How our leaders, and would-be leaders, became accomplices in terrorism

Christopher Dickey writes: When President Barack Obama says there will be no more 9/11s, he almost certainly is right, although what’s left of the core al Qaeda leadership still longs for an atrocity worthy of disaster-film director Roland Emmerich.

The bad news: in the Age of Anxiety, as my colleague Michael Weiss calls it, the jihadists have learned they get almost as much social, political and economic impact out of minor events, and even failure, as they do out of “successful” atrocities.

And that’s not so much because of the bad guys as it is because of us.

The terror perpetrated by the few has become a tool used by demagogues — our demagogues — to frighten and sometimes to stampede the masses. (Am I thinking of Donald Trump? Marine Le Pen? Geert Wilders? Boris Johnson in Brexit mode? Yes.)

What we have lost in the 15 years since the horrors of September 11, 2001, is a sense of perspective about the scale of the threat we face. [Continue reading…]

The threat from terrorism is asymmetrical in obvious ways, but fearmongers — with the help of the media — obscure the most significant asymmetry that is evident in the immediate aftermath of every atrocity: the inhumanity of the perpetrators is dwarfed by the humanity evident in the responses of the survivors. In the face of terror, the people who reach out to help each other, vastly outnumber the terrorists. Those whose fears are most susceptible to being purposefully amplified are those who get terrorized at a distance.


Americans are more worried about terrorism than they were after 9/11

The Atlantic reports: In 2002, with the footage of collapsing World Trade Centers still fresh in American minds, the pollsters at Pew Research posed a question. “Do you think the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the U.S.,” they asked, “is greater, the same, or less than it was at the time of the September 11th terrorist attacks?”

A slim plurality of respondents, 39 percent, said nothing had changed in the past year. A third allowed that things had gotten better. The rest — 22 percent — said America was actually less safe, despite the billions spent on a military incursion into Afghanistan and the creation of an entire new cabinet-level department devoted to homeland security.

It turns out 2002 was a relatively optimistic year. According to Pew’s latest figures, 40 percent of Americans now believe the country is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was in 2001, the highest ever. Republicans lead that charge: More than half think terrorists have grown stronger, while only a third of Democrats agree. And if the GOP is scared, Donald Trump is there to help — or rile things up. “If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not going to have our country anymore,” he said in June, following the mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. “There will be nothing — absolutely nothing –left.” [Continue reading…]


The use of violence in pursuit of a hopeless cause

In a review of Does Terrorism Work? A History by Richard English, Thomas Nagel writes: Three of the four (not al-Qaida) are nationalist organisations – Irish, Palestinian, Basque – aiming to overthrow the rule of another nation: Britain, Israel, Spain. The IRA wants British withdrawal from Ulster and a united Ireland, Hamas wants the elimination of the state of Israel and the establishment of a strict Islamic regime over the entire territory of Mandate Palestine, and ETA wants a Basque state independent of Spain. All three were founded in competition with more moderate nationalist movements pursuing related but less radical aims by non-violent means: the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the Partido Nacionalista Vasco. Rivalry with these moderate nationalists has been a very important part of the drama. The terrorism of the IRA and ETA never had more than minority support among the populations they purported to represent, and they officially renounced violence in 2005 and 2011, respectively. Hamas, on the other hand, won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, but was prevented from taking power except in Gaza, and continues to employ violent means. Al-Qaida is not a nationalist but what English calls a ‘religio-political’ movement, with global ambitions, dedicated to the expulsion of the US military from the Middle East, the overthrow of what it regards as apostate Muslim regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and the eventual restoration of the Caliphate, a Salafist theocracy governing the Muslim world under sharia law. But again, these aims are not shared by most Muslims.

English makes it clear that one of the things these four groups share is hatred and the desire for revenge, which comes out in personal testimony if not always in their official statements of aims. He quotes Osama bin Laden: ‘Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.’ Revenge for perceived injuries and humiliations is a powerful motive for violence, and if it is counted as a secondary aim of these movements, it defines a sense in which terrorism automatically ‘works’ whenever it kills or maims members of the target group. In that sense the destruction of the World Trade Center and Mountbatten’s assassination were sterling examples of terrorism working. But even though English includes revenge in his accounting, this is not what would ordinarily be meant by the question, ‘Does terrorism work?’ What we really want to know about are the political effects.

And here the record is dismal. What struck me on reading this book is how delusional these movements are, how little understanding they have of the balance of forces, the motives of their opponents and the political context in which they are operating. In this respect, it is excessively charitable to describe them as rational agents. True, they are employing violent means which they believe will induce their opponents to give up, but that belief is plainly irrational, and in any event false, as shown by the results. [Continue reading…]


Does killing terrorist leaders make any difference? Scholars are doubtful

Max Fisher writes: It seems obvious: Killing terrorist leaders should weaken their organizations, depriving those groups of strategic direction and ideological appeal. The death of someone like Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a senior Islamic State figure reported killed on Tuesday in Syria, should seem like a significant setback for the group.

But scholars have struggled to find evidence that killing leaders is an effective way to dismantle terrorist organizations, instead finding ample evidence that it makes little difference. That research seems to apply especially to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, whose attributes make it resilient to losing even a top figure like Mr. Adnani.

Two features make a terrorist group able to withstand a senior officer’s death, according to research by Jenna Jordan, a Georgia Tech professor and a leading expert on the subject.

The first is popular support. Groups need a steady stream of recruits and a pool of potential new leaders. Support among civilians in areas in which the groups primarily operate also makes them more stable, by broadening support networks and helping them to safely retrench when needed. Leaders are usually killed in or near communities that support them, resulting in those communities rallying behind the terrorist group and against whoever did the killing.

While it might be difficult to imagine that a community would support the Islamic State, the group’s continued control over parts of Syria and Iraq and the recruits flooding in from abroad demonstrate its appeal. Religious groups are even better at absorbing attacks, Professor Jordan found, because their appeal is based on a shared identity that transcends any individual leader.

The second feature is not something usually associated with groups like the Islamic State: bureaucracy. The more a terrorist group resembles a corporate organizational chart — often with administrative, payroll and logistical staff — the more stable it is, and the better able to handle a leader’s death. [Continue reading…]


Days of rage

Kenan Malik writes: In the past, the distinction between political violence and sociopathic rage was relatively clear. No longer. There seems today almost a continuum between ideological violence, disjointed fury and some degree of sociopathy or mental illness. What constitutes ideological violence has decayed; instead, amorphous rage has become a persistent feature of public life.

One reason is the breakdown of social and moral boundaries that once acted as firewalls against such behavior. Western societies have become more socially atomized and more riven by identity politics. The influence of institutions from the church to labor unions that once helped socialize individuals and inculcate them with a sense of obligation to others has declined.

As broader identities have eroded, and traditional social networks and sources of authority have weakened, people’s sense of belonging has become more parochial. Progressive movements that gave social grievance a political form have faded. Instead, the new oppositional movements are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity and take sectarian or separatist forms.

There is a growing disaffection with anything “mainstream,” and a perception of the world as out of control and driven by malign forces. All this has helped incubate a sense of rage without an outlet, undermined people’s ties to others as human beings, and weakened the distinction between sociopathy and political violence. [Continue reading…]


How victims of terror are remembered distorts perceptions of safety

By Richard Lachmann, University at Albany, State University of New York

Are Americans safe from terrorism?

Forty-nine dead in Orlando, five in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge in 2016. Twelve dead in San Bernardino, three at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and nine at a church in Charleston in 2015.

In addition, Americans watched ample news coverage of the attacks in Nice and Brussels in 2016, and two far more deadly attacks in Paris in 2015. Jihadist attacks are up dramatically in Europe, from four in 2014 to 17 in 2015. And, there are even more frequent deaths from terrorism elsewhere in the world, which usually receive less intense coverage in the U.S.

From 2002 through 2015, 80 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks. The 57 killed in 2016 almost equals the total of the previous 13 years. The totality of attacks worldwide can give Americans the impression that they are in escalating danger. An evolution in the way we remember the war dead since Vietnam may be one reason these deaths take up so much space in the public imagination.

In comparison to overall murders and auto accident fatalities, the deaths from terrorism are less significant. In 2013, the most recent year for which there are comprehensive statistics from the FBI, 13,716 Americans were murdered, the equivalent of an Orlando massacre every 32 hours.

In 2014, 32,675 Americans died in car accidents. In other words, the 57 Americans who died in terrorist attacks in 2016 were equal to 0.42 percent of all murders and 0.17 percent of all traffic deaths.

Why do the terrorist attacks get so much media coverage? Why is fear of terrorism a major issue in the current election? A Pew Research Center poll shows 80 percent of Americans see terrorism as “very important” to their vote this year, second only to the economy at 84 percent.

[Read more…]


Trump’s assassination dog whistle was an act of stochastic terrorism

David S. Cohen writes: One day after his widely discussed “reboot” in which he did nothing more than read basic Republican economic talking points from a teleprompter, Donald Trump uttered perhaps his most outrageous – and dangerous – ad-lib yet. And that’s saying something for a campaign in which he’s criticized John McCain for being a prisoner of war, characterized Mexicans as rapists, called for banning Muslims from coming into the country, picked a fight with a Gold Star family and urged Russia to hack his political opponent.

Speaking to a crowd in Wilmington, North Carolina, Tuesday, Trump expressed concern about Hillary Clinton possibly picking Supreme Court justices and other judges. He then said, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.”

Let that soak in for a second. One of the two major-party nominees for president just called for “Second Amendment people” to “do” something about his political opponent’s judges. According to the Trump campaign’s rapid response team, he was talking about those “Second Amendment people” coming together politically – “unification,” as they called it. The Clinton campaign, and pretty much the entire Internet, saw it differently: as a clear suggestion of violence against a political opponent.

It’s hard not to side with the Clinton campaign here. What Trump said was that a particular group – those who are defined by rallying around guns – should do something about Clinton and her judicial nominees. What can people who rally around guns do that’s different than others? Use those guns.

But it’s really irrelevant what Trump actually meant, because enough people will hear Trump’s comments and think he’s calling for people to take up arms against Clinton, her judges or both. Though most of the people hearing that call may claim he was joking, given what we know about people taking up arms in this country, there will undoubtedly be some people who think he was serious and consider the possibility.

In other words, what Trump just did is engage in so-called stochastic terrorism. This is an obscure and non-legal term that has been occasionally discussed in the academic world for the past decade and a half, and it applies with precision here. Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication “to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”

Let’s break that down in the context of what Trump said. Predicting any one particular individual following his call to use violence against Clinton or her judges is statistically impossible. But we can predict that there could be a presently unknown lone wolf who hears his call and takes action in the future.

Stated differently: Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn’t know which dog. [Continue reading…]


France’s emergency powers — the new normal

Letta Tayler writes: France’s latest renewal of its emergency law has made few headlines abroad—except perhaps in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh from passing his own sweeping state of emergency, may have relished watching the champion of liberté, égalité, and fraternité once again suspend rights in the name of security.

But European countries, rattled by a new spate of deadly attacks in France and Germany, may yet be tempted to turn to the new French law as a model. This would be a serious misstep on both legal and strategic grounds.

France’s parliament on July 22 did not simply extend the state of emergency that President Francois Hollande declared in the wake of the horrific Paris attacks last November. Propelled by the despicable Bastille Day attack a week earlier in Nice, lawmakers significantly expanded emergency powers of police search, seizure and detention. They also used the emergency powers act to slip more than a dozen new draconian counterterrorism provisions into French criminal law. In contrast to the emergency measures, which lapse in six months, these changes to France’s criminal codes are permanent.

There is no justification, ever, for attacks such as those in Nice and Paris, which together killed 214 people and wounded hundreds, or for tragic, smaller attacks that followed in Normandy and southern Germany. Whether the attackers are members of organizations like the Islamic State, lone wolves who heed such groups’ murderous calls, armed neo-fascists, or violent extremists of any other ilk, the authorities have a duty to protect people from such atrocities.

But governments must also take care not to overreact. Taken together, France’s rolling state of emergency and the amendments to criminal codes mark a perilous shift away from judicial safeguards against security force abuses. While every new attack increases the allure of tough responses, the new measures represent a serious step backward for human rights and the rule of law, playing directly to armed Islamist groups’ desires to divide the world along the stark lines of Western oppressors vs. Muslim oppressed. They also set a dangerous precedent for other governments, whether closer to home in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Turkey, or farther afield in Brazil, Malaysia, Australia and elsewhere. [Continue reading…]


British diplomat set to take on EU security portfolio

The Associated Press reports: Britain’s ambassador to France is set to take up a newly created European Union security portfolio, the EU’s executive arm announced Tuesday.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker wants Julian King to lead the institution’s fight against terrorism, organized crime and radicalization.

The post shares some tasks held by the commissioner for home affairs and migration issues but avoids any major activities that could be linked to Britain’s negotiations on leaving the EU in coming years.

King is a career diplomat who has spent several years working at EU headquarters in Brussels. [Continue reading…]


Pope Francis: Valuing money more than people ‘is a basic terrorism against all humanity’

Reuters reports: Pope Francis has said it was wrong to identify Islam with violence and that social injustice and idolatry of money were among the prime causes of terrorism.

“I think it is not right to identity Islam with violence,” he told reporters aboard the plane taking him back to Rome after a five-day trip to Poland. “This is not right and this is not true.”

The pope was responding to a question about the killing on 26 July of an 85-year-old Roman Catholic priest during a church service in western France. The attackers forced the priest to his knees and slit his throat. The killing was claimed by Islamic State.

“I think that in nearly all religions there is a always a small fundamentalist group,” he said, adding “We have them,” referring to Catholicism.

“I don’t like to talk about Islamic violence because every day when I look at the papers I see violence here in Italy – someone killing his girlfriend, someone killing his mother-in-law. These are baptised Catholics,” he said.

“If I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent,” he said.

He said there were various causes of terrorism.

“I know it dangerous to say this but terrorism grows when there is no other option and when money is made a god and it, instead of the person, is put at the centre of the world economy,” he said.

“That is the first form of terrorism. That is a basic terrorism against all humanity. Let’s talk about that,” he said. [Continue reading…]


French politicians are using terrorism to score points ahead of election

By Jocelyn Evans, University of Leeds and Gilles Ivaldi, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis

Until recently, France’s politicians had largely presented a united front against terrorist attacks. Rarely did they use tragedy to score points off each other. But that has started to change over the past year. Now a political controversy has erupted in the wake of the massacre in Nice on Bastille Day 2016. It will no doubt be further fuelled by the killing of a Catholic priest near Rouen.

Within hours of the incident at a fireworks display in Nice, opposition politicians were rounding on the government. How was it that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was able to kill 84 people and wound hundreds by driving a truck into a festive crowd, even as the country lived under a state of emergency?

One was Christian Estrosi, the former mayor of Nice and a Republican right winger who supports former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Estrosi is currently leading the offensive against the government. “Lies are fuelling the controversy,” he said, referencing the contested number of national police and soldiers in Nice on the night of the attack. “If the state stops lying, there will no longer be a controversy.”

[Read more…]


In Germany, anti-Muslim extremists may pose as big a threat as Islamist militants

The Washington Post reports: When an 18-year old German Iranian killed nine people and then shot himself on Friday in Munich, speculation that it was an Islamist attack circulated for hours.

But doubts arose when a video was uploaded in which the attacker can be heard shouting: “I am German.”

On Wednesday, German media cited police sources as saying that they now had credible information that the attacker was a right-wing extremist who hated Arabs and Turks. Although he was not thought to have been associated with any right-wing groups, according to those media reports, the sources called him a “racist.” His victims were mostly foreigners.

It would not be the first time an anti-Muslim attacker has been mistaken for an Islamist extremist in Germany.

Germany is still wrestling with the anti-Muslim terror group National Socialist Underground (NSU), which killed 10 people — most of them Turks — between 2000 and 2007. Investigators had initially blamed Germany’s immigrant community for most of the deaths, characterizing them as the result of infighting and organized-gang activity.

Two of the NSU suspects later killed themselves; a third, Beate Zschäpe, is on trial in Munich. The attacks have fostered deep mistrust between Germany’s large immigrant community and authorities: The country’s intelligence services stand accused of having deliberately ignored clues that right-wing extremists had carried out the killings. [Continue reading…]