#ISA2017: Drive-by edition


I’m in Baltimore for the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, a four-day respite from the drudgery of spring break research conference when those of us who can afford to travel the sharpest minds in my profession come  together when hotel costs are cheap in the dead of winter to share their latest work.

If you must, you can follow the fun on Twitter. Just search for #ISA2017 and let the hilarity ensue.

Since I’ve been here all of four hours now, it’s time to post some initial thoughts and give a look at the week ahead:

Women will be woefully underrepresented on virtually every panel over the next four days. Despite the fact that women know stuff too.

If you walk far enough from the conference hotels, you can drink fairly priced Irish whiskey at a quiet bar without having to overhear conversations about: 1) the horrible job market: 2) pompous senior scholars who suck all the oxygen out of panel presentations; 3) pompous newly minted PhDs who do the same; 4) insecure grad students asking each other how they think it went; 5) any mention of post-modern anything.

You will inevitably see, in the first 15 minutes of walking around the conference, most of the friends you wanted to see anyway, making the next three days a little anticlimactic.

My professional obligations begin this evening with drinking. No, really. Social get-togethers and networking are a critical part of the conference experience. That we can’t expense.

My real work starts at 8:15 tomorrow morning when I get to reprise my role as Syrian Pres. Bashar Assad in a simulation of negotiations to try to resolve the Syrian civil war. News flash: I’ve not been all that interested in a negotiated settlement. That won’t change tomorrow.

During the online part of the simulation I was mean to my friend who got stuck playing Donald Trump. I intend to be mean again tomorrow.

Afterwards, in the debriefing panel, I get to explain why I was such a dick.

Later in the day I get to play senior scholar and give the kind of research presentation I always hated listening to at earlier stages in my career: lots of big ideas without a lot behind them. Yet. The good news is that my co-author is way smarter than me, so the project might have real legs.

In the evening I’m getting an award for this blog. Which means from here on out I will always refer to myself as an award-winning blogger, and this blog as an award-winning blog. You’ve been warned.

Friday I get to meet with more smart people and try to get them to let me free-ride on research projects that I wouldn’t be able to do by myself. I will contribute good ideas …

Saturday I get to present yet another research project, this one with actual data, but which made me depressed in the process of writing since I was reading foreign policy speeches made by actually literate presidents.

And with that, the annual dip into the glamorous world of the annual conference will come to an end, and each of us will return to our respective campuses to resume the daily work of trying to get 19-year-olds to care about international affairs.

What counts as terrorism?

Wade Michael Page, American terrorist.
Wade Michael Page, American terrorist.


For most Americans, near as I can tell, it’s not what the guy pictured above did. He’s Wade Michael Page, and four years ago he gunned down six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before before being killed by a local police officer.

Page, a veteran of the US Army, had spent decades swimming in the deep end of the cesspool that is the white supremacist universe. He was a member of two white power skinhead bands, End Apathy and Definite Hate. In 2010 End Apathy played at a racist music festival in Baltimore called Independent Artist Uprise.

Page literally wore his sympathies on his sleeve in the form of a tattoo, “14 Words,” a reference to a slogan coined by David Lane, a member of a notorious violent white supremacist group called The Order. Lane died in prison in 2007.

These are the 14 Words:

We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.

Page’s deadly attack on the Sikh temple on Aug. 5, 2012, was one of three acts of domestic terrorism between mid-July and early August of that year. And yet, when polled by Gallup only a week later, fewer than 0.05 percent of respondents reported that they considered terrorism the most important problem facing the nation.

mip-terrI know this because I am currently working on a research project with a student of mine trying to understand what drives American public opinion on the significance of terrorism as a public policy problem. Click on the graph to take a very preliminary look at the data.

Our operating assumption is that opinion reacts to terrorist incidents, both attacks inside the United States and attacks abroad targeting American citizens or American facilities. And yet as we look at the data, the patterns of correlation, let alone causation, are far from clear cut. In short, the American public reacts to some incidents but not others.

Here’s another example. In June 2015 Dylann Roof, another white supremacist, shot to death nine black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. In the Gallup poll a few weeks later, the percentage of Americans reporting that they considered terrorism the most important problem facing the country fell by two points to 3 percent from the prior month, one in which there were no incidents of domestic terrorism, only a single international attack in which no Americans were either killed or injured.

Jump forward six months, though, to early December and San Bernardino, Calif. Here a husband and wife team, after she declared allegiance to ISIS, killed 14 people and wounded 21 at a holiday party at the government offices where he worked as a county health inspector.

In the Gallup poll conducted several days later, a full 16 percent of the American public declared terrorism the most important problem facing the country, up from only 3 percent the prior month. Likewise, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, another case in which the perpetrators were motivated by jihadist sympathies, the percentage of Americans declaring terrorism the most important problem more than doubled.

While we haven’t yet done any of the fancy math to try to figure out the actual causal relationships between terrorism incidents and the salience of terrorism for the American public, the anecdotal evidence implies that much of what scholars classify as terrorism — events like Oak Park and Charleston — doesn’t fit the public’s post-9/11 conception of what terrorism is.

San Bernardino and Boston — where “they” commit acts of horrific violence against “us” — are terrorism. Oak Park and Charleston — where we commit acts of horrific violence against each other — are something else entirely.

And yet they’re not. This reality was driven home yet again by a report Friday night out of Kansas. The FBI disrupted a plot by a militia group called the Crusaders to detonate a series of simultaneous car bombs at an apartment complex and mosque where Somali immigrants live and worship:

[T]he men were stockpiling weapons and were going to publish a manifesto after the bombing, which was occur Nov. 9 so as to not affect the general election.

One of the men said that the bombing “would quote, ‘wake people up,’” Beall said.

They formed a plan of violent attack targeting Somalis and — after considering a host of targets, including pro-Somali churches and public officials — settled on the apartment complex. Some residents of the complex maintained an apartment that served as a mosque, he said.

The plot involved obtaining four vehicles and filling them with explosives. The men discussed parking the vehicles at the four corners of the complex and detonating them.

By any definition, this plan constituted an attempt to commit terrorism. But I have to wonder, had it been successful, would other Americans have seen it as such.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 9-15

FBI photo of the damaged hull of the USS Cole.
FBI photo of the damaged hull of the USS Cole.


For a change there wasn’t anything terrorism-related that was big in the news last week. Unless you consider the tawdry death throes of the 2016 presidential campaign season a form of terrorism, and then yeah, there was a lot of big stuff.

But given our conventional definitions, nothing big happened. So without delay, here’s a look back at this week in terrorism history.

  • Oct. 9, 1975 — United Kingdom: A British soldier was killed in an IRA land mine attack near Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland. Also, an IRA bomb detonated outside the Green Park Underground Station in London, killing one and injuring 20.
  • Oct. 10, 2000 — Pakistan: Nine soldiers killed in attack on Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan claims responsibility.
  • Oct. 11, 1993 — William Nygaard, Norwegian publisher of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses is shot three times by unknown gunman. Nygaard survives the attack.
  • Oct. 12, 2000 — Yemen: Al Qaeda suicide bombers detonate a small boat alongside the US Navy destroyer USS Cole while the ship is refueling in the port of Aden, killing 17 and wounding 39.
  • Oct. 13, 2005 — Russia: More than 250 armed attackers kill 50, wound 195 in an operation in the city of Nalchik. The Kabardino-Balkariyan Sector of the Caucasus Front claims responsibility.
  • Oct. 14, 1972 — United Kingdom: Loyalist paramilitaries raid the headquarters of the 10 Ulster Defense Regiment in Belfast, Northern Ireland, stealing weapons and ammunition.
  • Oct. 15, 2003 — Gaza Strip: Palestinian terrorists bomb a US Embassy motorcade killing three diplomatic security contractors.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 2-8

Propaganda photo released by 17 November.
Propaganda photo released by 17 November.


Before we get to this week’s chronology, a few links to either update ongoing cases that I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, or that are related to other relevant issues I’ve written about in the past.

First, I led off last week’s entry with news of the peace agreement reached between the Colombian government and the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, ending a 52-year-old civil war. The only remaining hurdle to clear was a public referendum to ratify the agreement. Well, the people voted, and to the surprise of virtually every observer, they voted to reject the treaty. For now both sides say they are committed to maintaining the existing cease fire, but what happens down the road is anyone’s guess at this point.

Second, there’s an interesting piece at the RAND blog by terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins reminding us just how remote the threat of terrorism is for Americans:

Pure terrorism is truly random. It targets families strolling on a promenade in Nice, shoppers at a mall, a busy street in lower Manhattan. The message is not that the victims represent a certain group or are seen as “guilty” because of despised policies or actions. This is sheer spectacle. The message: No one is safe.

Such terror attacks are truly arbitrary and extremely difficult to protect against. Protective perimeters have proliferated, but every restaurant, shopping center, busy street corner cannot be protected. Competitive 24/7 television news coverage amplifies the terror. Politicians pound podiums and pundits warn of further attacks. The end result is a perception that no one is safe, that little can be done, that worse is yet to come.

Yet such attacks are statistically rare, representing a relatively tiny addition to the total volume of violent crime in the United States. Americans are safer now than they were in the immediate shadow of 9/11 when intelligence had failed and more 9/11-scale attacks were expected.

Finally, and relevant to the discussion I am having with my students this evening and in the coming weeks about the ideological motivations that underpin terrorist actions, this piece on the mix-and-match approach to ideas that some lone wolf terrorists adopt:

This sampling of examples highlights a trend of violent lone actors whose ideologies are broadly jihadist, but not tied to any one group. Even so, in the case of Mateen,security officials and policymakers rushed to identify Mateen’s alignment with a specific group. The temptation to classify Mateen within one organization’s particular ideological prism outweighed an objective assessment of the problem: Mateen fused multiple group affiliation and ideologies to motivate his actions. As far as categorization goes, Mateen’s case suggests that group affiliation matters less than his broader commitment his idea of jihad. In this capacity, Mateen’s statements and sentiments are not outliers or rarities in lone actor extremist violence, nor are they as confusing as they seem; individuals tend to blend group affiliation and ideological motivations, which is a significant, recurring, and surprisingly understudied phenomenon. Indeed, if anything, Rahami’s case confirms that this phenomenon is not rare.

And now on to our history lesson.

  • Oct. 2, 2000 — Sri Lanka: LTTE suicide bombing kills 23 and wounds 54 in attack contesting democratic elections.
  • Oct. 3, 1996 — Greece: Bomb explodes under car of Greek NATO officer in Athens. 17 November, a leftist revolutionary organization, is blamed.
  • Oct. 4, 2000 — Peru: Shining Path leader Carlos Fernandez is captured.
  • Oct. 5, 2000 — Sri Lanka: LTTE suicide bomber kills 10 and wounds more than 35 at an election rally.
  • Oct. 6, 1990 — Northern Ireland: A Catholic man is shot to death by the Protestant Action Force at Oxford Island, Lough Neagh. The killing is believed to be in retaliation for the earlier killing of an Ulster Defense Regiment soldier at the same location.
  • Oct. 7, 2001 — Afghanistan: US-led forces begin military action in response to the 9/11 attacks.
  • Oct. 8, 2002 — Kuwait: Al Qaeda affiliates attack US Marines on exercise, killing one.