Domestic spying

A New 'War on Terror' Would Be Just as Disastrous as the Original

"We don't need to use a faulty model and apply it to the very real terrorism problem that we have at home," says terrorism expert Max Abrahms.


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More than two months after rioters stormed the Capitol, Washington, D.C. is still occupied by National Guard troops, and the police say they want to make the fencing that surrounds the Capitol building permanent.

Political scientist Max Abrahms studies global terrorism. He says that the U.S. government's response to January 6 is disproportionate to the actual threat and has turned the Capitol into something resembling a green zone in a war-torn country.

"I think that this was one of those situations where the government swung like a pendulum from doing too little to doing too much," Abrahms tells Reason.  

"They were clearly overwhelmed and unprepared for this onslaught," says Abrahms. "So the government responded by putting in place something like 25,000 national guards in caging up the Capitol. That would be appropriate not to deter the next Timothy McVeigh but to deter something like ISIS storming Baghdad."

Abrahms says that "luckily that's not the kind of threat environment we're dealing with in the United States."

Abrahms worries that the war on terror, started by the George W. Bush administration after 9/11 and which included detaining suspects without due process, torture, mass surveillance, and counterproductive military action, is coming to the homefront. The target: white supremacists and anti-government militia groups.

"Our response to 9/11, and this isn't stressed enough, was actually deeply counterproductive against the kinds of terrorists that we were combating," says Abrahms. "Americans can do much better. We don't need to use a faulty model and apply it to the very real terrorism problem that we have at home."

Instead of toppling dictators, the tactics of this new domestic war on extremism have so far been limited to bullying social media companies into evicting so-called extremists from their platforms, as happened with Donald Trump. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray wants the government to consider repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make it even easier to hold tech platforms liable for content that the government says incites violence. 

"While the immunity under Section 230 has obviously helped the evolution of the social media industry, it's also allowed it to avoid a lot of the burdens and risks that other brick-and-mortar companies have had to face," Wray said on March 2 to the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Since the mid-1990s, FBI directors have been citing international terrorism as a reason to consider preventing the use of end-to-end encryption. Wray is now making the same arguments, citing domestic extremists.

"We are concerned about end-to-end encryption, especially default end-to-end encryption in connection with a lot of these platforms," Wray testified.

In his book Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History, Abrahms argues that the foreign war on terror created power vacuums that made the world increasingly dangerous, such as when Saddam Hussein was replaced by Al Qaeda in Iraq, or when U.S. intervention in Syria helped the jihadist group Al-Nusra foment power. Abrahms says we're in danger of repeating the same dynamic in this new war on terror.

"Removing somebody like Donald Trump from Twitter…might seem like a great idea to some people until they realize that Trump isn't the absolute worst leader that could possibly bubble up," says Abrahms. "In all likelihood, the replacements are going to be even more extreme."

"We see a similar phenomenon with people moving from more mainstream social media platforms like Twitter, to ones that have a higher concentration of right-wing extremists like Parler, or even apps with…end-to-end encryption where nobody could surveil them," Abrahms says.

John Brennan, former CIA director under the Obama administration, told MSNBC in January that the Biden team is working "in laser-like fashion" to investigate what he says resembles an overseas insurgency.

"It brings together an unholy alliance frequently of religious extremists, authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, nativists…even libertarians," Brennan said.

Abrahms argues that the perverse effect of lumping such disparate groups together is to push otherwise reasonable actors towards the extremes.

"I think that these different issues need to be unpacked and mainstream media can't simply say that everyone on the right—including those who are more in favor of limited government and sympathetic to some libertarian views—is crazy and believe in pedophile rings at pizza parlors," says Abrahms

Abrahms believes that the mainstream media and the government are attempting to weaponize some of the legitimate fear that has resulted from the events of January 6 in order to marginalize those on the political right, "including those who have quite reasonable views."

"There's this perverse phenomenon where terrorism commentators and pundits, broadcast ubiquitously by the media, make it seem as if terrorists are just so brilliant, strategic, and effective," Abrahms says. "In fact, we often see the exact opposite."

Abrahms says that terrorism frequently results in a backlash against those who perpetrate it. And he argues that the January 6 riots have made far-right groups look much less attractive to members.

"It's become a national embarrassment to be part of these groups," says Abrahms.

The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which passed in the House back in September, would create new federal law enforcement units focused solely on domestic terrorism. Some politicians and law enforcement officials have said Congress should go further 

"In U.S. law there is no list of domestic terrorism organizations the same way there is for foreign terrorist organizations," Wray said before the Senate. 

"I don't know if we should have one or not," responded Senator Lindsey Grahm (R–S.C.). "But I think it's time to think about it."

Abrahms argues that such illiberal actions could actually serve to incite terrorism. 

"One of the telltale signs of an illiberal government is when it makes no distinction between what it deems as political extremists and tactical extremists," Abrahms says.

Abrahms is concerned that a heavy-handed crackdown lumping the extreme beliefs of some on the right together with the extreme tactics of would-be terrorists will ultimately backfire, just as the war on terror swept up many innocent Muslims and spurred even greater radicalization. 

"I'm really worried, frankly, about Timothy McVeigh 2.0. I think that the government needs to do everything possible not to create one," says Abrahms. "But I'm not confident that the government actually is doing that."

Abrahms believes that the government should prosecute those who commit terrorist acts of violence to the fullest extent of the law. However, he worries that there will be some crossover between who the government regards as a political extremist and an actual terrorist. 

"We cannot crack down on people just because we don't like their ideology," Abrahms says. "Otherwise the government is going to turn into the thought police and that is going to spawn the next generation of terrorists."

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Capitol riot footage by Ford Fischer. 

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