This week in terrorism history: Jan. 8-14

Irish Republican Army unit with homemade mortar. (The Sun)
Irish Republican Army unit with homemade mortar. (The Sun)

 

I am again teaching my course on terrorism and political violence, and so I’m bringing back to the blog my “This Week in Terrorism History” series that I first ran back in the fall of 2016.

As I noted in the post introducing that series, one of the points that I try to impress upon my students is that, as a form of political action, terrorism has been around for far longer than our current post-9/11 awareness would lead most Americans to acknowledge.

This weekly feature is intended to highlight some of that history. The information will mostly be taken from the National Counterterrorism Center’s 2016 counterterrorism calendar. Unfortunately, I still have to use the 2016 calendar since the Trump Administration’s NCTC has failed to produce calendars, which previous administrations had published annually since 2003, for either 2017 or 2018.

Somewhat interestingly, you can still find reference to the calendar buried deep inside the NCTC website. There’s just nothing there. Instead it’s been replaced by a “historical timeline” of incidents, nearly all of which were perpetrated by Middle Eastern or Islamist groups. There’s probably a metaphor hiding in that detail somewhere.

Because I also have a long-standing interest in political violence in Northern Ireland, I will occasionally add events or incidents taken from the chronology maintained by the CAIN project at the University of Ulster. I will also draw on other resources, like data collected and reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, like this report, this one, and this one, to try to address some of the failings in the NCTC calendar. More on that below.

Before moving on, let me say a little about the limitations and built-in biases in the NCTC calendar.

First, there is an automatic tilt toward recounting incidents targeting either the United States, US citizens, or US allies. This is an especially egregious feature of the new timeline feature mentioned above, and one more reason why I won’t be drawing from it.

Second, there is a tendency to focus on incidents perpetrated by groups whose ideologies and motivations are seen as currently threatening to the United States, or by groups that have some kind of historical connection to present security challenges facing the US. Together, these first two biases mean that there is an over-representation of incidents attributed to groups espousing an Islamist ideology.

Third, there is a tendency to emphasize acts of transnational terrorism targeting the US or US interests over acts of domestic terrorism within the United States that lack some sort of transnational link, either ideological or material. This despite the reality that the vast majority of terrorist incidents the United States has suffered historically, and the primary threat of terrorism confronting the US today, comes from domestic groups, mainly but not exclusively, on the far right of the political spectrum. This is why I’ll be including the SPLC material.

Finally, when there are multiple incidents for any given date, I will try to choose examples that run counter to the biases discussed above to show some the wider geographical, ideological, or operational diversity that we see when we consider terrorism as a global phenomenon.

Despite all these caveats, there is value in keeping in mind the reality that as much as Americans might think that terrorism is a new phenomenon, or tend to see ourselves as uniquely at risk, terrorism has been with us for a very long time, is likely to be with us for a long time to come, and there are countries that have faced far worse, for far longer, than what we face today.

With all that in mind, here we go.

  • Jan. 8, 2003 — Chicago: Matt Hale, leader of the neo-Nazi World Church of the Creator, is arrested and charged with soliciting the murder of a federal judge whom he had publicly vilified as someone bent on the destruction of his group. Hale is subsequently convicted and sentenced to 40 years in federal prison.
  • Jan. 9, 2015 — Paris: Four are killed in an attack on a deli. ISIS claims responsibility one month later.
  • Jan. 10, 2013 — Pakistan: Bombings in the cities of Quetta and Mingaora kill 115. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the United Baluch Army claim responsibility.
  • Jan. 11, 1997 — Northern Ireland: The Irish Republican Army carries out a mortar attack on a Royal Ulster Constabulary station in Fermanagh.
  • Jan. 12, 2007 — Greece: A rocket-propelled grenade attack is carried out against the US embassy in Athens; Revolutionary Struggle claims responsibility.
  • Jan. 13, 1987 — West Germany: Mohammed Ali Hamadei, a member of Hezbollah, is arrested at the Frankfurt airport and charged with the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner and murder of a passenger. Sentenced to life in prison, he was released in 2005 and is believed to reside in Lebanon.
  • Jan. 14, 2011 — Arizona: Jeffery Harbin, a member of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, is arrested for building homemade grenades and pipe bombs which he had intended to supply to anti-immigrant militia groups patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border.

Peter King shouldn’t talk about terrorism

U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) argued today, in the wake of a botched terror attack in the New York City subways, that President Trump’s immigration policies could prevent future attacks.

Funny, he never argued for restricting immigration in the name of combating terrorism back in the 1980s when he was an ardent supporter of the Irish Republican Army. Of course then he believed terrorism was a legitimate weapon in a struggle against foreign occupation …

“We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry,” Mr. King told a pro-I.R.A. rally on Long Island, where he was serving as Nassau County comptroller, in 1982. Three years later he declared, “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”

What the terrorists believe

(START, University of Maryland)
(START, University of Maryland)

 

A new report out from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland gives us the best current look at the ideologies that motivate terrorism in the United States.

Jihadist attacks and the fears they generate dominate both the news cycle and the popular imagination, as this week’s deadly incident in Manhattan reminds us. But the START report makes clear that events like this are far from the only, or even the main, story.

If we turn the clock back to the 2000s, 9/11 notwithstanding, we find that the dominant ideology motivating terrorist attacks in that decade was radical environmentalism, accounting for 64 percent of all incidents, with the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front leading the way.

Religiously motivated attacks, including those perpetrated by those embracing jihadist ideology, represent just a small fraction of events during the 2000s.

While religious motivation jumps dramatically in our current decade, identified in 53 percent of cases, that includes not just jihadi or other Muslim extremists, but Christian anti-abortion extremists along with those targeting Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs.

While jihadi-inspired extremists account for 21 attacks from 2010 to 2016, anti-Muslim extremists are close on their heels, responsible for 18 attacks during the same period. And right-wing extremists of all stripes, from anti-government sovereign citizens to white supremacists and white nationalists, account for a full 35 percent of attacks.

What’s the takeaway from the START report? It’s that the story of terrorism in the United States is more complex and nuanced than the current narrative might lead you to believe.

Far from living in an unprecedented era of danger from terrorism, the reality is that terrorist incidents in the US have dwindled in number every decade since the 1970s. And, if you exclude the extreme outliers of Oklahoma City in the 1995 and 9/11 in 2001, the number of fatalities attributable to terrorism has yet to reach let alone surpass the levels seen in the 1970s.

That last statistic is a reminder that in the American experience, again, those few outliers notwithstanding, the story of terrorism is not one of routine mass casualties, or even any casualties at all. For every Oklahoma City, or 9/11, San Bernardino, or Pulse nightclub, there are have been literally thousands of non-lethal terrorist attacks — a full 91 percent of all incidents — in the United States over the last four decades.

Keep that in mind the next time some politician, or cable TV network, tries to stoke your fear and leverage it for their own ends.

Hate in the ranks

James Douglas Ross, an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq, shown in his barracks room. (Guardian photo.)
James Douglas Ross, an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq, shown in his barracks room. He leads a neo-Nazi group in Washington state. (Guardian photo.)

 

According to a new poll, one-in-four US troops say they have seen examples of white nationalism among fellow service members, and they rate white nationalism a greater national security threat than Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Fears that far-right groups had infiltrated the US military have been around for years. In 2008 the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that white supremacist leaders were making aggressive efforts to recruit active-duty soldiers and recent combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two years earlier SPLC warned that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups were taking advantage of lowered recruiting standards to infiltrate their members into the armed forces. They could then apply their weapons and combat training to the inevitable racial holy war to come.

This background is one reason why, after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, VA, and President Trump’s less than full-throated denunciation of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists responsible, the chiefs of the four service branches came out publicly to condemn racism and extremism.

They spoke out for good reason. As Andrew Exum, former Army Ranger and now a respected national security analyst pointed out at The Atlantic, we’ve been there before:

[T}he U.S. military has long struggled with hate groups—and specifically white supremacists—in its ranks. White supremacist groups and their sympathizers were especially present in the ranks of the U.S. Army’s combat arms units and the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1986, an exasperated Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, ordered the military to crack down on these groups, and another purge was ordered after U.S. Army veteran Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb that almost leveled the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people. 1995 was the same year a paratrooper from the Army’s 82d Airborne Division murdered a black couple outside Fort Bragg. …

The military’s service chiefs are among the last men in the U.S. military who still remember those bad old days in the 1980s and 1990s. They are proud of the way they have largely purged the ranks of extremists and want to keep it that way.

But this is the first time I can recall these concerns coming from within the ranks of active-duty troops rather than the top brass. The poll conducted by Military Times lays out the basis for these fears in stark detail:

Concerns about white nationalist groups were more pronounced among minorities in the ranks. Nearly 42 percent of non-white troops who responded to the survey said they have personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military, versus about 18 percent of white service members.

When asked whether white nationalists pose a threat to national security, 30 percent of respondents labeled it a significant danger, more than many international hot spots, like Syria (27 percent), Pakistan (25 percent), Afghanistan (22 percent) and Iraq (17 percent).

But a notable number of poll participants also bristled at the assertion that white power ideology is a real problem.

Nearly five percent of those polled left comments complaining that groups like Black Lives Matter — whose stated goal is to raise awareness of violence and discrimination towards black people — weren’t included among the options for threats to national security.

Back in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis released a report on right-wing extremism, pointing to an economic and political climate that was fueling a resurgence in radicalization and recruiting. Of particular concern to DHS were disgruntled military veterans:

(U//FOUO) DHS/I&A assesses that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat. These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists—including lone wolves or small terrorist cells—to carry out violence. The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.

— (U) After Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991, some returning military veterans—including Timothy McVeigh—joined or associated with rightwing extremist groups.

— (U) A prominent civil rights organization reported in 2006 that “large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.”

— (U//LES) The FBI noted in a 2008 report on the white supremacist movement that some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups.

And two years earlier, in 2007, in assessing the potential for white supremacists or other far-right groups to adopt suicide terrorism, the FBI warned of the possibility of extremist US military personnel bringing those methods back home having seen their effectiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With another large gathering of white supremacists, pitched as a “White Lives Matter” rally, planned for this weekend in Tennessee, it’s worth keeping in mind something I’ve been arguing almost since I began writing this blog.

If you want to know where the real terrorism threats to this country lie, look first at the denizens of the white nationalist, white supremacist, anti-government, far right. Including those profaning the uniform of the United States of America.