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.

This week in terrorism history: Feb. 10-16

Convicted terrorist plotter, US Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson and his arsenal.

A year ago this week, an active duty US Coast Guard officer, Christopher Hasson, was arrested and charged with plotting a campaign of domestic terrorism targeting prominent MSNBC and CNN media figures, liberal professors, Supreme Court justices, and Democratic politicians. I first wrote about Hasson the week after his arrest.

As I noted then, again on the blog last week, Hasson’s case is an exceptionally good example of the logic of terrorism in democracies. The political scientist Ted Gurr argued that terrorism can emerge in democracies when activists with extreme political views lose patience with conventional politics and look for new tactics, like terrorist violence, that will have greater impact. 

A committed white nationalist, Hasson despaired that his fellow whites had succumbed to “liberalist” ideology, concluding that violence, and only violence could shake them out of their complacency. In a rambling email drafted on his work computer at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, DC, Hasson wrote (emphasis mine):

Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence. It should push for more crack down bringing more people to our side. Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.

In a 2017 letter to Neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington, who had advocated for the creation of a white ethno-state in the Pacific Northwest, Hasson went in to greater depth concerning his frustration with “normal politics,” even as practiced by Neo-Nazis and white supremacists (again, emphasis mine):

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence. … We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost. How long can we hold out there and prevent niggerization of the Northwest until whites wake up on their own or are forcibly made to make a decision whether to roll over and die or to stand up remains to be seen. But I know a few younger ones that are tired of waiting.

Less than two weeks ago, Hasson was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison in connection to his plot, the arsenal of weapons he had amassed to carry it out, and the large quantity of painkillers found in his apartment. It is worth noting that Hasson was convicted on firearms and drugs charges, not terrorism. As I’ve written before, this is because the United States has no federal domestic terrorism statutes.

“Christopher Hasson intended to inflict violence on the basis of his racist and hateful beliefs,” Robert K. Hur, the United States attorney in Maryland, said in a statement Friday. “As long as violent extremists take steps to harm innocent people, we will continue to use all of the tools we have to prevent and deter them.”

Now on to this week’s look back:

  • Feb. 11, 2010 — Bisembe, Democratic Republic of the Congo: Fifteen civilians are kidnapped, with seven later killed. Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FLDR), an ethnic Hutu group operating in eastern Congo. It is thought to be one of the last factions of Hutu genocidaires still active in Congo.
  • Feb. 14, 2011 — Bahrain: Political unrest sparks the formation of the 14 February Youth Coalition, a group dedicated to overthrowing Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The group was also connected to firebomb and other attacks on Western interests in the Gulf state.
  • Feb. 14, 2019 — Silver Spring, Md. — The FBI arrests U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, after labeling him a domestic terrorist who pushed for a “white homeland” and had a hit list of Democratic politicians and media figures. The FBI says Hasson self-identified as a white nationalist and was an admirer of Norwegian domestic terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in a rampage over Muslim immigration. According to the FBI, Hasson stockpiled weapons and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition at his Maryland home.
  • Feb. 16, 1992 — Lebanon: Hezbollah Secretary General Abbas Musawi is killed when rockets fired from Apache attack helicopters of the Israel Defense Forces strike his motorcade. Musawi’s wife, 5-year-old son, and four others were also killed during the “targeted killing” operation.

“Milanos’ bayonet”

(Credit: Clifford Harper)

How terrorism is justified, in three quotes:

The situation with the environment is not getting better, it’s getting worse. I’m not suggesting that the path of destruction and destroying everything, is the right path. But I didn’t know what to do. When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, then what the hell are you supposed to say? What are you supposed to do?

Daniel McGowan, Earth Liberation Front, 2007

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence.

Christopher Hasson, U.S. Coast Guard, 2019

The time for words has ended. The time for podcasts has ended. The time for talk has ended. If you’re wasting your time simply thinking there’s going to be a movementarian approach to the coming problems, you think that podcasts are the solution they’re not. If you think talking is a solution, it is not. If you think politics is a solution, you are a damn fool. … The system does not want a peaceful solution, the system has prevented a peaceful solution at every possible turn. It is the system that is fomenting violent revolution, not us, and they shall now reap what they have sown.

Patrik Mathews, The Base, 2020

Three examples of the logic that underpins the decision that terrorists and would be terrorists make to reject normal politics and turn to violence to advance their cause. Organizing does not work. Protest does not work. Politics does not work.

What is left is violence. Thus, as the Italian socialist and revolutionary Carlo Pisacane wrote in 1857:

The propaganda of the idea is a chimera; the education of the people is nonsense. Ideas result from deeds, and not the latter from the former; it is not the case that the people will be free once it is educated, rather it will be educated once it is free. The only work a citizen can undertake to benefit his country is to contribute to the material revolution: conspiracies, plots, insurrectional attempts, etc. … The flash of Milano’s bayonet was a more effective propaganda than a thousand volumes written by doctrinaires.

This week in terrorism history: Feb. 3-9

The aftermath of the Wall Street bombing, Sept. 16, 1920. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty)

The president’s State of the Union address is tomorrow night. Two years ago, President Trump used the occasion to argue for his travel bans and hard line on immigration by claiming that chief threat of terrorism in the United States came from foreign-born perpetrators.

As I argued here, Trump’s assessment was based on a highly suspect piece of threat analysis from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice. This report, relying on dubious methodology and cherry picking its cases, completely ignored the reality that the vast majority of terrorism perpetrated in the United States has not come from refugees or immigrants (legal or otherwise), but from red-blooded Americans attacking other Americans in the name of particularly American political and social causes.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s 2018 SOTU, in trying to advance a stalled policy agenda by leveraging fear of terrorism to whip up a politically useful anti-immigrant frenzy, is nothing new. But like so much of Trump’s approach to politics and policy, it is a throwback to an earlier, darker period in American history.

Before Timothy McVeigh used a truck bomb to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil occurred on Sept. 16, 1920, with the bombing of the JP Morgan Bank on Wall Street. Nearly 40 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. As historian Kevin Jennings wrote in The Washington Post, this event became the catalyst for a public backlash against and policy assault targeting immigrants:

The 1920 bombing came at a highly sensitive time in American history. The early 20th century saw a massive influx of immigrants into the United States, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. Largely Jewish and Catholic, these immigrants were seen as alien to what was then a largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country. Many of them also subscribed to left-wing political ideologies that were seen as threats to the United States (especially after the Bolshevik Revolution brought communism to Russia in 1917). This combination produced the kindling for a massive backlash.

The result was a “Red Scare” targeting largely left-wing immigrant activists.

In 1919 the Department of Justice (yes, the same agency that authored the above-mentioned study) launched the Palmer Raids, rounding up thousands of leftist political activists and deporting as many as possible back to their home countries. Following the Wall Street bombing, the DOJ’s Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of today’s FBI) charged a very young J. Edgar Hoover with investigating the attack, and the New York City Police Department formed a special unit to monitor “radical elements” in the city.

Two points to keep in mind as we move on to this week’s look back at terrorism history.

  • First, the United States has long experienced terrorism on its own soil, even if many in the public (and my students) awakened to the fact only after 9/11.
  • Second, when terrorism happens in the US, it’s almost always Americans attacking other Americans. For perspective, in 1970 alone, there were 54 terrorist bombings in New York City. Three of those attacks unfolded over successive days in September. Ten attacks took place in March. All were carried out by Americans.

Now on to this week’s list.

  • Feb. 4, 2009 — Barbacoas, Colombia: Seventeen civilians are stabbed to death in an attack. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) claims responsibility.
  • Feb. 6, 1995 — Stinatz, Austria: One person is injured in a bombing targeting tourists. Neo-Nazi extremists are blamed for the attack.
  • Feb. 7, 1991 — London: The Provisional Irish Republican Army launches a mortar attack on No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of Prime Minister John Major. Three people are wounded.
  • Feb. 8, 1984 — Paris: A gunman from the Abu Nidal Organization assassinates Khalifa Ahmed Abdel Aziz Al-Mubarak, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to France.
  • Feb. 9, 2000 — Turkey: The PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) announces a formal halt to armed struggle and announces a new name, Kongra-Gel. Abdullah Occalan, who led the PKK, is reelected to lead the new organization.