This week in terrorism history: Jan. 22-28

Police outside Eagle Ridge Mall, Lake Wales, FLA. (Photo: fox35)
Police outside Eagle Ridge Mall, Lake Wales, FLA. (Photo: fox35)

 

Two homemade pipe-bombs went off  at a mall in central Florida on Sunday evening, causing little or no damage but prompting the evacuation of about 100 shoppers and staff. Police are seeking a “person of interest” described as a middle-aged white man with a heavy build, wearing a gray shirt and hat.

Police have so far declined to label the incident an act of terrorism, which has produced an inevitable reaction from some social media quarters:

Now I fully understand the sentiment at work here, the perception that authorities are quick to cry terrorism when a person of color, typically a Muslim or someone thought to be Muslim, is the perpetrator of some act of violence, but call it anything but when it’s white guy who’s responsible. As I’ve written about before, there’s research that backs up the perception.

But in this case, I’m with the cops. So far they’ve made the right call:

“There is nothing at this time to indicate this act was terrorism,” he said. “At this time, we are checking video surveillance cameras.”

When asked why this incident wasn’t being characterized as terror, (Lake Wales Police Deputy Chief Troy) Schulze said, “We don’t know what the person was trying to achieve.”

And that’s the rub. Unless and until we get some evidence that gives us insight into the motivation behind any act of violence, we can’t call it terrorism, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. This is one of the key lessons that I try to convey to my students when I teach on terrorism.

I’ve written about this before, most recently following last fall’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. Even now, after four months of intense investigation, police there are no closer to understanding why Stephen Paddock meticulously planned and executed his attack on concert goers from the window of his high-rise hotel room.

So, did a middle-aged white guy carry out an act of domestic terrorism in Florida last night? Maybe. But maybe not.

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

  • Jan. 22, 1997 — Martinton, Ill.: Authorities raid the home of accused Ku Klux Klan member Ricky Salyers, a former Marine, discovering 35,000 rounds of heavy ammunition, armor piercing shells, live ammunition for grenade launchers, and other military gear. He was also believed to be a member of Black Dawn, an underground group of far-right anti-government extremists inside the US military.
  • Jan. 23, 2001 — Yemen: A Yemeni airliner is hijacked with 91 passengers aboard, including the US ambassador.
  • Jan. 24, 2011 — Moscow: A suicide bombing at Domodedovo airport kills 36 and wounds 180. Imarat Kavkaz, a Chechen group, claims responsibility.
  • Jan. 25, 1976 — Lisburn, Northern Ireland: A bomb planted by Loyalist paramilitaries at the Hibernian Social Club kills two Catholic civilians.
  • Jan. 26, 2009 — Democratic Republic of the Congo: Attacks are carried out on several villages leaving 36 civilians dead. Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda are believed responsible.
  • Jan. 27, 1975 — London: The Irish Republican Army plants seven bombs at locations across the city, resulting in minimal damage or injuries. An IRA bomb goes off in Manchester, injuring 26 people.
  • Jan. 28, 1982 — Italy: Police rescue US Army Brigadier Gen. James Dozier who was kidnapped by the Red Brigades six weeks earlier.

There’s honest threat analysis, and then there’s that DHS report

(Anti-Defamation League)
(Anti-Defamation League)

 

Two new, high-profile reports on terrorism in the United States were released this week. One was incredibly dishonest. Of course that’s the one President Trump tweeted about:

The other, released yesterday by the Anti-Defamation League, shows that in 2017, domestic right-wing  extremists, primarily white supremacists, were responsible for twice as many fatalities — 56 percent of the total — compared to domestic Islamist extremists who accounted for 26 percent. This is in stark contrast to 2016, when right-wing terrorists accounted for only 20 percent of killings. And, of course, killings are only the most visible aspect of the danger:

It is important to note that the deaths described here represent merely the tip of a pyramid of extremist violence and crime in the United States; for each person actually killed by an extremist, many more are wounded or injured in attempted murders and assaults. Every year, police uncover and prevent a wide variety of extremist plots and conspiracies with lethal intentions. Moreover, extremists engage in a wide variety of other crimes related to their causes, from threats and harassment to white collar crime.

This is, of course, consistent with patterns I have highlighted over and again in this space: that the threat of violence from the far-right of the political spectrum is a far more serious concern than the trumped up fears of phantom jihadists lurking around every corner.

Others have already pointed out the myriad problems with the joint DHS/DOJ report, a shameless attempt to put an seemingly dispassionate analytic gloss on the president’s xenophobic project of barring Muslim immigrants and refugees from the United States by tarring them as likely terrorists.

How it inflates the numbers by counting as foreign-born terrorists those who committed attacks outside the United States, or who were arrested abroad but then brought in to the United States for the purpose of standing trial.

How it cherry-picks its “illustrative examples” to include only perpetrators from majority-Muslim countries and who came into the United States via means the president and his allies in Congress would like to eliminate, as family members of lawful permanent residents or naturalized citizens, through the diversity lottery program, or as refugees.

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) called the report an attempt “to vilify the immigrant community and justify an exclusionary immigration policy,” adding in their statement, “The American people will not be fooled by such naked bigotry, and we should not allow this administration to get away with its abuse of the facts to further its extremist, xenophobic agenda.”

As Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law put it:

“I think they are doing everything they can to justify the Muslim ban, and the unfortunate part of this is the backing away from the homegrown terrorist suspect … and how to prevent it,” Greenberg said. “And if you are born in another country and, 20 years later, you become a terrorist, whose fault is that— the country you were born in or the country you’ve lived in?”

All of this is bad enough. But wait, there’s more. The DHS/DOJ report also effectively discounts the very real domestic terrorism dangers that the ADL report highlights so effectively:

The report also does not address the threat posed by domestic terrorism — namely by white supremacist and white nationalist groups, who grabbed headlines following last year’s so-called “Summer of Hate.” The report notes the have only gleaned their data from “terror-related” cases tried in federal court. Because there’s no federal domestic terrorism law, domestic terror cases are either tried in state court or on other federal charges, like homicide or using a weapon of mass destruction.

It’s one thing for Trump administration to ask for cooked analysis to justify their xenophobic approach to immigration. It’s something else entirely to see the agencies responsible for keeping the homeland safe so readily oblige.

Peter King shouldn’t talk about terrorism

U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) argued today, in the wake of a botched terror attack in the New York City subways, that President Trump’s immigration policies could prevent future attacks.

Funny, he never argued for restricting immigration in the name of combating terrorism back in the 1980s when he was an ardent supporter of the Irish Republican Army. Of course then he believed terrorism was a legitimate weapon in a struggle against foreign occupation …

“We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry,” Mr. King told a pro-I.R.A. rally on Long Island, where he was serving as Nassau County comptroller, in 1982. Three years later he declared, “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”

What the terrorists believe

(START, University of Maryland)
(START, University of Maryland)

 

A new report out from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland gives us the best current look at the ideologies that motivate terrorism in the United States.

Jihadist attacks and the fears they generate dominate both the news cycle and the popular imagination, as this week’s deadly incident in Manhattan reminds us. But the START report makes clear that events like this are far from the only, or even the main, story.

If we turn the clock back to the 2000s, 9/11 notwithstanding, we find that the dominant ideology motivating terrorist attacks in that decade was radical environmentalism, accounting for 64 percent of all incidents, with the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front leading the way.

Religiously motivated attacks, including those perpetrated by those embracing jihadist ideology, represent just a small fraction of events during the 2000s.

While religious motivation jumps dramatically in our current decade, identified in 53 percent of cases, that includes not just jihadi or other Muslim extremists, but Christian anti-abortion extremists along with those targeting Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs.

While jihadi-inspired extremists account for 21 attacks from 2010 to 2016, anti-Muslim extremists are close on their heels, responsible for 18 attacks during the same period. And right-wing extremists of all stripes, from anti-government sovereign citizens to white supremacists and white nationalists, account for a full 35 percent of attacks.

What’s the takeaway from the START report? It’s that the story of terrorism in the United States is more complex and nuanced than the current narrative might lead you to believe.

Far from living in an unprecedented era of danger from terrorism, the reality is that terrorist incidents in the US have dwindled in number every decade since the 1970s. And, if you exclude the extreme outliers of Oklahoma City in the 1995 and 9/11 in 2001, the number of fatalities attributable to terrorism has yet to reach let alone surpass the levels seen in the 1970s.

That last statistic is a reminder that in the American experience, again, those few outliers notwithstanding, the story of terrorism is not one of routine mass casualties, or even any casualties at all. For every Oklahoma City, or 9/11, San Bernardino, or Pulse nightclub, there are have been literally thousands of non-lethal terrorist attacks — a full 91 percent of all incidents — in the United States over the last four decades.

Keep that in mind the next time some politician, or cable TV network, tries to stoke your fear and leverage it for their own ends.