Remote learning: Counterterrorism is hard!

The French Army arrives in this scene from the classic film study of terrorism and counterterrorism, The Battle of Algiers.

Here we are, another week of stay-at-home orders and thus another week of teaching my seminar on terrorism without being able to be in the classroom with my students.

As I told you last week, my solution to this has been to record short (well, I’m trying to keep them short) mini lectures on the readings that I’ve assigned to my students. And I’m sharing some of those here with you.

Next week we’re starting to consider the options available to governments facing the challenge of combatting terrorism, and if there’s a bottom line message that I’m trying to get across it’s this: Counterterrorism is really hard.

There’s actually two key points that we’re dealing with when we talk about the challenges that counterterrorism represents. The first has to do specifically with the problems democracies confront when dealing with terrorism. How far can a democratic society go in cracking down on terrorism before it jeopardizes the very democratic values and principles it is fighting to protect? The second point is simple: Governments may have far less ability to “defeat” terrorism than we choose to believe.

I raise both of these issues in the video below, where I talk about the work of pioneering terrorism scholar Martha Crenshaw on the topic of how terrorism declines.

In the second video, below, I preview for my students what may in fact be the greatest study of terrorism and counterterrorism ever committed to film, and that is Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant The Battle of Algiers. I urged my students to take the time to watch it next week and to think about the lessons it has for democratic societies combatting terrorism. You should watch it too.

Finally, here is The Battle of Algiers.

This week in terrorism history: March 23-29

ISIS is taking a safety-first approach to coronavirus. (Credit: Getty Images)

In case you’ve been wondering how terrorists are coping with the global coronavirus pandemic, you’ve come to the right place. Here are two articles highlighting two very different approaches.

More than a week ago, while certain pundits and politicians in the US were downplaying the threat, ISIS was providing very different guidance to their members. As reported in Politico:

Islamic State (ISIS) has adopted a safety-first approach to the coronavirus pandemic and advised its members not to travel to Europe, Homeland Security Today reported.

In the latest edition of the terrorist group’s al-Naba newsletter, the editors who normally urge followers to carry out attacks on the West instead ask them to “stay away from the land of the epidemic” for the time being,

In a full-page infographic on the back cover, a list of pro-tips instructs militants on how to stop the pandemic’s spread. ISIS members are advised to “put trust in God and seek refuge in Him from illnesses,” but to also “cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing,” and to wash their hands frequently.

Those who believe they might have contracted coronavirus are told to stay away from areas under ISIS control in order to preserve the health of others and fulfil the holy “obligation of taking up the causes of protection from illnesses and avoiding them.”

Meanwhile, closer to home, the FBI is warning that white supremacist groups are encouraging their members to do all they can to spread the virus to police and Jews:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York office recently sent out an alert to local authorities warning of extremist groups it said are encouraging their members to spread the novel coronavirus to police and Jewish people, ABC News reported.

According to the news agency, the alert, which was reportedly issued on Thursday, said that “members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions.”

The alert reportedly warned that the racist groups were urging their members to go to places where Jewish people “may be congregated, to include markets, political offices, businesses and places of worship.”

The alert also reportedly said some white supremacists and neo-Nazis were also urging members who contract the virus to spread the disease to cops by using spray bottles.

And now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism.

  • March 23, 1998 — Algeria: Seven members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) are sentenced to death in connection with the 1996 assassination of Pierre Claverie, Roman Catholic Bishop of Oran.
  • March 25, 2010 — Sumter County, Florida: A self-proclaimed “sovereign citizen” opens fire on Florida state police troopers during a routine traffic stop. He is arrested two weeks later in Connecticut. Sovereign citizens typically believe that police have no right to regulate road travel.
  • March 26, 1997 — Cheshire, England: The Irish Republican Army detonates two bombs at Wilmslow Railway Station in northwest England, causing widespread disruption to the rail network.
  • March 27, 2014 — Katy, Texas: A 38-year-old man is arrested by FBI agents who say he was about to rob an armored car. He is alleged to have been plotting to use C-4 explosives and weapons to rob banks and armored cars, blow up government buildings and mosques, and kill police officers. Prosecutors say he was behind a Facebook page called “American Insurgent Movement,” on which he posted antigovernment screeds, called for violence against public officials, and ranted about Muslims and LGBT people.
  • March 29, 2010 — Moscow: Female suicide bombers carry out attacks on two metro stations in Moscow, killing 40 and wounding more than 60. Two days later, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov claims responsibility for the attacks.

Remote learning: Welcome to suicide bombing

My university, like almost all of them in the United States and many abroad, has cancelled face-to-face classes and switched everything over to what’s being called “remote instruction,” which is distinct from “online classes.”

My hunch is that the difference in terminology is a function of courses that were designed from get-go to be delivered virtually vs. what I had to do, which was figure out how to take my 3.5-hour discussion format class on terrorism and in two days transform it into something I could teach at a distance. What I ultimately settled on was a format where I’d record short mini-lectures on the reading I’ve assigned to my students, and then I ask them to participate in online discussion forums. We’ve got one week under our belts, and I’m not really sure who well it’s working, but this is as good as it is going to get.

But here’s the real point of this post: I figure if I’m spending the time to create these videos, maybe I should share some of them with a broader audience than the 30 students in my class. So here we go.

Next week’s class topic is the phenomenon of suicide terrorism, so here are two of the mini-lectures I’ve recorded for my students. Below is the first, a general introduction to the topic taken from the relevant chapter in Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism, which many consider the single best introduction to the topic of terrorism that’s out there, both for the general reader and for the academic audience.

The second video, below, summarizes some of the early work by Israeli psychologist and terrorism expert Ariel Merari. As you’ll hear in the video, one of the ways that Merari’s work stands out from the other pieces my students are reading for next week is in his argument that suicide terrorism, from the perspective of the perpetrator, is really all about the suicide, not necessarily the terrorism.

In short, Merari argues, suicide bombers really just want to commit suicide, and the act of terrorism becomes the vehicle by which they carry it out. In short, for the perpetrator, suicide terrorism is less a strategic choice and more a psychologically driven act. His acclaimed 2010 book, Driven to Death, lays out these arguments in significant detail.

This week in terrorism history: March 16-22

The late Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, perhaps my favorite movie terrorist of all time.

I debated whether or not to continue with this series of posts given all of the other things that are going on right now. The universities and public schools are sending students home, businesses are forced to shut down, the economy is teetering, people are panic-buying toilet paper of all things, and new cases of coronavirus are appearing at alarming rates pretty much everywhere.

I wouldn’t call these entries, running lists of past terrorist events, much of a diversion. But for me, writing this, and maybe for you reading it, this is a better use of my time than obsessively reading all of the bad news.

So I want to keep things this week on a relatively lighter note, and that means terrorism at the movies! For my money, the single most entertaining terrorist in recent film history has to be Hans Gruber, of Die Hard fame, the smoothly elegant leader of the “Volksfrei” movement, a left-wing West German terrorist group, played by the late, great Alan Rickman.

Of course, if you’ve seen the movie (who hasn’t?) you know it’s all a scam. Volksfrei isn’t a real group, the gang Gruber leads isn’t politically motivated at all (such a motivation central to any good definition of terrorism), and their demand for the release of “revolutionary brothers and sisters” imprisoned around the world in exchange for hostages is just cover for the real plan, the heist of some $640 million in “negotiable bearer bonds” from the safe of Nakatomi Plaza.

If you’d like to read more about my favorite movie terrorist and his plan to retire, “sitting on a beach earning 20 percent,” take a look at this appreciation from the online platform Medium. For a more academic take on Hollywood’s changing take on terrorism from the 1970s to the 2010s, give this piece, from the journal Perspectives on Terrorism, a read. Here’s a quick sample from the article:

When reviewing Hollywood’s output on terrorism, it is obvious that it correlates with the waves and historical development of political violence: previously sporadic encounters with terrorism in Hollywood cinema, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), became more frequent in the 1970s, at a time when international terrorism and especially hijackings of jetliners orchestrated by Palestinian groups made headlines and featured in newsreels. Thus, the Arab gunman, who threatens innocent passengers and strikes at Western installations, became a typical Hollywood villain …

And now on to this week’s look back.

  • March 16, 1985 — Beirut, Lebanon: Journalist Terry Anderson is kidnapped off the street in Beirut and held hostage by Hezbollah. He was released more than six years later, in December 1991.
  • March 17, 1978 — Maghera, Northern Ireland: David Jones, a British soldier working undercover, is killed during a gun battle with the Irish Republican Army. 
  • March 17, 1992 — Buenos Aires, Argentina: A car bomb destroys the Israeli embassy, killing 28 and wounding more than 200. Hezbollah claims responsibility.
  • March 20, 1995 — Tokyo: Aum Shinrikyo releases sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and sickening more than 5,000.
  • March 22, 2017 — New York City: James Harris Jackson, 28, is arrested after he turns himself in at a Manhattan police precinct where he confesses stabbing Timothy Caughman, 66, to death with a “Roman short sword” on a city street on March 20 after traveling to New York City to allegedly hunt and kill black men. He tells police the attack was a “trial run” for a series of killings he intended to carry off in order to deter white women from dating black men.