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.

This week in terrorism history: March 30-April 5

Social media messaging from Revolution Chemnitz, a German far-right terror group.

Last week eight men were found guilty in a German court of plotting to launch a “civil-war-like” revolt in Berlin. They were accused and convicted of membership in a rightwing terrorist organization called Revolution Chemnitz.

The group formed in Chemnitz September 2018, in the aftermath of anti-immigrant protests that engulfed the eastern German city.

According to prosecutors, Christian K. (the group’s ringleader) invited the other seven members to an online chat where he then posted a document outlining what he wanted the group to achieve.

None of the members objected to the plans, which essentially outlined a call for violent action against “leftists, parasites, Merkel zombies, media dictators and their slaves.”

The group allegedly planned  to orchestrate a civil-war-like rebellion in Berlin on October 2, 2018. Prosecutors based their charges partly on the use of chat logs found on the defendants’ mobile phones.

The members of the group were caught by police during a so-called “practice-run” in mid-September.

With that reminder that the United States is far from alone in dealing with far right-wing and neo-Nazi organizations, on to this week’s look back.

  • March 30, 2002 — Tel Aviv, Israel: One person is killed and another 30 are injured in a suicide bombing. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claims responsibility for the attack.
  • March 31, 2000 — Northern Ireland: A Catholic businessman discovers a pipe-bomb attached to his car. Meanwhile, a second pipe-bomb is discovered at the rear of a garden in Gray’s Lane off the Antrim Road in north Belfast. Both attacks were claimed by the Red Hand Defenders (RHD) a Loyalist paramilitary group.
  • April 1, 1970 — El Salvador: Farabundo Martí Liberation People’s Forces is founded. The group grew out of a proposal by the Salvadoran Communist Party that armed force was required to overthrow the country’s military dictatorship.
  • April 2, 1986 — Greece: A bomb explodes aboard TWA Flight 840 about 20 minutes before it was due to land in Athens. The bomb blows a hole in the starboard side of the aircraft. Four passengers are killed when they are sucked out of the hole, and another seven are injured by shrapnel and flying debris. The bomb was believed to have been planted under a seat during an earlier flight. The plane was able to make a successful emergency landing. An operative working for the Abu Nidal Organization was later arrested but no one was convicted in the attack.

Remote learning: Counterterrorism is hard!

The French Army arrives in this scene from the classic film study of terrorism and counterterrorism, The Battle of Algiers.

Here we are, another week of stay-at-home orders and thus another week of teaching my seminar on terrorism without being able to be in the classroom with my students.

As I told you last week, my solution to this has been to record short (well, I’m trying to keep them short) mini lectures on the readings that I’ve assigned to my students. And I’m sharing some of those here with you.

Next week we’re starting to consider the options available to governments facing the challenge of combatting terrorism, and if there’s a bottom line message that I’m trying to get across it’s this: Counterterrorism is really hard.

There’s actually two key points that we’re dealing with when we talk about the challenges that counterterrorism represents. The first has to do specifically with the problems democracies confront when dealing with terrorism. How far can a democratic society go in cracking down on terrorism before it jeopardizes the very democratic values and principles it is fighting to protect? The second point is simple: Governments may have far less ability to “defeat” terrorism than we choose to believe.

I raise both of these issues in the video below, where I talk about the work of pioneering terrorism scholar Martha Crenshaw on the topic of how terrorism declines.

In the second video, below, I preview for my students what may in fact be the greatest study of terrorism and counterterrorism ever committed to film, and that is Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant The Battle of Algiers. I urged my students to take the time to watch it next week and to think about the lessons it has for democratic societies combatting terrorism. You should watch it too.

Finally, here is The Battle of Algiers.

This week in terrorism history: March 23-29

ISIS is taking a safety-first approach to coronavirus. (Credit: Getty Images)

In case you’ve been wondering how terrorists are coping with the global coronavirus pandemic, you’ve come to the right place. Here are two articles highlighting two very different approaches.

More than a week ago, while certain pundits and politicians in the US were downplaying the threat, ISIS was providing very different guidance to their members. As reported in Politico:

Islamic State (ISIS) has adopted a safety-first approach to the coronavirus pandemic and advised its members not to travel to Europe, Homeland Security Today reported.

In the latest edition of the terrorist group’s al-Naba newsletter, the editors who normally urge followers to carry out attacks on the West instead ask them to “stay away from the land of the epidemic” for the time being,

In a full-page infographic on the back cover, a list of pro-tips instructs militants on how to stop the pandemic’s spread. ISIS members are advised to “put trust in God and seek refuge in Him from illnesses,” but to also “cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing,” and to wash their hands frequently.

Those who believe they might have contracted coronavirus are told to stay away from areas under ISIS control in order to preserve the health of others and fulfil the holy “obligation of taking up the causes of protection from illnesses and avoiding them.”

Meanwhile, closer to home, the FBI is warning that white supremacist groups are encouraging their members to do all they can to spread the virus to police and Jews:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York office recently sent out an alert to local authorities warning of extremist groups it said are encouraging their members to spread the novel coronavirus to police and Jewish people, ABC News reported.

According to the news agency, the alert, which was reportedly issued on Thursday, said that “members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions.”

The alert reportedly warned that the racist groups were urging their members to go to places where Jewish people “may be congregated, to include markets, political offices, businesses and places of worship.”

The alert also reportedly said some white supremacists and neo-Nazis were also urging members who contract the virus to spread the disease to cops by using spray bottles.

And now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism.

  • March 23, 1998 — Algeria: Seven members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) are sentenced to death in connection with the 1996 assassination of Pierre Claverie, Roman Catholic Bishop of Oran.
  • March 25, 2010 — Sumter County, Florida: A self-proclaimed “sovereign citizen” opens fire on Florida state police troopers during a routine traffic stop. He is arrested two weeks later in Connecticut. Sovereign citizens typically believe that police have no right to regulate road travel.
  • March 26, 1997 — Cheshire, England: The Irish Republican Army detonates two bombs at Wilmslow Railway Station in northwest England, causing widespread disruption to the rail network.
  • March 27, 2014 — Katy, Texas: A 38-year-old man is arrested by FBI agents who say he was about to rob an armored car. He is alleged to have been plotting to use C-4 explosives and weapons to rob banks and armored cars, blow up government buildings and mosques, and kill police officers. Prosecutors say he was behind a Facebook page called “American Insurgent Movement,” on which he posted antigovernment screeds, called for violence against public officials, and ranted about Muslims and LGBT people.
  • March 29, 2010 — Moscow: Female suicide bombers carry out attacks on two metro stations in Moscow, killing 40 and wounding more than 60. Two days later, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov claims responsibility for the attacks.