German terrorism case highlights Europe’s security challenges

The New York Times reports: The warning came to the German security authorities in early September from “our best partners,” as they euphemistically refer to the American intelligence agencies: A terrorist assault might be in the works.

In the weeks that followed, the Germans identified a suspect, a refugee from Syria. They unearthed evidence that he had been casing a Berlin airport for an attack, and they recovered powerful explosives from his apartment, only to see him slip through their fingers. When they eventually captured him, the suspect promptly hanged himself in his jail cell.

The case was notable for its dramatic turns. But it also underscored two central challenges facing the Continent: getting a handle on the security risk related to the arrival of more than a million migrants last year, and addressing the continued reliance of European governments on intelligence from the United States to avert attacks.

Both issues have been plaguing Europe since the high-profile attacks in France and Belgium over the past two years. Governments have scrambled to counter the threat even as migrants, many with little or no documentation of their identity or country of origin, came over their borders in previously unheard-of numbers. The challenge has become more pressing in Germany in recent months after a spate of arrests and attacks, some linked to migrants.

“In a way, we have outsourced our counterterrorism to the United States,” said Guido Steinberg, a terrorism expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The Germans are not ready to build up their intelligence capabilities for political reasons, so this will continue.” [Continue reading…]

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This is not the Crusades — ISIS is as modern as self-driving cars

David M Perry writes: In the early going of the second presidential debate, Anderson Cooper said to Donald Trump, “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Trump responded by saying his taped conversation with Billy Bush was just “locker room talk,” then pivoted to ISIS. He said, “You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times.”

As a medieval historian, I’ve been watching the ways in which Trump, other politicians, and even plenty of journalists characterize ISIS and its horrific actions as “medieval.” I’ve always thought it was a mistake, but a mistake mostly limited to the world of rhetoric. On Friday, that changed. Three men were arrested for plotting to blow up an apartment complex that houses both a Mosque and many Muslim-Americans. They called themselves – The Crusaders.

The idea that contemporary military and terrorist activities in the Middle East embody a new Crusade isn’t exactly new. What’s startling is that today both supporters of ISIS and radical Christian terrorists have adopted the same language. Both sides are using medieval history to justify their violent intentions.

We have to push back on the notion that this ultra-contemporary conflict is the inevitable result of an unusual episode in the history of Islamic-Christian relations. [Continue reading…]

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Three Kansas men calling themselves ‘Crusaders’ charged in terror plot targeting Muslim immigrants

The Washington Post reports: Three Kansas men were accused of plotting a bomb attack targeting an apartment complex home to a mosque and many Muslim immigrants from Somalia, authorities said Friday.

Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright and Patrick Eugene Stein face federal charges of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, the Department of Justice announced Friday.

“These charges are based on eight months of investigation by the FBI that is alleged to have taken the investigators deep into a hidden culture of hatred and violence,” Acting U.S. Attorney Tom Beall said in a statement. “Many Kansans may find it as startling as I do that such things could happen here.”

According to the complaint, the investigation was prompted by a paid confidential informant who had attended meetings with a group of individuals calling themselves “the Crusaders,” and heard plans discussed plots to attack Muslims, whom they called “cockroaches.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military operations are biggest motivation for homegrown terrorism, FBI study finds

The Intercept reports: A secret FBI study found that anger over U.S. military operations abroad was the most commonly cited motivation for individuals involved in cases of “homegrown” terrorism. The report also identified no coherent pattern to “radicalization,” concluding that it remained near impossible to predict future violent acts.

The study, reviewed by The Intercept, was conducted in 2012 by a unit in the FBI’s counterterrorism division and surveyed intelligence analysts and FBI special agents across the United States who were responsible for nearly 200 cases, both open and closed, involving “homegrown violent extremists.” The survey responses reinforced the FBI’s conclusion that such individuals “frequently believe the U.S. military is committing atrocities in Muslim countries, thereby justifying their violent aspirations.”

Online relationships and exposure to English-language militant propaganda and “ideologues” like Anwar al-Awlaki are also cited as “key factors” driving extremism. But grievances over U.S. military action ranked far above any other factor, turning up in 18 percent of all cases, with additional cases citing a “perceived war against Islam,” “perceived discrimination,” or other more specific incidents. The report notes that between 2009 and 2012, 10 out of 16 attempted or successful terrorist attacks in the United States targeted military facilities or personnel. [Continue reading…]

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New York’s rational response to terror

Adam Gopnik writes: The bombings that took place in Chelsea and New Jersey over the weekend managed to be both frightening and, in a strange way, inspiring. They were frightening, obviously, because they reminded us that, given the realities of modern technology and its dissemination of information, we can never hope to be entirely safe against the threat of terrorism. Whether or not the suspected bomber had a direct relationship with ISIS or other foreign groups, or, as so often now, an indirect one, or none at all, information about how to construct bombs is now so widely available that it is impossible to build complete immunity against terrorism, certainly not in anything still resembling an open society. For all the ingenuity and obvious efficiency of the New York Police Department and its fellows — qualities that have made terrorism in the city since 9/11 far more infrequent than anyone might have imagined in those panicky days and months after it — there is no such thing as no risk. There will be more bombings, and there will be other bombers.

The more inspiring news is that, despite that truth, the response of the people of New York was not merely “bold” or “courageous,” or all those other words we use, sometimes obnoxiously, to congratulate ourselves. It was marked by something even better: cool, plain, dull indifference. It was as if New Yorkers were, after a difficult decade, finally internalizing the numerical realities of the threat that terrorism presents and the threat it doesn’t — of what terrorism is and isn’t. (And it was also a nice illustration of Jane Jacobs’s principle that there are many advantages in having eyes on the street.)

We can never get the risk level to zero. Still, the idea — still taboo to say, still disallowed from articulation, still too shocking to be uttered, certainly on cable television’s non-stop anxiety rounds — ought to be that terrorism remains as close to that as we can hope to find in this fatal world. The risks we take getting in a car or getting married (given how often spouses murder each other) or just walking outside — not to mention the risks that we take in owning a gun — are far higher than the risk that we run from terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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Ahmad Khan Rahami’s father told police in 2014 his son was a terrorist, officials say

The New York Times reports: Two years before Ahmad Khan Rahami went on a bombing rampage in New York and New Jersey, his father told the police that the son was a terrorist, prompting a review by federal agents, according to two senior law enforcement officials.

Separately on Tuesday, another official said that when Mr. Rahami was captured during a shootout with the police, he was carrying a notebook that contained writings sympathetic to jihadist causes.

In one section of the book, which was pierced by a bullethole and covered in blood, Mr. Rahami wrote of “killing the kuffar,” or unbeliever, according to the official, who agreed to speak about the investigation only on the condition of anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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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.

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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