The logic of terrorism

paulhasson

Nearly lost in the daily deluge of news last week (and almost forgotten already) was the report that an active-duty Coast Guard officer, Christopher Hasson, had been arrested for plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” The federal prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson in prison pending trial minced no words:

The defendant is a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect government conduct.

Rarely do we get to see an example of a case that so clearly fits with the logic of terrorism that academics have long written about and that we try to help our students understand. I want to walk through a little bit of that here, but before I do, let me dispense with two immediate points:

  • As I have written repeatedly in this space, Hasson fits the picture of the typical American terrorist. He is an angry, right-wing, middle-aged white male.
  • Hasson is representative of another dynamic I’ve written about before, the recurring problem of violent white nationalists and other right-wing extremists in the U.S. armed forces.

Prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson pending trial (the judge in the case ordered him held without bail for 14 days, pending further charges) contains evidence that cuts right to the larger question of the logic behind terrorism. With Hasson, as with all terrorists, the issue isn’t that he holds extreme political views and espouses extreme political objectives, but that he believes these objectives can only be accomplished through violence.

As leading scholars of terrorism like Bruce Hoffman and Martha Crenshaw have long argued, terrorists are often driven by a powerful sense of impatience, that the concerns that motive them are so dire and pressing that there is no time to wait for the slow processes of normal politics to play out. The terrorist cannot sit and wait for the ideas that motivate him to take hold among the wider population.

In making this point, Hoffman and others have drawn on the writings of 19th century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane and his theory of “propaganda by deed.” Hoffman summarizes it this way:

“The propaganda of the idea is a chimera,” Pisacane wrote. “Ideas result from deeds, not the latter from the former, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.” Violence, he argued, was necessary not only to draw attention to or generate publicity for a cause, but also to inform, educate, and ultimately, rally the masses behind the revolution.

In a draft email (the misspellings, abbreviations, and strange syntax are in the original) recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson points to the necessity of violence to awaken white America to his cause (emphasis mine):

Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence. It should push for more crack down bringing more people to our side. Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.

In September 2017, Hasson wrote a letter to leading neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington, who had called for the establishment of a white ethnostate in the Pacific Northwest. In that letter, also recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson argued that Covington’s dream of a establishing a white homeland in America could not be achieved without violence (emphasis mine):

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence. … We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost. How long can we hold out there and prevent niggerization of the Northwest until whites wake up on their own or are forcibly made to make a decision whether to roll over and die or to stand up remains to be seen. But I know a few younger ones that are tired of waiting

The scholar Ted Gurr, in a classic discussion of terrorism in democracies, wrote that terrorism can emerge when activists with extreme political views lose patience with conventional politics and therefore look for new tactics that will have greater impact. Tactics like terrorism.

If federal prosecutors are right, that’s Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson.

Rule Britannia, another Brexit delusion

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In a speech to a UK think tank yesterday, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson argued that leaving the European Union will open a door for Britain to pursue a renewed, muscular, interventionist, unilateral foreign and defense policy:

In an era of ‘Great Power’ competition we cannot be satisfied simply protecting our own backyard. The UK is a global power with truly global interests. … And since the new Global Great Game will be played on a global playing field, we must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home.

That is why Global Britain needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action. And our armed forces represent the best of Global Britain in action. Taking action alongside our friends and allies. Action to strengthen the hand of fragile nations and to support those who face natural disasters. Action to oppose those who flout international law. Action to shore up the global system of rules and standards on which our security and our prosperity depends.

And action, on occasion, that may lead us to have to intervene alone.

Apparently, after Brexit, Britannia will once again rule the waves. Color me skeptical.

The last time the United Kingdom “had to intervene alone,” i.e. unilaterally projected military power abroad, was 1982, when Margaret Thatcher sent British troops and warships 8,000 miles to a remote colony in the South Atlantic to wrest back control of some windswept rocks that had been invaded and seized by Argentina.

By the time the Falklands War was over, 649 Argentines and 255 Brits were killed in action, including more than 300 Argentine sailors who drowned when their WWII-era cruiser, the Gen. Belgrano, was torpedoed by a British nuclear submarine.

The financial cost to liberate the 1,800 British subjects and about 400,000 sheep who at the time constituted the Falklands population? The contemporary estimate was $1.19 billion, or the equivalent of about $3 billion today.

Take away it’s nuclear arsenal and Britain would struggle to be described as a military great power. It’s land forces and navy have over the years shrunk to a shadow of their former selves, and are likely no match for the kinds of adversaries Williamson envisions by evoking a 21st century Great Game of the sort that pitted the old British Empire against its Russian imperial rival two centuries ago.

To give an idea of how wildly implausible all of this is, the plan Williamson announced includes the purchase of a pair of civilian passenger ferries or cargo ships for conversion into amphibious assault vessels. And don’t forget the “swarm fleets” of off-the-shelf drones that he envisions fielding alongside the Royal Air Force.

The idea implicit in Williamson’s speech, that membership in the European Union has prevented the UK from militarily asserting its national interests is equally farfetched. Beyond it’s own weakness, a greater constraint on British adventurism, if it really wanted to engage in such, is its membership in NATO. And that’s not going changing, at least not anytime soon.

Only 47 more days until Brexit!

If a blogger sees his shadow …

Groundhog

I’ve been kind of laying low these last few months, at least as far as the blog goes. I’ve got good reason. A couple of weeks ago political theorist Jacob Levy said on Twitter what I’ve been thinking and feeling:

The problem, as Levy points out, is the president. Dan Drezner, patron saint of blogging political scientists, summed it up this way: “All the arguments about Trump have already been made, and there is no point in thinking up new ones.” In short, there are only so many ways to write about the same nonsense.

Drezner, to his credit (and to honor his arrangement with the Washington Post) is going to soldier on and keep writing about the seemingly endless series of corruptions, missteps, mistakes, ineptitudes, outrages, cruelties, and lies large and small that characterize this present administration.

Now that I’ve poked my head out of the burrow, I’m going to try to be like Punxsutawney Phil and make an optimistic prediction for the future. Phil called for early spring. I’m predicting more frequent posts here on the blog.

Of course Phil is usually wrong. I’ll try to do better.

The curious case of Paul Whelan

(Lutz Creative)
(Lutz Creative)

 

The case of Paul Whelan, the former Marine and Michigan resident who has been charged with espionage in Russia, keeps getting stranger and stranger.

A Canadian-born US citizen, Whelan is also apparently a British citizen. Who also happens to carry an Irish passport. Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs describes him as “an Irish citizen,” and like the American and British embassies, has offered him consular assistance.

So, if you’re keeping score, that’s four countries, four separate citizenships, and four passports. Meanwhile, the Russian lawyer working on Whelan’s case, and approved by him, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has been described by human rights activists and prison monitors as likely to have been chosen by the same Federal Security Service (FSB) that arrested him in the first place.

Whelan is security chief for auto parts supplier BorgWarner, and was, according to his family, visiting Russia for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested and charged with spying. In an interview with The Daily Beast, his lawyer stated his objective in handling the case is:

to arrange a trade and bring home “at least one Russian soul.” It’s widely assumed that the intention is to exchange him for Maria Butina, who recently pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Moscow and signed a broad cooperation agreementwith the U.S. Justice Department. Prosecutors said she tried to build a back channel between Kremlin officials and Republican operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Such spy-for-spy exchanges are pretty standard stuff. The most recent high-profile example I can come up with dates from 2010, when the Obama Administration exchanged 10 Russian sleeper agents for four Russians who had been convicted and imprisoned for spying on behalf of the United States. In a scene straight out of the movies, the swap took place on a runway at an airport in Vienna.

But is Whelan a spy? Former CIA officers have told the New York Times and other media outlets that they doubt it. US intelligence operatives typically work under some form of diplomatic cover that gives them immunity from prosecution should they be caught.

Most C.I.A. officers work in foreign countries while posing as diplomats, and if caught by a hostile government in an act of espionage, their diplomatic passports ensure they cannot be long detained, and at worst face expulsion.

Former C.I.A. officials who have operated in Moscow said the agency almost never sends officers into Russia without diplomatic protections. The United States, said John Sipher, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Moscow and ran the agency’s Russia operations, would “never leave a real intelligence officer vulnerable to arrest.”

Whelan was in Russia as a private citizen, ostensibly to attend a wedding and show visitors around Moscow. But he was also a regular visitor to the country, dating back to 2006, showing up every six months or so. He had an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, which is unusual for the casual visitor. And his social media contacts include ordinary Russians, but also many others, mostly men, with connections to academies run by the Russian Navy, the Defense Ministry, or the Civil Aviation Authority.

So is Whelan a spy? Beats me. But this case just keeps getting more intriguing by the day.