This week in terrorism history: Feb. 24 – March 1

(Credit: Oakland University)

My university is on winter break this week, but that doesn’t mean a break from the work of looking back on the recent history of terrorism. It does mean, however, that this week’s entry gets a slightly different introduction than I’ve been offering.

Nearly five years ago I ran across an interview with Art Garfunkel that was loaded with poetic observations on life, music, the challenges of collaboration, and more. In it was this gem, a reflection on college campuses:

As I mentioned, I’ve walked across the U.S. and now Europe, so I know the land. There are many different versions of the land: industrial, wasteland, uninspired land. But campuses are a Walt Disney movie. They’re a dream come true. They’re such a cut above almost all of it. Campuses are so pretty, if only the kids realized it. The rest of the earth is something less than that. The skyscrapers downtown, the used-car lots, the hamburger chains, everything that makes up the normal American scene. But not the campuses. They’re pretty. Those trees …

I suspect that it’s the rare student who realizes just how much a world apart a college campus really is, not just intellectually, but aesthetically. Even one like mine, an under-funded state university in a state that has been systematically disinvesting in higher education for more than two decades.

Now on to this week’s look back:

  • Feb. 25, 1972 — Armagh, Northern Ireland: John Taylor, Minister of State for Home Affairs, survives an attempted assassination carried out by the Official Irish Republican Army. Taylor was hit five times in the neck and head when the two-man OIRA team raked his car with automatic weapons.
  • Feb. 26, 1993 — New York City: A truck bomb is detonated in the underground parking structure beneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Six people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in the incident. According to trial testimony, the plotters had hoped to topple one WTC tower into the other, leading to the collapse of both and what they believed could be as many as 250,000 casualties.
  • Feb. 27, 1980 — Bogota, Colombia: Seventeen members of the organization M-19 storm and seize control of the embassy of the Dominican Republic. They take 60 people, including some 15 ambassadors, hostage in a siege that lasts 61 days. The crisis ends when the 16 surviving members of the M-19 assault team and a dozen of their diplomatic hostages are allowed to fly to Cuba with a reported $2.5 million in ransom. All hostages are subsequently freed.
  • Feb. 28, 1985 — Newry, Northern Ireland: Nine members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are killed in a mortar attack on a police station carried out by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Another 30 RUC officers were wounded by the home-made weapon.

This week in terrorism history: Feb. 17-23

Dueling Republican grafitti, Lurgan, Northern Ireland, 2009 (Credit: Peter Moloney)

Last week, voters in a member country of the European Union handed an electoral victory to a political party that is, according to police and state security services, under the “oversight” of an armed wing.

I am referring, of course, to Sinn Fein’s success in winning the popular vote in last week’s general elections in the Republic of Ireland and the party’s continuing connections with the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

While the Provos have been on ceasefire for more than two decades, declaring a formal end to their armed campaign in 2005, they never formally disbanded. Or, as Bobby Storey, former IRA chief of intelligence reminded a crowd in 2014, “We haven’t gone away, you know.”

In October 2015, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and MI5, the British state security service, were compelled to publicly acknowledge that while the Provisional IRA had dismantled its “combat” capabilities in 2005 and ended recruiting and weapons procurement, it had been allowed to retain its senior leadership structures, including the Army Council and regional commands, intelligence gathering, and internal security departments. It also retained access to weapons.

In fact, as I wrote here and again here on the blog back in 2015, the continued existence of the Provisional IRA has been integral to the success of the Northern Ireland peace process. I go into considerable detail on this in “The Movement Moves Against You,” an article I published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. It first appeared online in 2016 and then in print in 2018. I explained it this way on the blog in 2017:

While command, intelligence, and internal security structures were allowed to remain mostly intact after 2005, as British security services were compelled to acknowledge in 2015, what armed capability the PIRA retained in the years since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has been largely used to cow – and occasionally quiet – opposition to the political direction taken by Adams and the leadership of Provisional Republican Movement.

That 2015 PSNI/MI5 assessment also said something especially relevant today about the intimate connection between the PIRA and Sinn Fein:

PIRA members believe that the PAC (Provisional Army Council) oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy. We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus.

To be completely clear. According to British and Northern Irish security services, Sinn Fein, the political party, is overseen by the senior leadership of a terrorist group, the Provisional IRA. That leadership retains control over what remains of its armed capability.

And lest you think this is all in the past … Three days ago, the new Chief Constable of the PSNI dodged lawmakers’ questions about the status of the PIRA, instead directing those questions to his political masters in the Northern Ireland Office. But in November, PSNI spokesmen had this to say to the Belfast News Letter:

Four months ago the PSNI told this paper there had been “no change” since the 2015 government assessment; Prompted by the murder of Kevin McGuigan, the 2015 report said that the PIRA Army Council was still overseeing both Sinn Fein and the remaining structures of the terror organisation with an “over arching strategy”.

“With regards to PIRA, there has been no change since the Paramilitary Assessment in 2015,” the PSNI told the News Letter in November.

The government report, published in 2015 and based in part on PSNI assessments, concluded that the second largest political party in both Northern Ireland and – now the Republic of Ireland also – continues to be overseen by the deadliest terror group of the Troubles, which although much reduced in scale and “committed to the peace process”, still has “specific” departments and “regional command structures”, gathers intelligence, retains weapons and has been involved in “isolated incidents of violence, including murders”.

Now on to this week’s look back at terrorism history.

  • Feb, 17, 2004 — Belfast, Northern Ireland: Three members of the Ulster Defense Association are shot by British soldiers. One is killed immediately, another dying several days later.
  • Feb. 18, 2002 — Israel: An Israeli police officer is killed in a suicide bombing. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claims responsibility.
  • Feb. 20, 1998 — Japan: Japanese Red Army member Tsutomu Shirosaki is sentenced to 30 years in prison for an attack on the U.S. embassy in Indonesia.
  • Feb. 21, 1999 — Northern Ireland and Ireland: Seven people are arrested in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in connection with the August 1998 Omagh bombing. That car bomb attack, attributed to the Real Irish Republican Army, which had broken away from the Provisional IRA a year earlier, killed 29 people and wounded more than 200.
  • Feb. 21, 2004 — Northern Uganda: The Lord’s Resistance Army carries out an attack on a refugee camp. More than 230 are killed and another 40 wounded.
  • Feb. 23, 1998 — Worldwide: Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda issue a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for the killing of Americans wherever they are found.

About that Iranian general

(Credit: Getty Images)

Remember that Iranian general the United States assassinated back in January? The one whose killing the Trump administration justified as necessary to stop imminent attacks on American targets?

Just kidding on that imminence thing.

In the legally required notice outlining the legal and policy rationale behind the killing of Qassem Soleimani delivered to Congress today, the Trump administration dropped all assertions that the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force was assassinated to prevent an imminent attack.

While the notice argues that under Article II of the Constitution the president has the power as commander-in-chief to authorize military in the face of an imminent threat of attack against the United States, the notice carefully avoids making any such claim of imminence in its statement of the facts surrounding the Jan. 2 operation:

The President directed this action in response to an escalating series of attacks in preceding months by Iran and Iran-backed militias on United States forces and interests in the Middle East region. The purposes of this action were to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran’s and Qods Force-backed militias’ ability to conduct attacks and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks on, and threats to United States interests.

No mention of an impending attack there. Nor in this later passage:

Iran’s past and recent activities, coupled with intelligence at the time of the air strike, indicated that Iran’s Qods Force posed a threat to the United States in Iraq, and the air strike against Soleimani was intended to protect United States personnel and deter future Iranian attack plans against United States forces and interests in Iraq and threats emanating from Iraq.

So, to summarize, why did the United States kill Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 2, bringing us to the brink of war with Iran?

  • In response to prior attacks
  • In response to an escalating series of attacks
  • To deter Iran from making future attacks
  • To deter future Iranian attack plans
  • To degrade the capabilities of Iran and its Iraqi militia proxies

None of this amounts to the kind of immediate threat that the Trump administration claimed required it to assassinate the highest-ranking military leader of a rival government. Instead, it sounds like a deliberate, premeditated, act of war. Looks like I was right when I wrote this a month ago:

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

Just Security has posted a lengthy and detailed analysis of the Trump administration’s notice to Congress. You can read it here.

That the Trump administration lied about its justification for killing Soleimani is probably the least surprising fact in the whole sordid affair. The most surprising is that they complied with the law and reported to Congress at all.

I’ve been a little … disengaged

And by that I mean disengaged from the seemingly never-ending election campaign. This is entirely by design.

I studiously avoided paying attention to the Iowa caucuses, which is good given what a fiasco that turned out to be. And I only know what happened yesterday in the New Hampshire primary because I happened to be in the car with the radio on last evening when results were being announced.

I haven’t watched a single Democratic debate. I haven’t written a single blog post on this election cycle, the field of Democratic candidates, or how they stack up against each other. And frankly I feel absolutely fine with that.

I hope not to pay attention to the upcoming contests in Nevada and South Carolina. I may tune in come Super Tuesday in March, and then, a week later, I fully intend to vote in the Michigan primary. I know enough about the field to have preferences. But I don’t know that I’ll write about any of it.

(Credit: Bramhall)

By contrast, I was deeply invested in the 2016 process. Looking back over this blog, I first posted about that circus in August 2015, and even then, as this cartoon suggests, the freak show dimensions of the race were already well in place. And, as we saw, it would only get worse from there. My attention was focused almost exclusively on the Republicans, where more than a dozen hopefuls organized themselves into a circular firing squad and killed each other off while a grifting real estate developer and con artist steadily outraged his way to his party’s nomination and eventually the White House. I paid almost no attention to the Democratic primary contest.

I wrote exactly one piece on the outcome of a Democratic primary, after Bernie Sanders wiped the floor with Hillary Clinton in West Virginia. I made a passing reference to the Clinton-Sanders contest in a much earlier piece. And I wrote one more on Sanders’ views on free trade. That was it. Otherwise it was all Republicans all the time, as my horror over the impending catastrophe of the Trump candidacy grew and the implications of his possible election coalesced.

This time around I have no desire to wade into an evaluation of the various Democrats still in the race. Here’s why.

It. Just. Doesn’t. Matter.

Because come November, as far as I am concerned, A.D.W.D. Any Democrat Will Do.