Are the Austin bombings terrorism?

FBI agents at the scene of last night's bombing. (AP)
FBI agents at the scene of last night’s bombing. (AP)

 

Four bombs have now gone off in Austin, Tx, over the last 17 days. The most recent was last night, a bomb triggered by a tripwire that left two men injured.

According to the FBI, this “changes things,” representing a significant step up in the sophistication of the device compared to the earlier bombs which left two African-American men dead and a hispanic woman critically injured. All four devices share similarities which suggest they are the work of the same bomb maker.

The first three bombs were all left at residences, disguised as delivered packages. All detonated as the victims were opening or handling them. The fourth bomb was left on a roadside in a different area of the city.

Because the first two victims were black, a 39-year-old construction worker and a 17-year-old high school student, both related to prominent members of Austin’s African-American community, the attacks have raised suspicion that they are racially motivated. The area where the first three bombs went off were neighborhoods east of I-35, the six-lane highway which divides the affluent and predominantly white west side of the city from where black and hispanic residents have historically lived on the east side.

The fourth bomb, however, breaks from that pattern. It was planted in the city’s southwest. The two men injured in the blast are both white.

So where does that leave us? Can we describe these as acts of terrorism?

Four bombs have now gone off, all apparently the work of the same individual or group of individuals. The attacks have left the city on edge, with police urging the public to be alert for suspicious packages. The neighborhood where the fourth bomb went off was placed on lockdown until this afternoon, with residents kept in their homes and school buses ordered to stay away. The identities of the first three victims suggest a possible motivation.

That last is the key to understanding whether or not what is happening in Austin constitutes terrorism or something else. Definitions of terrorism typically focus on several key elements: threat or use of violence; intention to create fear in an audience beyond the immediate victims of an attack; all in the service or pursuit of some political/social/religious motivation or objective.

So that’s what we still need to know about the Austin attacks. Until we find some further evidence of common ideological motivation connecting the bombings, we will have to reserve judgment.

Another typical American terrorist

Accused terrorist Michael Hari (Chicago Tribune photo)
Accused terrorist Michael Hari (Chicago Tribune photo)

 

Last August, a mosque in Minnesota was bombed. Yesterday, three men from a rural central Illinois town were charged with carrying out the attack, which, according to the FBI, was intended to frighten Muslims in to fleeing the United States.

This, my friends, is the very definition of terrorism:

[T]he threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.

The three men charged, Michael Hari, Joe Morris, and Michael McWhorter, all come from the same tiny town of Clarence, Ill., with a population of fewer than 100. They are also suspected of carrying out a failed bombing attack on an Illinois abortion clinic.

Hari, a former sheriff’s deputy who is the suspected “mastermind” of the bombings, was featured in the Chicago Tribune last spring after the global security firm he founded, Crisis Resolution Security Services, submitted a $10 billion bid to build President Donald Trump’s promised wall on the US-Mexico border. He described his proposed border wall this way:

We would look at the wall as not just a physical barrier to immigration but also as a symbol of the American determination to defend our culture, our language, our heritage, from any outsiders.

Less than six months later, according to the FBI, Hari and his companions decided to defend American culture, language, and heritage not with a wall, but with pipe bombs.

I have written it over, and over, and over again in this space: The typical face of terrorism in America belongs to an angry white man.

This week in terrorism history: March 4-10

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Editor’s note — Your humble blogger got a little behind the last few weeks, and so it’s been a bit since I posted one of these looks back. I don’t expect many of you missed it, but just in case you did, apologies.

Much of the anxiety that fuels current fears about terrorism and propels US counterterrorism national security policy today has its origins in policy decisions and failures that stretch back almost 40 years now.

I have been reminded of that thanks to two different things I’m spending time with, Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars, on US foreign policy in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion in 1980 to 9/11, and the Hulu adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower on the origins of the 9/11 attack and the mistakes and policy failures that allowed it to succeed.

Both offer a sobering reminder that when it comes to terrorism much of our current difficulties are of our own making. Coll reminds us that the training camps, stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, and explosives, and safe havens that were created as a flood of CIA money swelled the coffers of Afghan mujaheddin waging jihad against the Russians would later constitute the “terrorist infrastructure” facilitating attacks on the United States and its interests.

Coll’s book and the Hulu miniseries remind us that the institutional jealousies, rivalries, and dysfunctions that prevented the CIA and FBI from working together to prevent the 9/11 attack were present from the outset as the US government stumbled its way to developing a coherent response to international terrorism.

Both Coll’s book and the Hulu series are highly recommended. Now for this week’s look back.

  • March 4, 1999 — Batman, Turkey: Three people are killed in a suicide bombing. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is suspected.
  • March 5, 1998 — Sri Lanka: The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are blamed for a bus bomb that kills 37 and wounds more than 250.
  • March 6, 1999 — Venezuela: The bodies of three American peace activists are found. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are blamed for their deaths.
  • March 7, 1973 — New York City: Vehicle bombs are discovered and defused at the El Al terminal at Kennedy International Airport, the First Israel Bank and Trust Co., and the Israel Discount Bank. Nearly 20 years later, in 1991, a member of the Palestinian group Black September is arrested and convicted in connection with the thwarted bombings.
  • March 8, 1978 — Portadown, Northern Ireland: Members of the Red Hand Commando, a loyalist paramilitary group with links to the Ulster Volunteer Force, kill two Catholics, one a civilian and the other a member of the Irish National Liberation Army.
  • March 9, 2000 — Houston: Federal agents arrest Mark Wayne McCool, the one-time leader of the Texas Militia and Combined Action Program on charges of conspiring to attack the federal building there.
  •  March 10, 2011 — Alaska: Six members of the antigovernment Alaska Peacemakers Militia, including its leader, are arrested and charged with plotting to kill or kidnap state troopers and a Fairbanks judge. The group’s cache of weapons included a .50-caliber machine gun, grenades, and a grenade launcher.

Parkland looks like terrorism

At center, massacre suspect Nikolas Cruz. (Photo: ABC News)
At center, massacre suspect Nikolas Cruz. (Photo: ABC News)

 

The Anti-Defamation League reports that the leader of the white supremacist Republic of Florida has acknowledged that the accused shooter in yesterday’s mass killing at a high school in Parkland, Fla., was associated with his group.

After self-described ROF members claimed on the discussion forum 4chan that Cruz had also been a member, the Anti-Defamation League called the ROF hotline and spoke with an ROF member who identified himself as Jordan Jereb.

Jereb, based in Tallahassee, is believed to be the leader of ROF.  In 2016, he was arrested on charges of threatening a staffer in the office of Florida Governor Rick Scott because he was allegedly angry at the staffer’s son.

Jereb said that Cruz was associated with ROF, having been “brought up” by another member.  Jereb added that Cruz had participated in one or more ROF training exercises in the Tallahassee area, carpooling with other ROF members from south Florida.

ABC News has much more on Nikolas Cruz and his ties to ROF:

ROF has mostly young members in north and south Florida and describes itself as a “white civil rights organization fighting for white identitarian politics” and seeks to create a “white ethnostate” in Florida.

Three former schoolmates of Cruz told ABC News that Cruz was part of the group. They claimed he marched with the group frequently and was often seen with Jereb, who also confirmed to ABC News that Cruz was, at least at one point, part of that group.

Jereb told the ADL that ROF had not ordered Cruz to take any such action. He told ABC News he has not spoken to Cruz in “some time” but said “he knew he would getting this call.” He would not comment further but emphasized that his group was not a terrorist organization.

We spend so much time whipping up fear of terrorists as alien others. Turns out they live right next door. And look just like us.