Are the Austin bombings terrorism?

FBI agents at the scene of last night's bombing. (AP)
FBI agents at the scene of last night’s bombing. (AP)


Four bombs have now gone off in Austin, Tx, over the last 17 days. The most recent was last night, a bomb triggered by a tripwire that left two men injured.

According to the FBI, this “changes things,” representing a significant step up in the sophistication of the device compared to the earlier bombs which left two African-American men dead and a hispanic woman critically injured. All four devices share similarities which suggest they are the work of the same bomb maker.

The first three bombs were all left at residences, disguised as delivered packages. All detonated as the victims were opening or handling them. The fourth bomb was left on a roadside in a different area of the city.

Because the first two victims were black, a 39-year-old construction worker and a 17-year-old high school student, both related to prominent members of Austin’s African-American community, the attacks have raised suspicion that they are racially motivated. The area where the first three bombs went off were neighborhoods east of I-35, the six-lane highway which divides the affluent and predominantly white west side of the city from where black and hispanic residents have historically lived on the east side.

The fourth bomb, however, breaks from that pattern. It was planted in the city’s southwest. The two men injured in the blast are both white.

So where does that leave us? Can we describe these as acts of terrorism?

Four bombs have now gone off, all apparently the work of the same individual or group of individuals. The attacks have left the city on edge, with police urging the public to be alert for suspicious packages. The neighborhood where the fourth bomb went off was placed on lockdown until this afternoon, with residents kept in their homes and school buses ordered to stay away. The identities of the first three victims suggest a possible motivation.

That last is the key to understanding whether or not what is happening in Austin constitutes terrorism or something else. Definitions of terrorism typically focus on several key elements: threat or use of violence; intention to create fear in an audience beyond the immediate victims of an attack; all in the service or pursuit of some political/social/religious motivation or objective.

So that’s what we still need to know about the Austin attacks. Until we find some further evidence of common ideological motivation connecting the bombings, we will have to reserve judgment.

Another typical American terrorist

Accused terrorist Michael Hari (Chicago Tribune photo)
Accused terrorist Michael Hari (Chicago Tribune photo)


Last August, a mosque in Minnesota was bombed. Yesterday, three men from a rural central Illinois town were charged with carrying out the attack, which, according to the FBI, was intended to frighten Muslims in to fleeing the United States.

This, my friends, is the very definition of terrorism:

[T]he threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.

The three men charged, Michael Hari, Joe Morris, and Michael McWhorter, all come from the same tiny town of Clarence, Ill., with a population of fewer than 100. They are also suspected of carrying out a failed bombing attack on an Illinois abortion clinic.

Hari, a former sheriff’s deputy who is the suspected “mastermind” of the bombings, was featured in the Chicago Tribune last spring after the global security firm he founded, Crisis Resolution Security Services, submitted a $10 billion bid to build President Donald Trump’s promised wall on the US-Mexico border. He described his proposed border wall this way:

We would look at the wall as not just a physical barrier to immigration but also as a symbol of the American determination to defend our culture, our language, our heritage, from any outsiders.

Less than six months later, according to the FBI, Hari and his companions decided to defend American culture, language, and heritage not with a wall, but with pipe bombs.

I have written it over, and over, and over again in this space: The typical face of terrorism in America belongs to an angry white man.

This week in terrorism history: March 11-17

(Infographic: Council on Foreign Relations)
(Infographic: Council on Foreign Relations)


While the world’s attention has been riveted on the rise and now near demise of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda has quietly rebuilt, solidifying its influence in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, returning to Afghanistan, and adding new affiliates in places like Kashmir. So argues veteran terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman in a report published last week by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Forces loyal to al-Qaeda and its affiliates now number in the tens of thousands, with a capacity to disrupt local and regional stability, as well as launch attacks against their declared enemies in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Russia. Indeed, from northwestern Africa to southeastern Asia, al-Qaeda has knit together a global movement of more than two dozen franchises. In Syria alone, al-Qaeda now has upwards of twenty thousand men under arms, and it has perhaps another four thousand in Yemen and about seven thousand in Somalia.

According to Hoffman’s report, this resurrection comes despite the killing of many of AQ’s top leadership, including Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces in 2011. A key moment, he argues, comes in 2012-13 when thousands of AQ veterans were freed from Egyptian prisons during the tumultuous Arab Spring period in that country. The AQ franchise in Syria, Jabhatat al-Nusra, now know as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has emerged as the largest rebel group still standing, having helped eliminate most of its both secular and Islamist rivals.

While ISIS has been eclipsed in Syria and elsewhere, it still commands more attention from counterterrorism experts and policymakers due to the belief that it remains capable of carrying off spectacular attacks in Europe and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda, seemingly, does not represent such a threat. Hoffman, however, argues that the supposed inability of a revived al-Qaeda to launch attacks against targets outside of its areas of current operation is a matter of strategic choice, not lack of capability.

[This] … is a product of [AQ leader Ayman] Zawahiri’s strategic decision to prohibit external operations in the West so that al-Qaeda’s rebuilding can continue without interference. The handful of exceptions to this policy—such as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the 2017 St. Petersburg Metro bombing in Russia—provide compelling evidence that al-Qaeda’s external operations capabilities can easily be reanimated. Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s capacity to commit acts of international terrorism—especially the targeting of commercial aviation—was recently the subject of a revealing New York Times story.

Hoffman finally argues that the success of AQ’s rebuilding efforts are the result of a series of key decisions made by Zawahiri — to strengthen its “franchising” model of organization; to avoid mass-casualty operations, especially those which might kill Muslims civilians, as a way to rebuild popular support; and third, to let ISIS take the heat from the West.

As Hoffman’s report makes clear, we ignore AQ to our peril. You should give it a read. Now on to this week’s look back at terrorism history.

  • March 11, 2004 — Madrid: The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades claimed responsibility for the detonation of four bombs on Madrid mass transit trains, killing 198 and wounding more than 600. The group claimed an affiliation with al Qaeda, however, in the years since the attack, scholars and analysts have raised doubts about the both the group’s ties to al Qaeda and its responsibility for the 2004 bombing.
  • March 12, 1999 — Colombia: FARC leader Vladimir Gonzales Obregon is killed by the Colombian army.
  • March 13, 1999 — Turkey: A bombing at a shopping center kills three and wounds six. The Revenge Falcons of App, a Kurdish ethnic-nationalist group, claims responsibility.
  • March 14, 2004 — Ashdod, Israel: Two near-simultaneous suicide bombings kill 10 and wound 18. Both Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claim responsibility.
  • March 15, 2001 — Saudi Arabia: Chechen hijackers seize control of a Russian airliner en route from Turkey to Moscow, forcing it to land in Saudi Arabia. Three people were killed, including two believed to be passengers, when Saudi security forces stormed the plane in a rescue operation.
  • March 16, 1984 — Beirut, Lebanon: William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, is kidnapped by Hezbollah. He dies in captivity three months later. Buckley’s remains were recovered in 1991.
  • March 17, 1992 — Buenas Aires, Venezuela — A car bomb destroys the Israeli embassy, killing 28 and wounding 220. Hezbollah claims responsibility.

This week in terrorism history: March 4-10


Editor’s note — Your humble blogger got a little behind the last few weeks, and so it’s been a bit since I posted one of these looks back. I don’t expect many of you missed it, but just in case you did, apologies.

Much of the anxiety that fuels current fears about terrorism and propels US counterterrorism national security policy today has its origins in policy decisions and failures that stretch back almost 40 years now.

I have been reminded of that thanks to two different things I’m spending time with, Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars, on US foreign policy in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion in 1980 to 9/11, and the Hulu adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower on the origins of the 9/11 attack and the mistakes and policy failures that allowed it to succeed.

Both offer a sobering reminder that when it comes to terrorism much of our current difficulties are of our own making. Coll reminds us that the training camps, stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, and explosives, and safe havens that were created as a flood of CIA money swelled the coffers of Afghan mujaheddin waging jihad against the Russians would later constitute the “terrorist infrastructure” facilitating attacks on the United States and its interests.

Coll’s book and the Hulu miniseries remind us that the institutional jealousies, rivalries, and dysfunctions that prevented the CIA and FBI from working together to prevent the 9/11 attack were present from the outset as the US government stumbled its way to developing a coherent response to international terrorism.

Both Coll’s book and the Hulu series are highly recommended. Now for this week’s look back.

  • March 4, 1999 — Batman, Turkey: Three people are killed in a suicide bombing. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is suspected.
  • March 5, 1998 — Sri Lanka: The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are blamed for a bus bomb that kills 37 and wounds more than 250.
  • March 6, 1999 — Venezuela: The bodies of three American peace activists are found. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are blamed for their deaths.
  • March 7, 1973 — New York City: Vehicle bombs are discovered and defused at the El Al terminal at Kennedy International Airport, the First Israel Bank and Trust Co., and the Israel Discount Bank. Nearly 20 years later, in 1991, a member of the Palestinian group Black September is arrested and convicted in connection with the thwarted bombings.
  • March 8, 1978 — Portadown, Northern Ireland: Members of the Red Hand Commando, a loyalist paramilitary group with links to the Ulster Volunteer Force, kill two Catholics, one a civilian and the other a member of the Irish National Liberation Army.
  • March 9, 2000 — Houston: Federal agents arrest Mark Wayne McCool, the one-time leader of the Texas Militia and Combined Action Program on charges of conspiring to attack the federal building there.
  •  March 10, 2011 — Alaska: Six members of the antigovernment Alaska Peacemakers Militia, including its leader, are arrested and charged with plotting to kill or kidnap state troopers and a Fairbanks judge. The group’s cache of weapons included a .50-caliber machine gun, grenades, and a grenade launcher.