This week in terrorism history: April 6-12

Ahmed Jibril, left, formed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command on April 11, 1968. (Credit: Jerusalem Post)

When this whole coronavirus thing stated to blow up, I led off my this-week-in-terrorism post with a quick look at how some terrorist groups were responding to the pandemic. Here we are, only two weeks later, and it’s time for an update.

Noted terrorism scholar Mia Bloom has an insightful essay at the website Just Security where she shows how the wide spectrum of violent extremist groups, from the American far right to jihadists like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban are either seeking to take advantage of the pandemic or working it into their existing worldview:

Into this public health crisis step extremist groups, which may even take credit for events for which they are not responsible. Their instinct to capitalize on people’s misery and suffering is consistent across the ideological spectrum, from right-wing extremists to violent jihadists. That instinct is on full display right now, as the world reels from COVID-19’s rapid spread and the accompanying disinformation. White supremacist groups are touting crackpot accelerationist, siege, and Great Replacement theories during the COVID-19 pandemic to motivate individuals to take action against the New World Order, Agenda 21, George Soros, the Chinese government, and others they perceive as seeking to eliminate the white race.

Amidst a global pandemic, the country’s leading ISIS propaganda analyst, Laith al-Khouri, says the jihadists’ main objective is to sow the seeds of mistrust of government—including by spreading disinformation and malign information —while simultaneously using unfolding events to substantiate their view of the world and validate their predictions. Jihadists will showcase governments as having lied to the public about infection numbers. In further undermining the credibility of governments, who are knowingly suppressing information about the virus (such as Iran, Egypt, and Turkey), jihadists can use this opportunity to recruit new followers who perceive the terrorist groups as more capable or more honest than their own governments.

The virus has been a source of renewed inspiration for terrorist groups who see it as a sign from God and repudiation of secular States that have mismanaged the crisis. Al-Qaeda released a statement on March 31, in which they accused Western governments of ignoring their citizens’ health “instead of ensuring the provision of health facilities and medical supplies they [remain] obsessed with the tools of war and human eradication.” Several jihadist groups, such as the Taliban, declared that coronavirus “is a disease ordained by the Almighty Allah which has perhaps been sent by Allah because of the disobedience and sins of mankind or other reasons.”

The whole article is well worth your time. Meanwhile, The Guardian yesterday had a story about how one particular slice of the American neo-Nazi far right, so-called “accelerationists,” is hoping to exploit the coronavirus crisis to speed the collapse of society:

The watchdog group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) raised the alarm last week about opportunism from far-right so-called “accelerationist” groups who believe sowing chaos and violence will hasten the collapse of society, allowing them to build a white supremacist one in its place.

Late last month, the FBI warned such extremist groups were encouraging members to deliberately spread the virus to Jewish people and police officers. Similarly, British hate monitors Hope Not Hate warned these groups are expressing “gleeful expectation of social turmoil”.

With few public-facing social media services allowing white supremacists to have a reliable platform for their views, the propaganda effort to use the coronavirus crisis as a recruiting tool is mainly visible on laissez-faire social media platforms like Telegram.

There neo-Nazi groups have been affirming and welcoming the pandemic as a threat to liberal democracy and seeing it as an opportunity to grow their movement and realize their goals with acts of violence.

The deeper this crisis goes, the more I expect we’ll see further signs that such groups will seek to leverage the pandemic to advance their political, social, or religious agendas. Now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism history.

  • April 6, 2001 — Los Angeles: Algerian citizen Ahmed Ressam is convicted of a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Years Eve 1999. Ressam, an al-Qadea operative who had received instruction at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was arrested on Dec. 14, 1999 as he attempted to enter the United States from British Columbia driving a rented car in which he had hidden explosives and bomb components.
  • April 10, 2003 — Noonday, Texas: The FBI raids the home of William Krar and storage facilities that Krar rented in the area, discovering an arsenal that includes more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 65 pipe bombs and remote-control briefcase bombs, and almost two pounds of deadly sodium cyanide. Also found are components to convert the cyanide into a bomb capable of killing thousands, along with white supremacist and antigovernment material. 
  • April 10, 2015 — Signal Mountain, TN: Robert Doggart, 63, is arrested in connection with a plot to kill residents and destroy the school and mosque of Islamberg, a predominantly African-American Muslim hamlet in Hancock, N.Y. Doggart, who claims to be an ordained Christian minister in the Christian National Church, was also a 2014 congressional candidate who ran and lost as an independent in east Tennessee.
  • April 11, 1968 — Syria: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, is formed. The PFLP-GC was created after a faction led by Ahmed Jibril split from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claiming the parent organization was insufficiently militant and was drifting too far in the direction of revolutionary Marxism.

Philadelphia ‘reopened’ in 1918, and thousands died

Philadelphians dig a mass grave for victims of the Spanish flu. (Credit: Philly Voice)
Philadelphians dig a mass grave for victims of the Spanish flu. (Credit: Philly Voice)

President Trump wants to “reopen” America is just less than three weeks. Here’s what he told a Fox News town hall on Tuesday:

“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Trump said Tuesday during a Fox News town hall at the White House, later describing his April 12 target date as a “beautiful timeline.”

So what happens when you “reopen” for business as usual in the midst of a deadly pandemic? Residents of Philadelphia found out the hard way in the summer of 1918 when the politically appointed city director of public health overruled medical experts and gave the green light to a massive “Liberty Loans” parade intended to help boost morale and raise funds for the American war effort on the Western Front. An article at The Smithsonian sets the scene:

When the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive parade stepped off on September 28, some 200,000 people jammed Broad Street, cheering wildly as the line of marchers stretched for two miles. Floats showcased the latest addition to America’s arsenal – floating biplanes built in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. Brassy tunes filled the air along a route where spectators were crushed together like sardines in a can. Each time the music stopped, bond salesmen singled out war widows in the crowd, a move designed to evoke sympathy and ensure that Philadelphia met its Liberty Loan quota.

Then it describes what happened next:

Lurking among the multitudes was an invisible peril known as influenza—and it loves crowds. Philadelphians were exposed en masse to a lethal contagion widely called “Spanish Flu,” a misnomer created earlier in 1918 when the first published reports of a mysterious epidemic emerged from a wire service in Madrid.

For Philadelphia, the fallout was swift and deadly. …

Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. 

The death toll would eventually top 12,000 Philadelphians. The city would need help to literally clear bodies from the streets. Wilmer Krusen, the city’s appointed director of public health, had, despite knowledge to the contrary, denied that influenza was a serious threat to the city. But as The Smithsonian’s article points out, Krusen’s decision to let the parade go ahead was driven by fear. Just not fear of the virus.

Krusen’s decision to let the parade go on was based on two fears. He believed that a quarantine might cause a general panic. In fact, when city officials did close down public gatherings, the skeptical Philadelphia Inquirer chided the decision“Talk of cheerful things instead of disease,” urged the Inquirer on October 5. “The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?”

And, like many local officials, Krusen was under extreme pressure to meet bond quotas, which were considered a gauge of patriotism. Caught between the demands of federal officials and the public welfare, he picked wrong.

A century later, President Trump, and a growing chorus of his toadies, want to repeat the disaster of Philadelphia in 1918, but on a potentially nationwide scale. That could result in as many as 126 million infections and more than 1.3 million deaths.

Our best hope under those circumstances is for clear-headed governors and mayors to hold the line and defy any call from the White House to reopen the country.

A welcome shot of science

(Credit: CDC)

I have a doctorate, but I’m not a “doctor” in the way most of us think of the term. Nor am I a virologist or some other kind of medical researcher. For those reasons, I’m especially grateful when I come across articles that explain some of the science of what we’re all currently dealing with.

An article appearing at The Atlantic’s website today, by science writer Ed Yong, helps explain one of the most vexing questions about this novel coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2: Why, compared even to other coronaviruses, is it spreading so quickly?

The structure of the virus provides some clues about its success. In shape, it’s essentially a spiky ball. Those spikes recognize and stick to a protein called ACE2, which is found on the surface of our cells: This is the first step to an infection. The exact contours of SARS-CoV-2’s spikes allow it to stick far more strongly to ACE2 than SARS-classic did, and “it’s likely that this is really crucial for person-to-person transmission,” says Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University. In general terms, the tighter the bond, the less virus required to start an infection.

There’s another important feature. Coronavirus spikes consist of two connected halves, and the spike activates when those halves are separated; only then can the virus enter a host cell. In SARS-classic, this separation happens with some difficulty. But in SARS-CoV-2, the bridge that connects the two halves can be easily cut by an enzyme called furin, which is made by human cells and—crucially—is found across many tissues. “This is probably important for some of the really unusual things we see in this virus,” says Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research Translational Institute.

For example, most respiratory viruses tend to infect either the upper or lower airways. In general, an upper-respiratory infection spreads more easily, but tends to be milder, while a lower-respiratory infection is harder to transmit, but is more severe. SARS-CoV-2 seems to infect both upper and lower airways, perhaps because it can exploit the ubiquitous furin. This double whammy could also conceivably explain why the virus can spread between people before symptoms show up—a trait that has made it so difficult to control. Perhaps it transmits while still confined to the upper airways, before making its way deeper and causing severe symptoms. All of this is plausible but totally hypothetical; the virus was only discovered in January, and most of its biology is still a mystery.

I encourage you to read the whole thing. It is outstanding. Here’s the link to the article again.

And bonus science here: You can track the number of cases in your state in close to real time. With confidence ratings based on the transparency of your state’s response to the crisis.