What the terrorists believe

(START, University of Maryland)
(START, University of Maryland)

 

A new report out from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland gives us the best current look at the ideologies that motivate terrorism in the United States.

Jihadist attacks and the fears they generate dominate both the news cycle and the popular imagination, as this week’s deadly incident in Manhattan reminds us. But the START report makes clear that events like this are far from the only, or even the main, story.

If we turn the clock back to the 2000s, 9/11 notwithstanding, we find that the dominant ideology motivating terrorist attacks in that decade was radical environmentalism, accounting for 64 percent of all incidents, with the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front leading the way.

Religiously motivated attacks, including those perpetrated by those embracing jihadist ideology, represent just a small fraction of events during the 2000s.

While religious motivation jumps dramatically in our current decade, identified in 53 percent of cases, that includes not just jihadi or other Muslim extremists, but Christian anti-abortion extremists along with those targeting Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs.

While jihadi-inspired extremists account for 21 attacks from 2010 to 2016, anti-Muslim extremists are close on their heels, responsible for 18 attacks during the same period. And right-wing extremists of all stripes, from anti-government sovereign citizens to white supremacists and white nationalists, account for a full 35 percent of attacks.

What’s the takeaway from the START report? It’s that the story of terrorism in the United States is more complex and nuanced than the current narrative might lead you to believe.

Far from living in an unprecedented era of danger from terrorism, the reality is that terrorist incidents in the US have dwindled in number every decade since the 1970s. And, if you exclude the extreme outliers of Oklahoma City in the 1995 and 9/11 in 2001, the number of fatalities attributable to terrorism has yet to reach let alone surpass the levels seen in the 1970s.

That last statistic is a reminder that in the American experience, again, those few outliers notwithstanding, the story of terrorism is not one of routine mass casualties, or even any casualties at all. For every Oklahoma City, or 9/11, San Bernardino, or Pulse nightclub, there are have been literally thousands of non-lethal terrorist attacks — a full 91 percent of all incidents — in the United States over the last four decades.

Keep that in mind the next time some politician, or cable TV network, tries to stoke your fear and leverage it for their own ends.

Hate in the ranks

James Douglas Ross, an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq, shown in his barracks room. (Guardian photo.)
James Douglas Ross, an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq, shown in his barracks room. He leads a neo-Nazi group in Washington state. (Guardian photo.)

 

According to a new poll, one-in-four US troops say they have seen examples of white nationalism among fellow service members, and they rate white nationalism a greater national security threat than Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Fears that far-right groups had infiltrated the US military have been around for years. In 2008 the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that white supremacist leaders were making aggressive efforts to recruit active-duty soldiers and recent combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two years earlier SPLC warned that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups were taking advantage of lowered recruiting standards to infiltrate their members into the armed forces. They could then apply their weapons and combat training to the inevitable racial holy war to come.

This background is one reason why, after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, VA, and President Trump’s less than full-throated denunciation of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists responsible, the chiefs of the four service branches came out publicly to condemn racism and extremism.

They spoke out for good reason. As Andrew Exum, former Army Ranger and now a respected national security analyst pointed out at The Atlantic, we’ve been there before:

[T}he U.S. military has long struggled with hate groups—and specifically white supremacists—in its ranks. White supremacist groups and their sympathizers were especially present in the ranks of the U.S. Army’s combat arms units and the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1986, an exasperated Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, ordered the military to crack down on these groups, and another purge was ordered after U.S. Army veteran Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb that almost leveled the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people. 1995 was the same year a paratrooper from the Army’s 82d Airborne Division murdered a black couple outside Fort Bragg. …

The military’s service chiefs are among the last men in the U.S. military who still remember those bad old days in the 1980s and 1990s. They are proud of the way they have largely purged the ranks of extremists and want to keep it that way.

But this is the first time I can recall these concerns coming from within the ranks of active-duty troops rather than the top brass. The poll conducted by Military Times lays out the basis for these fears in stark detail:

Concerns about white nationalist groups were more pronounced among minorities in the ranks. Nearly 42 percent of non-white troops who responded to the survey said they have personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military, versus about 18 percent of white service members.

When asked whether white nationalists pose a threat to national security, 30 percent of respondents labeled it a significant danger, more than many international hot spots, like Syria (27 percent), Pakistan (25 percent), Afghanistan (22 percent) and Iraq (17 percent).

But a notable number of poll participants also bristled at the assertion that white power ideology is a real problem.

Nearly five percent of those polled left comments complaining that groups like Black Lives Matter — whose stated goal is to raise awareness of violence and discrimination towards black people — weren’t included among the options for threats to national security.

Back in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis released a report on right-wing extremism, pointing to an economic and political climate that was fueling a resurgence in radicalization and recruiting. Of particular concern to DHS were disgruntled military veterans:

(U//FOUO) DHS/I&A assesses that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat. These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists—including lone wolves or small terrorist cells—to carry out violence. The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.

— (U) After Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991, some returning military veterans—including Timothy McVeigh—joined or associated with rightwing extremist groups.

— (U) A prominent civil rights organization reported in 2006 that “large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.”

— (U//LES) The FBI noted in a 2008 report on the white supremacist movement that some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups.

And two years earlier, in 2007, in assessing the potential for white supremacists or other far-right groups to adopt suicide terrorism, the FBI warned of the possibility of extremist US military personnel bringing those methods back home having seen their effectiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With another large gathering of white supremacists, pitched as a “White Lives Matter” rally, planned for this weekend in Tennessee, it’s worth keeping in mind something I’ve been arguing almost since I began writing this blog.

If you want to know where the real terrorism threats to this country lie, look first at the denizens of the white nationalist, white supremacist, anti-government, far right. Including those profaning the uniform of the United States of America.

What happened in Las Vegas was terrible, but was it terrorism?

(Photo: ABC News)
(Photo: ABC News)

Definitions of terrorism matter. Even though there is no consensus definition in either the academic, policy, or law enforcement communities, definitions matter.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • From an academic and analytical standpoint, we need clear definitions so that we can identify and study like cases. This is essential for generating knowledge that can help us understand why terrorism occurs, the means that terrorists employ, and the range of potentially effective responses available to policy makers.
  • From a policy standpoint, the options will be different depending on what motivates an actor to engage in any act of violence, including mass murder. In short, policies aimed at preventing, defending against, and responding to any act of violence will differ depending on whether the individual or group was acting out of criminal self-interest (like Colombian “narcoterrorism” or the more recent brutality unleashed by the Mexican drug cartels), idiosyncratic factors such as mental illness (for example the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters), or some political motivation (as in Oklahoma City and San Bernardino).
  • From a law enforcement perspective, at least in the US, what happened in Las Vegas would not be considered an act of terrorism, as federal law defines terrorism as acts involving links to designated foreign terrorist organizations. Timothy McVeigh, for example, did not face terrorism charges for the Oklahoma City bombing. The reasons why domestic terrorism is not designated as such under federal law are wrapped up in questions of First Amendment protections and a reluctance to consider imposing legal sanctions based on political or religious ideologies, even if they are used as justifications for violence.

So what is terrorism? By definition, terrorism is a political act.

Here’s the most basic definition that I use with my students:

Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear, through violence or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change.

Here’s a better, more detailed and nuanced, definition:

Terrorism is premeditated, politically, religiously, or socially motivated violence, or the threat of violence, against civilian targets by non-state actors, usually intended to influence an audience through the creation and exploitation of fear. In short, terrorism is a form of political theater designed to reach beyond the immediate victims of any given attack.

When we define terrorism as a form of political action, we can ask why groups and individuals choose that particular form — violence — over non-violent means in an attempt to produce a desired political outcome. It helps us understand how a group like the Army of God can emerge as a result of the perceived failure of non-violent groups like Operation Rescue to end the practice of abortion. Or how the inability of Students for a Democratic Society to end the Vietnam War through non-violent mass protest can lead to the emergence of the Weather Underground.

I think it matters that the media get it right insofar as the media has the ability to shape both public perceptions and policy responses.

If every act of mass killing is terrorism, then there is no substantive difference between Charles Whitman in the tower at the University of Texas, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School, Wade Michael Page at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, or the Tsarnaev brothers at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

And yet we know they were all driven to act by different motives and impulses.

Not every terrible act is an act of terrorism. Not every case of mass murder, no matter how disturbing or terrifying, is terrorism.

Until we know more about why Stephen Paddock did what he did — and we may never know — we cannot call what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday night terrorism.