Americans at war with America

Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995.
Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995.


In thinking about the threat of terrorism facing the United States, it’s important to remember where most of the real danger comes from. Hint: It’s not immigrants, refugees, or jihadi infiltrators.

Nope, most of the danger comes from red-blooded Americans like the 24-year-old man from Pontiac, MI, who has been charged with threatening to kill the judge presiding over his child custody case. His plan involved blowing up the Oakland County Sixth Circuit Court building with a bomb modeled after the one Timothy McVeigh used to level the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and wounding nearly 700.

According to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, the suspect indicated that he was ready and willing to “go to war” and told an acquaintance that he shared McVeigh’s anti-government ideology. Would he have followed through on his threats? It’s impossible to know, and thankfully we won’t have to find out.

But whether he was serious or just blowing smoke, the threat of right-wing terrorism is no joke. In June 2015 the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security reported that “Law enforcement agencies in the United States consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”

right-wing-1In March last year, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Anti Defamation League released a chronology of conspiracies, plots, and attacks by right-wing extremists since 1995. A total of 120 separate incidents are chronicled in the report. The graphic at right breaks down the number of attacks, plots, and attempted attacks by ideological movement.

You can download the report here. It makes for chilling reading. Here are some excerpts:

Battle Creek/Kalamazoo, Michigan, March 1998: In 1999, members of the North American Militia of southwestern Michigan were convicted on various conspiracy and weapon charges related to a terrorist plot. Prosecutors accused Bradford Metcalf, Kenneth Carter, and Randy Graham of plotting to kill federal officials, and to destroy a federal building, an IRS office, utility transmitters, and a television station. Carter pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government; he received a five‐year sentence. Metcalf received a 40‐year sentence; Graham a 55‐year sentence.

Washington County, Pennsylvania, February 2003: Ku Klux Klan leader David Wayne Hull was arrested at his home on weapons and explosives charges in connection with a plot to blow up an abortion clinic. Federal prosecutors charged Hull, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a small Pennsylvania‐based group, with receiving, manufacturing, possessing and transferring a destructive device in violation of the National Firearms Act. He was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2005.

Crockett, Tennessee, October 2008: Crockett County sheriff’s deputies arrested white supremacists Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, who were casing houses to rob in order to get funds to launch a murderous rampage primarily targeting African‐American children, which would culminate in an assassination attempt on presidential candidate Barack Obama. Both men pleaded guilty to federal weapons and conspiracy charges. Cowart was sentenced to 14 years in prison, while Schlesselman received 10 years.

Concord, North Carolina, September 2010: Anti‐abortion extremist Justin Carl Moose of Concord, North Carolina, was arrested for providing information related to the making, use, or manufacture of an explosive, destructive device, or weapon of mass destruction. According to the criminal complaint, Moose used social networking sites to advocate violence against women’s healthcare clinics and where abortions are performed, as well as their employees. Additionally, Moose allegedly met with an individual he believed was planning to bomb a North Carolina clinic and provided detailed information and instruction about various explosives and incendiary methods that could be used to destroy the clinic. Moose, a self‐ proclaimed member of “Army of God”, an extreme anti‐abortion group, pleaded guilty to distributing information on making and using explosives. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Las Vegas, Nevada, June 2014: Husband and wife anti‐government extremists Jerad and Amanda Miller assassinated two Las Vegas police officers in June 2014, killing them while they were eating lunch at a restaurant. The couple then crossed the street to a Wal‐Mart, where they killed a civilian who attempted to intervene. Jerad died in a subsequent shootout with police. Amanda also died, killing herself at the scene after being shot by police.

I touched on this before in this space, when black churches were being burned across the South in the wake of the slaughter of black churchgoers in Charleston, SC. I bring it up (again) because it is important to remember that the main terrorist threat to America comes from within. Specifically, it comes from Americans plotting against and targeting other Americans to advance political and religious causes that are deeply rooted in American history, society, and culture.

We are our own worst enemy.

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 18-24

Investigators at the scene of this weekend's explosion in New York City.
Investigators at the scene of this weekend’s explosion in New York City.


A homemade bomb went off over the weekend in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, injuring 29 people, and a second was found nearby. Meanwhile five pipe bombs were found near a train station in Elizabeth, N.J. The FBI has identified a suspect and a search is under way.

If this seems particularly troubling, it might be useful to put the weekend’s effects in some historical context. I will try to write a longer post about this later today, but here’s a tiny little slice.

In 1970 alone there were 54 terrorist bombings in New York City. Three of those occurred on successive days from Sept. 24-26. March saw 10 separate terrorist attacks in New York City. (Data comes from the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland).

In short, and as with most things terrorism-related, we’ve been there before.

And now on to this week’s history:

  • Sept. 18, 1997 — Egypt: Bomb attack on Cairo tourist bus kills nine Germans. Muslim militants are blamed.
  • Sept. 20, 1984 — Lebanon: Islamic Jihad Organization detonates a truck bomb at the US Embassy annex in Beirut, killing 23.
  • Sept. 21, 2013 — Kenya: Al-Shabaab gunmen kill more than 70 and wound 200 in an attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi.
  • Sept. 23, 2010 — Colombia: FARC military commander Victor Julio Suarez Rojas is killed in a Colombian military operation in Meta Department.
  • Sept. 24, 2002 — India: Attack on a Hindu temple kills 31. Lashkar-e-Taiba is suspected of responsibility.

Refugees and drugs tread the same paths


We can understand a lot about the mechanics of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis — in particular the routes refugees are taking as they flee war and misery in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa — by looking at the patterns of flow that carry other “illicit” traffic into the heart of the European Union, specifically narcotics.

refugee crisis mapFor the last several years now my colleague Byungwon Woo and I have been analyzing the patterns of international narcotics trafficking, particularly the routes and networks of transit states that link producers to consumers. The first article to grow out of this research was published last year. A second piece is currently under review.

Even a cursory glance at maps, like the one at right, diagramming the movements that make up the refugee crisis, show that the routes refugees are following are virtually identical to those used by narcotics traffickers.

Thus we can see the Balkan Route, which for decades has been used to bring heroin, opium, hashish, and other narcotics from Central Asia into the lucrative consumer markets of Central and Western Europe, is now also being used to move refugees to their preferred destinations in places like Austria and Germany.

Likewise we see refugees moving into Southern Europe following the same routes across the Mediterranean from North Africa that Algerian and Moroccan cannabis traffickers have long leveraged.

Just as with illicit narcotics, Europe’s system of open borders, once you manage to make it inside, facilitates the flow of people across national boundaries as easily as it does heroin or cannabis. As NPR noted in its reporting this morning, this puts the burden squarely on those states on the periphery of Europe to stem the human tide.

Which explains why more and more of the countries on the periphery, like Hungary, are moving aggressively to build fences along their borders to block refugees (Greece did so in 2012) and why others, like Macedonia, are employing heavy crackdowns by police to the same effect.  But again, as with narcotics trafficking, there’s a natural elasticity in the routes that refugees are taking. Analysts have described drug smuggling as akin to a balloon: when you squeeze it in one place it bulges elsewhere.

The same is true with the movement of refugees. The New York Times illustrates this very effectively, showing how the closing of safer routes into Europe have driven refugees into more and more dangerous journeys.

This raises one more point of comparison with the international trade in narcotics. As it has become more and more difficult for refugees to reach Europe legally, human traffickers have stepped in to meet the demand of desperate people. And make no mistake, this is a lucrative trade, estimated to be worth more than $1 billion a year, a figure which likely understates the real value given the exponential increase in human traffic into Europe this year. Traffickers currently charge about $3,000 per person for the arduous trip from the war zones of Syria to the safety of Germany.

Recognizing the parallels between the movement of people in Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis and the movement of drugs in the international narcotics trade also points us to the recognition that complex transnational problems require coordinated transnational action to have any meaningful impact. That kind of coordination has been lacking for decades on the narcotics front. And as we’ve come to see, there is so far little collective political will in Europe to manage this new crisis.

What the Provos can, and cannot, do


Official acknowledgment that the Provisional IRA still exists, albeit in a form distinct from the years when it was engaged in armed conflict with the British state, has led to calls for the resurrection of an independent group, separate from the PSNI, to once again monitor Northern Ireland’s paramilitary ceasefires.


Lord John Alderdice, one of the four commissioners of the Independent Monitoring Commission, established in 2003 by agreement of the British and Irish governments to do just that in an effort to build trust and confidence between parties as the peace process moved forward, last week threw a bucket of cold water on the idea, telling the BBC that “the IMC was appropriate for the time and it worked but I don’t think it would be an appropriate thing to bring it back.”

I first interviewed Alderdice in early 2010 as part of the research that I have been doing on the maintenance and durability of the peace process. One of the issues I was interested in understanding was how the Provisional Movement had managed to bring so many of their volunteers along as the transition was made from armed struggle to constitutional politics.

What Alderdice argued to me helps put the recent revelations of the continuing existence of elements of the Provisional IRA into context. Keeping intact a command structure, he contended, was essential to keeping volunteers on side even as the military structures that had prosecuted the war were being wound down.

One of the observations we made was even when they’d got to the point of standing down the military operations and not recruiting, engineering had gone south and all these kinds of things, there still was a necessity – there was a little bit of debate about this when we said it – still was a necessity to keep a kind of Army Council and structures in place as you brought it down because that exercised what you’d call a degree of moral authority, to tell people to “stop it.”

And people stopped, not necessarily because they immediately thought somebody was coming into the back door but because there was that sense of authority.

Alderdice was essentially arguing two things:

First, that the Army Council carried sufficient authority that when they ordered volunteers to stand down from a military posture and transition from being members of an underground army into above-ground political workers, those orders could be expected to be obeyed.

Second, that the volunteers that made up the ranks of the Provisional Irish Republican Army were sufficiently disciplined that they would, on the whole, follow the orders passed down from their leadership. They followed orders not out of fear, but out of loyalty.

This squares with one of the points that Tony Catney made when I interviewed him in 2013:

In 35 years of armed struggle, the membership of the IRA never let the leadership down once. Anything that the leadership asked for they got. They might not have got it to the degree or as quickly as they wanted but they got it to the best of the ability of the volunteers within the IRA. What happened from 1994 onwards was a failure of leadership not a failure of the IRA. It was a failure of the people who made the decisions as opposed to the people who were prepared to honor their commitment to the liberation of Ireland and were quite prepared to do it in a different fashion.

The important point in this context is one that Catney did not make. The discipline within the ranks of the PIRA was powerful enough that when told to stand down, the overwhelming majority of volunteers did. Catney characterized that moment this way:

In August 2005, all volunteers were informed that they were to report in to the chair of their local branch of Sinn Fein, and all their future activity would be directed by Sinn Fein.

Some who disagreed with the decision simply walked away. A few, like Catney, became critics of the Provisional Movement and the political direction its leadership had taken it. And a smaller fraction subsequently threw in their lot with one or another of the armed dissident groups.

Crucially, what those armed dissidents haven’t done is go after the leaders that they accuse of betraying Republicanism. If the IRA had gone away, as so many chose to believe, why hadn’t the dissidents moved against those leaders whom they charge with  selling out the cause of Irish freedom in exchange for the Queen’s shilling?

I interviewed Alderdice a second time in 2011, and I asked him specifically about the relationship between the dissidents and the Provisional Movement:

These are people that fell out in a very, very bitter way with Adams and McGuinness. … What happened was they absolutely didn’t agree with Adams and McGuinness, and every time you came to a key moment when something was moving forward, these were the losers. And some of them dropped out, packed it in. Some of them dropped out and said, “Well, we’ll still be here when they’ve betrayed everything.”

He then made two points, that while at first glance appear contradictory, actually make a great deal of sense now given what we have learned about the current status of the PIRA. As much as the dissidents brand the leaders of the Provisional Movement traitors, Alderdice said:

They haven’t the guts to take the Provos on, because the Provos will put them to bed. And in fact, it is ironic. It is because the Provisional IRA is effectively over in a meaningful sense that these guys popped their heads up. Because otherwise they’d have got their heads cut off.

What Alderdice seemed to be arguing back in 2011 was that the PIRA retained enough military capability to defend itself were it to be challenged directly by the dissidents. What it had not given up, however, in standing down from its wartime footing, was an ability to prevent open challenges to its authority.

This, added to what we have learned after the last several weeks, seems to me to offer a compelling explanation for the current landscape of “alphabet soup” IRAs and their apparent unwillingness to move against a leadership whom they have branded the worst kinds of traitors.

The Provos can still “put them to bed” if they try it.