Why Aren’t Terrorism Experts Looking Right?

By: Camille Pease and Kathleen Walsh, Guest Contributors

Photo Credit: ThinkProgress

As two recent alumnae of the Georgetown University Security Studies Program, we paid close attention to the recent joint conference and follow up report between Georgetown and the University of St Andrews on ‘What the New Administration Needs to Know About Terrorism & Counterterrorism.’ Our disappointment that the esteemed contributors did not mention right wing extremism over the course of the conference or written report provided the inspiration for us to take a deeper look at the reluctance of experts and professionals in the discipline to discuss terrorism in the context of white nationalism and the radical right.

Although right wing extremists and white nationalist terrorists pose a consistent and arguably increasing threat to the United States, scholars and experts overlook this violence when teaching about national security. This oversight both skews academic analysis of terrorism by nearly exclusively limiting their focus on jihadist groups as well as undermines future counterterrorism efforts by inadequately preparing the next generation of policymakers to confront the threat facing the nation.

This communal hesitancy to tackle white nationalism is especially troubling given the long-standing threat posed by domestic terrorists. The second most deadly terrorist attack on US soil remains the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh, motivated by anti-government sentiments and inspired by the fictional race war depicted in The Turner Diaries,[i] detonated a car bomb that killed 168 people. A 2014 survey[ii] found that state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies consider anti-government violent extremists to be the most severe threat of political violence they face. Until the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, right wing extremists were responsible for more attacks and higher casualty numbers on US soil than jihadist terrorists since the September 11th 2001 attacks.[iii] A 2012 study[iv] that expands its data set to include incidents labeled hate crimes raises the total of fatalities to 254 since 9/11—a number which has only risen since the report’s release. While one might question whether it is fair to lump in hate crimes with terrorist attacks, it is worth noting that law enforcement agencies have a tendency to classify attacks by white perpetrators as hate crimes rather than acts of terror. This was the case when Dylan Roof attacked[v] a Charleston Church in 2015, killing nine people out of desire to start a race war. Although terrorism’s definition varies between federal and local agencies—a problem in and of itself—its distinguishing features remain the threat or use of violence against civilians for political reasons. When hate, racism, and bigotry are inextricably linked with politics, the line separating the two becomes increasingly blurry.

The possibility of domestic terrorist attacks committed by members of white nationalist movements seems more acute than ever given the rising ‘alt-right’ and neo-Nazis emboldened by racially charged political rhetoric by members of the new administration during and after the campaign. In a recent incident in Kansas,[vi] for example, a man reportedly yelled ‘get out of my country’ before shooting two Indian men he misidentified as Iranian, killing one and wounding a bystander who attempted to intervene. Coming on the heels of an executive order which banned travelers from seven Muslim majority countries and was later struck down in court as unconstitutional, such a deeply political statement accompanied by violence would appear to satisfy the requirements to be classified as terrorism. Nonetheless, experts seem reticent to consider such attacks worthwhile of in-depth analysis. This reluctance bleeds into political spheres—Representative Sean Duffy (R-WI) recently called a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque by a white man who had previously expressed anti-immigrant views as a “one-off,” and claimed that “good things came from” Roof’s assault in Charleston.[vii]

The professional and academic national security community’s hesitance to engage with domestic terrorism as it relates to white nationalists and right wing extremists extends to academia as well. Speaking generally, experts tend to lean toward separating terrorism into two buckets: ‘real’ terrorism (i.e., jihadism) and everything else. Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program (SSP), for example, offers only a single course focused exclusively on domestic terrorism. This class, which also includes weeks on homegrown jihadists, was offered in only one semester over the past three years after a student expressly advocated for it during a student town hall. Meanwhile, core classes on terrorism and counterterrorism either discuss right wing extremism as a sidebar to the main narrative of the class, or simply do not discuss the phenomenon at all. Overall, SSP’s professors and experts at large trend toward treating analysis of the far right as somehow intellectually inferior or less important than analysis of radical Islamic terror. This tendency is especially troubling given the recent appointment of Steve Bannon, both a Georgetown alum of the predecessor to the Security Studies Program and as well as a noted white nationalist,[viii] to the National Security Council. Although Bannon’s history of extremism and ties to the program could have prompted an introspective moment, little appears to have changed despite a strong student call for SSP to release a statement condemning his views. The recent joint terrorism conference between Georgetown and the University of St Andrews focused nearly exclusively on jihadism, only referencing right wing extremism when directly asked in question and answer sessions. Moreover, the conference’s follow up report[ix] consisting of 15 articles by the foremost experts from both universities similarly contained 0 references to right wing extremists. The report did, however, find the space to include an article that in part discussed the possibility of “feminist terrorism,” apparently inspired by an off-the-cuff remark by Madonna during a performance at the recent Women’s March about blowing up the White House. While the author did state that the possibility of a violent sea change in the feminist movement was highly unlikely, the discussion seemed misplaced, even as a thought exercise, given the report’s failure to acknowledge the real and pressing threat posed by white nationalism.

Why are terrorism experts so reluctant to engage on issues of white nationalism and right wing extremism? Can we really not consider bomb threats[x] to Jewish community centers or arsons at mosques[xi] politically motivated threats of violence against civilians given increasing levels of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at the highest political levels? This hesitancy in our professional circles indicates two worrying trends: that the discipline’s now entrenched politics could skew analysis toward both a shallow and unnecessarily narrow understanding of terrorism, and that the lacking emphasis will beget a generation of policymakers unable to effectively counter a threat they fundamentally do not recognize.

First, the nearly exclusive focus on jihadism among terrorism experts will continue to produce flawed and narrow analysis. The first thing SSP students learn in their core ‘Theory & Practice of Security’ class is that theories are only useful insofar as they are widely applicable. If academics do not test theories on terrorism against groups with varying ideologies, the big picture of patterns and trends in terrorist activity will lack nuance. Such a limited focus also furthers the political fallacy that terrorism is the result of race or religion rather than human behavior. Even if experts recognize this truth in their analysis, their hyper-focus on jihadist groups carries unintended results: ignoring political violence perpetrated by non-Muslims or white people heightens the perception that political violence committed by Muslims or people of color is somehow a fundamentally unique phenomenon. Even if unintended, reliance on this lazy assumption ultimately produces flawed analysis that addresses terrorism within a restricted framing. Experts, as both academics and practitioners, have a responsibility to dispel this false notion, partially by ceasing the tendency to treat one kind of violence as more important than the other.

Additionally, the lacking discussion in academia will lead to graduating national security students being largely unprepared as they enter the government’s echelons, risking the nation’s ability to counter the rising violence and potentially resulting in increased attacks and civilian causalities worldwide. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States found itself struggling to quickly stand up a knowledge base on jihadi terrorism, al-Qa’ida, and even basic understanding of languages spoken in the Middle East. Those studying and working in the national security field should attempt to decrease the chances of repeating history by developing knowledge and expertise of threats on the horizon.

The lack of a deep knowledge base or a common, coherent analysis among future policymakers will continue to pose challenges given the increasing nature of right wing extremism as a strategic threat on the global stage. Just as the United States cannot simply ignore right wing terrorism happening at home as isolated incidents, it also cannot dismiss attacks abroad as a nationalist problem detached from our own security interests. Instead, the United States must see it as a global, strategic threat. Given the close political, security, and economic relationship with Canada and the European Union, for example, the United States cannot afford to overlook right wing extremism in our neighbors to the north[xii] or across the pond.[xiii] With the shadow of white nationalism looming in Europe, the United States must acknowledge the transnational nature of the threat given the tendency for white nationalists to travel abroad[xiv] to strengthen their international networks and share ideas with like-minded individuals. A right wing terrorist group in Germany was able to assassinate at least 10 people and commit two bombings over 14 years before it was discovered in 2011,[xv] prompting criticism that the German government is ‘blind in the right eye.’ Educating national security students on terrorism in the context of white nationalism is an essential first step in avoiding similar oversight in the States.

As a result, Georgetown SSP and similar programs must adapt their curriculum to accurately reflect the most pressing and upcoming threats in both domestic and international theaters, regardless of whether or not the government acknowledges those threats. Academics should strive to be leaders in the field, pioneering sharp analysis that sets the stage for government to follow. Given that academia’s value lies in foresight and preparedness, core and elective courses on terrorism should include discussions on white nationalism and right wing extremism, and professors must do more to encourage interested students to write class papers and articles for the GSSR or other outlets. SSP’s motto ‘Theory, Policy, Scholarship, Practice’ highlights the cyclical nature of the discipline: as students become experts, their resulting policy suggestions will reflect their scholarly experience. If our analysis remains so stilted and uniformly fixated on only one type of terrorism, future policymakers will respond by prolonging a misaligned agenda that relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the threats facing the nation. The resulting security strategy will only endanger the homeland and risk increased attacks from white nationalist and right wing extremists against US citizens, especially minorities, as well as government institutions.

Henry Kissinger pithily stated that ‘The hand that mixes the Georgetown martini is time and again the hand that guides the destiny of the Western world.’ Given the pressing need and their unique proximity to academia and government, SSP should take the lead on addressing this issue. As tensions rise in the United States and threats of violence muster, it is imperative that we prepare students of national security accordingly.

Camille Pease and Kathleen Walsh are alumnae of the Georgetown University Security Studies Program (SSP).

[i] J.M. Berger, “Alt History,” The Atlantic, September 16, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/how-the-turner-diaries-changed-white-nationalism/500039/

[ii] Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, “Law Enforcement Assessment of the Violent Extremism Threat,” Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security (2015), https://sites.duke.edu/tcths/files/2013/06/Kurzman_Schanzer_Law_Enforcement_Assessment_of_the_Violent_Extremist_Threat_final.pdf

[iii] Bergen et. Al., “What is the Threat to the United States Today?” New America, https://www.newamerica.org/in-depth/terrorism-in-america/what-threat-united-states-today/

[iv] Arie Perliger, “Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s violent far-right,” Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, November, 2012, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ChallengersFromtheSidelines.pdf

[v] Rick Gladstone, “Many ask, why not call church shooting terrorism?” The New York Times, June 18, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-shooting-terrorism-or-hate-crime.html

[vi] Mark Berman, “FBI investigating shooting of two Indian men in Kansas as a hate crime,” The Washington Post, February 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/02/28/fbi-investigating-shooting-of-two-indian-men-in-kansas-as-a-hate-crime/?utm_term=.95303cef584c

[vii] Taylor Link, “Rep. Sean Duffy says ‘there’s a difference’ between ISIS-inspired attacks and Canadian mosque shooting,” Salon, February 7, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2017/02/07/rep-sean-duffy-says-theres-a-difference-between-isis-inspired-attacks-and-canadian-mosque-shooting/

[viii] Alex Amend and Jonathon Morgan, “Breitbart Under bannon: Breitbart’s Comment Section Reflects Alt-Right, Anti-Semitic Language,” February 21, 2017, Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/02/21/breitbart-under-bannon-breitbarts-comment-section-reflects-alt-right-anti-semitic-language

[ix] “What the New Administration Needs to Know About Terrorism,” Georgetown Security Studies Review (2017), https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/GSSR-What-the-New-Administration-Needs-to-Know-About-Terrorism-and-Counterterrorism.pdf

[x] Bill Chappell, “Bomb Threats Made Against Jewish Community Centers In 11 States,” National Public Radio, February 27, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/27/517539505/bomb-threats-made-against-jewish-community-centers-in-11-states

[xi] Ralph Ellis and Ryan Rios, “Fire at Florida mosque rules arson,” CNN, February 24, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/24/us/tampa-mosque-arson-florida/

[xii] Alan Freeman, Lindsey Bever and Derek Hawkins, “Suspect in deadly Canadian mosque shooting charged with six counts of murder,” The Washington Post, January 30, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/01/29/multiple-people-reported-shot-by-gunmen-at-quebec-city-mosque/%3Futm_term=.ee6fb5a3af86?utm_term=.3404bf03b2af

[xiii] Matthew Feldman, “Viewpoint: Killer Breivik’s links with far right,” BBC, August 27, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-19366000

[xiv] Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen, “White Supremacists Without Borders,” The New York Times, June 22, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/opinion/white-supremacists-without-borders.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/opinion/white-supremacists-without-borders.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0

[xv] Thomas Meaney and Saskia Schäfer, “The neo-Nazi murder trial revealing Germany’s darkest secrets,” The Guardian, December 15, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/15/neo-nazi-murders-revealing-germanys-darkest-secrets

4 thoughts on “Why Aren’t Terrorism Experts Looking Right?

  1. I received the following response from a friend and colleague after I sent him this essay:
    National security vs. domestic law enforcement reflects our internal system: military and national security are mostly outward focused by law and tradition. And there is a huge difference between the violent Right wingers in this country and the network of jihadists overseas. I would argue just because you know something about one doesn’t mean you know anything about the other- so mixing them in a program (security studies) or in a class would be difficult, if not a bad idea.

    What they might have concentrated on is why we have a system like we do and whether or not that is good. Arguing it “skews” analysis is sort of funny- and it seemed to imply some sort of internal bias/racism where there is more likely just a reflection of our system’s delineations.

  2. In response to the above: while it is true that law separates domestic from intl. sec duties, I would point out, as the authors did, that right wing and non-jihadist extremism is not just an American problem and that we’re already applying lessons learned from COIN ops to domestic issues (see the 60 minutes special on this topic).

    Additionally, I don’t agree that the differences between domestic non-jihadist terrorism and international jihadist terrorism are as “huge” as many suggest, though will cede that point for sake of argument. Yet, SSP deals with a diverse range of subjects from WWII, Al-Qaida, Cyberwarfare, civil war, and the military budget. There is even a mandatory class that discusses conflict from the civil war through OIF/OEF. To say that just because subjects are different doesn’t mean they can’t be taught in the same class, let alone program. This idea does not reflect the program’s structure, and belittles students’ ability to grasp a diverse set of topics. I think the authors are trying to assert that knowledge in non-jihadist violent extremism should be an area which SSP values more than a one-off class.

    Finally, and most importantly, I disagree with the assertion that there is no internal bias and instead the neglect just reflects the system. Systems and ideologies and created by people who have biases, and if these systems impart these biases on others, it does not mean they have not internalized the bias themselves intentionally or unintentionally. As the authors pointed out, the government’s response to domestic terrorism is lagging (for example, CVE funding for non-jihadist extremism has been slashed and there are very few positions at the federal level focusing on countering it), and this is mirrored in the academic world. There are arguments to be made about the reasons for bias, but we have to at least acknowledge its existence.

    Too often when confronted with the danger of non-jihadist terrorism academics and professionals alike pass the buck, saying ‘that’s true but that’s not my lane.’ SSP, as the premier academic hub on counterterrorism, has the ability to stop the buck. They can say that we acknowledge the danger, we acknowledge the problem, and we acknowledge that we have the power to help. SSP has some of the best and brightest minds in National Security – both in its faculty and in its student body. These are exactly the type of people we must have working on these issues.

  3. To SSP Alum: I think when you read Professor Hoffman’s essay you will have a better understanding. Please keep in mind we teach more than 70 courses per semester and 20 in the summer and students only take 12 courses. But more importantly Professor Hoffman explains the scholarship of the study of terrorism.

  4. Dr. Maxwell,
    Thank you for your response. Let me start my establishing myself as much as I can, as unfortunately the internet does not follow Chatham house rules. I spent four years of undergraduate school and two years in your program studying non-jihadist extremism in the United States, I have published in the area and have worked on these issues professionally. I spent my time in SSP trying to study this area and graduated with a GPA that would have likely qualified me for honors if the graduate school conferred it. All this to say that, while I might not be an expert, I am well aware of the scholarship. If you feel that I am not, I have some student loans I would like to talk with you about.

    Regarding your point about course offerings at SSP, while it is true that students only take 12 classes and SSP offers over 70, we are perfectly capable of looking at course titles, syllabi, and talking to professors and fellow to gauge classes. Something I did extensively in my time at SSP in search of instruction in this area. Even so, given that there are so many classes and clearly there is student interest in the subject, it makes it even harder to accept the current level of engagement at SSP as acceptable. I actually went through the spring and summer course offerings at SSP. Of all the classes that discuss terrorism and irregular warfare/COIN, only one dedicates any time specifically to non-jihadist violence. This is Dr. Hoffman’s counterinsurgency course. Even then, from the syllabus this course is not able to discuss modern non-jihadist extremism issues.
    Dr. Hoffman’s response was very thorough and well argued. I would expect nothing less from someone who I consider a professional idol of mine and one of the world’s top terrorism experts. However, I do not agree with everything he said. I will leave the authors of the article to discuss the minutia of different points, some of which I agree with and some I very much do not. However, I think the overarching issue I have with the response is that Dr. Hoffman discusses his own experiences at length, but SSP, unfortunately, is not a reflection of these experiences. I think Dr. Hoffman would agree that his extensive experience with right wing terrorism is unique among terrorism experts and an anomaly among the SSP staff. While I have heard he does talk about non-jihadist terrorism in his class at length, Dr. Hoffman’s classes are extremely hard to get into and are not part of the typical SSP student’s experience.

    Dr. Hoffman discusses the many experts that exist. He also discusses classes SSP has previously offered. However, I think there are three points that are telling. Firstly Dr. Hoffman points to two classes as examples of SSP engaging in the issue. One of these classes is an intelligence class and, if my experience in SSP is generalizable, even in discussions regarding domestic terrorism, right wing and white nationalist issues take a far back seat to domestic jihadist issues. Secondly, the domestic terrorism class was canceled because the professor was unavailable. I don’t think SSP would have a similar issue finding another qualified professor in the world of Jihadist terrorism. Thirdly, last year SSP had a panel at its future of terrorism conference that was chalked full of panelists including Arie Perlinger and Gary Ackerman from START, who could have had an amazing discussion on the future of right wing or non-jihadist terrorism, which was not discussed elsewhere in the conference. However, it was not mentioned until a student specifically asked them about it late in the Q&A section. I make these points to show that while it is true that the topic is not totally ignored, it is definitely de-emphasized both in the program and in academia more widely (not commenting on the professional realm).

    I say all this not to disparage the program or the amazing scholarship done by academics working on jihadist issues. As your colleague pointed out, this bias or prioritization, whatever you want to call it, is reflected in our system and it is easy to fall in line. Professor Hoffman often talks about how few people were looking at Jihadist extremism pre-9/11 compared to today. This always reminded me that just because an issue might not be in the spotlight today, it doesn’t mean it won’t tomorrow, and SSP is training tomorrow’s leaders. I think it would be a shame if SSP buries its head in the sand and says “we’re doing enough” given the current level of engagement on this issue in the program. I’m not saying every class should address it. However, given that the most demonstrable rise in domestic extremist violence and violent threats in this new administration has been from the far right, SSP is not giving this subject its due in the classroom or in extracurriculars, such as the lunch speaker series or conferences held by SSP.

    Finally, while I appreciate the open and frank debate regarding the rigor of domestic non-jihadist extremism studies in SSP, I hope you and Dr. Hoffman are taking experiences and perceptions of students who went through your program being expressed in this article seriously. At the end of the day, the result of an academic program is how it affects its students, not necessarily the intent of those who created it. If we as students feel something is not being sufficiently addressed, being looked down upon in our classes and discussions, or we come out of your program thinking this way it is valuable student feedback that should be used to help SSP keep improving.

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