WISER: DHS-sponsored report criticized for description of 'extreme right-wing' ideology

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A report released earlier this year by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, has raised some eyebrows recently on the Internet and blogosphere for its characterization of terrorists with an “extreme right-wing” ideology.

In its categorization of past terrorist attacks from 1970 to 2008 by ideological motivation, the report ascribes an extreme right-wing ideology to “groups that believe that one’s personal and/or national ‘way of life’ is under attack” and “believe in the need to be prepared for an attack either by participating in paramilitary preparations and training or survivalism.” But the two phrases that have drawn the most ire on the Web are “suspicious of centralized federal authority” and “reverent of individual liberty” (page 10 of report). 

The report proceeds to note that incidences of terrorism in the U.S. have declined in recent years:

“The amount of terrorist attacks in general has decreased significantly since the
highs of the 1970s. Whereas nearly 1,500 events took place in the 1970s (n = 1,496), just over 200 occurred from 2000 to 2008 (n = 211). The number of fatal attacks has also decreased over this same period of time from a high of 26 in the 1970 calendar year to a low of 15 for the entire 2000 to 2008 time period.”

Many of the acts of terrorism in the 1970s at “hot spots” — or places such as Los Angeles and Manhattan that experienced multiple attacks — were committed by groups with either an extreme right-wing or left-wing ideology, while the report attributed most of the recent attacks to “single-issue” groups with ideologies that might be “anti-abortion, anti-Catholic, or anti-nuclear.” Overall, there were 58 hot spots of terrorist attacks for groups with an extreme right-wing ideology, 364 for groups with an extreme left-wing ideology and 337 for groups with a single-issue ideology between 1970 and 2008 (page 19 of report).

U.S. attacks since 2008 include the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 and the Tucson, Ariz. shooting in 2011.

Maj. Nidal Hasan is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32 others at the Fort Hood base in Texas. A report later found that the Army psychiatrist had exchanged emails with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Al Qaeda leader who became an influential proponent of jihad against the U.S. from Yemen.

Jared Loughner, who is charged with murdering six people and wounding 13 others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at the Tucson shooting, was found to have schizophrenia and delusional thinking by medical experts.

START posted a statement on its website Thursday responding to criticism of the report’s ideological classifications:

“The report is based on the key premise that the groups and individuals analyzed have actually carried out or attempted to carry out violent attacks in the United States for any political, social, religious, or economic goal. This is what qualifies them as terrorists, not their ideological orientation.

The report then classified the violent perpetrators into ideological categories, including extreme left-wing, extreme right-wing, religious, ethnonationalist/separatist, and single issue. The descriptions of these categories in the report do not suggest that an individual or group with one or more of these characteristics is likely to be a terrorist.”

In a phone interview, Gary LaFree, director of START and co-author of the report,
added that some of the concerns pertaining to the ideological groups are not necessarily without merit.

“I will admit, classifying groups by ideology is a very slippery slope,” LaFree said. “You can’t make everybody happy. What we did do, we thought for good scientific objectives, is we made it transparent exactly how we did it. We have the definitions all laid out, so if people disagree fine, but the important thing is we are not making an argument that people with these ideologies are more likely to commit terrorism.”

Based at the University of Maryland, START’s website labels the consortium as a “Center of Excellence of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” The beginning of the report also suggests that its findings and methodology could be applied to future cases of terrorism:

“This report is part of a series sponsored by the Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in support of the Counter-IED Prevent/Deter program. The goal of this program is to sponsor research that will aid the intelligence and law enforcement communities in identifying potential terrorist threats and support policymakers in developing prevention efforts.”

A DHS official provided the following on background:

“The Department of Homeland Security protects our country from all terrorist threats, whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence. DHS takes seriously our responsibility to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of the public, and do not concentrate efforts on any particular group or ideology. Identifying hotspots of criminal activity is a critical and long-accepted practice in law enforcement and has proven invaluable in preventing violent crime. DHS continues to work with its state, local, tribal, territorial and private partners to prevent and protect against potential threats to the United States by focusing on preventing violence that is motivated by extreme ideological beliefs. This includes training law enforcement to recognize behaviors and other indicators associated with violent criminal activity and to distinguish them from those that are constitutionally protected.”

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Daniel Wiser

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