Why progressives are lining up against new criminal penalties for domestic terrorism

“There are existing federal laws that criminalize domestic terrorism. The Patriot Act, which was enacted in the wake of 9/11, defined domestic terrorism as criminal acts that are “dangerous to human life” and are “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” or “to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” Experts say that the storming of the Capitol fits that definition.

But no existing laws make domestic terrorism a “chargeable offense on its own” with attached criminal penalties, as the Congressional Research Service recently noted. It can, however, be an element of other federal crimes, such as assault and firearms offenses, and result in an enhanced sentence.

Some have argued that’s not enough to effectively prosecute domestic terrorism. Richard Zabel, a former deputy US attorney overseeing terrorism prosecutions in New York, wrote in the Washington Post that current law “limits our societal condemnation of the defendants and their dangerous ideologies.” The threat of domestic terrorism — which was not prioritized by former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly refused to denounce white nationalists and told those who stormed the Capitol, “We love you” — would be taken more seriously if it were easier for prosecutors to charge people as domestic terrorists, Zabel and others have argued.

But civil rights groups, including the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, are raising concerns that the harms of enacting those legal authorities outweigh the benefits: They argue it would enable law enforcement to target political dissidents, and those in marginalized communities who are frequently the victims of domestic terrorism, in violation of their constitutional rights.

“Such a law is not needed given the broad reach of existing criminal statutes,” Mara Rudman, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement. “It will not solve the problem of domestic extremism and is likely to lead to unintended harms. … As lawmakers explore options for cracking down on these lawless and hateful acts, they should take care to ensure that the solutions do not create new risks for the communities they are trying to protect.””

Labeling groups like the Proud Boys “domestic terrorists” won’t fix anything

“Canada recently designated the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group, as a terrorist organization, a move that has put pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration to take similar punitive action against the group and others who participated in January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

The Congressional Research Service has asserted that the Capitol insurrection was an act of domestic terrorism, as defined by federal regulations and law. The FBI has identified the criminal activity by the Proud Boys as a domestic terrorism threat.

But while the federal government maintains a list of foreign terrorist organizations, it does not have a mechanism to formally designate domestic terrorist organizations. National security experts argue that creating one would not only invite legal challenges, but would do little to improve law enforcement’s response to the nascent threat of domestic terrorism.

Creating such a list would raise legitimate First Amendment concerns because it could potentially be used to target political dissidents on both the left and the right. Experts also say it’s ill-suited to address the kind of domestic terrorist attacks and plots that the US is facing, which according to the Department of Homeland Security, primarily come from right-wing extremists acting as individuals, rather than as organized groups.

The best way forward, they say, is for the federal government to better employ existing tools to combat domestic terrorism — a threat that was not prioritized by former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly refused to denounce white nationalists and told those who stormed the Capitol, “We love you.”

“Violent white supremacists are not a new problem,” Faiza Patel, the director of liberty and national security at the Brennan Center for Justice, said. “Law enforcement has dealt with them before and can do so again. The FBI’s robust response to the attack on the Capitol shows that these groups can be investigated and prosecuted under existing law, undercutting any argument for new tools.””

The best case against withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan

“The last option — and this is the option that I would support — would be using US leverage with the Taliban to greater effect to get a real, genuine peace process in place, which would mean keeping US forces in the country until that peace process is further along and shows more signs of progress.

This would mean more costs and resources for something that admittedly may not work, but it would allow the peace process to continue, preserve US credibility, and reduce risks to Americans from terrorism.

I think that the question really is this: Is the US willing to spend $5 billion annually, which means a small US force presence of about 2,500? Is that worth it, as an insurance policy to prevent another 9/11-style attack?”

“Our combat role ended back in 2014. Since then we’ve really been focusing on the counterterrorism mission, which does involve backstopping the Afghans by assisting and advising. But it’s not as if we’re going at it hand in hand with the Taliban.

But remember also that if the Taliban came back to power, you’ll see terrorists from all over the world — not just al Qaeda — you’ll see a convergence of extremists and terrorists back in Afghanistan. It’s likely to be a worse terrorist safe haven than it was before 9/11.”

“We are obviously much more equipped to prevent that 9/11-style attack from happening on US soil, no doubt. The argument that I’m making is that if we withdraw to zero, the Taliban comes back, and terrorist groups and extremists pour back into Afghanistan.

That gives the Taliban a dangerous narrative to propagate, which is they were able to kick out the US and its NATO partners. “We succeeded,” they could say. That is the real danger, that we lose to terrorists and extremists and we provide an opportunity for them to regather strength.

And yes, you’re right, we do have the ability to stop terrorism much more than we did 20 years ago at our border. But it’s still a high cost for us to pay when we could continue to support partners that we’ve been supporting for 20 years. There’s no indication the Taliban feels pressure to break with al-Qaeda. Even the UN has said the Taliban has not changed its relationship with al-Qaeda.”

“we’re down to 2,500 troops. We had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at one point. We really have right-sized our engagement there. We’re not looking for quick, easy solutions. We’re trying to manage threats and being able to manage the threat at roughly $5 billion a year, that seems like a good investment from a national security perspective.”

The best case for withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan

“The US has a history of missed opportunities in Afghanistan, and we’re at risk of adding another one. In 2001, the Taliban in effect offered to surrender. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai not only said “No,” but “Heck no,” in terms of accepting the Taliban’s offer to stop fighting and just live in peace.

There were also other overtures, some written about and others I’ve personally heard about, and again the United States and the Afghan government said, “No, we don’t agree.”

In the negotiations I was involved in as the secretary of defense’s representative from 2010 to 2012, the United States did not put the political capital behind the effort. Washington just simply couldn’t get its act together to move forward [in] a peace process. The result was the Taliban eventually got frustrated and left the talks.

Each time we forfeited these opportunities — the last time, when there were 100,000-plus international soldiers on the ground — the Taliban’s only demands were to do a detainee exchange, [Bowe] Bergdahl for the Gitmo Five, open a political office in Doha, and lift sanctions on their version of diplomats.

You fast-forward all these years later to what we’re left with — an agreement where we essentially traded no troops for no terrorism with the Taliban — and it’s the best we could’ve gotten at this point.

Are we ready to miss another opportunity? It breaks my heart to see the suffering of Afghans, and it breaks my heart to see continued policy- and strategy-making in the United States that is leading us to worse outcomes at huge costs in blood, treasure, and time.”

“The administration should aim for a six-month extension to see if we can get the stalled peace process back on track. If we don’t get that extension, and getting one will require a heavy lift, then we should pull out the remaining 2,500 troops and apply penalties to whichever side breaks the peace process.

The US is in a reverse-Goldilocks position: 2,500 troops is too little to really do any good with what’s coming from the Taliban, and too big to get away quickly. We’re entertaining a lot of risk if we simply abrogate the agreement [signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban]. The United States will blame the Taliban for not meeting their end of the bargain, but at the end of the day, it’ll be the United States making the decision to tear up the agreement.

What happens then? From the Taliban’s point of view, the West can’t be trusted, and they’ll decide to go on an all-out offensive. The Taliban right now are surrounding eight to 10 provincial capitals. With 2,500 troops and the limited airpower that we have in Afghanistan, the math just simply doesn’t work that [we would be able to] sort all of that out. The Taliban is likely to gain some serious momentum.

For the Taliban to thrive, they’re going to need support from the West. But if the West proved itself untrustworthy by breaking the deal, then they will look to Russia and China, even knowing any aid will come with huge strings attached.”

“If we tear up the agreement, we can look forward to a Vietnam-style, Tet-like offensive by the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Some of those major attacks are going to be much more successful than the Tet Offensive was.

The Biden administration will own the consequences of what looks to be an increasing calamity in Afghanistan. One of the biggest risks for the United States is the specter of a C-17 [plane] screaming out of Bagram [Air Base] on the heels of a Taliban offensive army.

The risk is, it replaces the fall of Saigon in 1975 as a black eye for America. The alternative is that you leave in the manner in which it was agreed, while putting the peace process on a more stable platform.

If fighting resumes, and it’s likely to resume, the Afghan government is going to be forced to get its act together and stand up and fight the Taliban to a new stalemate, which is what I personally think is likely to happen. Or they’re just going to collapse. And after 20 years of international investment, the Afghan government needs to earn the public support.”

“There’s no evidence that 2,500 troops is a difference-maker in maintaining stability in Afghanistan.

And al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan. There are a lot of groups, the Taliban included, that are interested in fighting ISIS. You also get all sorts of reports coming out of the Afghan government about 20 or 25 terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Well, maybe they exist, and maybe they’re about three or four people sitting in a cave.

Again, I’m just not convinced that a withdrawal is just a prelude to another 9/11. The evidence for that is almost nonexistent.

Plus, our capabilities 20 years after 9/11 — to detect and to strike any sort of emerging terrorist threat in a place like Afghanistan — are much, much higher. Our information networks in Afghanistan itself, as well as our detection and strike capabilities, really are the best insurance against a terrorist attack against the United States. It’s far better than keeping a small force presence in the country.”

Trump is gone. But the threat of right-wing violence that arose under his watch remains.

“The most successful terrorist campaign in American political history took place after the Civil War.

Ex-Confederate soldiers and ordinary Southerners unwilling to give up on white supremacy formed a series of violent cells aimed at undermining Reconstruction. Their attacks, the most infamous of which were lynchings of recently freed Black people, aimed to disrupt racially egalitarian governments and impose costs on the North for continuing to occupy Southern land. The violence increased after Reconstruction ended, working to intimidate local Black populations while Southern states created new regimes that would render them second-class citizens.”

“We do not actually need a huge spike in far-right violence for it to be politically impactful. The mere threat of future violence can poison a democracy.”

“If more moderate Republicans are afraid to speak up, extremists will increasingly speak for the party. The more the extremists speak for the party, the more they will push Republicans voters to the far right and embolden violent far-right actors, further intimidating moderate voices from speaking out.

This is one key difference from the political dynamics of the 1970s. Back then, no significant faction of the Democratic Party was aligned with the violent radicals. Today, large sections of the far right see themselves as acting on behalf of or in conjunction with the Trumpist forces in the Republican Party. In footage of Capitol Hill mobbers ransacking the Senate floor, one attacker justifies his actions by saying “[Ted] Cruz would want us to do this.”

“There seem to be enough guns, political support, and rhetorical space to sustain at least some degree of mobilization by violence-curious radicals,” says Paul Staniland, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “It’s a lot easier to unleash carnage than to pack it back away.””

Biden ordered airstrike after determining Iran supported rocket attacks

“The attacks and retaliatory strike marked the first major military action of the Biden administration. The strike was calculated to signal to Iran that such attacks through proxies in the region would not be tolerated, the officials said, while avoiding escalation into a wider conflict as Biden seeks a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran on the Iran nuclear deal.
The “proportionate” military response was conducted along with diplomatic measures, including consulting with coalition partners, the Pentagon said.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.””

“”The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks — the facilities are utilized by KSS and KH — and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks,” the spokesperson said. “The strikes were necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks.”

At around 6 p.m. EST on Thursday night, U.S. fighter jets dropped seven 500-pound precision bombs on seven targets in eastern Syria, the official said. All bombs hit their targets, a crossing used by several Iran-backed militia groups to move weapons and other goods across the border. Initial reports suggest there were no casualties, militant or civilian.

Biden made the strategic decision to conduct the strike in Syria, rather than on Iraqi soil, in order to avoid pressure on the Iraqi government, the official said.

Conducting an airstrike in Syria is also less politically complicated for the Biden administration than an operation in Iraq, said Becca Wasser, an analyst with the RAND Corp. The U.S. does not need to request the permission of the Syrian government as it does not recognize Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, she said.

The airstrike came after Biden spoke Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The White House readout of the call hinted at the coming action. The men “discussed the recent rocket attacks against Iraqi and Coalition personnel and agreed that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully to account.””

Why labeling Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists could hurt millions of people

“The Trump administration announced its intent to designate the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization” — a move that could exacerbate one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”

“The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, are an armed rebel group of Zaydi Shia (a minority sect within Shia Islam) who have been fighting a civil war against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government since 2014. That civil war morphed into an international one in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and several of its allies in the Gulf decided to intervene militarily in the civil war, waging war against the Houthis. Meanwhile, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, has backed the Houthis.
Both sides have launched numerous attacks and committed atrocities. The Saudi-led coalition, for example, killed around 30 children on a bus in 2019. The Houthis, meanwhile, launched missiles at an airport and airbase in Saudi Arabia in 2019, and at Saudi oil stations last year.

In his statement, Pompeo said the new terrorism designation is “intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.””

“Since 2015, the US has supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against the Houthis. It has helped coalition forces push back on Iran, the Houthis’ main supplier for weapons and funds. Until November 2018, the US refueled Saudi warplanes that dropped bombs on Yemen — many of which killed civilians, including children. Now the US mostly helps the Saudis gather intelligence.

The entire war has been a disaster. The United Nations estimated in December that about 233,000 people have died since fighting began, mostly from indirect causes such as lack of food, water, health services, and more. Meanwhile, another roughly 24 million Yemenis require assistance to stay alive and fend off diseases like cholera.”

“One way those in need get help is through humanitarian organizations. The Houthis control Yemen’s north, and it’s impossible for those organizations to operate there without the Houthis’ approval.

If the US follows through on designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, then it will be harder for those groups to offer support for fear of possible prosecution by the US government.

As a result, “humanitarian assistance is likely going to be dramatically scaled back,” said Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead at Oxfam. He added that the designation will likely scare off foreign businesses, investors, and banks, thus further decimating Yemen’s reeling economy. “Services will become less available, goods more expensive, and people’s ability to pay less possible,” Scott told me.

One way humanitarian groups have gotten around this predicament before is by asking the US government to provide waivers for them. Basically, the waivers say, “As long as you ensure you’re not helping the designated terrorist, you can continue operating as you have been.”

But Pompeo’s Sunday statement suggests the US hasn’t designed those waivers yet. “The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” he said. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.””

““While the Houthis share much blame, alongside the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, for horrific human rights violations in Yemen, the designations do nothing to address these concerns,” reads the current letter, which is scheduled for release later this week or early next week. “They will, however, prevent the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to millions of innocent people, greatly hurt the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and further undermine U.S. national security interests in the region.”

Altogether, the real losers of the FTO designation won’t be the Houthis. It’ll be the millions of Yemenis already struggling to stay alive because of the war the US participated in.”

France, the way to Islamic reformation is to challenge institutions — not stigmatize Muslims

“Recent events underscore the need for a reformed reading of Islam. But such reformation will not be brought about by stigmatizing Islam or Muslim communities, as the French president did. What is needed is to challenge Muslim institutions to take a clear position on Islamic jurisprudence justifying violence.”

“It was a policy statement about cracking down on “radical Islamist” influence among French Muslims to prevent their transformation into a “counter-republican” community. However, Macron’s bizarre remark that Islam “is in crisis all over the world today” unsurprisingly got most of the attention in the Middle East.”

“What was meant to be a debate about combating Islamic radicals in France turned into an outcry against “Macron’s stigmatization of Islam.” Nuanced Muslim voices got lost in the noise.
The Macron fiasco didn’t overshadow the problem of violence in the name of Islam for long. The beheading of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, on Oct. 16 for showing his students images of a caricature depicting Islam’s prophet came as a crude reminder of the problem. Calling it an isolated act, as the grand mufti of Egypt did, doesn’t cut it any longer. Nor does the lamentation over French atrocities in Algeria half a century ago. The problem of violence motivated by a certain interpretation of Islam is real.”

“Three key premises held by the Islamic Salafist tradition lie at the source of the problem. First, the idea that sovereignty lies with “God,” not the people, restricts the role of legislatures to enacting Islamic law, which is also understood in its most literalist interpretation. Rulers who don’t uphold this principle are deemed idolatrous. Second, Muslims’ “apostasy,” often defined as having a different interpretation of their faith, is punishable by death. Third, when Muslim leaders fail to enact these rules, individual Muslims have a duty, under certain conditions, to carry them out themselves.

These interpretations of Islam underpin most of the violence in its name, since the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb wrote his call for Jihad more than half a century ago, all the way to the Islamic State and “lone wolves” violently punishing those who “insult Islam” today. Islamic institutions such as Al-Azhar often denounce that violence and insist that its perpetrators do not represent “true Islam,” as Egypt’s mufti just did. Yet they rarely address the intellectual foundations of these belligerent interpretations of Islamic texts.

Independent-minded Islamic thinkers have long been advocating more clement readings of Islam, its laws and its relationship with non-Muslims. From Muhammad Abduh in the 19th century to Nasr Abu Zayd, Mohammed Arkoun and many others more recently, thinkers have critically reviewed Islamic jurisprudence to show its emphasis on reason, individual freedom and equality. But religious institutions and movements did not follow their lead. And political leaders, including those of the so-called secular regimes, hedged their bets and walked a fine line between reformers and Salafists. Decades of social, economic and political decay, foreign encroachment and military interventions, along with Saudi support, helped Salafi thought grow. Today, Salafi thought is no longer a fringe: It has penetrated mainstream religious institutions as well as the Islamist movements that had started off as modernist, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those who are interested in promoting a reformist vision of Islam should challenge the foundations of Salafism within these institutions and movements — not “Islam” as a whole, as Macron did, nor the already stigmatized Muslim minorities who are struggling with racism and discrimination in Western countries.
Instead, Islamic institutions and movements should be pressed to come up with unambiguous answers to the key questions that Salafism poses: Does their interpretation of “true Islam” allow Muslims to use violence against others? Does it allow Muslims to uphold modern political institutions and their laws? Does it allow Muslims to live peacefully with people they consider apostates or infidels?

Challenging these institutions and movements will help, not undermine, the debate among Muslims over what Islam is — the debate that will shape the future of Islam.”