Are journalists at risk?

(Credit: Bloomberg)

Ever since the domestic terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was disrupted by the FBI and State Police, one of the questions that I’ve repeatedly fielded from local journalists and reporters is whether they are at risk themselves from the kind of anti-government extremists behind the planned attack against Whitmer.

My immediate reaction was no, just off the top of my head. Such anti-government groups have an ideology that points toward a very different target list.

While anything is possible, I could not recall a single incident of an attack on a journalist or media establishment by any organized American far-right group, at least since the early 1980s, and only one or two by violent right-wing extremists since. But when in doubt, look at the data. In this case, that data comes from the Global Terrorism Database.

From 1980 through 2018 there have only been 44 terrorist attacks on journalists or the media in the United States. Only six of those attacks occurred since 2010.

Only a handful of attacks attributable to organizations or extremists on the political far right — including antisemitic, white supremacist, white nationalist, or anti-government — have been carried out in this nearly 40 year period. Here’s a quick list, in chronological order. Descriptions of the events are taken from the incident summaries presented in the Global Terrorism Database, augmented with additional research where helpful.

  • Dec. 19, 1981 — Jackson, Miss: This is the first of two attacks on the office of the Black newspaper the Jackson Advocate, one month apart. In this case shots were fired into the building, and firebombs thrown. While no specific group was identified as responsible, see the next entry.
  • Jan. 1, 1982 — Jackson, Miss: Two members of the Ku Klux Klan carry out a second attack on the offices of the Jackson Advocate, firing rifles through the windows. both perpetrators were arrested.
  • June 18, 1984 — Denver: Prominent and controversial Jewish talk-radio host Alan Berg is assassinated outside his home by members of The Order, a white supremacist terrorist group active between September 1983 and December 1984.
  • May 1, 1996 — Spokane Valley, Wash.: Two masked attackers detonate a pipe bomb at a suburban office of The Spokesman-Review newspaper. The bombing was apparently a diversion intended to occupy police while a nearby bank was robbed. The attackers left notes at both scenes signed “Phineas Priests.” The Phineas Priests were not a formal organization, but a self-description adopted by extremists rooted in the racist and antisemitic Christian Identity movement.
  • Dec. 15, 2016 — Dallas, Texas: Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, suffers a seizure triggered by a flashing GIF image embedded in an electronic message sent to him via Twitter. The original indictment in the case charged the perpetrator was motivated by anti-Jewish bias.
  • Oct. 29, 2018 — Atlanta, Ga.: A letter bomb addressed to the offices of CNN is discovered and defused at a mail sorting facility in Atlanta. This was one of 16 coordinated mail bomb attacks between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1, 2018 targeting critics of Pres. Donald Trump. When the suspect in the attacks, Cesar Sayoc, was arrested, his vehicle was covered with posters and stickers espousing right-wing propaganda. Sayoc is described in the GTD data as a “pro-Trump” extremist.

So that’s the list. Since 1980, we can only attribute six out of 44 terrorist attacks targeting journalists or media establishments on groups or individuals that we can place on the extremist far-right of the American political spectrum. None of those attacks are linked to the kind of anti-government far right groups accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor. They’ve mostly been the work of racists and antisemites.

Does this mean that journalists won’t potentially become targets in the future? No, we can’t say that. But we can say that, in general, these groups tend to have other targets in their crosshairs.

Wolverine Watchmen: Militia or terrorists?

Ten of 13 suspects accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. (Credit: Detroit Free Press)

Let’s cut to the chase. The group of 13 men arrested last week on federal and state charges of plotting the kidnapping and likely murder of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, are members of or affiliated with, armed militias. Like the ones I’ve written about frequently in this space.

What they were planning were acts of terrorism.

So what do we call them, militia members or terrorists? The initial reporting accurately characterized them as militia members. The internet was quick to pounce:

Gov. Whitmer added her own voice to the debate.

News outlets were soon to follow.

But there’s a problem with this simplistic trading of one term for another. The two — militia and terrorist — are not mutually exclusive. When both terms apply we have to use both terms. JJ McNabb, of Georgetown University’s Program on Extremism explains why:

Oh good grief. “Militia” is just a useful indicator of what flavor the terrorist group is.

The militia movement in the United States is a particular slice of the antigovernment far right, a wide-ranging category of groups both armed and unarmed. In emulation of legitimate military forces, militias, even small ones, tend to be organized hierarchically, with command roles and task specialization. They equip themselves with easily acquired military-style weapons and tactical equipment. They recruit. They train in marksmanship, small-unit combat tactics, reconnaissance, operational security, field medicine, and so on.

According to militia expert Amy Cooter, of Vanderbilt University, militia groups tend to fall into two broad categories:

Traditionally, researchers have categorized militias as one of two general types: “constitutionalists,” who are largely law-abiding and make up the majority of the movement, and “millenarians,” who are more prone to conspiracy theories and violent action. 

More recently, internal divisions have occurred in both these groups around whether they support police, or whether they call for a widespread uprising against government tyranny.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies nine such armed antigovernment militias active in Michigan as of last year, and fully 181 nationwide. The group plotting the attack on Whitmer, calling themselves Wolverine Watchmen, doesn’t appear on the SPLC’s list, however, according to media reports, the alleged ringleader of the plot, Adam Fox, had been expelled from another, more established militia, the Michigan Home Guard. Apparently they found him too extreme for their own tastes.

The Wolverine Watchmen, Cooter suggests, are likely to be a recent splinter from a larger and more well-established group, the Michigan Liberty Militia, which took a prominent role in the armed anti-lockdown protests at the Michigan State Capitol in the spring and early summer.

So what flavor of terrorists are these guys? Their affiliation with the militia movement tells us that they are likely motivated by belief in a variety of antigovernment conspiracy theories and fears of state oppression, especially around gun and property rights. They see themselves as a bulwark protecting their fellow citizens from the heavy hand of state repression or tyranny. Some organize with the expectation that they will have to confront impending government violence. Others believe they are preparing for a looming revolution and renewed civil war.

If you accept the evidence presented by the FBI and Michigan State Police, the Whitmer plotters were the later kind of militia, with a twist. They appear to believe that they could, by going on the offensive, bring about the war they’ve long expected. And here is where they cross the line into terrorism.

According to the FBI affidavit supporting charges against Fox and five others, in a phone conversation recorded in July by a confidential informant, Fox, according to the FBI, discussed the need for government to collapse because in his eyes it has become so tyrannical:

In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back, we’re just gonna have to everything’s gonna have to be annihilated man. We’re gonna topple it all dude.

A month later, while members of the group were engaging in a reconnaissance operation to scout out the location of the planned kidnapping, an informant captured another conversation on audio. Here Fox makes the promise of violence against not just Whitmer, but other agents of the state, like police, explicit:

We ain’t gonna let ’em burn our fuckin’ state down. I don’t give a fuck if there’s only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we’ll go out there and use deadly force.

And Fox, in talking to his comrades, clearly hopes that their efforts will inspire other militia groups around the country to follow their lead:

I can see several states takin’ their fuckin’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants.

The group had also come to the realization that further participation in nonviolent politics would be both pointless, and could also endanger their planned attack. In an encrypted group chat, Fox asks the group what they thought of an invitation from another militia group to participate in an armed protest at the State Capitol in Lansing.

[Ty] GARBIN replied, “I would highly advise minimizing any communication with him. Also there needs to be zero and I mean zero public interaction if we want to continue with our plans.” [Brandon] CASERTA replied, “When the time comes there will be no need to try and strike fear through presence. The fear will be manifested with bullets.”

So where are we? The 13 men arrested and charged last week are part of the antigovernment militia movement who, according to the FBI and the Michigan State Police, plotted a series of terrorist attacks against elected officials and law enforcement officers intended to trigger an armed rebellion against the United States. In this they are a throwback to an earlier Michigan militia group, the Hutaree, who in 2010 plotted to kill police officers in order to touch off a larger war with and uprising against the US government.

I’ve written at some length before about the definition of terrorism. To summarize, terrorism is the deliberate, politically, socially, or religiously motivated use or threat of violence, usually intended to influence an audience beyond the immediate target through the creation and exploitation of fear.

Like the Hutaree before them, the Wolverine Watchmen tick all the boxes. Their plans were deliberate and premeditated. They were motivated by a political objective. They intended to carry out acts of violence in pursuit of their goals. They hoped to inspire others to carry out further attacks. They hoped to strike fear.

That makes them terrorists. And militia. Both labels are accurate, and used together paint a more accurate picture of who they are and what they hoped to accomplish then using either label alone.

This week in terrorism history: Feb. 17-23

Dueling Republican grafitti, Lurgan, Northern Ireland, 2009 (Credit: Peter Moloney)

Last week, voters in a member country of the European Union handed an electoral victory to a political party that is, according to police and state security services, under the “oversight” of an armed wing.

I am referring, of course, to Sinn Fein’s success in winning the popular vote in last week’s general elections in the Republic of Ireland and the party’s continuing connections with the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

While the Provos have been on ceasefire for more than two decades, declaring a formal end to their armed campaign in 2005, they never formally disbanded. Or, as Bobby Storey, former IRA chief of intelligence reminded a crowd in 2014, “We haven’t gone away, you know.”

In October 2015, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and MI5, the British state security service, were compelled to publicly acknowledge that while the Provisional IRA had dismantled its “combat” capabilities in 2005 and ended recruiting and weapons procurement, it had been allowed to retain its senior leadership structures, including the Army Council and regional commands, intelligence gathering, and internal security departments. It also retained access to weapons.

In fact, as I wrote here and again here on the blog back in 2015, the continued existence of the Provisional IRA has been integral to the success of the Northern Ireland peace process. I go into considerable detail on this in “The Movement Moves Against You,” an article I published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. It first appeared online in 2016 and then in print in 2018. I explained it this way on the blog in 2017:

While command, intelligence, and internal security structures were allowed to remain mostly intact after 2005, as British security services were compelled to acknowledge in 2015, what armed capability the PIRA retained in the years since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has been largely used to cow – and occasionally quiet – opposition to the political direction taken by Adams and the leadership of Provisional Republican Movement.

That 2015 PSNI/MI5 assessment also said something especially relevant today about the intimate connection between the PIRA and Sinn Fein:

PIRA members believe that the PAC (Provisional Army Council) oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy. We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus.

To be completely clear. According to British and Northern Irish security services, Sinn Fein, the political party, is overseen by the senior leadership of a terrorist group, the Provisional IRA. That leadership retains control over what remains of its armed capability.

And lest you think this is all in the past … Three days ago, the new Chief Constable of the PSNI dodged lawmakers’ questions about the status of the PIRA, instead directing those questions to his political masters in the Northern Ireland Office. But in November, PSNI spokesmen had this to say to the Belfast News Letter:

Four months ago the PSNI told this paper there had been “no change” since the 2015 government assessment; Prompted by the murder of Kevin McGuigan, the 2015 report said that the PIRA Army Council was still overseeing both Sinn Fein and the remaining structures of the terror organisation with an “over arching strategy”.

“With regards to PIRA, there has been no change since the Paramilitary Assessment in 2015,” the PSNI told the News Letter in November.

The government report, published in 2015 and based in part on PSNI assessments, concluded that the second largest political party in both Northern Ireland and – now the Republic of Ireland also – continues to be overseen by the deadliest terror group of the Troubles, which although much reduced in scale and “committed to the peace process”, still has “specific” departments and “regional command structures”, gathers intelligence, retains weapons and has been involved in “isolated incidents of violence, including murders”.

Now on to this week’s look back at terrorism history.

  • Feb, 17, 2004 — Belfast, Northern Ireland: Three members of the Ulster Defense Association are shot by British soldiers. One is killed immediately, another dying several days later.
  • Feb. 18, 2002 — Israel: An Israeli police officer is killed in a suicide bombing. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claims responsibility.
  • Feb. 20, 1998 — Japan: Japanese Red Army member Tsutomu Shirosaki is sentenced to 30 years in prison for an attack on the U.S. embassy in Indonesia.
  • Feb. 21, 1999 — Northern Ireland and Ireland: Seven people are arrested in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in connection with the August 1998 Omagh bombing. That car bomb attack, attributed to the Real Irish Republican Army, which had broken away from the Provisional IRA a year earlier, killed 29 people and wounded more than 200.
  • Feb. 21, 2004 — Northern Uganda: The Lord’s Resistance Army carries out an attack on a refugee camp. More than 230 are killed and another 40 wounded.
  • Feb. 23, 1998 — Worldwide: Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda issue a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for the killing of Americans wherever they are found.

Our new old terrorism

Watertown, N.Y., Ku Klux Klan members, c.1870. (Library of Congress)

In April, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security released a report on domestic terrorism in the United States during 2018. They documented 32 terrorist attacks, disrupted plots, threats of violence, or weapons stockpiling by individuals motivated by a radical social or political agenda and who had not been influenced or directed by any foreign terrorist organization or movement.

All 32 cases were driven by far-right political or social ideologies. Thirteen of the 32 were perpetrated by race-based extremists, another 17 by right-wing anti-government extremists. African-Americans were targeted in 29 percent of all incidents, Jews in another 10 percent. Nineteen percent of incidents targeted law enforcement.

In short, what the NJOHS reported in April is perfectly consistent with what I have been asserting for nearly all of the four years that I’ve been writing this blog. The primary threat of terrorism in the United States comes not from wild-eyed jihadists but from the ranks of America’s anti-government and racist far right.

But lest we think this is some kind of recent development, a new dataset on terrorist organizations that formed between 1860-1969, compiled by University of Iowa Ph.D candidate Joshua Tschantret, reminds us that this is nothing new at all. It is, rather, the historical norm.

According to Tschantret’s data, 28 terrorist groups formed and were active in the United States between 1860 and 1969. Of those 28, nearly half, some 13 organizations, carried out acts of violence, including bombings and assassinations, in support of right-wing ideologies. All but one of these were motivated by white supremacist ideology. The lone exception was the Secret Army Organization, formed in California in 1969 and targeting the organizers of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. All of the rest used violence in pursuit of explicitly racist goals.

The earliest of these groups came together in the South during the early years of Reconstruction, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, groups like the original iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, and others such as the Southern Cross and the Knights of the White Camellia. The White Line would spring up a decade later, in 1874 in Mississippi, and the Klan would be reborn in Atlanta in 1915. A decade later would come the Black Legion, a Klan splinter group organized in Bellaire, Ohio by a doctor named William Shephard.

Atlanta would also see, in 1946, the emergence of the Columbians, a racist and anti-Semitic pro-Nazi organization. Edward Folliard of the Washington Post would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his reporting on the group. The 1950s would bring yet another rebirth of the Klan, this one still in existence today, along with more offshoots, like the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, born in 1955 in Birmingham, Ala., followed by the United Klans of America in 1960.

The 1960s would spawn two more white supremacist organizations. The Silver Dollar Group emerges in Louisiana in 1964 as a Klan offshoot organizing in leaderless resistance cells which assassinated African-Americans and bombed the cars of NAACP organizers. The White Knights of Mississippi, another Klan branch, also organized in 1964 and continues in existence today.

The definitions of terrorism that scholars like me adopt when we study and teach about this phenomenon tend to point to 1860 as the birth of the modern era of terrorism. That brings us face to face with a sad but inevitable conclusion:

Our past history of racist, right-wing terrorism in America is consistent with our present reality of racist, right-wing terrorism in America. El Paso is just the bloodiest, most recent example.