This Article is written by Michael Krause. Michael studies Counter-terrorism at American University in Washington DC.
Abortion clinic violence is terrorism. No matter where you come down on the issue, any violent act meant to coerce a political body (Planned Parenthood, the US Government, etc) into making policy changes (ending abortions) through fear is an act of terrorism. Like Islamist terrorism, groups form to orchestrate attacks and control the image problems associated with violence.
During the 1980’s, frustration with the legitimate political system and support for fundamentalist groups was on the rise. Groups like the Army of God orchestrated attacks top-down; leadership would determine an overall strategy to be implemented by lower level officers. This structure functioned like a military unit, with a commander issuing orders to soldiers under his command. And this structure was particularly susceptible to beheading, a tactic American police first implemented against organized crime. Sure enough, by the year 2000 attacks organized by military-structure groups were few and far between.
Contemporary networks of anti-abortion terrorism have responded to counterterrorism pressures by going horizontal. Examining recruitment highlights the differences between a horizontal and vertical terrorist group. For a traditional, hierarchical group, recruits are drawn to the organization through recruitment offices, trained in military techniques, and given a target and plan of attack by higher-ups. A horizontal group instead recruits informally, often relying on an implicitly non-violent movement to radicalize supporters. There is often no training for horizontal groups, or if there is it is done entirely independently, such as through group sponsored publications (think Inspire, Al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine). Then attacks are planned and carried out entirely by recruits; there is no overarching strategy or plan the group is seeking to implement through terrorism, instead a radical movement produces attacks organically.
Overwhelmingly clinic attacks are perpetrated by known anti-abortion activists acting without the direction of an overarching group. To understand abortion clinic violence, a paradigm shift is required. Instead of the structured groups acting through cells terrorism researchers, and the public at large, have grown accustom to, networks of radicalized activists dependent on a broader movement for legitimacy but not attack capacity are swiftly becoming the norm in the broader terrorism landscape.
Consider the writings of prominent Jihadist scholar Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar. In his 2005 work “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance,” Al-Qadir writes that the “tanzim model,” that is the centralized hierarchical structure that seeks to overthrow regional powers by directly supplanting them and establishing Islamic states, has outlived its usefulness. Instead, he advocates “nizam, la tanzim” (System, not Organization), a model in which a decentralized network of Jihadist thinkers, experts, and recruiters provide access to logistical resources, propaganda, and training to would-be lone actors, a model very similar to abortion-clinic violence, with similar strategic advantages. Al-Qadir’s message is powerful, and Jihadis know it. Anwar Al-Awlaki, for instance, a prominent Al-Qaeda Imam credited with inspiring the first Fort Hood shooter, began advocating violence after reading Al-Qadir in Yemeni prison. After bungling its first steps towards decentralization in Iraq with Al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda has been sponsoring affiliate organizations from the Arabian Peninsula to Northern Africa and Indonesia.
When terrorists innovate, counterterrorism must struggle to keep up. As organizations decentralize, mobilization becomes ever more the action of the individual operative, and attack patterns fail to map onto (or against) organizational support, posing difficulties for traditional policing techniques that emphasize controlling “hot zones.” Predicting attacks becomes more about predicting local political targets than analyzing the motives of an organized opponent. There are some drawbacks to the new paradigm that can be exploited. For instance, without direct operational influence established groups like Al Qaeda lose brand control. However new organizations do not have such weaknesses. Discovering the chinks in the new paradigm will take rigorous study from a different perspective than that of traditional counterterrorism analysis. As the decentralized issue network becomes the prominent terrorist group model, the unit of analysis must shift from the organization to the operative, to the event, and to the campaign. The face of terrorism is no longer that of the loyal cell, beholden to the commands of group elites. Terrorism is now about lone actors, motivated towards politically relevant targets by issue groups manipulating radical individuals to further their goals. In the wake of a second Fort Hood shooting, American security thinkers must reassess their opponents, or risk falling prey to super-efficient decentralized networks of radicalization and mobilization.
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