Skip to main content

Homegrown terror isn't just Islamist

By Risa Brooks, Special to CNN
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Thu May 3, 2012
Suspects in Cleveland bomb plot: Brandon Baxter, Anthony Hayne, Connor Stevens, Joshua Stafford and Douglas Wright.
Suspects in Cleveland bomb plot: Brandon Baxter, Anthony Hayne, Connor Stevens, Joshua Stafford and Douglas Wright.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Risa Brooks says foiled Ohio bombing plot reminder of diversity of U.S. terror
  • She says nowadays Americans mistakenly associate homegrown terror just with jihad
  • She says a 1999-2009 study found most plots white supremacist, anti-government
  • Brooks: It's crucial to focus efforts on extremists of all kinds, not just Islamist

Editor's note: Risa Brooks is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University and author of "Muslim 'Homegrown' Terrorism in the United States: How Serious is the Threat."

(CNN) -- Monday's arrest of five men accused of aiming to bomb an Ohio bridge raises disturbing questions about the attraction to violence of some contemporary anarchists. But it also offers critical lessons to Americans about the nature of the domestic terrorist threat they face—a threat more diverse in its ideological origins than commonly appreciated.

Since 9/11 the country has been concerned primarily with terrorist threats from militants inspired by a violent jihadist ideology, like that associated with al Qaeda. In recent years fears have focused on Muslim "homegrown" terrorism, which typically involves plots in the United States initiated by American residents and citizens who are inspired by jihadi ideology, but lack formal connections to al Qaeda or foreign militant organizations.

Muslim homegrown terrorists may draw the attention of a nation still traumatized by 9/11, but such plots are no more numerous or serious than those perpetrated by other domestic terrorists in the United States. As the country's history and Monday's arrests underscore, extremism comes in many incarnations. Focusing only on terrorism perpetrated by American Muslims misrepresents the scope and nature of domestic terrorism in the United States. It risks leaving us vulnerable to attacks from other sorts of violent idealogues and promotes a hurtful—and pointless—tension between Muslim-Americans and other Americans.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion

Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks

There have been many instances of non-jihadist terror in the U.S. Some may recall that in the late 1960s and 1970s the country faced an onslaught of bombings and attacks by social revolutionary groups and Puerto Rican nationalists. That violent era eventually ebbed, but then in the 1980s and 1990s the country witnessed an upsurge of threats from right-wing militants.

While Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was unusual in its lethality, it was unfortunately far from the only plot hatched by extremists on the right. The Southern Poverty Law Center documents 75 plots, of varying degrees of operational advancement, between July 1995 and June 2009 and an additional 22 from 2009 through November 2011.

Alleged plot to blow up bridge foiled
5 held in bomb plot on Ohio bridge

A study by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, a research consortium in North Carolina, found that from 1999-2009, in the United States there were 17 al Qaeda-inspired plots undertaken, 20 plots initiated by white supremacists and 17 by violent anti-government militants. Recent attacks include the 2009 shooting of a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the murder by "sovereign citizens" in 2010 of two Arkansas police officers at a traffic stop. In January 2011, a bomb laced with rat poison was found in a backpack along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Spokane, Washington.

Eco-terrorists and animal rights activists too have perpetrated their share of bombings and attacks in the United States, especially in the last decade. While these groups aim to avoid civilian deaths, accidents can happen and produce sobering acts of violence.

Add to the mix militants inspired by jihadist ideology. In the decade following 9/11, by my own accounting, there have been 18 plots in which militants have taken at least some preliminary operational steps to realize their deadly mission. Like the alleged anarchist attack, 12 have involved informants and federal agents whose presence can help advance plots that otherwise may have remained aspirational.

All but two of these plots have failed or been foiled by law enforcement: Army Major Nadil Malik Hasan's 2009 Fort Hood attack and a lesser known shooting, also in 2009, outside a Little Rock army recruiting center that harmed two soldiers. The perpetrators of all 18 homegrown plots had been known to law enforcement before their attempted attacks, with the exception of the May 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, whose own failings as a bomb-maker, despite his overseas training, underscore the challenges of successfully executing attacks in the contemporary United States.

Some may recoil at grouping right-wing, single-issue, and left-wing terrorists with militant jihadists. Yet, there are several benefits to promoting a more comprehensive assessment of the domestic terrorist threat. First, it ensures that society remains vigilant against threats from different sub-groups and that law enforcement has the support and bureaucratic incentives to do the same. As Norwegians learned with the 2011 attacks by Anders Behring Breivik, neglecting the threat from the right (or other ideological extremes) can leave society dangerously vulnerable.

Second, focusing our attention on domestic terrorism of all types and not just that generated by Muslim Americans can help heal the social rifts generated by 9/11. Singling out Muslim militants when we talk about terrorism in the U.S. adds to the mutual alienation of Muslims and Americans of other backgrounds. By unifying in opposition to extremism of all types, we demonstrate to ourselves and to our terrorist adversaries abroad that we remain true to American values and principles.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Risa Brooks.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:34 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT