What counts as terrorism?

Wade Michael Page, American terrorist.
Wade Michael Page, American terrorist.


For most Americans, near as I can tell, it’s not what the guy pictured above did. He’s Wade Michael Page, and four years ago he gunned down six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before before being killed by a local police officer.

Page, a veteran of the US Army, had spent decades swimming in the deep end of the cesspool that is the white supremacist universe. He was a member of two white power skinhead bands, End Apathy and Definite Hate. In 2010 End Apathy played at a racist music festival in Baltimore called Independent Artist Uprise.

Page literally wore his sympathies on his sleeve in the form of a tattoo, “14 Words,” a reference to a slogan coined by David Lane, a member of a notorious violent white supremacist group called The Order. Lane died in prison in 2007.

These are the 14 Words:

We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.

Page’s deadly attack on the Sikh temple on Aug. 5, 2012, was one of three acts of domestic terrorism between mid-July and early August of that year. And yet, when polled by Gallup only a week later, fewer than 0.05 percent of respondents reported that they considered terrorism the most important problem facing the nation.

mip-terrI know this because I am currently working on a research project with a student of mine trying to understand what drives American public opinion on the significance of terrorism as a public policy problem. Click on the graph to take a very preliminary look at the data.

Our operating assumption is that opinion reacts to terrorist incidents, both attacks inside the United States and attacks abroad targeting American citizens or American facilities. And yet as we look at the data, the patterns of correlation, let alone causation, are far from clear cut. In short, the American public reacts to some incidents but not others.

Here’s another example. In June 2015 Dylann Roof, another white supremacist, shot to death nine black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. In the Gallup poll a few weeks later, the percentage of Americans reporting that they considered terrorism the most important problem facing the country fell by two points to 3 percent from the prior month, one in which there were no incidents of domestic terrorism, only a single international attack in which no Americans were either killed or injured.

Jump forward six months, though, to early December and San Bernardino, Calif. Here a husband and wife team, after she declared allegiance to ISIS, killed 14 people and wounded 21 at a holiday party at the government offices where he worked as a county health inspector.

In the Gallup poll conducted several days later, a full 16 percent of the American public declared terrorism the most important problem facing the country, up from only 3 percent the prior month. Likewise, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, another case in which the perpetrators were motivated by jihadist sympathies, the percentage of Americans declaring terrorism the most important problem more than doubled.

While we haven’t yet done any of the fancy math to try to figure out the actual causal relationships between terrorism incidents and the salience of terrorism for the American public, the anecdotal evidence implies that much of what scholars classify as terrorism — events like Oak Park and Charleston — doesn’t fit the public’s post-9/11 conception of what terrorism is.

San Bernardino and Boston — where “they” commit acts of horrific violence against “us” — are terrorism. Oak Park and Charleston — where we commit acts of horrific violence against each other — are something else entirely.

And yet they’re not. This reality was driven home yet again by a report Friday night out of Kansas. The FBI disrupted a plot by a militia group called the Crusaders to detonate a series of simultaneous car bombs at an apartment complex and mosque where Somali immigrants live and worship:

[T]he men were stockpiling weapons and were going to publish a manifesto after the bombing, which was occur Nov. 9 so as to not affect the general election.

One of the men said that the bombing “would quote, ‘wake people up,’” Beall said.

They formed a plan of violent attack targeting Somalis and — after considering a host of targets, including pro-Somali churches and public officials — settled on the apartment complex. Some residents of the complex maintained an apartment that served as a mosque, he said.

The plot involved obtaining four vehicles and filling them with explosives. The men discussed parking the vehicles at the four corners of the complex and detonating them.

By any definition, this plan constituted an attempt to commit terrorism. But I have to wonder, had it been successful, would other Americans have seen it as such.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 9-15

FBI photo of the damaged hull of the USS Cole.
FBI photo of the damaged hull of the USS Cole.


For a change there wasn’t anything terrorism-related that was big in the news last week. Unless you consider the tawdry death throes of the 2016 presidential campaign season a form of terrorism, and then yeah, there was a lot of big stuff.

But given our conventional definitions, nothing big happened. So without delay, here’s a look back at this week in terrorism history.

  • Oct. 9, 1975 — United Kingdom: A British soldier was killed in an IRA land mine attack near Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland. Also, an IRA bomb detonated outside the Green Park Underground Station in London, killing one and injuring 20.
  • Oct. 10, 2000 — Pakistan: Nine soldiers killed in attack on Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan claims responsibility.
  • Oct. 11, 1993 — William Nygaard, Norwegian publisher of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses is shot three times by unknown gunman. Nygaard survives the attack.
  • Oct. 12, 2000 — Yemen: Al Qaeda suicide bombers detonate a small boat alongside the US Navy destroyer USS Cole while the ship is refueling in the port of Aden, killing 17 and wounding 39.
  • Oct. 13, 2005 — Russia: More than 250 armed attackers kill 50, wound 195 in an operation in the city of Nalchik. The Kabardino-Balkariyan Sector of the Caucasus Front claims responsibility.
  • Oct. 14, 1972 — United Kingdom: Loyalist paramilitaries raid the headquarters of the 10 Ulster Defense Regiment in Belfast, Northern Ireland, stealing weapons and ammunition.
  • Oct. 15, 2003 — Gaza Strip: Palestinian terrorists bomb a US Embassy motorcade killing three diplomatic security contractors.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 2-8

Propaganda photo released by 17 November.
Propaganda photo released by 17 November.


Before we get to this week’s chronology, a few links to either update ongoing cases that I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, or that are related to other relevant issues I’ve written about in the past.

First, I led off last week’s entry with news of the peace agreement reached between the Colombian government and the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, ending a 52-year-old civil war. The only remaining hurdle to clear was a public referendum to ratify the agreement. Well, the people voted, and to the surprise of virtually every observer, they voted to reject the treaty. For now both sides say they are committed to maintaining the existing cease fire, but what happens down the road is anyone’s guess at this point.

Second, there’s an interesting piece at the RAND blog by terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins reminding us just how remote the threat of terrorism is for Americans:

Pure terrorism is truly random. It targets families strolling on a promenade in Nice, shoppers at a mall, a busy street in lower Manhattan. The message is not that the victims represent a certain group or are seen as “guilty” because of despised policies or actions. This is sheer spectacle. The message: No one is safe.

Such terror attacks are truly arbitrary and extremely difficult to protect against. Protective perimeters have proliferated, but every restaurant, shopping center, busy street corner cannot be protected. Competitive 24/7 television news coverage amplifies the terror. Politicians pound podiums and pundits warn of further attacks. The end result is a perception that no one is safe, that little can be done, that worse is yet to come.

Yet such attacks are statistically rare, representing a relatively tiny addition to the total volume of violent crime in the United States. Americans are safer now than they were in the immediate shadow of 9/11 when intelligence had failed and more 9/11-scale attacks were expected.

Finally, and relevant to the discussion I am having with my students this evening and in the coming weeks about the ideological motivations that underpin terrorist actions, this piece on the mix-and-match approach to ideas that some lone wolf terrorists adopt:

This sampling of examples highlights a trend of violent lone actors whose ideologies are broadly jihadist, but not tied to any one group. Even so, in the case of Mateen,security officials and policymakers rushed to identify Mateen’s alignment with a specific group. The temptation to classify Mateen within one organization’s particular ideological prism outweighed an objective assessment of the problem: Mateen fused multiple group affiliation and ideologies to motivate his actions. As far as categorization goes, Mateen’s case suggests that group affiliation matters less than his broader commitment his idea of jihad. In this capacity, Mateen’s statements and sentiments are not outliers or rarities in lone actor extremist violence, nor are they as confusing as they seem; individuals tend to blend group affiliation and ideological motivations, which is a significant, recurring, and surprisingly understudied phenomenon. Indeed, if anything, Rahami’s case confirms that this phenomenon is not rare.

And now on to our history lesson.

  • Oct. 2, 2000 — Sri Lanka: LTTE suicide bombing kills 23 and wounds 54 in attack contesting democratic elections.
  • Oct. 3, 1996 — Greece: Bomb explodes under car of Greek NATO officer in Athens. 17 November, a leftist revolutionary organization, is blamed.
  • Oct. 4, 2000 — Peru: Shining Path leader Carlos Fernandez is captured.
  • Oct. 5, 2000 — Sri Lanka: LTTE suicide bomber kills 10 and wounds more than 35 at an election rally.
  • Oct. 6, 1990 — Northern Ireland: A Catholic man is shot to death by the Protestant Action Force at Oxford Island, Lough Neagh. The killing is believed to be in retaliation for the earlier killing of an Ulster Defense Regiment soldier at the same location.
  • Oct. 7, 2001 — Afghanistan: US-led forces begin military action in response to the 9/11 attacks.
  • Oct. 8, 2002 — Kuwait: Al Qaeda affiliates attack US Marines on exercise, killing one.

Americans at war with America

Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995.
Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995.


In thinking about the threat of terrorism facing the United States, it’s important to remember where most of the real danger comes from. Hint: It’s not immigrants, refugees, or jihadi infiltrators.

Nope, most of the danger comes from red-blooded Americans like the 24-year-old man from Pontiac, MI, who has been charged with threatening to kill the judge presiding over his child custody case. His plan involved blowing up the Oakland County Sixth Circuit Court building with a bomb modeled after the one Timothy McVeigh used to level the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and wounding nearly 700.

According to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, the suspect indicated that he was ready and willing to “go to war” and told an acquaintance that he shared McVeigh’s anti-government ideology. Would he have followed through on his threats? It’s impossible to know, and thankfully we won’t have to find out.

But whether he was serious or just blowing smoke, the threat of right-wing terrorism is no joke. In June 2015 the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security reported that “Law enforcement agencies in the United States consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”

right-wing-1In March last year, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Anti Defamation League released a chronology of conspiracies, plots, and attacks by right-wing extremists since 1995. A total of 120 separate incidents are chronicled in the report. The graphic at right breaks down the number of attacks, plots, and attempted attacks by ideological movement.

You can download the report here. It makes for chilling reading. Here are some excerpts:

Battle Creek/Kalamazoo, Michigan, March 1998: In 1999, members of the North American Militia of southwestern Michigan were convicted on various conspiracy and weapon charges related to a terrorist plot. Prosecutors accused Bradford Metcalf, Kenneth Carter, and Randy Graham of plotting to kill federal officials, and to destroy a federal building, an IRS office, utility transmitters, and a television station. Carter pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government; he received a five‐year sentence. Metcalf received a 40‐year sentence; Graham a 55‐year sentence.

Washington County, Pennsylvania, February 2003: Ku Klux Klan leader David Wayne Hull was arrested at his home on weapons and explosives charges in connection with a plot to blow up an abortion clinic. Federal prosecutors charged Hull, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a small Pennsylvania‐based group, with receiving, manufacturing, possessing and transferring a destructive device in violation of the National Firearms Act. He was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2005.

Crockett, Tennessee, October 2008: Crockett County sheriff’s deputies arrested white supremacists Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, who were casing houses to rob in order to get funds to launch a murderous rampage primarily targeting African‐American children, which would culminate in an assassination attempt on presidential candidate Barack Obama. Both men pleaded guilty to federal weapons and conspiracy charges. Cowart was sentenced to 14 years in prison, while Schlesselman received 10 years.

Concord, North Carolina, September 2010: Anti‐abortion extremist Justin Carl Moose of Concord, North Carolina, was arrested for providing information related to the making, use, or manufacture of an explosive, destructive device, or weapon of mass destruction. According to the criminal complaint, Moose used social networking sites to advocate violence against women’s healthcare clinics and where abortions are performed, as well as their employees. Additionally, Moose allegedly met with an individual he believed was planning to bomb a North Carolina clinic and provided detailed information and instruction about various explosives and incendiary methods that could be used to destroy the clinic. Moose, a self‐ proclaimed member of “Army of God”, an extreme anti‐abortion group, pleaded guilty to distributing information on making and using explosives. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Las Vegas, Nevada, June 2014: Husband and wife anti‐government extremists Jerad and Amanda Miller assassinated two Las Vegas police officers in June 2014, killing them while they were eating lunch at a restaurant. The couple then crossed the street to a Wal‐Mart, where they killed a civilian who attempted to intervene. Jerad died in a subsequent shootout with police. Amanda also died, killing herself at the scene after being shot by police.

I touched on this before in this space, when black churches were being burned across the South in the wake of the slaughter of black churchgoers in Charleston, SC. I bring it up (again) because it is important to remember that the main terrorist threat to America comes from within. Specifically, it comes from Americans plotting against and targeting other Americans to advance political and religious causes that are deeply rooted in American history, society, and culture.

We are our own worst enemy.