Remote learning: The final lessons

(Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

It’s been five weeks since this impromptu exercise in online teaching about terrorism began, and now we’ve come to the end. So what I’ve asked my students to think about for this final week of class are two simple questions:

  • Why hasn’t there been another 9/11-scale terrorist attack in the United States in the nearly 20 years since?
  • What are the real risks that terrorism poses to the United States, and how should we address them?

One of the ways I get at that first question is by having my students read a piece by journalist Timothy Noah, published back in 2009, in which he lays out a series of possible explanations for why another 9/11 had not yet occurred. Despite being a decade old now, many of the theories he lays out have held up well, others not so much.

As I discuss in this first video below, Noah’s explanations range from the comforting to the decidedly worrisome. On the comforting side, Noah essentially argues that 9/11 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. Rather than succeeding out of strategic brilliance and flawless tactical execution, the 9/11 attacks worked because of dumb luck. At every one of the many points where the plot could have been discovered or something could have gone wrong, the breaks went in favor of the terrorists. The likelihood of that happening again, he argues, is pretty darn low. On the worrisome side of the equation is the simple argument that another large-scale attack is ultimately inevitable, and it is simply of matter of time until it happens.

Should another large-scale terrorist attack happen in the US, many analysts believe that it will likely involve the use of weapons of mass destruction, or CBRN (chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear) terrorism. Journalist Steven Brill makes this point in assessing US terrorism security policy post-9/11. In the video below I summarize the case made by leading terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman on CBRN. He touches on three main points: Why we haven’t seen CBRN terrorism yet; why it might now be plausible; and why we shouldn’t dismiss the threat.

In the final video, I introduce a contrarian argument, courtesy of Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, who argues that the risks of terrorism for the United States have been wildly overblown (see a short review of his book by that name here), that our overreaction to the risks is more damaging and dangerous than the threat of terrorism itself, and that rational policy making must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of what terrorists actually can do rather than our “worst case fantasies” about what they might want to do.

This week in terrorism history: April 13-19

Freelance journalist Lyra McKee was killed last April while observing this riot in Derry, Northern Ireland.

Easter is the time in the Irish Republican calendar when the failed 1916 Rising is remembered and the long armed struggle against British occupation of Ireland is commemorated. I’ve written about these commemorations and their politicization in Northern Ireland before, here, and here, and here.

So it should come as no surprise that the armed Republican dissident group commonly called the New IRA yesterday plastered their Easter message on walls across nationalist neighborhoods in the city of Derry. The document is an excellent example of the kind of messaging that many armed political groups routinely engage in as they seek to justify their actions, deflect responsibility, and rally support for their cause. Let me elaborate.

In this first passage, the New IRA lays the blame for any armed conflict squarely at the feet of the British government and those who work to enforce British rule in Northern Ireland. And they make the argument that force is necessary to move the needle toward the goal of ending British occupation.

Responsibility for the ongoing conflict rests firmly on the shoulders of the British Government. While British occupation persists particularly throughout those who implement its policies via Stormont, the Irish people are denied their right to national self-determination and sovereignty. Faced with this reality we remain committed to bringing the British government’s undemocratic rule of the occupied part of our country to an end.

While we face an unprecedented health crisis, it won’t be long until Brexit and it’s continuing difficulties for Britain re-emerges. This has reinvigorated the topic of a reunified Ireland. Revisionist agendas and former Republicans turned British politicos endorsing a Border poll will not force the hand of the British establishment. They listen to one thing and one thing only: physical force.

In this next section, the New IRA makes claims about its capability to strike and its willingness to do so. At the same time they warn the public to stay away from “Crown Force,” i.e. police, vehicles in order to avoid becoming collateral damage. This is a clear reference to the killing last April of freelance journalist Lyra McKee, who was fatally shot as she stood next to an armored police vehicle while observing a riot in Derry.

Despite an increased Crown Force presence and a restocked war chest, we have demonstrated again and again that we retain the capacity and resources to continue to strike against those maintaining British occupation. Everyone should be assured that we are united, we are strong and we remain steadfast in our determination to achieve our objectives.

We have repeated often in the past and do so again now; the IRA can strike at will. We warn the public to be aware of this and to remain a safe stance from Crown Force vehicles at all time.

The message of this is obvious: The New IRA will take no responsibility for any civilian casualties that might occur during an attack on the police. That blame they will lay at the feet of the police first, and then the innocent victims themselves.

And now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism history.

  • April 13, 2014 — Overland Park, KS: Frazier Glenn Miller, opens fire at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement community in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City. Three people are killed, including a 14-year-old Eagle Scout and his grandfather. Miller, a retired Army veteran and Green Beret, is the founder and former leader of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party, which he ran as paramilitary organizations in the 1980s. He was convicted and sentenced to death in November 2015.
  • April 14, 2014 — Chibok, Nigeria: More than 250 schoolgirls are kidnapped by Book Haram in an attack on the town. The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, claims responsibility.
  • April 17, 2004 — Gaza Strip, Palestine: Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, dies in a targeted killing strike carried out by an Israeli Air Force attack helicopter. Two other passengers in Rantisi’s car were also killed, and four bystanders were wounded. Rantisi had succeeded to the leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip four weeks earlier after his predecessor, Ahmed Yassin, was himself killed by Israeli forces.
  • April 18, 1983 — Beirut, Lebanon: A car bomb explodes outside the US embassy building, killing 63 and wounding more than 100 others. Hezbollah is responsible for the attack.
  • April 19, 1995 — Oklahoma City, OK: Timothy McVeigh detonates a truck bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and wounding hundreds more. This remains the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history. McVeigh is subsequently convicted of the bombing and executed on June 11, 2001.
  • April 19, 2018 — Orange County, CA: Police raid the home of a 26-year-old man after receiving a tip from his family that he harbored violent antisemitic views. Upon search of his home, authorities uncovered ammunition, antisemitic literature, a kill-list targeting local churches and prominent Jewish leaders and a document titled “How to Kill my First Jew.” 

Remote learning: War is not the only option

Pres. Obama and advisers monitor the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. (White House photo)

This week my students are wrestling with another set of readings which point out just how difficult it is for governments to deal with a terrorist challenge. And how there really are very few good choices under those circumstances.

As British terrorism scholar and expert Andrew Silke points out in the piece I discuss below, the natural human drive for vengeance pushes both governments and terrorist organizations into revenge-driven cycles of violence. For governments, a harsh counterterrorist response is often politically popular and at the same time, policymakers tend to overestimate its effectiveness. For terrorist groups and their supporters, heavy-handed government measures can both stiffen their resolve and move the uninvolved into the arms of a violent opposition movement.

One example of the kind of heavy-handed counterterrorism response that while popular may in fact be ineffective, if not counterproductive, is targeted killing or leadership decapitation. These are tactics that both Israel and the United States have embraced in their respective campaigns against terrorism. In the Israeli case this has entailed strikes targeting the military and political leadership of the Palestinian group Hamas. For the US, we have primarily employed this tactic, via drone strikes, on the Afghan/Pakistan border and in Iraq.

But as terrorism scholar Jenna Jordan, whose work focuses on leadership decapitation, points out, terrorist groups are far more resistant to this tactic than policymakers want to believe. I discus her research in the video below.

Finally for this week, if militarized responses don’t work the way we want them to, then what else can governments do in response to terrorism? Scholar Peter Sederberg offers, and I discuss below, a promising, but politically fraught, answer: conciliation and compromise. In short, Sederberg suggests that democracies can harness the tools that make them politically distinctive, negotiation and the emphasis on compromise, to manage a terrorist challenge. War is not the only option.

This week in terrorism history: April 6-12

Ahmed Jibril, left, formed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command on April 11, 1968. (Credit: Jerusalem Post)

When this whole coronavirus thing stated to blow up, I led off my this-week-in-terrorism post with a quick look at how some terrorist groups were responding to the pandemic. Here we are, only two weeks later, and it’s time for an update.

Noted terrorism scholar Mia Bloom has an insightful essay at the website Just Security where she shows how the wide spectrum of violent extremist groups, from the American far right to jihadists like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban are either seeking to take advantage of the pandemic or working it into their existing worldview:

Into this public health crisis step extremist groups, which may even take credit for events for which they are not responsible. Their instinct to capitalize on people’s misery and suffering is consistent across the ideological spectrum, from right-wing extremists to violent jihadists. That instinct is on full display right now, as the world reels from COVID-19’s rapid spread and the accompanying disinformation. White supremacist groups are touting crackpot accelerationist, siege, and Great Replacement theories during the COVID-19 pandemic to motivate individuals to take action against the New World Order, Agenda 21, George Soros, the Chinese government, and others they perceive as seeking to eliminate the white race.

Amidst a global pandemic, the country’s leading ISIS propaganda analyst, Laith al-Khouri, says the jihadists’ main objective is to sow the seeds of mistrust of government—including by spreading disinformation and malign information —while simultaneously using unfolding events to substantiate their view of the world and validate their predictions. Jihadists will showcase governments as having lied to the public about infection numbers. In further undermining the credibility of governments, who are knowingly suppressing information about the virus (such as Iran, Egypt, and Turkey), jihadists can use this opportunity to recruit new followers who perceive the terrorist groups as more capable or more honest than their own governments.

The virus has been a source of renewed inspiration for terrorist groups who see it as a sign from God and repudiation of secular States that have mismanaged the crisis. Al-Qaeda released a statement on March 31, in which they accused Western governments of ignoring their citizens’ health “instead of ensuring the provision of health facilities and medical supplies they [remain] obsessed with the tools of war and human eradication.” Several jihadist groups, such as the Taliban, declared that coronavirus “is a disease ordained by the Almighty Allah which has perhaps been sent by Allah because of the disobedience and sins of mankind or other reasons.”

The whole article is well worth your time. Meanwhile, The Guardian yesterday had a story about how one particular slice of the American neo-Nazi far right, so-called “accelerationists,” is hoping to exploit the coronavirus crisis to speed the collapse of society:

The watchdog group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) raised the alarm last week about opportunism from far-right so-called “accelerationist” groups who believe sowing chaos and violence will hasten the collapse of society, allowing them to build a white supremacist one in its place.

Late last month, the FBI warned such extremist groups were encouraging members to deliberately spread the virus to Jewish people and police officers. Similarly, British hate monitors Hope Not Hate warned these groups are expressing “gleeful expectation of social turmoil”.

With few public-facing social media services allowing white supremacists to have a reliable platform for their views, the propaganda effort to use the coronavirus crisis as a recruiting tool is mainly visible on laissez-faire social media platforms like Telegram.

There neo-Nazi groups have been affirming and welcoming the pandemic as a threat to liberal democracy and seeing it as an opportunity to grow their movement and realize their goals with acts of violence.

The deeper this crisis goes, the more I expect we’ll see further signs that such groups will seek to leverage the pandemic to advance their political, social, or religious agendas. Now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism history.

  • April 6, 2001 — Los Angeles: Algerian citizen Ahmed Ressam is convicted of a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Years Eve 1999. Ressam, an al-Qadea operative who had received instruction at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was arrested on Dec. 14, 1999 as he attempted to enter the United States from British Columbia driving a rented car in which he had hidden explosives and bomb components.
  • April 10, 2003 — Noonday, Texas: The FBI raids the home of William Krar and storage facilities that Krar rented in the area, discovering an arsenal that includes more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 65 pipe bombs and remote-control briefcase bombs, and almost two pounds of deadly sodium cyanide. Also found are components to convert the cyanide into a bomb capable of killing thousands, along with white supremacist and antigovernment material. 
  • April 10, 2015 — Signal Mountain, TN: Robert Doggart, 63, is arrested in connection with a plot to kill residents and destroy the school and mosque of Islamberg, a predominantly African-American Muslim hamlet in Hancock, N.Y. Doggart, who claims to be an ordained Christian minister in the Christian National Church, was also a 2014 congressional candidate who ran and lost as an independent in east Tennessee.
  • April 11, 1968 — Syria: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, is formed. The PFLP-GC was created after a faction led by Ahmed Jibril split from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claiming the parent organization was insufficiently militant and was drifting too far in the direction of revolutionary Marxism.