A physicist who models ISIS and the alt-right

Natalie Wolchover writes: Neil Johnson used to study electrons as a buttoned-up professor of physics at the University of Oxford. Then, a decade ago, he decamped to the University of Miami — a young institution that he sees as unconstrained by rigid traditions or barriers between disciplines — and branched out. In recent years, the 55-year-old physicist has published research on financial markets, crowds, superconductivity, earthquake forecasting, light-matter interactions, bacterial photosynthesis, quantum information and computation, neuron firing patterns, heart attacks, tumor growth, contagion and urban disasters, not to mention his extensive body of work on terrorism and other forms of insurgent conflict.

Johnson models the extreme events and behaviors that can arise in complex systems. The author of two books on complexity, he has found that the same principles often apply, regardless of whether a system consists of interacting electrons, humans or anything else. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he began modeling extremism in human society. He had also spent time in Colombia during the war against the FARC guerrilla army, and grew up near London during the era of IRA bombings. “I started wondering what the patterns of attacks in the respective places might be telling us about how humans do terrorism,” he said. “Terrorism suddenly became, for me, an urgent problem that I might be able to help society understand, and perhaps even one day predict.”

The rise of ISIS has served as both an impetus and test case for Johnson’s models. Even more recently, he has begun using his models to study the growth of white nationalist groups in the United States.

Quanta Magazine caught up with Johnson to discuss his findings by phone in June, before he left to spend the summer working with collaborators in Bogota, Colombia. A condensed and edited version of that conversation, and a subsequent email exchange after the events in Charlottesville, follows. [Continue reading…]

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Path to radicalization winds through shame and loneliness

Elizabeth Charnock and Dounia Bouzar write: The problem of Islamist radicalization presents a grim challenge to France, and the forces that drive young people to join violent extremist groups remain poorly understood. Far more than the United States, the circumstances that drive average people to become violent affect a far larger proportion of the population.

Often, discussions of the subject devolve into simple platitudes. Radicals must be mentally unstable; religious fanatics; or victims of societal pressure —or all of the above. Grooming efforts by terrorist recruiters, playing on the personal vulnerabilities and shame of French citizens, appear to be the root cause of radicalization.

While there is much argument about the value of deradicalization programs, including their ability to stop attacks, these programs have immense value from an intelligence gathering perspective. They can offer a unique mechanism for intelligence gathering on the jihadist recruitment process. And France provides a useful case study for the self-destructive paths the radicalized take.

The number of French-speaking jihadists worldwide well exceeds that of any other Western language. So it is no surprise that their recruitment efforts are the most sophisticated in France, as observed by CPDSI [Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam] firsthand through extended interviews with more than 1,000 individuals. The CPDSI is a French government entity that works to intervene in the lives of citizens at risk of becoming radicalized.

In France, there is significant evidence that ISIS recruiters utilize standard case officer techniques to broaden their pool of potential recruits well beyond the Muslim population. These recruiters probe for vulnerabilities and opportunities to drive wedges between the recruit and French society.

The vulnerabilities can be along any axis: social, socioeconomic, political, cultural, ethnic, religious, or psychological. The mission of the recruiter is to transform the malaise into an adherence to jihadist ideology. The goal is to manipulate the recruit into believing that such adherence is the only possible escape from their malaise.

The motivations of the recruit depend on their recruiter, but most motivations are pedestrian and banal, rather than ideologically or religiously motivated. For example, the promise to women of a faithful, protective husband holds an alluring pull, as roughly 50 percent of the radicalization cases reported in France involved women. The most common threads all share one thing in common: they promise access to a better world, and perhaps a better self. [Continue reading…]

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How far could the dangerous endgame in eastern Syria go?

The Washington Post reports: The war against the Islamic State always promised to get messy in its final stages, as the militants retreat and rival forces converge from different directions. That moment has arrived.

World powers and their local allies are scrambling to control the remote desert province of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, in an accelerating race that is being compared to the fall of Berlin in 1945.

Under Islamic State control since 2014, the province is three times the size of Lebanon and consists mostly of empty desert. It also happens to contain most of Syria’s oil resources. But much more is at stake: the future contours of postwar Syria; Kurdish aspirations to some form of autonomy; and the competition for influence in the Middle East among the United States, Iran and Russia.

On the ground the combatants fall into two camps: one backed by Russia and Iran, the other by the United States and its allies.

Advancing from the north are the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a Kurdish-led coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces that is expanding the boundaries of the autonomous area they have carved out farther north. They are accompanied by American Special Operations troops and backed by U.S. airstrikes.

Making rapid progress from the east are the Syrian government and its allies, accompanied by Russian and Iranian advisers and backed by Russian airstrikes. They’re fulfilling President Bashar al-Assad’s goal of reasserting Syrian sovereignty over every inch of Syria — and also making sure the United States stays out. [Continue reading…]

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With Assad’s fate secure, Russia sets its sights on ISIS fighters in Syria

The Guardian reports: The head of the Russian army in Syria has said the defeat of Islamic State in the country is imminent during a visit to a strategically located town recently recaptured from Isis by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

“All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating Isis in Syria,” said Lt Gen Alexander Lapin, standing amid heavy security outside the building of a former Isis sharia court, adorned with the extremist group’s black-and-white logo. “I can promise you that no Isis terrorist will ever set foot in this town again.”

Okeirbat was regained by forces loyal to the Syrian government on 2 September after a three-month assault amid intensive Russian airstrikes. Recapturing the town enabled government-backed forces to push forward towards breaking the long-standing siege on Deir ez-Zor, in the east of the country.

Russia entered the conflict on the side of Assad’s government in September 2015 at a time when the regime looked close to falling. Although Moscow’s stated goal has always been to defeat Isis, during the first year of engagement the majority of Russian airstrikes targeted other opposition groups, including those supported by western countries.

Russia’s long-standing policy in the Middle East has been that retaining the status quo, however unpleasant the regime may be, is always better than revolution, and the Russian intervention appeared designed to shore up the Assad regime at any cost. [Continue reading…]

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Moscow flaunts might against fading ISIS as it alters balance of power in Syria

The Guardian reports: “I recommend you to look in that direction,” said Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov with a smile, gesturing at the Mediterranean waters from aboard the Admiral Essen naval frigate.

Moments later, two whooshes of noise and smoke heralded the launch of seven cruise missiles by two submarines from Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

The Kalibr missiles, each with a half-tonne payload, hit Islamic State targets to the south-east of Deir ez-Zor around midday on Thursday, roughly an hour after launch, Konashenkov said. The town is a key strategic outpost in eastern Syria, where the Islamist fighters are in retreat. Opposition activists later said that at least 39 civilians were killed in airstrikes by Russian and US-backed coalition forces across the country.

Viewing the missile launch was the latest element of a tour for a group of Russian and foreign journalists, including the Guardian, of Russian activities in Syria, designed to show that Moscow is in control of both war and the peace in the country. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is near defeat in Iraq. Now comes the hard part

The Washington Post reports: The collapse of the Islamic State in its most important Iraqi strongholds has brought a rare moment of hope for a country mired in war for most of the past four decades.

It is also a moment of peril, as Iraq emerges from the fight against the militants only to be confronted with the same problems that fueled their spectacular rise in 2014.

Old disputes between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds over territory, resources and power already are resurfacing as the victors of the battles compete to control liberated areas or jostle for political advantage in the post-Islamic State landscape.

They now are compounded by the mammoth task of rebuilding the towns and cities destroyed by the fighting, returning millions of displaced people to their homes and reconciling the communities that once welcomed the Islamic State’s brutal rule as preferable to their own government’s neglect and abuse.

Failure risks a repeat of the cycle of grievance and insurgency that fueled the original Iraqi insurgency in 2003, and its reincarnation in the form of the Islamic State after 2011, Iraqis and analysts say.

But it is a vast and potentially insurmountable challenge, laid bare on the traumatized streets of Mosul. In the relatively unscathed eastern part of the city, life has bounced back. Traffic clogs the streets, music blares from markets and stores are piled high with consumer goods that were banned or hard to find under Islamic State rule, such as cellphones, air conditioners and satellite dishes. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed forces announce anti-ISIS push in Syria’s oil-rich east

The Washington Post reports: U.S.-backed forces in Syria announced a fresh offensive around the Islamic State’s most important remaining stronghold Saturday, accelerating a global scramble for control of the country’s oil-rich east.

Islamic State militants are under pressure from all sides in the border province of Deir al-Zour, facing down competing offensives involving almost all of the six-year war’s major players, as the extremist group’s self-declared caliphate crumbles across Syria and Iraq.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated militia supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, said Saturday that they would clear the Islamist militants from territory east of the Euphrates River. [Continue reading…]

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Why do people die fighting for a cause?

Science reports: To beat your enemies, you must understand them intimately. And so anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues have spent the last 2 years interviewing Islamic State group fighters and their opponents on the front lines. For a study published yesterday in Nature Human Behavior, Atran, director of research at Artis International, a research institute based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and his research team personally talked with extremists in the field, whom they’d reached through local leaders. They also conducted online surveys with thousands of Spanish citizens in order to include a more pacific population. Science spoke with Atran, who also holds positions at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and France’s CNRS in Paris, about his work. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What makes someone willing to die fighting for a cause?

A: Well, lots of things, but what best predicted willingness to die on the battlefront was both devotion to a tight-knit group of comrades—fusion with them—and commitment to sacred values. But the values actually trumped the group, which may be the first time that was shown. Because most of the military sociology and psychology, at least since World War II, has said that will to fight is based on camaraderie and fighting for your buddies.

In September 2014, [then-President Barack] Obama’s national security director said the greatest mistake the U.S. made in Iraq was underestimating ISIS’s will to fight, and he said it was similar in Vietnam. And then he said will to fight is an imponderable, which is why we undertook this study.

Q: What are sacred values?

A: They are moral values. We’ve shown in lots of different contexts that sacred values are immune or resistant to material trade-offs. You wouldn’t sell your children or sell out your country or your religion for all the money in China. Another aspect is that they generate actions because they’re the right thing to do, so you’re not really worried about risks or rewards or cost or consequences. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. role in the fight to oust ISIS from Raqqa raises questions about what will follow victory

Borzou Daragahi reports: The Trump administration has dramatically increased US military and political involvement in northern Syria, providing air and ground support to local forces camped out in abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Raqqa as they seek to oust ISIS from the capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Under President Donald Trump, the US-led coalition has developed closer coordination with a collection of militias and tribes called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), directing air and ground assaults. Senior State Department and USAID officials have visited Raqqa’s outskirts to coordinate efforts to help displaced civilians and secure the city’s future once ISIS is driven out. US officials have also carved out a semipermanent diplomatic presence close to the northern Syrian city of Kobane.

US and other Western security officials grill captured ISIS fighters, most of them held at a prison near Kobane, to glean intelligence on the jihadis, their future plans, and their ties to other fighters in the Middle East and the West, according to SDF fighters and Kurdish intelligence officials, as well as a former US military official. The efforts have made Trump popular among many of Syria’s autonomy-minded Kurds, with some praising him as a patron of their project to build a self-ruled enclave.

The ground war, launched late last year with skirmishes on the outskirts of Raqqa before reaching the city in early June, has become a grueling street battle, with tens of thousands of Syrian militiamen approaching from the east, west, and south. Each day, the SDF — a multiethnic, multireligious collection force mostly led by Kurdish commanders — struggles to force its way into the city, while US-led coalition planes circle overhead and laser-guided howitzer artillery guns manned by Marines stand ready. The SDF is strongly under the sway of the YPG, a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a fact that creates huge tensions with the US’s NATO partner Turkey and may precipitate a raft of political problems once ISIS is defeated. But for now the SDF’s fighters are Washington’s best allies in northern Syria, risking their lives under extreme conditions in the slow, brutal effort to take Raqqa.

ISIS has controlled Raqqa for more than three years, building a network of tunnels, secret passages, and fortified positions. Field commanders say the fight isn’t just house to house, it’s often room to room. There is Raqqa, and then a second Raqqa hidden underground and in the cracks, said one commander who described a 14-hour battle just to get to the second floor of a building after taking control of the first floor. Unlike Iraqi troops operating in the recently liberated city of Mosul, few if any of the SDF fighters have body armor. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: ‘Deadly labyrinth’ traps civilians trying to flee Raqqa battle against ISIS

Amnesty International reports: Thousands of civilians trapped in Raqqa, northern Syria, are coming under fire from all sides as the battle for control of the city enters its final stage, Amnesty International said following an in-depth investigation on the ground. The warring parties must prioritize protecting them from hostilities and creating safe ways for them to flee the frontline.

In a report released today, the organization documents how hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured since an offensive began in June to recapture the “capital” and main stronghold of the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS).

Survivors and witnesses told Amnesty International that they faced IS booby traps and snipers targeting anyone trying to flee, as well as a constant barrage of artillery strikes and airstrikes by the US-led coalition forces fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) armed group. At the same time, survivors recounted how Russian-backed Syrian government forces also bombarded civilians in villages and camps south of the river, including with internationally banned cluster bombs.

“As the battle to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State intensifies, thousands of civilians are trapped in a deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides. Knowing that IS use civilians as human shields, SDF and US forces must redouble efforts to protect civilians, notably by avoiding disproportionate or indiscriminate strikes and creating safe exit routes,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who led the on-the-ground investigation. [Continue reading…]

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After victory over ISIS, Mosul discovers the cost: Homes were turned into graves

The Washington Post reports: Aya Abosh found her sister in the house where she spent her final moments, trapped with her boys as shells fell from the sky and caved in the roof.

They were lying there, in the detritus of floral blankets and twisted railings. “Hammoudi,” Abosh said, somehow recognizing her 6-year-old nephew, Mahmoud. Recovery workers toiled around her, struggling to find a zipper on a body bag, then straining to wrap remains disfigured by trauma, time and sun.

Sajjida, the sister, was 28 and devoted to God, Abosh said. Bakr, the other boy, was 9. In the heat and stench and swirling dust, Abosh quietly stared at the bodies before the workers spirited them away. It was early yet, and there were many more bodies to uncover in the Old City of Mosul.

This was the site of Iraq’s landmark military victory just weeks ago that ended the Islamic State extremist group’s wrenching occupation of Mosul and crippled the militants’ odious ambitions for the Middle East, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said. There were noisy, flag-waving celebrations, even as the prime minister reminded the nation that there had been “blood and sacrifices,” too.

Only now is the terrible cost of the victory emerging, in quarters of the Old City ground to rubble by airstrikes and shelling and suicide bombs. For under the barrage were thousands of homes packed with families. Hundreds of the houses were transformed into graves. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led airstrikes are killing hundreds of civilians in the battle for ISIS-held Raqqa

The Washington Post reports: U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria are killing hundreds of civilians each month, according to monitoring groups, deepening already grave concerns for thousands of families trapped inside the city.

At least 725 civilians have been killed in coalition airstrikes since the offensive to retake Raqqa began June 6, according to Airwars, a London-based monitoring organization that works with local activists, human rights groups and the Pentagon.

“We had been flagging for months prior to the offensive that far more civilians were dying around Raqqa than we would have expected even a few months earlier,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars.

“Since the assault began, we have seen a casualty count that is relatively high compared to the rest of the coalition’s war against ISIS,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. “In Raqqa, this means high numbers of identifiable civilians, many of them women and children.” [Continue reading…]

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Extremism is surging. To beat it, we need young hearts and minds

Scott Atran writes: The last of the shellshocked were being evacuated as I headed back toward Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famed tourist-filled walkway where another disgruntled “soldier of Islamic State” had ploughed a van into the crowd, killing at least 13 and injuring more than 120 from 34 nations. Minutes before the attack I had dropped my wife’s niece near where the rampage began. It was deja vu and dread again, as with the Paris massacre at the Bataclan theatre in 2015, next door to where my daughter lived.

At a seafront promenade south of Barcelona, a car of five knife-wielding kamikaze mowed down a woman before police killed them all. One teenage attacker had posted on the web two years before that “on my first day as king of the world” he would “kill the unbelievers and leave only Muslims who follow their religion”.

Mariano Rajoy, the president of Spain, declared that “our values and way of life will triumph” – just as Theresa May had proclaimed “our values will prevail” in March when yet another petty criminal “born again” into radical Islam drove his vehicle across Westminster Bridge to kill and wound pedestrians.

In Charlottesville the week before, the white supremacist attacker who killed civil rights activist Heather Heyer mimicked Isis-inspired killings using vehicles. “This was something that was growing in him,” the alleged attacker’s former history teacher told a newspaper. “He had this fascination with nazism [and] white supremacist views … I admit I failed. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”

The values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground around the world to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical Islam. This is not a “clash of civilisations”, but a collapse of communities, for ethno-nationalist violent extremism and transnational jihadi terrorism represent not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their unravelling. [Continue reading…]

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How 12 young men from a small town secretly plotted the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain in more than a decade

The Washington Post reports: The Spanish interior minister boasted Saturday that the terrorist cell that had carried out attacks in Barcelona and a nearby seaside village has been “completely dismantled.” But in the mountain town where the conspiracy was born, people wanted to know how it all had started.

At the center of the mystery here: How did a dozen young men from a small town — some friends since childhood — come together to plot in secret and carry out the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain in more than a decade, considering some were barely old enough to drive and most still lived with their parents.

As many as eight of 12 young men named as suspects in the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils are first- and second-generation Moroccan immigrants from the picturesque town of Ripoll, perched high in the forests at the edge of the Pyrenees, a two-hour drive on the highway from Barcelona.

Parents of the young men here told The Washington Post they fear their sons were radicalized by a visiting cleric who spent the last months praying, preaching — and possibly brainwashing gullible youngsters who spoke better Spanish than Arabic. [Continue reading…]

 

Christopher Dickey writes: According to the JTIC [Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre], Spanish police have arrested at least 20 suspects connected to the Islamic State. “Notably, 11 of the suspects detained in 2017 have been arrested in Catalonia, where the latest attack occurred,” the JTIC reports. “Of 38 counter-terrorism operations conducted in 2015 and 2016, 10 operations leading to the arrests of 24 suspected Islamist militants were conducted in Catalonia. Since the start of 2015, 43.2 percent of arrests targeting Islamist militants recorded by JTIC have taken place in Catalonia, highlighting it as a hub of Islamist activity in Spain.”

Yet, for all that, “the two attacks and the relatively large geographic dispersal between Barcelona and Cambrils, the involvement of a larger number of people [than in other attacks in Europe in 2016 and 2017] and the potential discovery of a site to prepare powerful explosives in Alcanar suggest a much higher level of coordination than has been typically present in previous attacks.”
Spain has been on its next-highest level of alert since 2015, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks early that year.

But the autonomous Catalan government has been pressing forward with plans for a highly contentious referendum on complete independence scheduled for October 1, and its secessionist sentiment, though by no means universal, may have had particular relevance to these attacks.

Hugo Micheron, a researcher who has interviewed scores of jihadis in French prisons and elsewhere, notes that those operating in Europe often see elections as key moments for their operations. “ISIS wants to destabilize the democratic process,” he says. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi forces start offensive to retake Tal Afar from ISIS

The New York Times reports: A month after liberating Mosul from the Islamic State, Iraqi forces began a new offensive Sunday to retake Tal Afar, one of the last big cities in Iraq under control of the extremists.

As he has done frequently during the three-year military campaign against the Islamic State, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared on state television in the dark hours — close to 3 a.m. Sunday, a time chosen to heighten the drama — wearing a black uniform in the style of Iraqi special forces to announce that the operation had begun.

Using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, Mr. Abadi addressed the militants directly. “I would say to Daesh fighters, you have no choice: Either surrender or die,” he said.

Tal Afar, once a remote military outpost for the Ottoman Empire, fell to the Islamic State in 2014. It was strategically significant for its location along a supply route between Mosul and Syria, where the militant group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is also on its heels as it defends its de facto capital there, Raqqa. [Continue reading…]

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Nature of Las Ramblas attack provides harsh lessons in fight against terror

Jason Burke writes: The precise motivation and the identity of the Barcelona attackers will become clear in the next few hours. Islamic State has claimed responsibility on its Amaq news agency, though in recent months such claims have become highly unreliable.

Individuals close to Isis and active on social media have been celebrating the attack, but this does not necessarily indicate a direct connection between the attacker or attackers and the group.

Tactics spread among militants when they are seen to work. There is no skill needed to drive a vehicle into a crowd, nor any difficulty involved in obtaining one. This makes a car, van or lorry an ideal weapon for today’s terrorists, who are often inspired by a group but are not actually part of it, and for the most part, lack the training and means necessary for more complex attacks.

The second lesson is that there is now little discrimination in targeting. This means tourists are very much in the line of fire. A decade or so ago, Islamic militant groups sought to send specific messages through their violence. Random attacks against unarmed civilians were seen as ineffective, and even counter-productive in terms of garnering public support in the Muslim world. The 9/11 attack was launched against targets seen by al-Qaida as symbols of US economic, political and military power.

In 2004, Spain was the target of the bloodiest jihadi attack on European soil when commuter trains were bombed by al-Qaida sympathisers in Madrid. One aim was to undermine Spanish support for military intervention in Iraq, and influence an election. Spain was also a particular target because of the historic resonance for militants of the Islamic kingdom of Andalusia, lost to Christendom 900 years ago.

This has changed. Isis has led a broader shift towards attacking anyone, anywhere, anyhow. Public spaces, always inherently vulnerable, are now more at risk than ever. Music fans in Manchester, summer revellers in Nice, pub-goers in London, and of course tourists, whether taking pictures on Westminster Bridge, on a beach in Tunisia, or on an airplane returning to Russia from Egypt. [Continue reading…]

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‘Terror’ struck Barcelona, according to Trump. Charlottesville? ‘Call it whatever you want.’

Callum Borchers writes: Within hours of a vehicular attack in Barcelona that killed at least 13 and injured dozens of others on Thursday, President Trump called it “terror.”


Yet at a news conference three days after a similar episode in Charlottesville, where an alleged Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19, the president would not definitely assign the same label.

“Was this terrorism?” a journalist asked on Tuesday.

“Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country,” Trump replied, “and that is — you can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want.” [Continue reading…]

However each attack gets labelled, the more important question is how they are related since it’s hard to dismiss the temporal sequence as purely coincidental.

The reality is that an attack of this kind requires very little planning and thus the first attack could indeed have triggered the second. Moreover, the attacker in Barcelona would surely have been fully aware of the attack in Charlottesville and thus seen global media attention as ripe for the picking through an escalation of violence.

Was the latest attack conceived as a way of mocking (and goading) American Islamophobic terrorists — as if to say, your brutality is no match of ours?

Was it intended to highlight Trump’s hypocrisy in his responses to violent attacks?

What seems least likely is the possibility that Charlottesville was nowhere within the considerations of the perpetrator(s) of today’s deadly attack in Barcelona.

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