Saturday, February 09, 2008

Crazy Dangerous, Part II: Big Flashing Yellow Lights

-- by Sara

In my previous post, which was largely drawn from a public report detailing the risk assessment process followed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, we saw that there are four main factors -- anticipation of an apocalypse, a theology of violence, charismatic leadership, and active separation from the larger society -- that seem to predispose unconventional religious and political groups toward violent behavior.

One of the more interesting aspects of the CSIS report is its detailed account of the pattern of criminal behavior that these groups typically fall into, which often develops over a period of years before they actually turn violent. Paranoia turns to small-time thuggery turns to large-scale criminal networks -- and, often, it's the defense of these networks, or the fear of their discovery, that ultimately triggers a terrorist attack or law enforcement confrontation.

Understanding some of the forms this lawlessness can take in the run-up to their final confrontation can help us assess whether emerging groups are heading for trouble. In this post, we'll look at some of these signs and patterns -- the big flashing yellow lights that signal a political or religious group that has moved itself well outside the legal and social norms, and is very likely gearing up for terrorism or confrontation.

Political Influence
The most paranoid groups will separate so far from society that any political involvement is unthinkable. However, it's not unusual for large, well-funded groups to bribe public officials in order to get their way: for example, the CSIS notes that the Aum Shinrikyo cult "allegedly bribed Russian officials in exchange for a series of 'favours'."

Emerging groups will also go out of their way to recruit politically influential people as members. The CSIS's example is the Solar Temple, which counted the mayor of a Canadian town and a provincial government official among its members. As a group grows in influence, it may attempt to run candidates of its own. This gives them they legitimacy they crave (and participation in the give-and-take of politics may actually be a moderating influence on some members); but regular readers of this blog don't need to be told that having these folks in office is universally a Bad Idea.

Business Enterprises (Other People's)
It's not just politicians -- these groups may work hard to cultivate friends in other places, too. For example, they might recruit someone who's already a trusted employee of, say, a public utility, where they can reach the controls of water, power, or communication systems depended on by millions. Or they'll place one of their own with a company that does mining or road work and therefore has access to explosives.

In the past year, we've noted that white supremacist groups are encouraging their members to join the US Army in order to get the weapons training they'll need to execute their racial holy war. And I can easily forsee a time when anti-abortion groups cultivate friends with access to patient records, which can be used to target women and doctors for public outing, harassment, and violence. When evaluating the threat level of a group, it's useful to consider who its members are, what skills and training they have, and where they work -- because those connections can offer important clues as to the form the ultimate threat might take.

Business Enterprises (Their Own)
Buying country property and turning it into an armed camp is an expensive proposition; you can only browbeat your members for money and rely on the good will of your donor base for so long before they're all tapped out or scared off. Therefore, sooner or later, most extremist groups go into some sort of business.

According to the CSIS, these businessess often become a handy cover for illegal activities. Their hair-raising example: "Businesses owned by groups can both facilitate weapons acquisition and drive membership growth; the Aum cult's multimillion dollar empire financed the purchase of weapons, justified the possession of ingredients for chemical and biological weapons, and provided a legitimate vehicle for widespread recruitment." Another example is the Fundamentalist LDS's United Effort Plan, which put control of all the church members' assets in the sole hands of the patriarch, and essentially turned everyone into slave labor. (And investigating the operations of these businesses may be one of the best ways to take these groups down relatively peacefully: for example, in the end, it was an IRS assault on the UEP "corporation" that broke the back of the cult.)

For those so inclined, these businesses are a fine platform for taking the group's presence international -- and moving into international crime as well. The CSIS notes that the Solar Temple may have used its businesses to launder money and traffic in weapons; and both the Solar Temple and Aum are also suspected of running drugs through their businesses. If these allegations are true, it means that both groups were probably doing business with international organized crime syndicates -- and as a result, "any possible threats to the public safety are magnified." Indeed. When they start acting on this scale, the fine line between a violence-prone authoritiarian group and a violence-prone criminal cartel vanishes entirely.

Crimes of Intimidation
Amid all of this, groups heading toward violent confrontation will usually start with threats and petty violence against their own members and outsiders who dare to cross them. (Occasionally, these people end up dead -- as a warning to others, both inside and outside the group, of what happens to those who threaten its interests.) Learning that they can successfully intimidate and silence others adds to the group's sense of invincibility, and teaches them the dangerous lesson that violence works -- and both lessons increase the chances they'll resort to violence more quickly, and in greater magnitude, in the future.

Of course, this kind of intimidation and silencing also makes it much harder for investigators to identify and respond to a group that's moving toward a dangerous confrontation; and it's likely to escalate as the group gets wind of outsiders who are taking an interest in their activities.

In the next (and last) post covering the CSIS report, we'll talk about the big flashing red lights -- the final signs that a group has moved to a war footing, and may be becoming seriously committed to acts of domestic terrorism or triggering a violent confrontation with authorities.

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