After Paris: U.S. looks at domestic terrorism

Nov 25, 2015, 10:05 AM EST
Source: Flickr - kcdsTM
Source: Flickr - kcdsTM

The recent Paris attacks that left 129 people killed and 352 wounded – and for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, calling them the “first of the storm” -- have raised questions about the identities of those involved, as well as more existential questions about the nature of terrorism. In the United States, the events in Paris have many examining the threat of foreign terrorism, in comparison to that of of domestic terrorism, on U.S. soil.


The events of September 11, 2001 may have shaped the U.S. more over the last 50 years than any other event, changing the nature of politics, the economy, and the social fabric of the country. When four passenger airliners were hijacked and flown into buildings, killing nearly 3,000 people and incurring  billions of dollars in damage to infrastructure, it marked the first time most Americans had heard of the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda. In the years since 9/11, the United States engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that, according to a 2013 article published by The Washington Post, have cost the government over $2 trillion. A study conducted by RAND Corporation reports that over 411,000 U.S. soldiers have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.


Looking further back, there have been at least seven major terrorist attacks on American soil since the 1980s. “The UnaBomber” Ted Kaczinski orchestrated a string of mail bombings that claimed the lives of three people and wounded 23 between 1978-1895. In 1993, a bomb was detonated under two World Trade Center buildings. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. Two years later Timothy McVey bombed the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds. During the 1996 Summer Olympics a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia. One person was killed and 111 were injured. Eight years after 9/11, Major Nidal Hassan went on a shooting rampage at a military processing center in Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 32. And in April of 2013, two brothers planned and executed the bombing of the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and wounded 264.


A recent study done by International Security found that 26 of the deaths in those seven attacks were orchestrated by radical Islamic fundamentalists. In that same period of time, in 19 separate attacks, 48 people were killed by far-right radicals in the U.S. The Washington Post reported in June that intelligence agencies might be using more of their resources to prevent terrorist plots by Islamic extremists, and thus paying less attention to white supremacists and anti-government threats.


Ron Hosko, president of Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and former assistant director of the F.B.I. told the Washington Post that there had been a “tremendous concentration” by the F.B.I. and the intelligence community in general on “both the foreign born and the homegrown Islamic extremist terrorist threats.”


David Sterman of New America also believes that white supremacists and anti-government radicals are a significant threat to public safety. He expressed concern over the dismissal of their attacks as those of a “lone actor” or as a result of mental health issues. Dylan Roof, the man charged with killing nine people in Charleston, South Carolina Methodist church this year, expressed his Nazi-like views on social media and to friends prior to his attack. Sterman suggests that if an Islamic extremist were to do the same, he would have attracted the attention of federal agencies and maintained their attention until he “no longer posed a threat.”  


While it cannot be denied that foreign terrorism in the U.S. is a real threat, it is worth weighing it against instances of domestic attacks by Americans against other Americans. The fact remains that the latter phenomenon has a longer history. Nonetheless, fear of external threats appears the most prominent and vocal in the United States – particularly after Paris.


In the next installment of this series, we will examine how this fear has reinforced pre-existing negative stereotypes, notably of Muslims, in the United States.