A welcome shot of science

(Credit: CDC)

I have a doctorate, but I’m not a “doctor” in the way most of us think of the term. Nor am I a virologist or some other kind of medical researcher. For those reasons, I’m especially grateful when I come across articles that explain some of the science of what we’re all currently dealing with.

An article appearing at The Atlantic’s website today, by science writer Ed Yong, helps explain one of the most vexing questions about this novel coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2: Why, compared even to other coronaviruses, is it spreading so quickly?

The structure of the virus provides some clues about its success. In shape, it’s essentially a spiky ball. Those spikes recognize and stick to a protein called ACE2, which is found on the surface of our cells: This is the first step to an infection. The exact contours of SARS-CoV-2’s spikes allow it to stick far more strongly to ACE2 than SARS-classic did, and “it’s likely that this is really crucial for person-to-person transmission,” says Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University. In general terms, the tighter the bond, the less virus required to start an infection.

There’s another important feature. Coronavirus spikes consist of two connected halves, and the spike activates when those halves are separated; only then can the virus enter a host cell. In SARS-classic, this separation happens with some difficulty. But in SARS-CoV-2, the bridge that connects the two halves can be easily cut by an enzyme called furin, which is made by human cells and—crucially—is found across many tissues. “This is probably important for some of the really unusual things we see in this virus,” says Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research Translational Institute.

For example, most respiratory viruses tend to infect either the upper or lower airways. In general, an upper-respiratory infection spreads more easily, but tends to be milder, while a lower-respiratory infection is harder to transmit, but is more severe. SARS-CoV-2 seems to infect both upper and lower airways, perhaps because it can exploit the ubiquitous furin. This double whammy could also conceivably explain why the virus can spread between people before symptoms show up—a trait that has made it so difficult to control. Perhaps it transmits while still confined to the upper airways, before making its way deeper and causing severe symptoms. All of this is plausible but totally hypothetical; the virus was only discovered in January, and most of its biology is still a mystery.

I encourage you to read the whole thing. It is outstanding. Here’s the link to the article again.

And bonus science here: You can track the number of cases in your state in close to real time. With confidence ratings based on the transparency of your state’s response to the crisis.

Remote learning: Welcome to suicide bombing

My university, like almost all of them in the United States and many abroad, has cancelled face-to-face classes and switched everything over to what’s being called “remote instruction,” which is distinct from “online classes.”

My hunch is that the difference in terminology is a function of courses that were designed from get-go to be delivered virtually vs. what I had to do, which was figure out how to take my 3.5-hour discussion format class on terrorism and in two days transform it into something I could teach at a distance. What I ultimately settled on was a format where I’d record short mini-lectures on the reading I’ve assigned to my students, and then I ask them to participate in online discussion forums. We’ve got one week under our belts, and I’m not really sure who well it’s working, but this is as good as it is going to get.

But here’s the real point of this post: I figure if I’m spending the time to create these videos, maybe I should share some of them with a broader audience than the 30 students in my class. So here we go.

Next week’s class topic is the phenomenon of suicide terrorism, so here are two of the mini-lectures I’ve recorded for my students. Below is the first, a general introduction to the topic taken from the relevant chapter in Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism, which many consider the single best introduction to the topic of terrorism that’s out there, both for the general reader and for the academic audience.

The second video, below, summarizes some of the early work by Israeli psychologist and terrorism expert Ariel Merari. As you’ll hear in the video, one of the ways that Merari’s work stands out from the other pieces my students are reading for next week is in his argument that suicide terrorism, from the perspective of the perpetrator, is really all about the suicide, not necessarily the terrorism.

In short, Merari argues, suicide bombers really just want to commit suicide, and the act of terrorism becomes the vehicle by which they carry it out. In short, for the perpetrator, suicide terrorism is less a strategic choice and more a psychologically driven act. His acclaimed 2010 book, Driven to Death, lays out these arguments in significant detail.

This week in terrorism history: March 16-22

The late Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, perhaps my favorite movie terrorist of all time.

I debated whether or not to continue with this series of posts given all of the other things that are going on right now. The universities and public schools are sending students home, businesses are forced to shut down, the economy is teetering, people are panic-buying toilet paper of all things, and new cases of coronavirus are appearing at alarming rates pretty much everywhere.

I wouldn’t call these entries, running lists of past terrorist events, much of a diversion. But for me, writing this, and maybe for you reading it, this is a better use of my time than obsessively reading all of the bad news.

So I want to keep things this week on a relatively lighter note, and that means terrorism at the movies! For my money, the single most entertaining terrorist in recent film history has to be Hans Gruber, of Die Hard fame, the smoothly elegant leader of the “Volksfrei” movement, a left-wing West German terrorist group, played by the late, great Alan Rickman.

Of course, if you’ve seen the movie (who hasn’t?) you know it’s all a scam. Volksfrei isn’t a real group, the gang Gruber leads isn’t politically motivated at all (such a motivation central to any good definition of terrorism), and their demand for the release of “revolutionary brothers and sisters” imprisoned around the world in exchange for hostages is just cover for the real plan, the heist of some $640 million in “negotiable bearer bonds” from the safe of Nakatomi Plaza.

If you’d like to read more about my favorite movie terrorist and his plan to retire, “sitting on a beach earning 20 percent,” take a look at this appreciation from the online platform Medium. For a more academic take on Hollywood’s changing take on terrorism from the 1970s to the 2010s, give this piece, from the journal Perspectives on Terrorism, a read. Here’s a quick sample from the article:

When reviewing Hollywood’s output on terrorism, it is obvious that it correlates with the waves and historical development of political violence: previously sporadic encounters with terrorism in Hollywood cinema, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), became more frequent in the 1970s, at a time when international terrorism and especially hijackings of jetliners orchestrated by Palestinian groups made headlines and featured in newsreels. Thus, the Arab gunman, who threatens innocent passengers and strikes at Western installations, became a typical Hollywood villain …

And now on to this week’s look back.

  • March 16, 1985 — Beirut, Lebanon: Journalist Terry Anderson is kidnapped off the street in Beirut and held hostage by Hezbollah. He was released more than six years later, in December 1991.
  • March 17, 1978 — Maghera, Northern Ireland: David Jones, a British soldier working undercover, is killed during a gun battle with the Irish Republican Army. 
  • March 17, 1992 — Buenos Aires, Argentina: A car bomb destroys the Israeli embassy, killing 28 and wounding more than 200. Hezbollah claims responsibility.
  • March 20, 1995 — Tokyo: Aum Shinrikyo releases sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and sickening more than 5,000.
  • March 22, 2017 — New York City: James Harris Jackson, 28, is arrested after he turns himself in at a Manhattan police precinct where he confesses stabbing Timothy Caughman, 66, to death with a “Roman short sword” on a city street on March 20 after traveling to New York City to allegedly hunt and kill black men. He tells police the attack was a “trial run” for a series of killings he intended to carry off in order to deter white women from dating black men.

This week in terrorism history: March 9-15

Two images from Northern Ireland, Cumann na mBan volunteers.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, so in that spirit, today’s lead-in to our weekly review takes a quick look at the role of women in terrorism.

There is a long history of women’s involvement in terrorism, from the European anarchists of the late 19th century, through the national liberation and leftist revolutionary movements of the 20th century, to far-right and jihadist groups today. Scholar Karla Cunningham, in a 2003 article in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, argues that across ideological categories, more and more terrorist movements were recruiting women at the same time as women were themselves becoming increasingly motivated to join such groups.

A report produced last year by the Council on Foreign Relations summarizes some of this history:

Throughout history, women have joined and supported violent extremist groups, serving as combatants, recruiters, and fundraisers and in numerous other roles critical to operational success. Although women are often ignored in conventional depictions of violent political actors, they have been active participants in 60 percent of armed rebel groups over the past several decades. In Algeria, for instance, female National Liberation Front fighters evaded checkpoints in the 1950s to deploy bombs at strategic urban targets. In Sri Lanka in the 1990s, all-female battalions earned a reputation for their fierce discipline and ruthless combat. Women represented nearly 40 percent of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), serving in all operational roles, including as combat unit leaders, allowing the group to vastly expand its military capacity.

Women have also helped found militant groups, from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang to the Japanese Red Army. Even in cases where women’s leadership was invisible, they frequently provided operationally critical support, ranging from weapons transport to combatant recruitment. 

The report goes on to argue that women-led terrorist attacks are both on the rise and are especially effective. For example, the deadliness of female suicide attackers has led Boko Haram to turn to women for close to two-thirds of its suicide operations. A 2009 study found that suicide attacks carried out by women are more lethal, on average, than those carried out by men.

The CFR report also points to similarities between male and female terrorists, especially in terms of why they join violent political movements.

While some women are kidnapped and forcibly conscripted into violence, many voluntarily join extremist groups for reasons similar to those of male recruits, including ideological commitment or social ties. Others join in hopes of gaining freedom and access to resources; in Nigeria, for example, some women joined Boko Haram to receive Koranic education in a region where only 4 percent of girls have the opportunity to finish secondary school.

Now on to this week’s list, which features several entries on the Red Army Faction, an organization in which women played prominent leadership roles.

  • March 9, 1985 — Monchengladbach, West Germany: Air Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, commander of the British Royal Air Force in West Germany, escapes an assassination attempt carried out by a Red Army Faction gunman.
  • March 11, 2004 — Madrid, Spain: In a series of bomb blasts targeting Madrid trains, 198 people are killed and more than 600 wounded. The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade claims responsibility.
  • March 12, 1985 — Boblingen, West Germany: A bomb is discovered inside the officer’s club of a US Army base in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. The Red Army Faction is suspected.
  • March 13, 1981 — Heidelberg, West Germany: The Red Army Faction firebombs the home of journalist Franz Ruch, a writer for a Munich-based weekly new magazine.
  • March 14, 2004 — Ashdod, Israel: Near simultaneous attacks by two suicide bombers kill 10 and wound another 18. Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Bridge both claim responsibility.