Nothing succeeds like success

(Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At least in the eyes of the motley assortment of violent extremists and groups that participated in overrunning the US Capitol on Jan. 6. And that success is going to be seen as inspiration for more violence.

That is just one of the conclusions reached in the Joint Intelligence Bulletin (JIB) released last week by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and National Counterterrorism Center. This bulletin sounded the alarms that led to a massive security presence at state houses around the country over the weekend and the transformation of the area around the Capitol and the White House into a fortified militarized zone ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration.

With as many as 25,000 troops providing security as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in as our next president and vice president, it is the biggest such security presence in US history, eclipsing Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. The Washington Post described that scene the other day. As Lincoln stood to address the throngs arrayed on the lawn outside the East Portico of the Capitol:

… below the platform the Army had deployed artillery. Snipers watched from rooftops and windows, and Lincoln had been guarded by infantry and cavalry on his carriage ride through the streets to the Capitol.

On March 4, 1861, while Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, the country was on the brink of civil war. When Biden delivers his, will we be in similar straits?

The January 13 Joint Intelligence Bulletin is one of the most detailed and specific that I can recall in laying out the imminent and ongoing risks of terrorism committed by what the agencies call DVEs, Domestic Violent Extremists. Before getting into the meat of the bulletin, I want to call attention to the terminological gymnastics that federal law enforcement goes to in order to avoid using the word “terrorist” to label these actors. Here’s a quote from the bulletin’s first footnote:

The FBI, DHS, and NCTC define a domestic violent extremist as an individual based and operating primarily within the United States or its territories without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group or other foreign power who seeks to further political or social goals wholly or in part through unlawful acts of force or violence.

That sounds like the definition of a domestic terrorist to me. But the rest of the footnote adds an important caveat, which helps us understand why the “T” word isn’t in play here:

The mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics may not constitute extremism, and may be constitutionally protected.

In principle I get this splitting of hairs. Terrorism is fundamentally an action, a form of political action. It is too easy to apply the label where and when it doesn’t belong, especially since doing so tends to have the intended effect of delegitimizing the ideas and grievances of political opponents branded with that word. But as you read through the JIB, it is very clear that the warnings here are about potential acts of terrorism, not constitutionally protected acts of speech or assembly.

So how does Jan. 6 figure into these warnings? First, as the JIB makes clear, some of these domestic terrorist groups present at the Capitol view the violent breaching of the building as a success to build upon. It united in common action violent extremists across the far-right ideological spectrum — anti-government armed militias, white supremacists and white nationalists, religious extremists, QAnon conspiracists, and pro-Trump extremists.

Second, the death of a QAnon conspiracist shot to death by Capitol Police as she tried to break into the Speaker’s Lobby, adds a new name to the ranks of martyrs venerated by the far right. As the JIB states in a footnote:

The perception that deaths of like-minded individuals at the hands of law enforcement were unjust has historically been a significant driver for DVEs. DVEs have seized on the deaths … at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992; US persons at the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas in 1993; and … [in Maryland] in 2020 to justify threats against law enforcement and government officials.

What are the likely targets should these groups and individuals continue to escalate violence? According to the JIB the list is a familiar one, especially if you’ve read any of posts I’ve written on far-right domestic terrorism over the last five years:

  • Racial, ethnic or religious minorities and institutions
  • Members of law enforcement
  • Government officials and buildings
  • Members of the LGBTQ+ community
  • Members of the press due to perceived complicity in a system hostile to the extremists’s beliefs

But the perceived success of Jan. 6 is only one factor contributing to this heightened threat environment. According to the JIB, the shifting political landscape with Democrats taking control of both White House and Senate, coupled with the ongoing amplification of false claims of fraud surrounding the General Election and proliferation of conspiracy theories, will provide impetus for increased threats of violence. Specifically:

  • “The potential for shifts in various policies many DVEs may perceive to oppose or threaten their ideological goals or agendas, or feed into existing narratives or conspiracy theories many DVEs subscribe to regarding the US government’s exercise of power, influence and initiatives: possibly including gun control legislation, the easing of immigration restrictions, and new limits on the use of public land.”
  • “Ongoing false narratives by DVEs that the 2020 General Election was illegitimate, or fraudulent, and the subsequent belief its results should be contested or unrecognized.”
  • “Some DVEs’ discontent … with renewed measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the ordered dissemination of COVID-19 vaccinations, and the efficacy and/or safety of … vaccinations.”

The outlook, according to the intelligence bulletin, is pretty dark. DVEs continue to use social media to call for attacks on government infrastructure and officials. And there is this chilling statement:

The shared false narrative of a ‘stolen’ election and opposition to the change in control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government may lead some individuals to adopt the belief that there is no political solution to address their grievances and violent action is necessary.

And that conclusion, that violence is the only viable way forward to achieve desired political goals, is the textbook statement of how terrorists justify their actions.

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: March 23-29

ISIS is taking a safety-first approach to coronavirus. (Credit: Getty Images)

In case you’ve been wondering how terrorists are coping with the global coronavirus pandemic, you’ve come to the right place. Here are two articles highlighting two very different approaches.

More than a week ago, while certain pundits and politicians in the US were downplaying the threat, ISIS was providing very different guidance to their members. As reported in Politico:

Islamic State (ISIS) has adopted a safety-first approach to the coronavirus pandemic and advised its members not to travel to Europe, Homeland Security Today reported.

In the latest edition of the terrorist group’s al-Naba newsletter, the editors who normally urge followers to carry out attacks on the West instead ask them to “stay away from the land of the epidemic” for the time being,

In a full-page infographic on the back cover, a list of pro-tips instructs militants on how to stop the pandemic’s spread. ISIS members are advised to “put trust in God and seek refuge in Him from illnesses,” but to also “cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing,” and to wash their hands frequently.

Those who believe they might have contracted coronavirus are told to stay away from areas under ISIS control in order to preserve the health of others and fulfil the holy “obligation of taking up the causes of protection from illnesses and avoiding them.”

Meanwhile, closer to home, the FBI is warning that white supremacist groups are encouraging their members to do all they can to spread the virus to police and Jews:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York office recently sent out an alert to local authorities warning of extremist groups it said are encouraging their members to spread the novel coronavirus to police and Jewish people, ABC News reported.

According to the news agency, the alert, which was reportedly issued on Thursday, said that “members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions.”

The alert reportedly warned that the racist groups were urging their members to go to places where Jewish people “may be congregated, to include markets, political offices, businesses and places of worship.”

The alert also reportedly said some white supremacists and neo-Nazis were also urging members who contract the virus to spread the disease to cops by using spray bottles.

And now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism.

  • March 23, 1998 — Algeria: Seven members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) are sentenced to death in connection with the 1996 assassination of Pierre Claverie, Roman Catholic Bishop of Oran.
  • March 25, 2010 — Sumter County, Florida: A self-proclaimed “sovereign citizen” opens fire on Florida state police troopers during a routine traffic stop. He is arrested two weeks later in Connecticut. Sovereign citizens typically believe that police have no right to regulate road travel.
  • March 26, 1997 — Cheshire, England: The Irish Republican Army detonates two bombs at Wilmslow Railway Station in northwest England, causing widespread disruption to the rail network.
  • March 27, 2014 — Katy, Texas: A 38-year-old man is arrested by FBI agents who say he was about to rob an armored car. He is alleged to have been plotting to use C-4 explosives and weapons to rob banks and armored cars, blow up government buildings and mosques, and kill police officers. Prosecutors say he was behind a Facebook page called “American Insurgent Movement,” on which he posted antigovernment screeds, called for violence against public officials, and ranted about Muslims and LGBT people.
  • March 29, 2010 — Moscow: Female suicide bombers carry out attacks on two metro stations in Moscow, killing 40 and wounding more than 60. Two days later, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov claims responsibility for the attacks.

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.