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.

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.

Terror where we pray: What gets attacked?

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana (AP Photo)
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana (AP Photo)

 

Three weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, suicide bombers attacked three churches in Sri Lanka in coordinated acts of terrorism. More than 250 people were killed and some 500 injured.

Two days later, ISIS claimed responsibility, though it remains unclear just how involved in the plot the organization really was. The Sri Lankan government had detailed advance warning of the plot and failed to act to prevent them.

Closer to home, in early April a series of arson attacks targeted African American churches across a rural parish of Louisiana. A suspect, the 21-year-old son of a deputy sheriff, was charged with hate crimes in the incidents.

Later that month, a 19-year-old member of an evangelical Christian church entered a synagogue outside San Diego and opened fire, killing one and wounding three others. In a manifesto he posted online, the suspect rooted his actions in biblical justification, belief in his own salvation, and a narrative that blames Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. He has been charged with federal hate crime and civil rights violations.

All of these incidents, as well as the mass shooting at mosques in New Zealand in March, got me wondering how frequently American places of worship are the targets of terrorist attacks, and what those incidents might tell us about the nature of terrorism in the United States. All of the data I am going to discuss below comes from the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland.

By stateFrom 1998 through 2017 there were 559 separate terrorist incidents in the United States. Of those, 80, or 14 percent, targeted places of worship. 2016 was the worst year for terrorist attacks on places of worship, with 23 separate incidents, though there were several years (1998, 2000-2003, 2006-2007) in which no terrorist attacks on religious targets were recorded.

As the chart here shows, attacks occurred in 28 states, with the highest number recorded in New York (10) followed by California (9), Florida (8), and Texas (8). The others in the dataset come in with five or fewer separate attacks. More noteworthy, however, are the kinds of places of worship that are targeted.

Targeting 2The most commonly targeted places of worship are not churches but mosques, accounting for 37 percent of all incidents during this 20-year period. Synagogues account for 17 percent of targets, and African American churches another 10 percent. Other churches account for 33 percent of cases. Others (Sikh and Hindu temples) make up the final three percent.

What does this tell us? That two-thirds of all terrorist attacks targeting places of worship are directed against religious or racial minorities.

Attacks on these minority places of worship have also been the deadliest. In 2012, six people were killed at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, a case I’ve written about before. In 2014, three were killed in shootings at a Jewish community center and retirement home in Overland Park, KS. In 2015, nine were killed at an African American church in Charleston, S.C. In 2016, two were killed in a shooting targeting an imam in New York City.

When the data is updated through 2018 we will be able to add the killing of 11 worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh to this awful list.

Only two other fatal attacks on places of worship were recorded between 1998 and 2017. In 2008, two were killed in a shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, TN, by perpetrators targeted the congregation because of its liberal social and political positions. And in 2017, one person was killed and eight wounded in a shooting at a church in Antioch, TN. There was no specific motive behind this attack.

Of the 80 attacks over the 20-year period covered here, only two were the work of Muslim extremists or jihadi-inspired perpetrators. No one was killed or injured in either incident.

What all these attacks suggest is that in the United States, terrorism targeting places of worship is consistent with the standard truth about American terrorism that I have been writing about since almost the beginning of this blog. Most of it is perpetrated by white nationalist or racist extremists on the far right of the political spectrum.

And thus a familiar pattern gets that much more familiar.

A lot of people watching and a lot of people dead

(Image credit: Newshub.co.nz)
(Image credit: Newshub.co.nz)

 

“Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

American terrorism expert Brian Jenkins wrote these words in 1974, and for nearly three decades this was common wisdom. The lethality of terrorist groups, Jenkins argued, was a product not simply of limited access to weapons, but also self-restraint.

The logic was straightforward. Acts of violence that are too extreme and produce too many casualties are counterproductive because:

  • They damage group cohesion through the revulsion the group’s own members feel.
  • They alienate the terrorist group’s constituents and supporters.
  • They spark public outrage and harden attitudes among the terrorists’ target population.
  • This outrage triggers intense government crackdown on the group and its supporters, putting the movement’s very survival at risk.

Clearly things have changed, as today’s massacre of 49 people in terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand demonstrate. But the attacks today add a deeply troubling new dimension that shows how far the pendulum has swung from that earlier understanding.

The alleged terrorist, a 28-year-old Australian white supremacist named Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed video of his attack while it was in progress. It then metastasized, almost instantaneously, across the Internet.

More than eight hours after the shooting video at one of the mosques was first live-streamed on Facebook — apparently by the man who killed 49 people in a mosque in Christchurch — it still was getting uploaded and re-uploaded continuously by other people onto YouTube.  …

The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit. Even hours after the shooting, the social-media giants Facebook, Twitter and YouTube continued to host versions of the shooting video, even as New Zealand authorities said they were calling for it to be taken down.

Ahead of the attack, Tarrant posted online a 74-page manifesto in which he described himself as an ethnonationalist and a fascist, rants about “white genocide,” and spews anti-immigrant hate. (I will not post any link to his manifesto here, nor quote his words.)  And, as one terrorism scholar pointed out on Twitter, he orchestrated an online media blitz to spread his message as widely as possible.

Today’s attacks in New Zealand are vivid examples of the changed face of terrorism and the perverse synergies between readily available means of mass killing and access to communications technologies that allow for near-instantaneous dissemination of the terrorists’ message.

Mass casualties have become the means by which the terrorist cuts through the noise and static of our oversaturated media environment. To publicize the cause it is no longer enough to simply kill “a single man in Algiers which will be noted the next day by the American press,” as Ramdane Abane once said in explaining the FLN’s decision to initiate a campaign of urban terrorism in French-occupied Algeria in the 1950s.

Changes in both the organizational structure of terrorist movements and in the types of ideologies that motivate them have also immunized terrorists from what were assumed to be the negative consequences of killing too many people in too horrific a fashion. Radicalized and networked individuals and self-contained cells following the doctrine of leaderless resistance and moving within extremist online circles where mass casualty attacks are hailed, not reviled, have little fear either of alienating fellow true believers or that a government crackdown will silence their movement.

That’s why, writing in 2007, Brian Jenkins updated his earlier dictum to reflect a new reality — many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. New Zealand is now a case in point.