Thursday, February 03, 2005

Asymmetry and terror

CNN's Henry Schuster has an interesting piece about "lone wolves" -- a topic that, as regular readers (or those familiar with In God's Country) know, is a subject near and dear to my heart.

It touches on cases I've also discussed here previously, notably William Krar, the would-be cyanide bomber, as well as the anthrax killer:
Ask Potok and the folks at the SPLC and they will tell you they believe the anthrax killer is a lone wolf -- and probably not an Islamic terrorist, despite the letters that were sent in late 2001 containing the anthrax, which seemed to signal this was an al Qaeda-style attack. Potok and company base this belief in part on how the killer has gone quiet since the flurry of letters in late 2001 -- and that there have been no claims by international terror groups.

You might be noticing the pattern by now. Lone wolves are typically Americans with an extremist agenda, usually anti-government. They are certainly not the only domestic terrorists (we'll deal with the animal rights and eco-terrorists at a later date), but they are scary nonetheless.

It's not that they are merely scary: it's that they are more effective than they're often given credit for. Think, for instance, of how for nearly a month the anthrax story was the lead on all the newscasts, because it was perceived as an act of terrorism of a piece with 9/11.

And the truth is, it was, though not in the way most people think. The anthrax killer almost certainly was not an Al Qaeda or Iraqi terrorist, but was a domestic terrorist (probably one with right-wing political beliefs, though not necessarily acting solely from those beliefs). Just as certainly, though, he was consciously piggybacking off the 9/11 attacks to enhance the effectiveness of his weapon, which was not to kill people, but to terrorize the populace.

That is to say, there is an important symbiotic relationship between foreign and domestic terrorists, as exemplified by this case: the latter creates an "echo" effect that enhances the intent of the original foreign terrorist attack, while also advancing the agenda of the former (which is to destabilize public confidence in the government so that it can present itself as an authoritarian alternative to a system unable to keep its citizens secure).

Moreover, both events represent the aspect of terrorism (as I've argued till I'm blue in the face) most absent from the popular understanding of the phenomenon which is, ostensibly, our real enemy in the War on Terror: its asymmetry as a threat.

Thanks to a combination of technology and increasingly virulent and violence-prone forms of extremism, it's now possible for just a tiny number of people -- in some cases, one or two -- to wreak major damage, killing hundreds, even thousands of innocent civilians. That was as true of Oklahoma City as it was of 9/11.

It's too bad it took an attack committed by a previously small faction of Islamic extremists -- who, as it happened, were both foreigners and brown-skinned, unlike the Oklahoma bombers -- for us to declare a "war on terror." The question I've always had is this: Why didn't we declare it after April 19, 1995, instead of September 11, 2001? Because it was the former date that actually hailed the arrival of this threat on our doorsteps.

Unfortunately, it is that same lack of perspective that allows us to pursue wars of power, invading other nations under false pretext, all in the name of the "war on terror." It's this same failure to understand the nature of the beast that leads us to blithely create a cauldron for breeding a fresh generation of terrorists in Iraq.

In the meantime, we yawn when federal authorities arrest a hard-core "Patriot" in Idaho named David Roland Hinkson for plotting to kill a federal judge, an assistant U.S. attorney, and an IRS agent:
During pretrial proceedings, an FBI agent testified that Hinkson's anger toward Judge Lodge was long-standing, stretching back to the judge's dismissal of charges against an FBI sharpshooter who killed Vicki Weaver during a standoff with white separatists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992. Prosecutors said Hinkson was affiliated with Idaho militia groups who shared his hatred of Lodge.

It's true that, generally speaking, domestic terrorists are neither as competent nor as likely to pose a major threat as most international terrorists, particularly Al Qaeda. And the belief systems that feed the domestic terrorists have not become pervasive in popular Western culture the way Al Qaeda and Wahhabism generally have insinuated themselves in the Islamic world (though there has been an increasing blurring of the lines between the mainstream and extremist right in recent years).

Nonetheless, given the right actors, the right weapons, and the right circumstances, they remain nearly as capable of inflicting serious harm on large numbers of citizens as their foreign counterparts. This is especially true because they are less likely to arouse suspicion and can more readily blend into the scenery.

Most of all, what they lack in smarts or skill, they make up for in numbers: Since the early 1990s, the vast majority of planned terrorist acts on American soil -- both those that were successfully perpetrated and those apprehended beforehand -- have involved white right-wing extremists. Between 1995 and 2000, over 42 such cases (some, like Eric Rudolph, involving multiple crimes) were identifiable from public records.

Some of these were potentially quite lethal, such as a planned attack on a propane facility near Sacramento that, had it been successful, would have killed several thousand people living in its vicinity. Krar's cyanide bomb could have killed hundreds. Fortunately, none of these plotters have proven to be very competent.

The rate has slowed since 2000, but the cases have continued to occur. And someday, our luck is going to run out. Certainly, if we are counting on their incompetence, the fact that the anthrax killer (whose attacks in fact were quite successful in their purpose) has not yet been caught. Likewise, if Al Qaeda attacks again, that will likely signal a fresh round of piggybacking.

That is only possible, of course, if we continue to succumb to the notion that domestic terrorists represent "isolated incidents," while foreign terrorists are the "real enemy." Let's be truthful: They are all The Enemy.

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