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.

This week in terrorism history: Jan. 15-21

A bomb detonates outside an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs, GA.
A bomb detonates outside an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs, GA.

 

With today marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s a good opportunity to highlight episodes of far-right and white supremacist violence in our look back on the week in terrorism.

  • Jan. 15, 1997 — Belfast, Northern Ireland: Billy Wright, leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, goes on trial on charges of threatening a witness. Wright was killed in the Maze Prison in December 1997.
  • Jan. 16, 1997 — Sandy Springs, GA: Two anti-personnel bombs, the second designed to target police and other emergency workers, explode outside an abortion clinic in this Atlanta suburb. The Army of God claims responsibility.
  • Jan. 17, 2011 — Spokane, WA: Bomb technicians defuse a sophisticated improvised explosive device (IED) discovered in a backpack along the route of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Day parade. Forensic clues led to the arrest and conviction of Kevin William Harpham, a long-time neo-Nazi and regular contributor to the white supremacist Aryan Alternative newspaper.
  • Jan. 18, 1996 — Ohio: Peter Kevin Langan, “Commander Pedro,” leader of the underground Aryan Republican Army, is arrested after a shootout with the FBI.
  • Jan. 19, 2007 — Gunagado, Ethiopia: Twenty-five are killed in an attack carried out the Ogaden National Liberation Front.
  • Jan. 20, 2012 — Kano, Nigeria: More than 180 people are killed in a series of coordinated attacks. Boko Haram claims responsibility.
  • Jan. 21, 1975 — Belfast, Northern Ireland: Two members of the Irish Republican Army are killed when a bomb they are transporting explodes in their car on Victoria Street.

This week in terrorism history: Jan. 8-14

Irish Republican Army unit with homemade mortar. (The Sun)
Irish Republican Army unit with homemade mortar. (The Sun)

 

I am again teaching my course on terrorism and political violence, and so I’m bringing back to the blog my “This Week in Terrorism History” series that I first ran back in the fall of 2016.

As I noted in the post introducing that series, one of the points that I try to impress upon my students is that, as a form of political action, terrorism has been around for far longer than our current post-9/11 awareness would lead most Americans to acknowledge.

This weekly feature is intended to highlight some of that history. The information will mostly be taken from the National Counterterrorism Center’s 2016 counterterrorism calendar. Unfortunately, I still have to use the 2016 calendar since the Trump Administration’s NCTC has failed to produce calendars, which previous administrations had published annually since 2003, for either 2017 or 2018.

Somewhat interestingly, you can still find reference to the calendar buried deep inside the NCTC website. There’s just nothing there. Instead it’s been replaced by a “historical timeline” of incidents, nearly all of which were perpetrated by Middle Eastern or Islamist groups. There’s probably a metaphor hiding in that detail somewhere.

Because I also have a long-standing interest in political violence in Northern Ireland, I will occasionally add events or incidents taken from the chronology maintained by the CAIN project at the University of Ulster. I will also draw on other resources, like data collected and reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, like this report, this one, and this one, to try to address some of the failings in the NCTC calendar. More on that below.

Before moving on, let me say a little about the limitations and built-in biases in the NCTC calendar.

First, there is an automatic tilt toward recounting incidents targeting either the United States, US citizens, or US allies. This is an especially egregious feature of the new timeline feature mentioned above, and one more reason why I won’t be drawing from it.

Second, there is a tendency to focus on incidents perpetrated by groups whose ideologies and motivations are seen as currently threatening to the United States, or by groups that have some kind of historical connection to present security challenges facing the US. Together, these first two biases mean that there is an over-representation of incidents attributed to groups espousing an Islamist ideology.

Third, there is a tendency to emphasize acts of transnational terrorism targeting the US or US interests over acts of domestic terrorism within the United States that lack some sort of transnational link, either ideological or material. This despite the reality that the vast majority of terrorist incidents the United States has suffered historically, and the primary threat of terrorism confronting the US today, comes from domestic groups, mainly but not exclusively, on the far right of the political spectrum. This is why I’ll be including the SPLC material.

Finally, when there are multiple incidents for any given date, I will try to choose examples that run counter to the biases discussed above to show some the wider geographical, ideological, or operational diversity that we see when we consider terrorism as a global phenomenon.

Despite all these caveats, there is value in keeping in mind the reality that as much as Americans might think that terrorism is a new phenomenon, or tend to see ourselves as uniquely at risk, terrorism has been with us for a very long time, is likely to be with us for a long time to come, and there are countries that have faced far worse, for far longer, than what we face today.

With all that in mind, here we go.

  • Jan. 8, 2003 — Chicago: Matt Hale, leader of the neo-Nazi World Church of the Creator, is arrested and charged with soliciting the murder of a federal judge whom he had publicly vilified as someone bent on the destruction of his group. Hale is subsequently convicted and sentenced to 40 years in federal prison.
  • Jan. 9, 2015 — Paris: Four are killed in an attack on a deli. ISIS claims responsibility one month later.
  • Jan. 10, 2013 — Pakistan: Bombings in the cities of Quetta and Mingaora kill 115. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the United Baluch Army claim responsibility.
  • Jan. 11, 1997 — Northern Ireland: The Irish Republican Army carries out a mortar attack on a Royal Ulster Constabulary station in Fermanagh.
  • Jan. 12, 2007 — Greece: A rocket-propelled grenade attack is carried out against the US embassy in Athens; Revolutionary Struggle claims responsibility.
  • Jan. 13, 1987 — West Germany: Mohammed Ali Hamadei, a member of Hezbollah, is arrested at the Frankfurt airport and charged with the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner and murder of a passenger. Sentenced to life in prison, he was released in 2005 and is believed to reside in Lebanon.
  • Jan. 14, 2011 — Arizona: Jeffery Harbin, a member of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, is arrested for building homemade grenades and pipe bombs which he had intended to supply to anti-immigrant militia groups patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border.

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.