The Myth of the “Eco-Terrorist”

“Eco-terrorists  and animal rights extremists are one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats in the U.S. today”. These words are found in a 2008 FBI report on environmental extremism. Specifically, groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) were identified as the main culprits in a new kind of domestic terrorism: eco-terrorism. 

‘Eco-terrorism’ has been conceptualised as acts of violence carried out with the intent to disrupt or prevent activities considered harmful to the environment. The ALF, ELF and various small and loosely organised environmentalist groups were responsible for a string of arson attacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the perceived threat from environmental extremists is once again occupying the minds of those in power. 

How is it that these so-called ‘terrorists’ came to be thought of as one of the most serious domestic threats in the US, given that to this day these groups have never killed anyone? Homeland security agencies in the US and Europe were immensely concerned with any potential threats after 9/11 and saw these arson attacks as the beginning of a broader and far deadlier eco-terrorism campaign. The term ‘green scare’ was coined by environmentalist groups to describe this hysteria over eco-warriors. The phrase was used to draw a parallel with the ‘red scare’ of the 1950s in which the threat of communist infiltration was radically exaggerated and led to mass arrests. During this green scare, dozens of ALF/ELF members were arrested, and millions of dollars were spent on surveillance and prosecution. Eventually, these ‘eco-terrorists’ faded from the headlines, the attacks on property decreased, and homeland security agencies turned their attention elsewhere. 

But there has been renewed focus on these ‘eco-terrorists’. In 2018 a new group grabbed the headlines in the UK for their use of disruptive and headline-grabbing protest tactics: Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR and Youth Strike for Climate protests sprang up across the country, demanding that the climate crisis be taken seriously by those in power. This rattled the UK government. In 2020, the British counter-terrorism police branded XR as “an extremist ideology”. For a short time official police counter-terrorism documents listed XR next to neo-Nazi organisations such as the National Front. Addressing a police conference in September 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed that “XR poses a threat to the UK’s way of life”. Such rhetoric is redolent of the language used to discuss groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State or George Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’. The British government is clearly interested in framing XR and other environmentalist organisations as ideological extremists with the capacity for violence. But is this accurate? Is there a genuine possibility that the new terrorist threat will be from eco-terrorism?

In reality, environmentalism has been mainstreamed. The Youth Strike for Climate are mostly children, and while XR’s tactics are disruptive the average XR activist is hardly radical in their approach to environmentalism. In fact, XR has expended considerable energy in “depoliticising” environmentalism, by rejecting ideology, and framing the climate crisis as something “beyond politics”

It’s true that recently there has been something of a ‘call to arms’ for environmentalists to escalate their tactics. In his recent book How to Blow up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm believes now is the time to do precisely what his book title implies; turn to violence – specifically the destruction of private property. However, scholars working on extremism broadly agree that causing bodily harm or murder is fundamentally at odds with the ethics of environmentalism and that we’re unlikely to see this change in approach. 

It’s impossible to know what the future holds for environmental activism. Perhaps the violent elements of the environmentalist movement will remain on the fringe. Perhaps as the climate crisis becomes more desperate, so too will the tactics of those seeking to defend the natural world. For now, the ‘eco-terrorist’ remains a myth which authorities around the world deliberately propagate to avoid responding systematically to the climate crisis.

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The US needs a National Introspection

On 6 January 2021, 800 people stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. So far, more than 135 people have been charged. Call it what you will – an insurrection, a riot, a terrorist attack, a failed coup or rather meekly, a protest – chants of ‘Stop the Steal’ from the pro-Trump mob (with clear linkages emerging among extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Oath Keepers) echo through live footage shared on Twitter of wrecked media equipment, FBI reports of pipe bombs, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent account of lasting trauma. Passing more anti-terrorism laws will do very little to engage with the realities of white supremacy – issues at the heart of the United States’ founding that urgently demand proper recognition, reparations and work towards reconciliation. 

These events have reignited calls among lawmakers for a more expansive means to address terrorism-related activities, including widening the targets of surveillance and creating a new category of crime, ‘domestic terrorism’. Signed declarations such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights outline major concern with such demands, fearful of more anti-terrorism legislation exacerbating existing frameworks rooted in bias, discrimination and a denial of fundamental rights such as due process. 

Highlighting the political and discriminatory choices within anti-terrorism programmes, Adama Bah shares her story of harassment as a Muslim post-9/11. Accused of being a potential suicide bomber in 2005, aged sixteen, “when I hear people say, ‘we need to expand the war on terror or create new laws’, it’s an insult to me because, for some reason, they found the laws to detain me and accuse me of terrorism”. Though released after six weeks in a juvenile centre, Adama was subject to a 10pm curfew, an ankle bracelet for three years, and put on a no-fly list in face of deportation to Guinea, where she had not lived since age two. Eventually granted asylum on grounds that she would face forcible circumcision if deported, Adama notes how “history shows that having anti-terrorism laws just affect people like myself”. 

4th April 2019. Sign outside the United Methodist Building, across from the Capitol – reads: ‘No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and White Supremacy’

Although calls such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s for a 9/11-like commission to examine the causes of the events on January 6th are a necessary start, the storming of the Capitol should not be treated as exceptional. Instead, these events reflecta storm brewing over the past four years and since the Civil War of 1861-65.

As columnist Fintan O’Toole puts it, the imagery of “rampaging savages desecrating the neo-Roman Capitol” serves a rather reassuring role in deflecting from the real issues at the heart of this debate. Unpacking the role of Trumpism in inciting the violent attack on the Capitol, O’Toole draws attention to its construction coinciding with the increasing contradictions faced by the Republican Party. Most poignantly, such imagery implies the deep-rooted racism of a few, while sustaining an illusion of a democratic, anti-racist majority. Whilst Trump may have brought together and helped brand a crowd of ‘great patriots’, this is nothing new. 

Expanding state powers in a supposed effort to combat white supremacy inherently strengthens the very institutions that continue to harm minorities. Moreover, an event-driven reaction feeds into the storming of the Capitol as an exceptional moment in US democracy. Such processes serve to obscure, distract and deny the systemic racism at play, alongside the tragic inevitability of the violence and hatred shown on January 6th being repeated on a wider scale soon enough. 

So what is an appropriate response? A national reckoning may seem intimidating and idealistic, yet much important work has already begun. It’s a matter of listening and engaging. All around Capitol Hill we are reminded of the realities on which the US was founded. The Capitol Building itself was constructed by enslaved African Americans. Further down the National Mall, The National Museum of African American History and Culture reminds us of the brutality endured by some and not others in the country’s founding. Drawing attention to the generational struggles that have come with a legacy of enslaved ancestors traded as property sheds powerful light on the multi-faceted traumas of African Americans over the past 400 years.

Neither do we have to look very far today to see how pain and violence persists among those structurally marginalised. The Colour of Coronavirus Project highlights, for example, how Indigenous Americans have suffered almost double the number of deaths of White Americans per 100,000. The US’s response to COVID-19 has exacerbated inequality among already vulnerable communities – what the Brookings Institution has referred to globally as the ‘Inequality Pandemic’. 

The events on January 6th are thus more a question of whether the US is ready to engage with the deep contradictions at the heart of claims to be ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. First and foremost this should start with holding Trump and a long list of Republican Party members of Congress to account for their role in inciting violence. But we need to go much further. There needs to be an interrogation of how the storming of the Capitol was ‘allowed’ to happen, with necessary recognition that white supremacy is systemic and endemic. With political will, this crisis of white supremacy – amplified by the events on January 6th – provides a vital opportunity for lawmakers to take an active role in prioritising education, dialogue and national introspection. 

Photo credits: from the author.

Bye Bye, Trump!

America has beaten its chest for decades claiming to be the world’s “greatest democracy”, at the top of its lungs, loud and clear, for everyone to hear. It has portrayed itself as the saviour and purveyor of peace, often to those evil Middle-Eastern folks who might have some naughty toys they shouldn’t have (by toys I mean Weapons of Mass Destruction).  However, has America really ever been a peaceful democracy?

There has long been a discussion of the relationship between democracy and peace. The democratic peace theory tells us that democratic countries tend to have relative peace since they share ideological similarities and would not be interested in fighting one another, as well as with other states. America has proven such a concept wrong in several ways.

First, America has taken it as its mission for decades to expand democracy in order to bring peace, which helped justify its international campaigns on the “War on Terror” since 2001. Such missions have worsened the situation in countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan. When Trump took office, he promoted an agenda of “leaving the wars”, and one can say he left some wars. As we speak or sit down with our morning tea, the Taliban and the Afghan government are discussing peace talks with little US intervention. However, under the Trump administration, several acts such as airstrikes in Syria or the killing of a senior Iranian general were made as an executive order outside Congress, which (normally) passes the legislation, especially in matters of war. 

Second, peace is a controversial concept within America’s own borders. Is America really peaceful when extrajudicial killings and further human rights violations take place? Is America really peaceful when Black Lives Matter supporters and Trump supporters are treated in very different ways? As we saw last month, white supremacists and far-right movements stormed the Capitol and walked through its corridors, parading confederate flags, while months before, Black citizens couldn’t even walk the streets of their neighbourhoods without police assault. If anyone had any doubt that racism still existed in the US, well, let us just assume this would be (even more) evidence that it is very much alive and well. If we understand peace in line with the great scholar Johan Galtung, as not merely negative peace – the absence of war – but as positive peace – the absence of structural violence – then is America peaceful?

Now that Trump has left, we wonder, what will Biden’s position be on matters of foreign policy? And, particularly, how will he position the US in terms of international peace? If we look at Biden’s Mandate under the Obama administration, it is important to remember that Obama entered not one, not two, but nine international military interventions – Libya being one of them -, with Biden serving as Vice-President. While Obama might have done some good – signing the Paris Agreement, which is now back on Biden’s to-do list – his time in office was hardly peaceful

And since (unfortunately) the power of the North still looms over the world, we must be alert to what Biden imagines peace and democracy to be. 

The Misconceptions of a ‘Terrorist’

The perception of a ‘terrorist’ has played a fundamental role in exacerbating racism. since 9/11, the portrayal of Islam has been deeply damaging to the Muslim community worldwide, as the international media has had no hesitation in associating Islam with acts of terrorism, propagating racist depictions of Muslims and Islam.  

The definition of ‘terrorism is “commonly understood to refer to acts of violence that target civilians in the pursuit of political or ideological aims” Its damage is both physically immediate and socially incendiary. It often manifests in illicit and clandestine organisations, involving careful planning and carried out through bombings and assassinations. A ‘terrorist’ is a person who has used unlawful violence and intimidation against civilians in the pursuit of political/ideological aims. 

The global media such as CNN, the BBC, Time and Newsweek’  have played a vital role in manufacturing an inherent relationship between Islam and terrorism. As a result, to overcome the threat of terrorists, certain repressive policies have been implemented restricting freedoms by such means as increased surveillance, immigration regulations, and indefinite detention centres created to control and exploit minorities leading to endless human rights violations. 

Consider the example of the three ex-detainees who attended a wedding in Pakistan and decided to visit Afghanistan. Once they discovered that Kandahar was under attack, they attempted to return to Pakistan and mistakenly ended up in a Taliban stronghold. They were captured and sent to Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial, where their human rights were stripped. ‘The War on Terror’ declared by the Bush administration as a counterterrorism response to 9/11 amplified the mislabelling of ‘terrorist’, enabling human rights violations against individuals like the Guantánamo inmates and justifying the the US military invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. 

Abu Ghraib, a military prison-complex based in Iraq which held up to  50,000 individuals, robbed entire groups of their humanity. A series of pictures including one showing a detainee balancing on a box with electrical wires attached to him, received global attention and condemnation by Amnesty International. Other Abu Ghraib detainees suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse, rape and even murder by US guards. 

However, confessed and convicted domestic terrorists are portrayed very differently by popular media. Take for example, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Theodore John Kaczynski and Dylann Roof, to mention just three. The KKK, the white nationalist organisation founded in the 1920s needs no introduction; Kaczynski (also known as the ‘Unabomber’) was convicted of a nationwide bombing campaign in 1996; and Roof, white supremacist and admitted church shooter, was convicted in 2015. The KKK remains active up to the current date as evidenced by events in Charlottesville in 2017 . Roof, now serving nine consecutive life sentences, was cast, albeit principally by his defence attorneys, as a victim of ‘mental health issues’ and thus, in the eyes of the public, as a societal aberration. Lastly, Kaczynski –whose face astoundingly appears as a feature of certain brands – is now essentially glorified as a ‘popular icon’. But ‘ ٱللَّٰهُ أَكْبَرُ’ (Allah Hu Akbar) on a t-shirt, or a woman wearing a Niqab is a cause for concern in Heathrow’s Terminal 2 . Whereas their Muslim or ‘brown’ counterparts are portrayed as soldiers in a broad movement intent on an ideological goal of civilisational destruction.

The question that derives from these examples is: are all Muslim terrorists? Obviously not; otherwise, the scale of the problem would be far beyond any national or international ‘policy’. So, are all terrorists Muslims? The evidence suggests otherwise. Therefore, there can at best be a circumstantial relationship drawn between Islam and terrorism as such, at least insofar as logic is concerned. The issue remains therefore, how and why Muslims and Islam are portrayed as they are in both popular media and culture?

This has been overshadowed by radicalised, illicit, clandestine groups through the sensation coverage on Muslims and Islam. As a result, their depiction is seen as a threat to society, as the ideological threat of ‘all Muslims must be terrorists’ allows Muslims to be suppressed, strengthening Islamophobia and thus, seen as troublemakers.

photo credit: Unsplash

Playing with the Terrorist Label

Photo: Tribal fighters loyal to Yemen’s government during fightings against Houthi rebels

On Sunday 10th January 2021, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthi rebels as terrorists.
The Houthis are fighting a civil war in Yemen – with roughly 70% of the population living under their control – both to win power across the country and to resist Saudi Arabia’s influence. Pompeo’s decision to label the Houthis as terrorists has major consequences for the future trajectories of this conflict. 

It is unclear exactly what the Houthis did to irk the US to change its official stance on the group. The likeliest explanation is that it was not what the Houthis did, but what Joe Biden did – win the US election. 

In recent weeks, Pompeo has embarked on what has been described as a round-the-world tour of diplomatic vandalism. He began official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, declared Iran to be the new Al-Qaeda base, and has now labelled the Houthis terrorists. Officially, the decision is part of the “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. In reality, these last-minute foreign policy changes are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to sabotage the incoming administration. 

If Biden reverses these decisions, the response from Republicans will be painfully predictable. End diplomatic relations with Taiwan and you’re soft on China, correct Pompeo’s fictional Al-Qaeda story and you’re soft on Iran, reverse the decision on the Houthis and you’re soft on terrorism. 

The decision to brand the Houthis as terrorists has very real repercussions for the Yemeni population who live under Houthi control. These people rely on humanitarian aid to survive, but humanitarian aid becomes extremely difficult to deliver in areas considered to be governed by terrorists. The Yemeni people living under Houthi control have no choice but to rely on outside help to access food and water. The extent of the damage to Yemen’s water infrastructure has resulted in two cholera outbreaks since 2015. In addition, Yemen imports 90% of all its food.  Pompeo’s decision has created the conditions for what the UN predicts will be “The worst famine in 40 years”.

This potential calamity demonstrates the destructive potential that declaring a group as terrorists has on a chronically vulnerable population. It also highlights the inherent hypocrisy of the Trump administration. Trump labelled the Houthis terrorists in the same week that he described a mob of white supremacists who carried out an attack on Capitol Hill to be “very special people”.

The terrorist label has real consequences and should not be used lightly. This change in US foreign policy demonstrates how terrorism is constructed to meet a political end. Terrorism has been heavily theorised since the declaration of the War on Terror. One theory is that terrorism is a socially constructed term deployed by states to exercise further social control or to justify policy changes

When declaring a group as “terrorists” the state has actively identified an existential threat that can only be overcome through greater social control, thus legitimising measures such as increased surveillance, immigration controls, and indefinite detention. To justify these further controls, the state must continue to identify threats that it must protect its citizens from.

For years, the Trump administration has actively constructed threats to justify state control. The list of threats is seemingly never ending: Muslims, Mexicans, BLM, Antifa, Democratic Party pedophile rings in pizzeria basements – the list goes on. In the case of Yemen, the end goal of labelling the Houthis terrorists seems far pettier than state control. Instead, it’s a case of state sabotage. 

Now, we shouldn’t romanticise the Houthis, who have been responsible for serious human rights violations in recent years, including persecuting minorities and using civilians as human shields15. However, Pompeo’s declaration demonstrates that the terrorism label can be constructed not only out of security concerns, but out of a desire to deliberately cause instability. If the US were motivated by human rights violations, then it certainly wouldn’t support the Saudi-led coalition. It is now up to Biden to pick up the pieces of the Trump administration’s recklessness by reversing this decision. 

Yemen is experiencing the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis. By carelessly playing with the terrorism label, the US is wilfully deepening this disaster.