Civil Liberties and Public Policy

Dissent, Terrorism, &
Government
Repression

Government agencies are reportedly analyzing secret intelligence data scanning for networks, patterns of interaction, etc. in a search for different kinds of underground terrorist cells.

Tracking an actual "Leaderless Resistance" cell that is truly spontaneous, autonomous, and unconnected would require a much deeper level of intrusiveness and penetration of a larger community in which these cells achieve some level of anonymity. Everyone in the community would need to be suspected until their innocence had been proven.

But if in fact the "Leaderless Resistance" model is not how potential homegrown Muslim terrorist cells are actually organized, then different techniques would be needed to locate the would-be terrorists--techniques that are, ironically, much more similar to those advocated by Marc Sageman in his first book.

If our understanding of domestic terrorist tendencies is more properly modeled as an outside contagion, rather than as something spontaneously generated, then it would be more proper to monitor known terrorists, rather than conducting sweeps of all potential terrorists.

Sageman and Hoffman fail to adequately distinguish between radical ideas and violent methods, which raises serious First Amendment issues. In the United States, stopping ideological radicalization is not a job for government agencies.

At one point, Hoffman writes:

=== It was [Beam who] pioneered the use of computer bulletin boards as a means for like-minded hatemongers both to communicate with one another and to circulate literature and information otherwise outlawed by the U.S. and Canadian postal services.

Actually, it was George Dietz who pioneered the use of BBS’s by hatemongers, not Beam. And there is no evidence Dietz was trying to “circulate literature and information otherwise outlawed” by any postal service. Dietz was primarily converting his collection of print literature, regularly mailed through the U.S. Post office, to online text. Beam followed on the heels of Dietz, and built an important network of BBS’s, in part designed to send antisemitic and Holocaust Denial text into Canada where it is forbidden. The bulk of information carried by Dietz and Beam, however, was never “outlawed” by the U.S. Postal Service, nor could it have been under the First Amendment, no matter how vile the bigoted content.

As a superficial and flawed analysis of domestic terrorism has gained influence within U.S. government agencies on the federal, state, and local level, it has also attracted a range of critics. For example, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law issued a study last August critical of a policy report from the New York Police Department (NYPD).

According to the Brennan Center, “In light of its foreseeable stigmatizing effects, and its inferential but unavoidable advocacy of racial and religious profiling, the [NYPD] Report will inflict tangible harm on vulnerable minorities, while at the same time invite the misuse of investigative resources in ways that do not further legitimate national security goals.”

For the past year, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has been holding hearings on Islamic Terrorism. On May 8, 2008 a report emerged from the Committee’s office on Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorism Threat. {pdf}

That report did not represent the views of the entire committee, many of whom were not even aware of the report until after it was issued. It was issued by Lieberman and the Republican Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking minority member of the committee. The Lieberman/Collins Report drew harsh criticism from civil liberties and civil rights activists, as well as Arab and Muslim civil rights groups.

A joint statement by the Muslim Advocates, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Council on American Islamic Relations, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee took issue with the Lieberman/Collins report:

 ===The report heavily relied upon a widely criticized and deeply flawed New York Police Department study on domestic radicalization that claimed that typical "signatures" of radicalization include wearing traditional clothing, growing a beard, or giving up cigarettes, drinking, and gambling. The advocacy groups also expressed dismay with the fact that the Committee, while citing the value of increasing outreach to American Muslim and Arab-American communities, heard testimony from only one witness from the American Muslim community.

In addition, a coalition of civil liberties and civil rights groups warned the report contradicted established federal policies that sought to minimize stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in the United States and encourage resistance to acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. A letter signed by over 20 groups warned that:

===Focusing the discussion of homegrown terrorism on Muslims may actually increase the potential for violent radicalization in the United States. Many witnesses before the Committee spoke of the growth of Islamophobia and the polarization of the Muslim community as risk factors that raise the potential for extremist violence. Unfairly focusing suspicion on a community tends to create the very alienation these witnesses said could lead to homegrown terrorism.

Last year a bill on “Homegrown Terrorism and Violent Radicalization Prevention Act” (H.R.1955 and S.1959), was blocked by a coalition of civil liberties groups that spanned the political spectrum. One section of the legislative text drew special attention:

===The Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens.

After the Lieberman/Collins report fell flat, Lieberman demanded that the Internet video website You Tube remove scores of videos that Lieberman claimed promoted Islamic terrorism, You Tube did remove some videos that it said clearly violated its own policies, but refused the blanket request, creating another civil liberties debate.

The public dispute between Hoffman and Sageman needs to be widened to include a broader discussion of the U.S. “War on Terror,” and consideration of the many scholars of terrorism whose valuable work is getting pushed aside. In addition, the work of Hoffman and Sageman must be analyzed and critiqued by social scientists who study religion, violence, state repression, social movements, and collective behavior.

Sageman especially has been influential with his thesis in Leaderless Jihad, but the policy recommendations emerging from his flawed analysis may be doing more harm than good. In some cases there are anti-terrorism policy advisors who are using a superficial reading of Leaderless Resistance, while ignoring some of Sageman’s more sensible recommendations.

Scholar Simson Garfinkel in 2003 observed that:

===the U.S. appears to be fighting Leaderless Resistance networks… with an eradication strategy based on crime-fighting: the goal is to create very high penalties for individuals who participate in direct action. The danger of this approach is that the eradication effort itself may inadvertently serve to attract new recruits to a violent ideology, by making the cause appear a just response to an unjust enemy.

Not much seems to have changed. Anti-terrorism policy deeply affects us all—we deserve better.


Leaderless Counterterrorism Strategy:
The “War on Terror,” Civil Liberties, and Flawed Scholarship

The Public Eye Magazine. Read it Here!

 

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