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.

The logic of terrorism

paulhasson

Nearly lost in the daily deluge of news last week (and almost forgotten already) was the report that an active-duty Coast Guard officer, Christopher Hasson, had been arrested for plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” The federal prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson in prison pending trial minced no words:

The defendant is a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect government conduct.

Rarely do we get to see an example of a case that so clearly fits with the logic of terrorism that academics have long written about and that we try to help our students understand. I want to walk through a little bit of that here, but before I do, let me dispense with two immediate points:

  • As I have written repeatedly in this space, Hasson fits the picture of the typical American terrorist. He is an angry, right-wing, middle-aged white male.
  • Hasson is representative of another dynamic I’ve written about before, the recurring problem of violent white nationalists and other right-wing extremists in the U.S. armed forces.

Prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson pending trial (the judge in the case ordered him held without bail for 14 days, pending further charges) contains evidence that cuts right to the larger question of the logic behind terrorism. With Hasson, as with all terrorists, the issue isn’t that he holds extreme political views and espouses extreme political objectives, but that he believes these objectives can only be accomplished through violence.

As leading scholars of terrorism like Bruce Hoffman and Martha Crenshaw have long argued, terrorists are often driven by a powerful sense of impatience, that the concerns that motive them are so dire and pressing that there is no time to wait for the slow processes of normal politics to play out. The terrorist cannot sit and wait for the ideas that motivate him to take hold among the wider population.

In making this point, Hoffman and others have drawn on the writings of 19th century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane and his theory of “propaganda by deed.” Hoffman summarizes it this way:

“The propaganda of the idea is a chimera,” Pisacane wrote. “Ideas result from deeds, not the latter from the former, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.” Violence, he argued, was necessary not only to draw attention to or generate publicity for a cause, but also to inform, educate, and ultimately, rally the masses behind the revolution.

In a draft email (the misspellings, abbreviations, and strange syntax are in the original) recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson points to the necessity of violence to awaken white America to his cause (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 September 2017, Hasson wrote a letter to leading neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington, who had called for the establishment of a white ethnostate in the Pacific Northwest. In that letter, also recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson argued that Covington’s dream of a establishing a white homeland in America could not be achieved without violence (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

The scholar Ted Gurr, in a classic discussion of terrorism in democracies, wrote that terrorism can emerge when activists with extreme political views lose patience with conventional politics and therefore look for new tactics that will have greater impact. Tactics like terrorism.

If federal prosecutors are right, that’s Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson.