nuclear destruction, yet as Wolfgang Panofsky points out, “Linking these three classes of weapons in a single WMD category elevates the status of both biological and chemical weapons.”

Yet, despite this reasonable critique, federal law enforcement officials are even now stretching the term WMD to a point well beyond the breaking point.

I refer specifically to the arrest of the so-called “Hutaree militia” in late March. Time, April 12:

federal authorities charged nine alleged Hutaree members with seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.

Did the Michigan Christian Fundamentalist group have chemical or biological weapons — or perhaps nuclear materials to build a “dirty bomb”?

No.

The group planned horrible crimes, but none involved what any reasonable person would consider “weapons of mass destruction,” unless you are the kind of person who would consider even a simple weapon like a machete a WMD:

The group’s alleged plot appears to have required killing a cop at a traffic stop, or after a faked 911 call. Then, the group planned to attack the funeral of that officer — in order to wreak further havoc by killing even more government and law-enforcement officials who would have gathered to mourn.

As Nina Tannenwald has recently argued, the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was intentionally created as a category to render entire classes of weapons illegitimate. As such, the phrase has been vital to building taboos against use of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Tannenwald’s work on the nuclear taboo demonstrates the value of that taboo (though I have challenged the logic of the biological taboo).

Keller and Mitchell accurately note that the phrase was used in a 1948 UN resolution, but Tannenwald’s research reveals that the term was used by policymakers in 1945 to refer to new terrible, horrible, hideous weapons, which were biological and atomic.

The distance between those origins and the Hutaree charges seems vast. If the gap is obliterated, I worry that the phrase will be rendered meaningless and the taboos against genuine WMD will be weakened.

Incidentally, someone writing at Wikipedia found that the term was used in 1937 by Cosmo Lang, the Archibishop of Canterbury, to describe aerial bombardment in Guernica, Spain. In that instance, the phrase directly followed a description of “the appalling slaughter, the suffering, the manifold misery” brought by brutal acts of war.

That too seems different from the current usage — and it obviously didn’t “stick” as World War II, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and other wars involved horrendous conventional bombings that were not described as WMD.

I fully support prosecution of potential domestic terrorists for criminal conspiracies, but I do not believe in inflating these threats by using terms like “weapons of mass destruction.” Does anyone remember how the Bush administration handled a case where a domestic terrorist was actually arrested with chemicals?

Paul Campos: “Stop Playing Terrorball”

Paul Campos of Lawyers, Guns and Money has an op-ed in the Washington Post Wall Street Journal that everyone should read on how the US government, media and citizenry can stop handing political victories to even the most incompetent of transnational criminals by over-reacting to the supposed “threat” posed by global “terrorism.” I like it so much I’ve reprinted large amounts below:

I’m not much of a basketball player. Middle-age, with a shaky set shot and a bad knee, I can’t hold my own in a YMCA pickup game, let alone against more organized competition. But I could definitely beat LeBron James in a game of one-on-one. The game just needs to feature two special rules: It lasts until I score, and when I score, I win.

We might have to play for a few days, and Mr. James’s point total could well be creeping toward five figures before the contest ended, but eventually the gritty gutty competitor with a lunch-bucket work ethic (me) would subject the world’s greatest basketball player to a humiliating defeat.

The world’s greatest nation seems bent on subjecting itself to a similarly humiliating defeat, by playing a game that could be called Terrorball. The first two rules of Terrorball are:

(1) The game lasts as long as there are terrorists who want to harm Americans; and

(2) If terrorists should manage to kill or injure or seriously frighten any of us, they win.

These rules help explain the otherwise inexplicable wave of hysteria that has swept over our government in the wake of the failed attempt by a rather pathetic aspiring terrorist to blow up a plane on Christmas Day.

As to the question of what the government should do rather than keep playing Terrorball, the answer is simple: stop treating Americans like idiots and cowards.

It might be unrealistic to expect the average citizen to have a nuanced grasp of statistically based risk analysis, but there is nothing nuanced about two basic facts:

(1) America is a country of 310 million people, in which thousands of horrible things happen every single day; and

(2) The chances that one of those horrible things will be that you’re subjected to a terrorist attack can, for all practical purposes, be calculated as zero.

Consider that on this very day about 6,700 Americans will die. When confronted with this statistic almost everyone reverts to the mindset of the title character’s acquaintances in Tolstoy’s great novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and indulges in the complacent thought that “it is he who is dead and not I.”

Consider then that around 1,900 of the Americans who die today will be less than 65, and that indeed about 140 will be children. Approximately 50 Americans will be murdered today, including several women killed by their husbands or boyfriends, and several children who will die from abuse and neglect. Around 85 of us will commit suicide, and another 120 will die in traffic accidents.

No amount of statistical evidence, however, will make any difference to those who give themselves over to almost completely irrational fears. Such people, and there are apparently a lot of them in America right now, are in fact real victims of terrorism. They also make possible the current ascendancy of the politics of cowardice—the cynical exploitation of fear for political gain.

It’s a remarkable fact that a nation founded, fought for, built by, and transformed through the extraordinary courage of figures such as George Washington, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. now often seems reduced to a pitiful whimpering giant by a handful of mostly incompetent criminals, whose main weapons consist of scary-sounding Web sites and shoe- and underwear-concealed bombs that fail to detonate.

Terrorball, in short, is made possible by a loss of the sense that cowardice is among the most disgusting and shameful of vices. I shudder to think what Washington, who as commander in chief of the Continental Army intentionally exposed himself to enemy fire to rally his poorly armed and badly outnumbered troops, would think of the spectacle of millions of Americans not merely tolerating but actually demanding that their government subject them to various indignities, in the false hope that the rituals of what has been called “security theater” will reduce the already infinitesimal risks we face from terrorism.

Indeed, if one does not utter the magic word “terrorism,” the notion that it is actually in the best interests of the country for the government to do everything possible to keep its citizens safe becomes self-evident nonsense. Consider again some of the things that will kill 6,700 Americans today. The country’s homicide rate is approximately six times higher than that of most other developed nations; we have 15,000 more murders per year than we would if the rate were comparable to that of otherwise similar countries. Americans own around 200 million firearms, which is to say there are nearly as many privately owned guns as there are adults in the country. In addition, there are about 200,000 convicted murderers walking free in America today (there have been more than 600,000 murders in America over the past 30 years, and the average time served for the crime is about 12 years).

Or consider traffic accidents. All sorts of measures could be taken to reduce the current rate of automotive carnage from 120 fatalities a day—from lowering speed limits, to requiring mechanisms that make it impossible to start a car while drunk, to even more restrictive measures. Some of these measures may well be worth taking. But the point is that at present we seem to consider 43,000 traffic deaths per year an acceptable cost to pay for driving big fast cars.

What then is to be done? A little intelligence and a few drops of courage remind us that life is full of risk, and that of all the risks we confront in America every day, terrorism is a very minor one. Taking prudent steps to reasonably minimize the tiny threat we face from a few fanatic criminals need not grant them the attention they crave. Continuing to play Terrorball, on the other hand, guarantees that the terrorists will always win, since it places the bar for what counts as success for them practically on the ground.

I should add, however, that I’m not among those who think, as Campos seems to imply, that the government shouldn’t be doing more to address traffic fatalities. In fact, this is one of those preventable “human security” problems that interestingly attracts way too little attention from policymakers, in my view. Maybe they could redefine the concept of “homeland security” and put some of that invasive digital imaging money to work on highway safety.

Campos’ original post on “Terrorball” here.

Editor’s Note: Error fixed, thanks to reader comment.

Some thoughts on the American politics topic du jour

There’s no substantive difference between the attempts by right-wingers to define Nazism as a phenomena of the left and Marxist attempts to define Soviet Socialism as “state capitalism.”

Anyway, I think the speed with which the right-wing blogsphere has circled the wagons over the shooting at the Holocaust museum speaks for itself.

It should be patently obvious that any disagreements your typical conservatives have with someone like Von Brunn are far more important than relative location on a one-dimensional political spectrum.

So why bother? The two major theories right now:

• They realize they look pretty silly for their attacks on the DHS right-wing extremism report, i.e., it’s CYA time.

• They’re freaked out that people will draw a connection between the increasing paranoia found online (and on conservative talk radio) and both the Holocaust Museum attack and the George Tiller murder.

I sympathize with the second concern, but not at all with the first.

I find it pretty hard to blame typical right-wing bloggers and message-board posters for the actions of an octogenarian neo-Nazi, or even the murder of an abortion doctor [update: maybe I’m being too generous when it comes to the Tiller murder].

But they should recognize this strategy is a total loser. For example, arguing that a racist couldn’t be right-wing because right-wingers oppose Affirmative Action just makes you look like an idiot. No one outside the bubble is buying it. In fact, we’re in “don’t think of an elephant” territory here: the more they protest, the more the rest of us think about the possible connections.

(They also need to muzzle people like Randall Terry. Now.)

And frankly, they need to take a long and hard look at themselves. Because violent resistance is the logical conclusion of their rhetoric; if they really believe the US is turning into a left-wing police state run by a foreign agent, then they should be at least planning for insurrection.*

I almost have to wonder if some of the people peddling this stuff might be, perish the thought, insincere.

*Note the difference between this and, say, claiming that the Bush administration’s interrogation and executive power policies justified impeachment or voting the bums out of office. But, of course plenty of left-wingers made parallel accusations about the “fascism” of the Bush regime. I seem to remember right-wingers excoriating them for doing so.

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