Jihadism: An Eerily Familiar Threat
As part of my day-to-day job, I read a lot of news reports, books and scholarly studies. Though the never-ending avalanche of information sometimes feels like a mild version of electronic waterboarding, it also allows me to pick out interesting parallels between different events. Not long ago I re-read Blood and Rage, an excellent book by historian Michael Burleigh that outlines the cultural history of terrorism. As I flipped through the chapters on nihilist and anarchist terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I couldn't help but notice some intriguing similarities to jihadism. This week I'll share them with you to put the modern threat that jihadists pose into better context.
The technological tools today's jihadists use are certainly new; after all, the internet and social media only emerged over the past few decades. But many of the tactics they rely on are as old as terrorism itself. And despite the more primitive means at their disposal, anarchists were often far more successful than their jihadist counterparts in using propaganda and the media to recruit, radicalize and equip their followers.
Spreading the Word
For the most part, the guiding philosophies of anarchist and jihadist terrorism are quite different. Their views on the nature of man and universe radically diverge, as do the global systems each seeks to establish through political violence. But they are also pretty alike in a few key ways. Both anarchists and jihadists view themselves as a vanguard able to awake and mobilize their respective masses — the proletariat and the ummah — to destroy the current order and replace it with a utopian society. Moreover, both hold a strict dualistic view of the world. Whereas anarchists saw a global society divided into proletariat versus bourgeoisie, jihadists see it as true Muslims pitted against the rest of the world. And the hatred anarchists felt for the bourgeoisie is not unlike the loathing jihadists have for their apostate and non-Muslim enemies.
This dualistic worldview, founded on hatred of "the other," led first anarchists, and later jihadists, to welcome the idea of martyrdom if needed to conduct an attack. Many anarchists carried cyanide capsules to keep from being captured alive, flaunting their embrace of death in pursuit of their lofty ambitions. Like jihadists, they also relied on convoluted logic to justify mass casualty attacks that hurt or killed people who did not belong to the oppressive ruling class. Anarchists bombed theaters, restaurants, cafes, hotels, religious processions and train terminals — targets that modern jihadists would eventually set their sights on as well. Anarchists also attacked the press, bombing the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 and conducting what may have been the United States' first vehicle bombing in 1920. (That year, they used a horse-drawn wagon to carry a massive bomb to Wall Street's J.P. Morgan Bank before detonating it, killing 38 people — mostly couriers and other low-level workers — in the deadliest act of terrorism the country had ever seen.)
Though they didn't have the internet and 24-7 news outlets at their disposal, anarchists did have the telegraph and other communications technologies that greatly expanded the reach of the press in the late 1800s. In fact, these tools gave anarchists a way to broadcast their message and propaganda worldwide, while heavy and sensationalist media coverage of their attacks helped them to recruit grassroots followers to their cause. Just as jihadists have done today, anarchists encouraged and took credit for the actions of lone actors and small cells that answered their calls for action with guns, knives and bombs.
This also gave rise to copycats who were inspired by anarchists' activities abroad and attempted to mimic them, some perhaps even hoping to gain the fame and notoriety of the attackers highlighted in the press. For example, Leon Czolgosz — the anarchist who shot and killed U.S. President William McKinley — was motivated by Gaetano Bresci's assassination of Italian King Umberto I in July 1890. Investigators found that Czolgosz had collected several news clippings about Bresci and the assassination; he even purchased the .32-caliber Iver Johnson revolver that he used to kill McKinley after reading that it was the gun Bresci had used to shoot the king. Of course, this kind of transnational inspiration wasn't confined to the United States and Europe; grassroots anarchists also launched attacks in Argentina and Australia. By the early 1900s, propaganda and press coverage had turned anarchist terrorism into a global phenomenon, much as they have helped fueled the rise of grassroots jihadism today.
Different Degrees of Success
During their heyday, anarchists managed to assassinate a number of world leaders. In addition to McKinley and Umberto, they killed Russian Czar Alexander II, French President Sadi Carnot, Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Canovas, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Portuguese King Carlos I and his son, Crown Prince Luis Filipe, and Greek King George I. And those were just the attempts that succeeded.
Jihadists share similar ambitions, but so far they have fallen short. Though jihadists killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, they tried and failed to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Their efforts to urge supporters to kill international economic leaders have likewise failed to achieve the same success that anarchists did in their campaign against the world's industrialists. And while anarchists were never able to build a workers' paradise akin to the jihadists' caliphate, their ideological rivals — the Marxists — carried class warfare and the vision of a socialist utopia much further, and in a far more lasting way, than jihadists have in the Middle East.
A Recognizable Response
Anarchist terrorism, and the pervasive press coverage of it, generated widespread fear in the same way jihadist terrorism has today. According to a December 2015 Gallup poll, some 51 percent of Americans are very worried or somewhat worried that they or their family members will become a victim of terrorism. A figure this high hasn't been seen since October 2001, despite the fact that jihadists have not pulled off the follow-up attack to 9/11 they have long threatened. In fact, only 163 Americans have died in terrorist attacks of any kind since September 2001, coming out to an average of 10.87 deaths each year. In other words, the odds that a given American will die in a terrorist attack this year are about 1 in 29 million — and yet still more than half of Americans fear it will happen to them or their loved ones. A March 2016 Gallup poll asked Americans, "How much do you personally worry about the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the United States?" Of those who responded, 48 percent said "a great deal" and 23 percent said "a fair amount." Clearly, terrorism is still punching well above its weight because of the fear it engenders. And that kind of popular panic has been known to lead to dramatic policy changes.
In the wake of McKinley's assassination and a string of other anarchist attacks, Washington began to change the roles and responsibilities of the country's security agencies. The Secret Service took charge of protecting the president, and in time the FBI was created. Anarchist terrorism also forced law enforcement agencies to alter how they operated and collected intelligence. Their foreign counterparts made similar adjustments in countries such as the United Kingdom and France.
A second wave of change occurred in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The United States created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security. It also introduced a host of modifications to the way law enforcement and intelligence agencies worked. Comparable changes are now being made overseas in response to a spate of jihadist attacks in Europe — changes that continue to this day.
The public's response to terrorism is oddly familiar as well. By and large, anarchists in the United States were of foreign birth or extraction; Czolgosz, on the other hand, was actually American by birth. The activities of these radical bomb-throwers and assassins with foreign-sounding names such as Czolgosz, Sacco and Vanzetti sparked a popular and legislative backlash against immigrants. In March 1903, Congress passed an immigration law nicknamed the "Anarchist Exclusion Act" that was intended to block foreign anarchists from entering the United States. Regulations were tightened even further in 1918 after the law was deemed ineffective. The same type of sentiment is behind the recent U.S. executive order to temporarily prevent immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from reaching America's shores. Either way, it is clear that the evolution of the modern jihadist movement — and the public's responses to it — are not quite as unprecedented as some may think.