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Commentary: Terrorism – Politics or Reality

In late 1988, there were a very small handful of us in the private sector who took the pragmatic approach to analyze the issues of “terrorism”. It was through present-day events that we attempted to understand the “how” of a successful terrorist attacks and the construct of counterterrorism measures. My approach, then and now, to counterterrorism is simply this: you are not “successful” when there is a terrorist event and, thereafter, you catch the terrorist. The center of the target for law enforcement at all levels of counterterrorism is to prevent the attack before its execution. There were a number of college professor in the 1988 examining terrorism. (I have two in mind who were outstanding, one at UConn and one on the West Coast). The main focus of both of these highly regarded academicians was from a historical prospective not from on-the-ground-present events and their analysis.

At one point in late 1988, I went to the far side of Kennedy Airport – then a quiet industrial area, stood at a metal fence separating the road from the runways, and visualized how many of the landing jets I could destroy with a hand held rocket launcher before I could escape being detected and arrested. My analysis forced me to reassess my then academic research direction. I was fortunate (because David Trager, then Dean of Brooklyn Law School who thought me a bit off the grid in being interested in current terrorism issues) to be able to obtain a sabbatical from my law school and, thru sheer luck I landed at the EastWest Institute. At that time I was the only person at the Institute interested in terrorism, but they afforded me all the help I needed in my research and writing. After being ensconced in a telephone sized office, I met three people who help me move at lightning speed into this new adventure: Yigal Carmon who was then the advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel, Ian Cuthbertson who was the VP at the Institute and Don Lavey who was a FBI agent assigned to lead the counter terrorism unit at INERPOL.

This month I was lucky when I came across Stephen Tankel who has written a long excellent article [https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/10/12/has-trump-read-his-own-counterterrorism-strategy/] that brought back those memories and, especially now, at a crucial time when the professional national security analysts are being all but ignored by a White House and its President. Those that council the President and the President himself do not understand the issues of terrorism and certainly not counterterrorism. They appear to be more inclined on a daily basis to be concerned with political theatre. And they do excel in clouding the real issues. The multi-million dollar Mexican wall and then the threat to send first five thousand then fifteen thousand American troops to the border is pure political scam theatre.

There are far more sophisticated and less costly methods to stop illegal immigration and the wall will certainly not stop the terrorist. The Muslim travel ban is also political theatre. I remember, many years ago, driving from Canada into the United States on a country road and suddenly seeing a sign attached to what appeared to be a large wooden telephone booth. The sign read something along the lines that you are about to enter the United States and asked that you please “call in” before proceeding across the border.

In reading the report of National Strategy for Counter Terrorism [https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/NSCT.pdf], released this month by the White House, one can easily sense that this is not some bold new plan but, as analyzed by Tankel, one built on the work of previous administrations. The present White House strategy adopts the approach beginning with the Bush II administration, of “collaborating so that foreign governments take the lead wherever possible, and working with others so that they can assume responsibility in the fight against terrorists.” That flies in the face of The Trump America First rallies, the bashing of NATO and the isolation approach by the present Administration. Clearly this method does not mesh with the security report. What the present Administration does do is to create a sense of something more than international political uncertainty with those partners in the international community. There are countries that looked to their American partnership for their own “containment” of terrorism. I think in most instances our foreign partners, who laughed at Trump’s declaration at the UN, are hopefully long term planners who look beyond the Trump presidency for rational thought.

When it comes to the increase in domestic initiated terrorism, Tankel writes that Trump’s acknowledgement of the threats posed by “domestic terrorists who are not motivated by a radical Islamist ideology is a welcome surprise.”

Domestic terrorism is a real and growing threat, and requires more government, not less specialized resources. In most cities, in this country, local law enforcement officials do not have the on-the-ground resources to cope with a terrorist attack; they have never developed the background intelligence resources and data necessary to either interdict or solve a terrorist incident. That requires years of development and money. There is a second problem that remains unaddressed and so often happens when legislation is drafted and then thru either oversight or sheer lack of foresight the failure of the legislature to address the penalties to be attached to the crime. A quick view of our federal code (18 U.S. Code § 2331 – Definitions) addressing domestic terrorism clearly illustrates this point…

“As used in this chapter—(5)the term domestic terrorism” means activities that—(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B)appear to be intended—(i)to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and  C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

 Nowhere in the statute does the Congress, in its acceptance that domestic terrorism is a distinct and separate criminal act, advise us of the penalties attached to these acts. I doubt that was intentional in its rush toward its enactment; but they have never done the work necessary to clear up that uncertainty and have left it to the various federal law enforcement prosecutors spread across the United States to fashion their own proscription from alleging murder to hate crimes in domestic terrorism litigation.

As I was about to put the final period to this blog and send it on to my editor, I reviewed the following report: The House Committee on Homeland Security and its recently released monthly Terror Threat Snapshot report. As usual, it paints a picture that “should keep every American on his or her guard and vigilant – especially during the holiday season.”

A report, compiled each month by U.S. Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), is a wide-ranging account of what it perceives is the current threat posed to the United States by ISIS-linked groups and other terrorism organizations. “The snapshot focuses on recent homegrown Jihadist cases in America – showing at least one homegrown case in 30 states – with 159 total cases since 2013.”

What frightens me is my strong belief that domestic terrorism will continue to increase in both tone and scope. The lone wolf or small cabal will be the leading actors. It only takes a truck and determination to decimate a parade. It need not be in New York or Boston or a Timmothy McVeeigh in Oklahoma City to create great personal tragedy, national havoc and pain that will never recede. Then, as I was about ready to post my commentary, my friend of 75+ years died, and I stopped doing most things. In that lull, a political domestic terrorist started delivering explosive devices to those who oppose President Trump. Home grown, domestically built bombs, delivered across the nation. Law enforcement was swift and the bomber was arrested. But the bombs still arrived after his arrest. There were a lot of bombs produced and almost simultaneously distributed, and we know that only 6 percent of terrorists act alone. This defendant lived in a van. How do you make and distribute –“simultaneously”—at least 14 bombs, however small from that environment? Then Saturday morning, a day later, at a Jewish Temple near Carnegie Mellon University, a gunman who owned over twenty weapons, joked during the standoff with police that he liked killing Jews. A horrendous mass killing.

Why am I not surprised? We see the blatant resurgence of anti-Semitism most strikingly by elected officials in the Congressional election and on social media. We have with the advent of the Trump era witnessed the escalating, to crises proportions, of violence fueled by hate speech. We live in a culture where a sitting president, publically announces that he will pay the legal fees of those who employ force to protest on his behalf. Who repeatedly uses ugly derogatory rhetoric to demean those who dare challenge him. Who, without hesitation, openly panders to and embraces the lowest common denominator in our society– the white supremacists as “really nice people”.

Really? Acceptable?

Richard Allan

The Editor