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.

What happened in Las Vegas was terrible, but was it terrorism?

(Photo: ABC News)
(Photo: ABC News)

Definitions of terrorism matter. Even though there is no consensus definition in either the academic, policy, or law enforcement communities, definitions matter.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • From an academic and analytical standpoint, we need clear definitions so that we can identify and study like cases. This is essential for generating knowledge that can help us understand why terrorism occurs, the means that terrorists employ, and the range of potentially effective responses available to policy makers.
  • From a policy standpoint, the options will be different depending on what motivates an actor to engage in any act of violence, including mass murder. In short, policies aimed at preventing, defending against, and responding to any act of violence will differ depending on whether the individual or group was acting out of criminal self-interest (like Colombian “narcoterrorism” or the more recent brutality unleashed by the Mexican drug cartels), idiosyncratic factors such as mental illness (for example the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters), or some political motivation (as in Oklahoma City and San Bernardino).
  • From a law enforcement perspective, at least in the US, what happened in Las Vegas would not be considered an act of terrorism, as federal law defines terrorism as acts involving links to designated foreign terrorist organizations. Timothy McVeigh, for example, did not face terrorism charges for the Oklahoma City bombing. The reasons why domestic terrorism is not designated as such under federal law are wrapped up in questions of First Amendment protections and a reluctance to consider imposing legal sanctions based on political or religious ideologies, even if they are used as justifications for violence.

So what is terrorism? By definition, terrorism is a political act.

Here’s the most basic definition that I use with my students:

Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear, through violence or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change.

Here’s a better, more detailed and nuanced, definition:

Terrorism is premeditated, politically, religiously, or socially motivated violence, or the threat of violence, against civilian targets by non-state actors, usually intended to influence an audience through the creation and exploitation of fear. In short, terrorism is a form of political theater designed to reach beyond the immediate victims of any given attack.

When we define terrorism as a form of political action, we can ask why groups and individuals choose that particular form — violence — over non-violent means in an attempt to produce a desired political outcome. It helps us understand how a group like the Army of God can emerge as a result of the perceived failure of non-violent groups like Operation Rescue to end the practice of abortion. Or how the inability of Students for a Democratic Society to end the Vietnam War through non-violent mass protest can lead to the emergence of the Weather Underground.

I think it matters that the media get it right insofar as the media has the ability to shape both public perceptions and policy responses.

If every act of mass killing is terrorism, then there is no substantive difference between Charles Whitman in the tower at the University of Texas, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School, Wade Michael Page at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, or the Tsarnaev brothers at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

And yet we know they were all driven to act by different motives and impulses.

Not every terrible act is an act of terrorism. Not every case of mass murder, no matter how disturbing or terrifying, is terrorism.

Until we know more about why Stephen Paddock did what he did — and we may never know — we cannot call what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday night terrorism.