By Walid Jawad
28 October 2018
This morning’s terrorist attack on a Pittsburgh, PA synagogue comes less than 24hrs after apprehending the mail bomber, Cesar Altieri Sayoc, who sent multiple mail packages to Democrats and liberal personalities. Years ago, I would have been holding my breath hoping the shooter wasn’t Muslim or of Arab descent.
As the news anchor said the shooter has been arrested, I suspected the shooter to be a white male motivated by anti-Semitism. Sure enough, initial news reports suggest the terrorist to be Rob Bowers, a white anti semite.
My expectation was informed by a history of homegrown terrorism. Contrary to the popular narrative, Arabs and Muslims do not constitute the largest threat within the US.
On the receiving end
Arabs and Muslims have a reputation for violence. It is true that any number of terrorist attacks have been carried out by, and attributed to, Arabs and/or Muslims. Media discussions over religious indoctrination have cast an unfair shadow of repulsion toward Islam.
Over the years, the evolving media narrative started making a distinction between Islam as a religion and the people who kill and maim in its name.
If a group of puritans should abide by the words in the book of Leviticus, Judaism and Christianity would be tainted by the blood of those who are punished under its extreme code of punishment. Religion is never to be blamed if violent and sadistic men choose to translate scripture to satisfy their twisted fetishes.
While the media enumerates lists of terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam, coverage doesn’t zoom out enough to show the structural violence perpetrated against those Arabs and Muslims. Neither of the two vantage points are justified or excused.
We don’t need to go back to the Crusades to highlight this fact, or attempt to draw indefensible claims of a clash of civilization. In fact, reflecting on the recent history of the Arab world over the last Century points the finger to the British and French as occupiers. In addition to the Ottoman occupiers who have oppressed Arabs throughout centuries under the banner of Islam.
The current state is more complex with multiple parties committing different types of structural violence throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. The desensitized global response to violent acts is sure to prompt terrorist to use more magnificent violent tactics.
The spillover cannot be avoided. Terrorism is the tactic of choice for weak parties targeting easy noncombatant targets not abiding by any geographic boundaries. We’ve seen it in the US on 9-11, and throughout Europe since committed by foreign agents, and domestic terrorists.
The increasing number of pipe bombs mailed to political and activists opposing President Trump, since Monday, is the latest case of homegrown terrorism. President Donald Trump sent out a 3 am tweet on Friday blaming CNN for inciting hatred leading to the “spate of Bombs” mailed to his Democratic opponents.
“Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, ‘it’s just not Presidential!’” Trump tweeted.
Debating the sequence of events for the purpose of placing blame on one side or another is utterly futile. The responsibility for ensuring peace and stability will always lie at the feet of the President of the United States regardless if he is personally a party to the debate.
Trump has been inserting himself in this debate, the end result is a fractured country where some of its elements are willing to confuse acts of violence for patriotism. Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr. was arrested Friday evening and charged for sending explosive packaged to at least a dozen critics of the president. Sayoc became the latest homegrown terrorist.
Homegrown terrorism is a phenomenon that has been lurking under the surface. A powder keg, of sorts, waiting for a spark of hatred and anger to destroy a nation. But this is not new; the US has continuously dealt with domestic terrorism.
The Oklahoma City bombing by Tim McVeigh, the Beltway snipers by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, and the Congressional baseball shooting by James Hodgkinson last year are among a slew of other violent attacks carried out by Americans of diverging backgrounds seeking to induce change social or political changes.
This has been going on since the inception of the US, garnering varying levels of interest and coverage by the media. Among those who received limited coverage is a group of Jewish-Americans who, in the late 1960s, formed an organization called the Jewish Defense League (JDL).
American terrorist organization, the JDL, carried out 15 terrorist attacks leaving behind a trail of destruction and maiming. At the height of their terrorist activities, 1980 to 1985, the JDL targeted Arab-Americans including the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. In October of 1985, the group planted a bomb in the ADC regional office in Santa Ana, CA leading to the killing of the regional director, Alex Odeh. Despite the US government designating the JDL as a terrorist group it has yet to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Odeh at the time of his assassination, at age 41, was entering the regional office of the ADC in Santa Ana when a bomb attached to the door detonated upon opening. After a few weeks of the assassination, the FBI identified three suspects with ties to the JDL; Robert Manning, Keith Fuchs, and Andy Green. The three prime suspects escaped to Israel to live in Kiryat Aba. Months later the FBI classified the killing of Odeh as a terrorist act.
In 1994 a memorial statue of Odeh was erected in front of the Santa Ana Central Library and was vandalized in 1996, the same year the FBI announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Odeh’s killers. The decade-long pursuit of justice for Odeh might drag longer without being fulfilled. The prime suspect, Manning, has been in a US prison serving time for another terrorist attack after he was extradited to the US in 1993.
Being an Arab-American or a Muslim-American can be challenging, but that’s not unique to them. Today Arab and Muslim Americans are only another group in the current race dynamics in the US. Yet, they remain of interest to law enforcement due to a history of some inspired al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorist attempts. Despite that unflattering distinction, they are not the primary source of domestic threat.
Although the FBI doesn’t officially designate domestic terrorist organizations, it openly delineates domestic terrorist threats including individuals who commit crimes in the name of ideologies supporting animal rights, environmental rights, anarchism, white supremacy, anti-government ideals, black separatism, and abortion - a broad range of violent activities.
Homegrown terrorism is the most threatening source of ongoing violence facing the US including lone-wolves. This accounts for many of the violent attacks of late. Knowing that terrorists don’t operate in a vacuum, we can surmise the persuasive influence of the narrative of hatred and victimization.
Potential violent people gravitate to discourse packaged in good versus evil, whereby they justify their barbaric acts. Religious, nationalist, or ethnic stories keep specific historical traumas alive in the minds of its people creating an unbreakable cohesion of purpose.
Although religion is not the cause of violence, the people who chose to advance its narrative for violent ends must be convinced or offered other more effective and peaceful alternatives. This goes for political discourse even when that person is well-meaning or is the president of the United States.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at US Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.