The Real Terrorist Threat in America

The Real Terrorist Threat in America

A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. REUTERS / CATHAL MCNAUGHTON

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United States

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Islamic State

Radicalization and Extremism

Since 9/11, no foreign terrorist group has successfully conducted a deadly attack in the United States. Instead, the threat today is one of individuals—usually with ready access to guns—radicalized by a diverse array of ideologies absorbed from the internet.
In light of the recent attempted mail bombings, the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and a rise in hate-related incidents, two of the country’s top experts in terrorism and homeland security discuss present and future threats to and in the United States. 

Bruce Hoffman

Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security

Peter Bergen

Vice President and Director, International Security, Future of War, and Global Studies and Fellows Programs, New America

Jonathan Masters

Deputy Managing Editor

MASTERS: All right. I believe it’s officially good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I’m Jon Masters, deputy managing editor of the Council on Foreign Relations website, This is an on-the-record conference call to discuss terrorism and hate crimes in the United States. There are additional resources available on both and on, including pieces from both of our speakers today.

And with that, I’m pleased to be joined on the call by two of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism and security. The first is a CFR colleague, Bruce Hoffman, who is the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Visiting Senior Fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. Bruce has been studying terrorism and insurgency for four decades and I encourage you to read his recent piece on our site called “Mail Bombs, Hate Crimes, and the Meaning of Terrorism.”

I’m also grateful to have Peter Bergen. Peter, of course, is an author, journalist, documentary producer, vice president for Global Studies and Fellows at New America, the national security analyst at CNN, professor of practice at Arizona State University where he co-directs the Center on the Future of War, and I also—I also urge you to read his newest on Foreign Affairs, which he co-authored with David Sterman, called The Real Terrorist Threat in America.

Again, great to have you both today.

BERGEN: Thank you.

MASTERS: But we’re here—

HOFFMAN: A pleasure.

MASTERS: And we’re here, of course, to discuss the nature of the terrorist threat in the United States and what can and should be done by government, police, and perhaps elements of the private sector to counter it and so I’d just like to tee things up a bit with some quick facts.

Cesar Sayoc, the man allegedly behind the string of mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats and critics of President Trump, was arrested in Florida last Friday, a week ago. Prosecutors say he conducted the domestic terrorist attack targeting at least fifteen victims. He’s facing multiple charges including illegal mailing of explosives, threats against former presidents and other persons, threatening interstate communications, and assaulting federal officers.

And the Robert Bowers, the suspect in the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, was charged in federal court this week with more than three dozen criminal acts, including hate crimes and the murder of 11 people. And I should note that both men were quite active on social media platforms, which I’m sure we’ll discuss—Sayoc on Twitter and Facebook, and Roberts (sic; Bowers) on a lesser-known site called Gab so social media companies again back in the spotlight here.

And just a couple of quick statistics I’d like to mention: according to the Government Accountability Office, the number of U.S. deaths resulting from attacks by far-right extremists has exceeded or equaled those caused by radical Islamists in thirteen of the fifteen years following 9/11.

And then a University of Maryland statistic says that since 2010 the proportion of right-wing extremist attacks in the U.S. has risen from six percent to thirty-five percent—again, that’s 2010.

So Peter, I’d like to kick off with you. In your piece for FA, you talk about, quote, unquote, “the real terrorist threat in America,” which you say is no longer from foreign groups but from individuals within the United States—you know, we’re talking citizens and residents—who have become radicalized across the ideological spectrum, many on social media as you mentioned. Can you talk a bit about that because you seem to be trying to dispel a myth of sorts here?

BERGEN: Well, you know, the facts are the last time a foreign terrorist organization made a serious effort to attack the United States was on May 1, 2010, when a Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad, who was completely unknown to law enforcement—his father was a very senior officer in the Pakistani air force—he deployed a car bomb in Times Square on a Saturday night at six o’clock at a corner—a very busy corner, obviously intending to kill a lot of people because obviously a street corner at Times Square on a Saturday evening in May is going to be thick with people.

Luckily the bomb didn’t detonate properly, but that was, you know, now eight years ago, which is not to say, of course, that a foreign terrorist organization may not be plotting, or thinking about, or attempting another attack in the United States, but the defensive capabilities of the United States at this point are very good. Our offensive capabilities are also quite good, and public knowledge is a huge force multiplier for both of those.

And so what we’re left with is, you know, a group of people who are radicalizing largely because of what they read on the internet. Some of them are right wing, some are jihadist, and you know, they are certainly capable of—because of easy access to automatic weapons in this country—semi-automatic weapons, they can do a lot of damage. Omar Mateen killed forty-nine people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando who was influenced by ISIS. And obviously you had the attack in Pittsburgh which was the worst anti-Jewish attack in U.S. history in which eleven people were killed.

So that’s the problem you are kind of left with which is not to say that, you know, foreign terrorist organizations might attempt at some point in the future to get one through but, you know, their capabilities are very limited compared to where they were on 9/11 when, you know, the United States was a very easy target.

MASTERS: And so do you think that—I mean, do you think that that reality has not quite set in within the public discourse or within, you know, particularly this administration?

BERGEN: I think it hasn’t because the whole kind of rationale for the travel ban is sort of the solution for a problem that doesn’t really exist. None of the countries targeted in the travel ban have—none of the citizens of those countries have conducted lethal terrorist attacks in the United States.

The travel ban doesn’t stop the internet, and it’s the internet which is the factor for the radicalization of folks in the United States, whether it’s from ISIS propaganda or right-wing-extremist propaganda. So, you know, if you conceptualize the problem as a bunch of foreigners trying to attack us, which is how the—clearly how the president thinks about it, that’s about seventeen years out of date.

MASTERS: All right, thanks, Peter.

Bruce, turning to you, in your piece for you talked about how definitions really matter in this debate, and we often, you know, hear the term terrorism bandied about somewhat loosely in the media. It’s certainly one of the most politically charged words in our lexicon.

Could you talk a bit about why these definitions matter, and what trends you are seeing, and how these terms are being used by politicians, and pundits, and others?

HOFFMAN: Well, especially in recent years it seems that we’re almost two polar opposites when it comes to the issue of terrorism. It’s either applies promiscuously to almost anything that profoundly offends us, or upsets us, or that, you know, becomes kind of a buzzword. So the hacking, for instance, several years ago of a major Hollywood studio, and the revelation of its emails and data of its employees, was termed an act of terrorism. The activities of a major national lobbying groups, its activities have been called terrorism. But then on the other hand, when we have acts of profound violence—such as the Pittsburgh shooting, such as Omar Mateen at the Pulse nightclub, we’re hesitant to label them as terrorism.

Sometimes for political reasons, other times though because we fail to understand—and that’s what I try to bring out in this article—the important distinctions between something that’s a hate crime, which is in essence—or in a nutshell defined by the identity of the victim—and something that’s terrorism, that at least in U.S. code as well, in our laws, is defined more by intent and motivation. And of course, the latter requires considerable more investigation and especially rock-solid evidence that will stand up in a court of law. No federal law enforcement, or state, or local law enforcement agency wants to erroneously apply a label to something that they have to climb back from.

But of course, there’s another completely societal element to this that has less to do with the law, but it’s society’s perceptions of the threat, of how well the authorities—or how seriously the authorities are taking the entire range of threats, and the impressions that they take away from violent acts that may be labeled hate crimes, terrorism, other types of violence—criminal violence. And they don’t—they don’t understand and don’t appreciate the distinctions between them.

 MASTERS: Great. Well, with those introductions, I’d like to thank you both. And for those of you who may have just hopped on the call a bit late, I just want to remind folks that this is an on-the-record conference call to discuss the threat of terrorism and hate crimes in the United States. I’m speaking with CFR’s Bruce Hoffman and New America’s Peter Bergen. I should also note that the Council has a great many resources on this and related topics on the CFR— and websites, including pieces by both of the pieces today.

So, with that, I think we can open it up. I encourage members of the media to chime in if you have questions. And we’ll get to as many as we can. So, operator, if you’d like to go ahead with the instructions, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Silvina Sterin Pensel with TN Todo.

Q: Good morning. Thank you for having this call. My name is Silvina Sterin. I’m from Argentina. I work as a correspondent here in New York for Todo Noticias.

I’m interested in asking you about this new form that terrorist attacks have taken in the past of using a vehicle, either a truck or a—you know, a car, to mow people, as it happened a year ago in New York with five of the eight victims from Argentina, from my country. So I know that the focus of your exposition today is the easy access of terrorists to, you know, firearms or assault rifles, but this is also something that we have seen frequently in the past.

BERGEN: I can take that, because we track—

MASTERS: Great. Yeah, go ahead, Peter.

BERGEN: The—you know, since 2014, when ISIS started—well, the first group to encourage this was al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. They had an English-language magazine called Inspire, and they talked about using cars as—vehicles as weapons. ISIS also encouraged this. And so since 2014 we’ve seen sixteen of these attacks in the last—interesting, fourteen of them are by jihadi terrorists. Remember who called the lethal attack in Nice in which eighty-four people were killed by somebody inspired by ISIS. And then also we’ve seen two right-wing attacks—one in Charlottesville and one in London, at a group of people outside—attending a mosque, a Ramadan ceremony. So, you know, I mean, they’re easy to do, requires no training, you can’t defend against this everywhere, it would be impossible. And, you know, terrorists, they’re like school shooters, they tend to look at other examples of, quote/unquote, “successful” attacks and they learn from them and they—and so, you know, this was not a—not a typical tactic at all of terrorists except since about 2014. And unfortunately, we’re going to see more of these because they’re easy to do and the idea is out there.

HOFFMAN: Could I add something actually?

MASTERS: Sure. Go ahead, Bruce.

HOFFMAN: I mean, yeah, you know, I think this goes back to Peter’s earlier point about the really outsized or even seismic effect that social media is having on terrorism trends and patterns, and, certainly, the very powerful, inspirational messages that then lead to motivation and actual implementation.

As Peter well knows, about three months after the 9/11 attacks, in December 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was then bin Laden’s deputy and, of course, now is the emir of al-Qaeda, had published something in a relatively obscure Arabic-language London newspaper called Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner where there’s a very interesting passage in it where he talks about using whatever weapon is at hand if you can’t get a gun or a bomb, you know, to attack the infidel.

But, you know, that was an anachronistic, in essence, media platform that only reached a very small number of people. Whoever new that this treatise was published in this Arabic-language newspaper saw it and may have been motivated or not by it. But then you fast-forward to exactly what Peter’s talking about, in 2014 where al-Adnani, Muhammad al-Adnani, one of the chief leaders of ISIS, over social media made a very similar type of plea and the kind of resonance and traction that that has had, not only from 2014 when he issued it, but certainly Adnani was killed some years ago in a U.S. airstrike, so it’s, in essence, become an echo chamber that continues to motivate and inspire and animate people to engage in violence.

And I think this is really down to the enormous power of communications now that terrorists have and that, unfortunately, this sense of community that people who are susceptible to these messages have that they don’t see themselves as isolated as they once may have been, but as part of a—of a broader movement.

MASTERS: Right. And I—and I—I’d just like to follow up on that. I mean, I think it’s the crux of, you know, the issue here is, you know, what role—and this question goes to both of you—sort of, what role should, you know, social media platforms be playing, you know, to counter hate and extremism online? I mean, you know, and in many cases, we see that adversary countries like Russia and Iran and their proxies are stoking the political fires on these platforms around, you know, some of these hot-button issues. And, you know, do you think they—you know, these companies realize the true scope of the problem here? You know, they’re obviously taking some measures, but, you know, are they moving quickly enough? You know, are tougher regulations in the offing? I mean, I think, in some cases, you know, these companies are asking to be regulated. Maybe if you guys could take a crack at that.

BERGEN: I think here the problem is, you know, I mean, social media companies tend to have sort of a trajectory that is kind of predictable. There’s first of all denial that there’s really a problem, which we’ve seen again and again. Then, sort of, you know, social pressure or political pressure, yes, there is a problem, and then they start trying to do something about it. The problem is is, you know, think about YouTube gets four hundred hours of new material every minute, and so, you know, the kinds of volumes you’re looking at. Of course, there are things, there’s DNA, there’s kind of DNA imagery technology that kind of every image has a sort of certain kind of digital footprint and you can—you know, the reason child pornography doesn’t exist on the internet in a meaningful way is social media companies were quick to, you know, basically get rid of that and use this technology so if any—if any of these images come up, they’re immediately kind of excluded from being posted again.

But child pornography is a much easier subject than what we’re talking about because child pornography is, A, illegal, B, very—you know, there’s no debate about what it is. In the case of jihadist propaganda, you know—and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric, if he’s delivering a kind of soliloquy on jihad, which is, after all, a concept that exists in Islam as a legitimate concept, you know, is that something you should take off or not? So you get into, you know, a beheading video is pretty obvious to get rid of, but you know, some of these other things are more subtle. You know, Facebook’s hired three thousand people and now, you know, has people operating in dozens of languages trying to deal with this not just for jihadist propaganda, but you know—you know, inciting violence against the Rohingya or other forms of violence. But, you know, their—I think their efforts are clearly, you know, not sufficient.

And I can’t think of a kind of class of institutions that has gone from kind of almost universal acclimation to almost universal opprobrium in such a short period of time than the social media companies. And, you know, they were supposed to be creating utopia here on earth, and instead they’ve created a, you know, very difficult situation in lots of countries around all sorts of issues that everybody on this phone call is familiar with.


HOFFMAN: Yeah. Of course, even as—

MASTERS: Bruce, want to follow up?

HOFFMAN: Yeah, just to add one thing, that even as the mainstream or the more mainstream platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and so on—take steps, as Peter’s described, to attempt to curtail or at least monitor this type of communication. I mean, you have someone like Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, who then defaults to a platform like Gab, which is far less well known but has certainly become popular amongst likeminded extremists with his views simply because it is a much—it’s not clearly as monitored, and in fact it was created in part to propagate viewpoints that were being excluded from or marginalized from the more mainstream platforms.

MASTERS: Great. Well, operator, I think we can take the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Paul Handley with AFP.

Q: Hi. The government and the FBI has shown its ability to get ahead of problems by following and detecting/arresting potential jihadist people who want to travel and join ISIS or al-Qaida before they do so. In comparison, Sayoc and Bowers were both out there on—with their threats on social media and didn’t seem to be known to law enforcement. So I’m wondering, is there a problem there? Is there a deficit in attention to far-right hate-group extremists in the U.S., and why?

MASTERS: Bruce, do you want to jump on that one, or?

HOFFMAN: Well, you’ve got Peter. Peter is trying to say something, so I think—

MASTERS: Sorry. Go ahead, Peter.

BERGEN: Hey, look, I—

Q: Whoever’s OK with me.

BERGEN: Law enforcement—I don’t think there is a deficit of attention on right-wing group in this country. There may be a deficit—you know, there may be a public lack of understanding until relatively recently that this is really an issue, but the FBI is all over this like a wet blanket. You know, they have been concerned about this for a long time because if you look at the history, I mean, after all, Oklahoma City was the most lethal terrorist attack in American history in 1995, when 186 people were killed. I mean, this is—this is not something that is new to law enforcement, nor is it something that they have glossed over. And, you know, what they’re concerned about is violent acts, and they don’t care about the ideology of those violent acts. And they’re just as concerned about black nationalist-inspired violence, right-wing violence, or jihadists. So I don’t think from a law enforcement perspective there’s any doubt that this is an issue and has been for a long time.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, I would just—I would—I would add that I spent fifteen months working at FBI Headquarters on a commission that was looking at its response to radicalization and the terrorist threat, and what stood out throughout that time and was in our 9/11 Review Commission Report was that the—really that there wasn’t any kind of selectivity, just as Peter described. I mean, a violent crime, and especially one that had political motives and overtones, I could detect—indeed, the commission could find, you know, no evidence that one received more attention than the other. And I think commendably from the FBI’s perspective, they have over the years—in large measure one has to say because of the jihadi threat, and because of the threat that has become much more amorphous and much more homegrown—exactly as Peter described at the beginning, that the FBI years ago recognized, especially with the rise of ISIS, that it wasn’t so much a challenge of foreign terrorists coming to this country, as was the case in 9/11, but domestic radicalization; and devolved or decentralized responsibilities to the field offices to develop very specific strategic plans or to come up with threat reviews and prioritization for their specific areas that made no distinction between whether it was foreign or domestic terrorist threats, which was either.

And one of the challenges I think the FBI faces now is building up its human intelligence capabilities to be able to get more of a window into preempting or thwarting not just terrorist attacks but even armed shooters. I just saw an FBI study that said that 81 percent of the mass shootings in the United States in recent years, the shooter had always articulated their views of doing harm and violence. What they also found is that whether it was weeks or days before the attack, they suddenly went silent. So many people who may—you know, surrounding them or who knew them may have thought they abandoned their ideas. But what the FBI is finding is, no, is that when they were transitioning into the actual planning and implementation, making good on these threats.

And they’re looking into exactly what the patterns have been in regard to more clear terrorist attacks in this—in this country. And so far, they’re finding a lot of similarities. But that means that a lot of programs of community outreach and educating health care professionals, local law enforcement officers as well, teachers, school resource officers, I think is going to become I think even more important in the wake of the last couple of weeks, and even more highly prioritized than it’s already being.

Q: Can I follow up?

MASTERS: Great. Yeah, go ahead.

Q: Still, we have these two attacks where the FBI seemed to not know these people. And then you have the broader picture. There’s accusations that government doesn’t fully recognize the threat of right-wing attacks. Is there a problem there, if you go further above the FBI?

HOFFMAN: Well, I think—you know, at the risk of stating the obvious, the—you know, the dominant lens through which the terrorism threat has been seen as a matter of policy certainly has been the external threat, and certainly the one from Salafi jihadis. But as Peter also knows very well, because we were involved in some of these efforts, the National Security Council recently released the national strategy—its national strategy for counterterrorism. This is the fifth such iteration since the 9/11 attacks, and the first since 2011. And all of us, you know, in reviewing it were, I think, impressed by the fact that it wasn’t just looking, as the previous versions had, very narrowly at Salafi jihadi or Islamist threats, but had really opened the aperture and did very explicitly mentioned extreme right-wing, as well as extreme left-wing, as well as black nationalist.

But in other words, the range of threats that the FBI, for instance, or law enforcement has to face. And especially in the section that talked about counter-radicalization, the five-step—you know, the five measures or policy initiatives that they identified were applicable across the board. I mean, the question is, you know, from this strategy, how will the implementation and the resourcing, especially from Congress, follow that, that will make—that will give these types of monitoring or early detection capabilities of greater resources and greater personnel devoted to them.

MASTERS: And, Bruce, correct me if I’m wrong, but I mean, after 9/11, clearly, the FBI sort of pivoted from what I understand was, you know, a focus on sort white-collar crime to really, you know, terrorism, anti-terrorism was their primary focus, and really focused on obviously the foreign terrorist threat. Is—you know, is it now—is there now a greater sense that we need to look inward? Or is that something that’s always been there but, you know, just coming—you know, manifesting itself much more recently?

HOFFMAN: Right. Well, it’s always been there. And of course, you know, what we’re seeing now is not completely new. In the 1980s, for example, there were very heavily armed extreme right-wing militia organizations and hate groups that had acquired a center of gravity that had gone beyond just isolated cells but were actually planning—fortunately averted in large measure by the FBI—a much more systematic campaign. So it’s nothing that the FBI has ever diverted its focus from, but you’re absolutely right. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was the first priority of transitioning the FBI from what had been predominantly, overwhelmingly a law enforcement agency into one that also would be an intelligence-driven agency. And that, I think, has been part a the seventeen-year-long process that has paid a lot of the dividends that we have thwarted so many, especially foreign terrorist attacks in this country, and even many domestic plots.

I think the question now is that, having focused very much in recent years by the very visible threat of Americans going off to fight with ISIS or al-Qaida overseas, and potentially coming back home, is that there’ll be—because of the heightened threat and the rise of these domestic extremist groups, the FBI’s attention is going to have to be, you know, spread in a much—you know, much wider spectrum than it had before.

MASTERS: Right. And just one more follow-up on that, to both of you or either of you. I mean, do you get the sense that, you know, in talking with, you know, FBI agents, that they have the tools they need to sort of wage this battle here? And, you know, do they have the legal authorities that they want? I mean, are they asking for things that they’re not getting?

Obviously there are clear, you know, constitutional barriers for, you know, what they can do. But what are—are they sort of satisfied with the tools that they have?

HOFFMAN: I think the FBI for a number of years now, going back to Director Mueller, has been very concerned about what they call the going-dark phenomenon; that, in other words, a lot of the legislation and authorities they have for phone taps to monitor all kinds of communications date from the 1990s, when there were very different platforms. And you had to really make arrangements with AT&T or with, you know, the Bell phone system. And now we’ve seen this proliferation of different forms of communications, including encrypted handheld personal devices.

And this is one of their concerns. And it’s not just the terrorism concern. It’s a concern, you know, with kidnappers, certainly with pedophiles and child pornographers, that they’re increasingly able to take advantage of off-the-shelf encrypted technologies, but also encrypted devices that make it much more difficult for the FBI to gain that vital information.

This is why I think right now there’s a tremendous emphasis within the FBI, when it comes to counterterrorism or countering violent extremism of any kind, to have a much greater emphasis, I would argue, in terms of numbers on human intelligence, in developing human-intelligence capabilities. And that’s because, as I said earlier, the threat itself has become much more amorphous and is also proliferated.

And just to underscore how the technology drives all of this, what I find remarkable—and I’ve studied terrorism for many years, so there’s not much that sort of surprises me when I think back on the past few decades—but it was precisely the same hate groups that are active today—Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi groups, white supremacists—that were the first to use the computer and to use precursors to social media to radicalize and recruit.

In other words, in the early 1980s, when federal authorities were able to track them more efficiently since phone taps and things like that through the mails, Louis Beam, who was the former grand dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan, in 1984 came up with the idea of transmitting these things on what were very primitive computer bulletin boards, which, of course, three decades later have metamorphosized into the internet and into social media today.

Similarly, to frustrate FBI efforts to penetrate organized groups, right around that time Beam advocated the whole lone-wolf strategy that we’ve seen has become so much a part of the terrorist threat in the United States today, that these were ideas that originated precisely with the groups that we’re seeing resurfacing and becoming so active and are so much more empowered because they’re able to take advantage of modern technology, in particular social media.

MASTERS: Right. That sounds like your next article, Bruce.

Peter, did you want to jump on that?

OK, I think we can move on with the next question, operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Jacqueline Albert Simon with Politique Internationale.

Q: Yes, thank you so much. And thank you to both of you for giving us such an enlightened view.

But one thing hasn’t come up, and this is very delicate. In all of this, nobody has mentioned the problem of weapons, the access to weapons of mass destruction in our country. And I’m wondering how much research either of you has done on gun control.

BERGEN: Let me—let me try and take that. There was a period shortly after the Pulse, the worst—it was the worst mass shooting in American history and the most lethal terrorist attack since 9/11 where forty-nine people were killed in the Orlando nightclub and there’s been legislation—in fact, Representative Peter King, a Republican of New York, was the first one to propose this in 2005, a long time ago now—which is basically that if you’re on the no-fly list you shouldn’t be allowed to buy a semi-automatic weapon.

Now, of course, the Pittsburgh attack was carried out with an AR-15, which is now the weapon of choice of all sorts of mass murderers in the United States, and in the Pulse case, despite the fact that Omar Mateen, the perpetrator, had been interviewed by the FBI twice, he was still able to legally purchase semi-automatic weapons. And I’m not saying this is a panacea, but it seems pretty simple to me that if you’re on the—if you’re too dangerous to fly on an American plane you’re probably too dangerous to buy legally a semi-automatic weapon.

So the NRA has put up a huge smokescreen around this issue. There are eighty-one thousand people on the no-fly list. The NRA claims that there are some Americans maybe who shouldn’t be on there. In fact, there are only 800 Americans on this list. My guess is seven hundred and ninety-eight of them fully deserve to be on the list and the two others, you know, maybe—there might be some debate.

But the point is is that it’s a very small group of people and, ultimately, the right to life of Americans I think outweighs the Second Amendment right, so two people on this list who may not need to be there. But the NRA has a sort of Second Amendment absolutism and even the kind of mildest, most modest gun control measures keep failing. And so we’re just going to see continued massacres with people legally purchasing semi-automatic weapons, whether they’re jihadists or right wing or just complete nuts like Steve Paddock in Las Vegas, whose motivation remains opaque.

MASTERS: Right. And, Bruce, did you want to comment?

HOFFMAN: No. No. I think Peter summed it up.

MASTERS: Yeah, and I would—I would just say that, you know, a question—are we more susceptible—you know, is the U.S. more susceptible, you know, than our—let’s say, our European peers because, you know, we are such an open society because we have these constitutional guarantees on free speech that go further than other countries—obviously, the right to—you know, the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. How much more vulnerable does that make us? And, you know, just as you said—

BERGEN: Well, I’ll give you—I’ll give you—I’ll give you a very simple—a very simple statistic: You’re fifty times more likely to be murdered by an American with a—with a gun in this country than you are to be murdered by somebody with a gun in the United Kingdom. Forgetting the question of ideology, you know, there’s no other Western country that comes close to United States in terms of gun deaths. But you’re—by the way, you’re three thousand times more likely to be murdered by an American with a gun than you are to be married—than we are to be murdered by a jihadi terrorist in this country.


BERGEN: You know, it’s just a very infrequent event that you’re killed by a jihadist terrorist but, unfortunately, it’s a not infrequent event that you’re killed by a fellow American with a gun for any reason.

MASTERS: And on the speech point, where do you gentlemen think the line should be in terms of, you know, fostering—on the one side, fostering a robust political discussion and then on the other side, you know, preventing the spread of hate or giving, you know, credibility to extreme views which, you know, in some cases, you know, have crept into the—you know, mainstream politics. I mean, we’ve seen this debate play out multiple times in the U.S. You know, The New Yorker rescinded its invitation to Steven Bannon, for instance. The University of Oxford is now getting flack for inviting the leader of the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party to speak next week.

How much of a forum do you think, you know, should be given to these speakers who, you know, in many cases, clearly represent a political base? I mean, the AfD is now, you know, the third largest party in Germany and is represented at all of the state parliaments. You know, where do you draw that line?

HOFFMAN: Well, the problem is, you know, that hate speech is, you know, protected. It’s constitutionally protected. It’s when it crosses the line and when you can detect the line that’s crossed of actually advocating outright violence and becoming much more specific and that’s, I think, the trouble with people like Bowers, who, in the days or weeks or months leading up to the Pittsburgh shooting, could inveigh against—I mean, all sorts of phrasing that we know for decades is exactly the explicit code of the extreme white supremacist, right-wing elements such as, you know, the Zionist Occupation Government, I mean, things that prima facie border on treason, not just on calls to violence, but stop short of actually articulating views or words that trigger a prosecution or certainly trigger an investigation. And that’s, I think, one of the main challenges that we face, as well as having, you know, a society, as Peter described, that, you know, that has—that has ready access to weapons.

I mean, when one thinks back throughout U.S. history, almost all—the most, you know, contentious, politically divisive or polarized periods before and after the Civil War at the end of the nineteenth century with rapid industrialization and the birth of then what was revolutionary communications with newspapers, produced widespread labor unrest, the anarchist movement led to the assassination of two U.S. presidents within twenty years and then, of course, you know, the 1960s and ’70s, you see that the proclivities towards violence aren’t terribly far from the surface. And unfortunately in the United States, the means to engage in violence are far more accessible perhaps than elsewhere, which creates a very, you know, a very dangerous situation.

MASTERS: Peter, did you want to jump in on that?

BERGEN: Yeah, I mean, look, I mean, I think the First Amendment is the first amendment for a very good reason. It’s kind of the whole theory of the case for the reason we have the United States, right? I mean, sort of religion, freedom of expression. So abrogating that in some way, you know, would be, you know, would be to undermine the basis of why we—why we’re all here.

And, of course, in, you know, Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime. In the United Kingdom, inciting racial violence or religious violence is a crime. But it isn’t here.

But there is a crime and people are prosecuted on this. If you—it’s one thing for me to sort of say something hateful or whatever. But if I say—if I incite violence to a group of people that I think might well carry out a violent act, that is a crime and the United States often prosecutes that crime. And my guess is or my intuition is, is that there might be some interesting cases that start developing on this issue, because if you make a hateful statement and you incite violence to a group of people who might carry out a violent act, that is something the FBI can look into. Zachary Chesser, as you may recall, who was a person who was inciting violence against the South Park­—the creators of South Park because they had a Prophet Muhammad character in one of the South Park episodes, well, he’s spending much of the rest of his life in the maximum security jail in Florence, Colorado as a result of that.

So, you know, it’s not like the First Amendment is just a license to say absolutely anything you want to any—you know, at any time. There is—there are—there are sort of ways to sort of deal with speech that produces violence.

MASTERS: All right. Thank you.

Operator, we’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Jianxiang Yang (sp) with Xinhua News Agency.

Q: Thank you. This is Jianxiang Yang (sp) with Xinhua News Agency.

I just wonder, what are those factors that led to the advice of hate crimes in the country? Are there effective measures to reduce these factors and eventually get rid of them? Thank you.

MASTERS: Sort of a broad question. Bruce, I don’t know if you want to jump on that. Sort of, what do you see as the primary factors that are, you know, fomenting some of these acts? And is it different than, you know—go ahead.

HOFFMAN: Well, this is—this is sort of—no, please, you were saying is it different than?

MASTERS: No, I, you know, how does this compare to the past? I mean, you mentioned some of the, you know—that during the 1980s, that some of these same groups, you know, were using some of these early technologies to spread their message. And, you know, same or different now?

HOFFMAN: Right. Well, certainly, you know, polarization, divisiveness, a sense of profound alienation, I mean, these are not—these are themes that, you know, unfortunately, are written in modern societies, that aren’t, you know, specific to hate groups or even to terrorists. But I think that’s the initial—the initial kernel. The question is, you know, what prompts someone to cross the line from having extremist views to becoming a violent extremist? And, you know, in my view, I mean, this is completely idiosyncratic unfortunately. Brian Jenkins, a very well-known terrorism expert, in fact one of the fathers of modern terrorism studies, you know, he once said when we can look within a man’s soul, then we can figure that out.

You know, I’m reminded of a German study, the four-volume study that was done on ideology and violence in the early 1980s, that had a much smaller sample. It was only looking at left-wing, West German terrorists who were all the same race, basically the same religion, all from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds. And even they were frustrated in finding what the trigger point is.

I would say, though, the main challenge we face in the twenty-first century is that people in the past that may have harbored these views and had trouble, firstly, expressing them to a wider audience that then would echo and reinforce their extreme positions—you know, something that has dramatically changed. And they find much more ready encouragement—especially from people that are willing to either go right up to the line of the First Amendment or, as Peter described, even cross it.

But there’s—you know, there’s no shortage of people that are going to encourage them. And Bowers said, you know, I’ve had enough. I’m going in. You know, seeing himself as, you know, this revolutionary vanguard or as finally standing up. And that’s the kind of encouragement that I find so enormously alarming is because of modern communications these people are no longer as alone as they once were and can propagate and gain, at least, tragically, moral support for these—for their extreme views. And then, indeed, incitement to commit acts of violence.

BERGEN: And just to add to that, you know, an Israeli academic known well to Bruce called Gabriel Weimann I think said something very smart. Which is: The lone wolf is now part of the virtual pack. And so where—you know, think about Ted Kaczynski. I mean, he wasn’t—he didn’t have electricity in the shack, let alone the internet. And he was—you know, now you’re swimming in a sea of cheerleaders and people who seem to have—you know, a soon as you connect to whatever the community is, there seems to be a lot of support for whatever your views are because you’re connecting to thousands of people around the world who are likeminded people.

And somebody like Bowers, you know—you know, I think if you talk to psychologists basically what often they will say, look, what starts is the grievance. And then you find a convenient ideology to—the grievance is personal. But you find a convenient ideology that allows you to kind of carry out an act of violence, whether it’s jihadist, or extreme right-wing, or some other ideology. And usually these are kind of zeros looking to be heroes in their own story. And, you know, this act of violence turns him from the guy who’s sort of sitting on his couch, you know, like, doing very little—Bowers was, I think, a classic example of this—into somebody who is carrying out an act that makes him, in his own mind, a heroic actor in—sort of in history.

And I think again and again you see that kind of personal dynamic. But going back to what Bruce said about, you know, at the end of the day, this is a very—killing innocent strangers is a—it’s kind of—answering why that happens is not easy. And, you know, Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, said something smart, which is, you know, from the crooked timber of humanity not a straight thing is made, meaning that, you know, trying to explain these kinds of actions are—you can get—you can sort of say, well, he was a loser and he was, you know, kind of propagandized by this stuff he saw on the internet, or whatever.

You can say all sorts of things. But at the end of the day, you kind of reach a bit of a brick wall because the nature of these acts are—you know, it’s evil to carry out—to murder innocent civilians, that are in fact strangers. And, you know, even the perpetrator themselves sometimes does not have a very articulate explanation of why he—and it’s usually a he—did it.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. That made me think too that twenty-three years ago Timothy McVeigh also wanted to be one of these heroes and also wanted to be this revolutionary vanguard with his bombing of the Murrah office building in Oklahoma City, where he believed that would be the opening salvo in a revolution. But it didn’t happen, of course, because the message was much more constrained. There weren’t the platforms of people who has the easy access to amplify his justification and, in turn, encourage and inspire others. And I think that’s a big difference with today, is that the threshold to kind of go from extremism to buying into violence has just been dramatically reduced.

I mean, in the case of Sayoc, the guy lived in the back of a van. Yet, using—you know, you could log onto YouTube right now and find any number of instructional videos how to make bombs. So here’s a guy with limited access to materials living in a van, nonetheless, though, is able to construct at least fourteen fairly serious—that fortunately had one, at least that I’ve been able to detect—one key flaw in them that he wasn’t aware of. But nonetheless, fourteen bombs that are sent, and then to have list of, you know, scores of other people that he was planning to follow up with them. This is someone, you know, except for his interconnectivity, is cut off from society—living in a van in a parking lot.

MASTERS: Right. Bruce, I just wanted to ask you a follow-up on that, talking about sort of the mail system and the security of the U.S. mail system. I mean, obviously I think it was pre-9/11 we had the anthrax attacks. Like, what—how have we done as far as sort of the security of the, you know, delivery system in the U.S. now? Do you see, you know, new challenges now, obviously, with, you know, everyone buying everything on Amazon and getting it delivered to their door?

HOFFMAN: Well, this is—Peter was earlier describing this, the, you know, really astronomic change in the no-fly list from 9/11 days to the number of people on it today. Similarly, the monitoring of mail, not to ordinary people, but certainly to public officials or to those that might be threatened, is, you know, being completely transformed.

I mean, not least, you know, forgotten in the sands of time is that the anthrax—a minute quantity of anthrax that was sent to a senator, former Senator from South Dakota Tom Daschle in the Hart Senate Office Building, cost $23 million to decontaminate the building. And this was a very small amount of anthrax that was in an envelope that was opened in one room in an office in a large building.

So since then the screening has improved exponentially, I think, across the board. I mean, mail is not delivered directly into these buildings. It goes to a screening center, where there are all sorts of sophisticated devices that can detect not only the signatures of explosives, but also chemical or even biological weapons. I mean, at the end of the day, no technology is foolproof. It’s only as good as the humans that are trained to operate it. But even at that level, I think, it’s quite sophisticated.

But then the ease with which you can make bombs—and indeed, those who may be observing what Sayoc had done will be seeking not to replicate whatever mistakes he did makes it that much harder the next time to intercept explosives that may be sent to ordinary people. I mean, that was Kaczynski’s modus operandi. He sent his bombs to industry executives—the head of United Airlines, for example—to a Yale professor; I mean, to people that didn’t have any of these kinds of measures certainly in place then, and probably even don’t now.

So this, you know, becomes a threat that drifts from elected officials, and let’s say the most obvious targets, and but then leaves, you know, a large swath of our population potentially vulnerable to targeting.

MASTERS: Right. OK, I think we’re—we have time for maybe a couple more questions. Operator, do you want to move forward?

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Tim Zingland (ph). Sir, your line is open.

Q: Hello?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir, we can hear you.

Q: Oh, yes. My question would be what’s the thoughts of (you fellows ?) are on the question of the responsibility of President Trump in essentially creating the sea that the fish of these terrorists can swim in? Because it’s obvious that, you know, we have plenty of people who are at the grassroots supporting Trump who are neo-Nazi sympathizers. And I wonder what role you think the president has in responsibility for this.

MASTERS: Great. Thank you.

Peter, Bruce, one of you want to take a crack at that one?

BERGEN: I’m going to pass on that.


HOFFMAN: Yeah, I—well, you know, obviously anything that creates greater divisiveness, that doesn’t recognize the—you know, the way that the threats in this country are evolving in very different directions, and sometimes are reflected in policy statements or in, you know, official, you know, designations of them—this goes back to what Peter had said earlier that talks about threats that are valid but not the most immediate ones and not the most consequential and that are as much internal or external, I think.

You know, always—you know, one has to, you know, pay attention to the way the threats are developing and ensure that nothing is being done to encourage them or even give any sort of, you know—that, well, really just, you know, these types of threats—I mean, words have enormous consequences. And especially at contentious times, any sort of permissive environment can be extremely dangerous.

MASTERS: I mean, it just makes me—you know, this is—populism is now—you know, populism, nationalism, we’re seeing in sort of all the, you know, different regions of the world. You know, just recently we had Jair Bolsonaro, you know, elected in Brazil, who has openly expressed his, you know, distain for the LGBT community and other minority groups. And, you know, in other places—as I think I mentioned, you know, Germany, you’re seeing some of these parties, you know, gain substantial political power. And, you know, where they’re openly, you know, advertising some of these—you know, some of these views. So, you know, I guess the question is, you know, should we expect, you know, at the very least more extremist violence in these places as well?

BERGEN: Let me try the European. You know, a telling statistic here. Eight percent of the population of France is Muslim. Sixty percent of the prison population is estimated to be Muslim. So it’s not an accident that, you know, so many perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels ISIS attacks—in fact, all of them have gone through the Paris or the—the French or the Belgian prison system. So, you know, in Europe, this is going to be a big problem. And it’s sort of a—kind of a—unfortunately kind of a vicious cycle where immigration is causing the proto-nationalist ultra—you know, ultra-protofascist parties to kind of emerge from basically obscurity to, in some cases, running the country or in other cases being the number two or three party.

And the alienation of Muslims in Europe, you know, which the United States is not susceptible at all in the same way because we’re protected by geography and also the ideology of the American dream, which has worked very well for American Muslims in general. So, you know, we’re going to see more of this. I mean, ISIS wasn’t really the problem. It was—of course, it created problems, but it was really a symptom of other problems, deep problems, in the Middle East and in Europe, where the vast majority of Westerners came from to fight for ISIS.

So I think that, yes, we’re going to see more of this. And, you know, the United States is somewhat insulated from it, but countries like France or the U.K.—the threat level in the U.K. is officially severe, which means there’s a high likelihood of an attack. So, yes, we’re going to see more of it in Europe.

MASTERS: Bruce, do you want to add to that, or?

HOFFMAN: Well, unfortunately, the rhetoric from more nativist leaders is becoming, you know, more hyperventilated than ever before. These expressions, you know, gain much greater currency than would have been acceptable a few years ago. What I think becomes worrisome is when the laws start to change, and when those who are charged with enforcing those laws begin to take messages of hints from elected leaders that people won’t be prosecuted as rigorously, that certain kinds of behavior in these countries is now suddenly accepted, and then you have, I think, a very serious situation where, you know, campaign rhetoric becomes manifest in a demonstrable change in a country’s democratic orientation and affording protections to all its citizens. And that becomes very worrisome.

MASTERS: Mmm hmm. OK. It’s easy to end on a grim note talking about this. Is there anything that either of you are, you know, looking at this hopeful about with, you know, looking into 2019? Could be on social media regulations, or anything else that, you know, trends that may come into the positive.

BERGEN: I would say Iraq is—you know, the new Iraqi government. You know, it obviously went through a very nasty civil war, but there’s some hope in Iraq. It’s got an educated population. It has access to money through its oil reserves. And, you know, the situation today in Iraq is infinitely better than it was, say, a decade ago.


HOFFMAN: I’ll trend closer to home and go back to the new National Strategy for Counterterrorism and say that the foundation and all the right things are clearly being articulated. And it’s a strategy that I think very commendably was very forward looking and was not narrow in identifying what the threats are. As I said earlier, that it’s identified threats from a range of violent actors who are committing political violence. So that, I think, is optimistic. It’s how serious both the legislature—well, the legislative branch, in particular, will take the events of the past few weeks and see that as really providing an impetus to ensure that the strategy is actually implemented.

And that’s really a question of resourcing and prioritization, which admittedly is much more challenging when—at a time when the broader U.S. national strategy for the defense of the country mandates this reprioritization where terrorism is no longer, as it has been for the past 16-17 years, the preeminent organizing principles of national security, and sees it as something else. But nonetheless, I’d say that’s—you know, this strategy has come at a very, very timely time, in a way that I think a year ago people wouldn’t necessarily have thought.

MASTERS: Hmm. Interesting. OK. Well, great to wrap on that. I think we’ll close. And I’d like to thank again Bruce Hoffman, and Peter Bergen, and all of you on the call today. Once again, I urge you to check out the resources we have on the Council on Foreign Relations website, where we will also post a transcript of this conversation. We look forward to having you all join us again on our next media call. And I encourage everyone to have a nice weekend. Thank you.

HOFFMAN: Thank you.

BERGEN: Thank you very much.


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