Yeah, I think they are at risk

(Credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Back in October, in response to questions from local journalists, I argued that the risks of reporters and other media figures being intentionally targeted by violent political actors (OK, OK, domestic terrorists) was relatively low.

My thinking has changed in the wake of the escalation of political violence that we saw on Jan. 6 and the continuing dangers of more and greater violence in the coming days and weeks.

A week ago we watched pro-Trump mobs storming the U.S. Capitol pause to assault members of the media, delivering the violence against journalists the president has been inciting literally for years.

To cut to the chase, after last Wednesday I don’t think media organizations can automatically assume that their reporters, photographers, and camera crews will be safe at any pro-Trump demonstration in the future, especially if his supporters show up armed. Members of the media should maintain maximum situational awareness and have a plan for how to get out of harm’s way if they need to.

In short, I think media organizations covering a pro-Trump demonstration need to treat it the same way they’d treat sending their staff into a war zone. The risks are that real.

When I thought about this four months ago, my feeling was that the main danger to journalists covering protests and counter-protests during the summer came largely, and unfortunately, from the police, who we saw intentionally targeting journalists with rubber bullets and chemical irritants both here in Detroit and across the United States. I also knew, and the data backs it up, that the most likely perpetrators of domestic terrorism in the United States were unlikely to intentionally target journalists.

These most-likely perpetrators — white supremacists and white nationalists, neo-Nazi groups, violent anti-abortion activists and groups, armed anti-government militias — have had different targets in their sights. In short, journalists have historically fallen outside their “legitimate target” set. But now that a number of these groups have rallied behind Trump, and that the president has explicitly and repeatedly described journalists as “enemies of the people,” I don’t think we can assume that will remain the case. 

I am not saying this because I have knowledge of any specific plot or threats against journalists. I say this because it would fit the pattern that we see in terrorism generally.

There is a connection between what terrorist groups and violent political actors — so-called lone wolf terrorists — believe and who and what they target for violence.* Their worldview or ideology shapes their identification of legitimate targets. In embracing Trump, his enemies become their enemies.

So that’s Democrats, Republicans who are insufficiently loyal to Trump, public officials who refused to back his attempt to steal the election. And journalists. There is precedent for this. In 2018 Cesar Sayoc, a pro-Trump extremist, mailed letter bombs to more than a dozen politicians, media companies, and prominent Trump critics. 

I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I do think it is important for media organizations to be aware of this changing landscape and to be as fully prepared as possible to keep their people safe.

*It occurs to me that I need to write a post that describes this dynamic. But not this evening.

A warning of ‘war’ unheeded

(Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

The day before the deadly attack on the US Capitol carried out by pro-Trump extremists, the Norfolk, VA field office of the FBI sent this dire warning to the bureau’s Washington, D.C. field office:

As of 5 January 2021, FBI Norfolk received information indicating calls for violence in response to ‘unlawful lockdowns’ to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington. D.C. … An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.

That warning, briefed at the time to officials in the D.C. office and revealed earlier today by The Washington Post, was apparently ignored. Security at the Capitol was woefully inadequate and Capitol Police seemingly unprepared when the building was assaulted by a pro-Trump mob that numbered in the thousands. People died, including a Capitol Police officer, beaten to death by enraged, fanatical followers of Donald Trump.

And there may be worse yet to come. The FBI is warning that armed groups are planning a series of actions at state capitals around the country and again in Washington. D.C. beginning this weekend and continuing through Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. And late Monday, the new leadership of the Capitol Police briefed House Democrats on three violent right-wing plots planned in coming days against the government of the United States. One of those plots describes an armed attack to encircle the Capitol, Supreme Court, and White House. According to lawmakers:

… Capitol Police and the National Guard were preparing for potentially tens of thousands of armed protesters coming to Washington and were establishing rules of engagement for warfare. In general, the military and police don’t plan to shoot anyone until one of the rioters fires, but there could be exceptions.

Lawmakers were told that the plot to encircle the Capitol also included plans to surround the White House ― so that no one could harm Trump ― and the Supreme Court, simply to shut down the courts. The plan to surround the Capitol includes assassinating Democrats as well as Republicans who didn’t support Trump’s effort to overturn the election ― and allowing other Republicans to enter the building and control government.

Before going any further, let’s be absolutely clear about what’s being described here. These are not “armed protests,” the way these plans are being characterized by most of the media and, unfortunately, law enforcement agencies. These are terrorist plots.

Let’s remind ourselves of the definition. As I’ve written before:

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

By this criterion, the simplest and broadest definition that I teach my students and use in my own writing and research, the plans being made for armed actions by pro-Trump extremists in the next several days fit the label. And it fits what happened at the US Capitol last week as well.

My initial take on the attack on the Capitol didn’t go that far. In the moment I interpreted the events as a mob gone out of control, but not pre-planned and pre-meditated. The actions of many of those who breached the Capitol seemed to reinforce that impression, yahoos and clowns aimlessly wandering, taking selfies, and engaging in petty acts of juvenile vandalism.

But within that ludicrous mob were small teams of paramilitary extremists, kitted out in tactical gear, moving with purpose, carrying zip-tie handcuffs and apparently maps of the labyrinthine corridors and tunnels of the Capitol complex.

It is not a stretch to imagine that they had more in mind than spreading their feces in the halls of Congress.

It is not a stretch to imagine that we may have dodged a live-streamed massacre of lawmakers by mere moments.

Last October, my friend and fellow academic Vasabjit Banerjee wrote a piece at Just Security in which he suggested that based on the what we know about rebellion and insurgencies around the world, the dangers of armed insurgency in the United States are more real that most suspect. At the time I disagreed.

I’m starting to think that I was too quick to reach that conclusion. Just as I was too quick to deny the reality that Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was an act of domestic terrorism.

The warnings that preceded Jan. 6, like the warnings that preceded the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were unheeded. Will we make the same mistake over the next 10 days?

Wolverine Watchmen: Militia or terrorists?

Ten of 13 suspects accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. (Credit: Detroit Free Press)

Let’s cut to the chase. The group of 13 men arrested last week on federal and state charges of plotting the kidnapping and likely murder of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, are members of or affiliated with, armed militias. Like the ones I’ve written about frequently in this space.

What they were planning were acts of terrorism.

So what do we call them, militia members or terrorists? The initial reporting accurately characterized them as militia members. The internet was quick to pounce:

Gov. Whitmer added her own voice to the debate.

News outlets were soon to follow.

But there’s a problem with this simplistic trading of one term for another. The two — militia and terrorist — are not mutually exclusive. When both terms apply we have to use both terms. JJ McNabb, of Georgetown University’s Program on Extremism explains why:

Oh good grief. “Militia” is just a useful indicator of what flavor the terrorist group is.

The militia movement in the United States is a particular slice of the antigovernment far right, a wide-ranging category of groups both armed and unarmed. In emulation of legitimate military forces, militias, even small ones, tend to be organized hierarchically, with command roles and task specialization. They equip themselves with easily acquired military-style weapons and tactical equipment. They recruit. They train in marksmanship, small-unit combat tactics, reconnaissance, operational security, field medicine, and so on.

According to militia expert Amy Cooter, of Vanderbilt University, militia groups tend to fall into two broad categories:

Traditionally, researchers have categorized militias as one of two general types: “constitutionalists,” who are largely law-abiding and make up the majority of the movement, and “millenarians,” who are more prone to conspiracy theories and violent action. 

More recently, internal divisions have occurred in both these groups around whether they support police, or whether they call for a widespread uprising against government tyranny.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies nine such armed antigovernment militias active in Michigan as of last year, and fully 181 nationwide. The group plotting the attack on Whitmer, calling themselves Wolverine Watchmen, doesn’t appear on the SPLC’s list, however, according to media reports, the alleged ringleader of the plot, Adam Fox, had been expelled from another, more established militia, the Michigan Home Guard. Apparently they found him too extreme for their own tastes.

The Wolverine Watchmen, Cooter suggests, are likely to be a recent splinter from a larger and more well-established group, the Michigan Liberty Militia, which took a prominent role in the armed anti-lockdown protests at the Michigan State Capitol in the spring and early summer.

So what flavor of terrorists are these guys? Their affiliation with the militia movement tells us that they are likely motivated by belief in a variety of antigovernment conspiracy theories and fears of state oppression, especially around gun and property rights. They see themselves as a bulwark protecting their fellow citizens from the heavy hand of state repression or tyranny. Some organize with the expectation that they will have to confront impending government violence. Others believe they are preparing for a looming revolution and renewed civil war.

If you accept the evidence presented by the FBI and Michigan State Police, the Whitmer plotters were the later kind of militia, with a twist. They appear to believe that they could, by going on the offensive, bring about the war they’ve long expected. And here is where they cross the line into terrorism.

According to the FBI affidavit supporting charges against Fox and five others, in a phone conversation recorded in July by a confidential informant, Fox, according to the FBI, discussed the need for government to collapse because in his eyes it has become so tyrannical:

In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back, we’re just gonna have to everything’s gonna have to be annihilated man. We’re gonna topple it all dude.

A month later, while members of the group were engaging in a reconnaissance operation to scout out the location of the planned kidnapping, an informant captured another conversation on audio. Here Fox makes the promise of violence against not just Whitmer, but other agents of the state, like police, explicit:

We ain’t gonna let ’em burn our fuckin’ state down. I don’t give a fuck if there’s only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we’ll go out there and use deadly force.

And Fox, in talking to his comrades, clearly hopes that their efforts will inspire other militia groups around the country to follow their lead:

I can see several states takin’ their fuckin’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants.

The group had also come to the realization that further participation in nonviolent politics would be both pointless, and could also endanger their planned attack. In an encrypted group chat, Fox asks the group what they thought of an invitation from another militia group to participate in an armed protest at the State Capitol in Lansing.

[Ty] GARBIN replied, “I would highly advise minimizing any communication with him. Also there needs to be zero and I mean zero public interaction if we want to continue with our plans.” [Brandon] CASERTA replied, “When the time comes there will be no need to try and strike fear through presence. The fear will be manifested with bullets.”

So where are we? The 13 men arrested and charged last week are part of the antigovernment militia movement who, according to the FBI and the Michigan State Police, plotted a series of terrorist attacks against elected officials and law enforcement officers intended to trigger an armed rebellion against the United States. In this they are a throwback to an earlier Michigan militia group, the Hutaree, who in 2010 plotted to kill police officers in order to touch off a larger war with and uprising against the US government.

I’ve written at some length before about the definition of terrorism. To summarize, terrorism is the deliberate, politically, socially, or religiously motivated use or threat of violence, usually intended to influence an audience beyond the immediate target through the creation and exploitation of fear.

Like the Hutaree before them, the Wolverine Watchmen tick all the boxes. Their plans were deliberate and premeditated. They were motivated by a political objective. They intended to carry out acts of violence in pursuit of their goals. They hoped to inspire others to carry out further attacks. They hoped to strike fear.

That makes them terrorists. And militia. Both labels are accurate, and used together paint a more accurate picture of who they are and what they hoped to accomplish then using either label alone.

Remote learning: The final lessons

(Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

It’s been five weeks since this impromptu exercise in online teaching about terrorism began, and now we’ve come to the end. So what I’ve asked my students to think about for this final week of class are two simple questions:

  • Why hasn’t there been another 9/11-scale terrorist attack in the United States in the nearly 20 years since?
  • What are the real risks that terrorism poses to the United States, and how should we address them?

One of the ways I get at that first question is by having my students read a piece by journalist Timothy Noah, published back in 2009, in which he lays out a series of possible explanations for why another 9/11 had not yet occurred. Despite being a decade old now, many of the theories he lays out have held up well, others not so much.

As I discuss in this first video below, Noah’s explanations range from the comforting to the decidedly worrisome. On the comforting side, Noah essentially argues that 9/11 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. Rather than succeeding out of strategic brilliance and flawless tactical execution, the 9/11 attacks worked because of dumb luck. At every one of the many points where the plot could have been discovered or something could have gone wrong, the breaks went in favor of the terrorists. The likelihood of that happening again, he argues, is pretty darn low. On the worrisome side of the equation is the simple argument that another large-scale attack is ultimately inevitable, and it is simply of matter of time until it happens.

Should another large-scale terrorist attack happen in the US, many analysts believe that it will likely involve the use of weapons of mass destruction, or CBRN (chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear) terrorism. Journalist Steven Brill makes this point in assessing US terrorism security policy post-9/11. In the video below I summarize the case made by leading terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman on CBRN. He touches on three main points: Why we haven’t seen CBRN terrorism yet; why it might now be plausible; and why we shouldn’t dismiss the threat.

In the final video, I introduce a contrarian argument, courtesy of Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, who argues that the risks of terrorism for the United States have been wildly overblown (see a short review of his book by that name here), that our overreaction to the risks is more damaging and dangerous than the threat of terrorism itself, and that rational policy making must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of what terrorists actually can do rather than our “worst case fantasies” about what they might want to do.