Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Terror in New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern, wearing a headscarf, walks to mourners

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. AAP: SNPA/Martin Hunter

On Friday, March 15, an Australian, Brenton Tarrant, attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting and killing 51 and wounding roughly 50 more. Appallingly, the attacker live streamed his assault on Facebook, allowing his friends/followers to viscerally follow along. Given what we now know, it's safe to label this tragedy a terror attack. The attack, committed by a lone gunman without state support, were aimed against innocent civilians and carried out for self-described political reasons--all of which is in line with the standard definition of terrorism.

To be clear, Tarrant's political motivations are of the white power variety. (Note: In line with scholars like Kathleen Belew, I use the term white power rather than white nationalism throughout this post.) In his 70 plus page manifesto (which he posted to the web and emailed to various people, including the Prime Minister of New Zealand), the attacker ranted about taking revenge against Muslims, seeking to reverse "white genocide," and preserving European culture. He also suggested a US angle. "One of his goals is to spark 'conflict over the 2nd amendment and the attempted removal of firearms rights' which 'will ultimately result in a civil war that will eventually balkanize the US along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines.'"

What to make of this horrific terrorist attack? Well, frankly, lots of things come to mind. Below I'll address three of the most salient takeaway points.

1. The New Zealand attack highlights some of the similarities between jihadist and white power radicalization. Just consider the following. For both types of terrorism in the 21st century, radicalization often involves an online component. Aspiring and nascent extremists search out dark corners of the web (social media, web pages, message boards, and so on), where they find evil, hateful, violent ideologies. As Henry Farrell points out, "a new extreme-right online culture has come into being, shaped by message boards such as 4chan and 8chan." Indeed, just before the Christchurch attack, Tarrant announced his intentions to commit mayhem on 8chan and linked to his manifesto. 

New radicals also typically seek out associations with like-minded extremists. In some cases, this occurs after they’ve already dipped their toes in the hate-filled pockets of the web, in other cases, chance meetings w/extremists are the key to triggering online explorations into racist, xenophobic forums, videos, and the like. Whether online or in-person, Tarrant claimed to have been in contact with Anders Breivik,  the notorious Norwegian terrorist who killed 77, mostly children, in 2011, and some of his sympathizers (the so-called Knights Templar).

These ideologies, once adopted, give people a mission, a socio-political purpose, bonds them to like-minded others, and helps them understand life and their place in it. Usually, conspiracy theories are  central to extremist ideologies, specifying how one’s in-group is being persecuted and discriminated against by various global enemies. The New Zealand terrorist embraced the racist, kooky narrative of white genocide, which argues that low fertility rates by whites in European nations in combination with an "invasion" of peoples of color to these same lands is leading to a shrinking population of white people and a diminution of power of the white race. And even worse, according to Tarrant and the like, in the case of inter-racial/ethnic procreation, the blood of the white race is diluted and tainted.

Over time, the extremist narratives take shape via a written literature (published works, informal manifestos, religious tracts, etc.). There is a large white power literature that includes books, magazines, journals, and online works and manifestos. Probably the most prominent is The Turner Dairies, an infamous but obscure book from the 1970s, but more mainstream books like Pat Buchanan's The Death of the West also have received significant attention from racist white groups. Tarrant openly admitted his admiration for and was influenced by Breivik’s massive 1500 page manifesto left in the wake of his 2011 attack. Experts have even argued that Tarrant’s own manifesto, which he titled "The Great Replacement," was shaped by Breivik’s, as they used similar language and covered similar themes, such as anger at "Islamic migration." 

2. Those who research, think, and write about Sunni Islamic terrorism often frame it as a global, transnational movement and struggle for power. And justifiably so. Just think about, al Qaeda and ISIS, the kingpins of the Sunni jihadist world. Both have global ambitions, disseminate messages and videos to followers worldwide, and have affiliates and cells around the world. Similar stories can be told about Hezbollah, a Shia militant group. White power movements have similarly gone global. White power extremists and terrorists aren't just a bunch of dudes with guns hiding out in the woods or other remote areas, as has long been the caricature of American white supremacists. According to Daniel Byman, "many forms of right-wing terrorism are international terrorism, drawing on international networks, ideas, and personalities from around the world." We know neo-Nazi groups have international branches and chapters. Prominent white supremacist web sites like the Daily Stormer have a global audience. And much like in the jihadist world, white power supporters and groups communicate online, share videos, etc. 

In the case of the New Zealand attacker, he too was caught up and influenced by the global, transnational element of white power. As mentioned above, he drew inspiration Breivik, but also from other white racist murderers, such as Dylan Roof, Darren Osborne, Luca Traini, among others. But it was Breivik in particular who loomed large for Tarrant. I enourage readers of this blog to check out Colin Clarke's recent piece on the cult that surrounds Breivik within the white power environment. Tarrant traveled extensively around Europe, visiting old battlegrounds of the Crusades. Not surprisingly, "Tarrant’s manifesto makes it clear that he sees modern-day immigration to Europe as sort of a modern-day Crusade: A battle of cultures between the Muslim world and European heritage. What he’s upset by most is that Muslims have moved into European countries like France; he’s obsessed with what he sees as declining birthrates in Europe."

3. Prior to the New Zealand terror attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a largely superficial political profile, at least internationally. Despite her political achievements, becoming the prime minister of New Zealand in 2017, media focused on her looks, her youth, her fashion, and other trivialities. She even became a pop culture celebrity, gracing the cover of magazines and being the subject of major magazine profiles, like Vogue and Time, and appearing on late night American television programs. What we've learned over the past few days is that Ardern should be taken very seriously. During this crisis, she demonstrated her political chops. She’s been impressive. Ardern has demonstrated decisiveness, empathy, grace, and leadership. 

For example, Ardern quickly, without hesitation, called the attacks terrorism, an issue on which many leaders, including the current one in the White House, often equivocate for fear of alientating particular political groups. She defended Muslims, saying "they are us," and disputed the any notion that there's a connection between Muslim immigration and violence. On Saturday, she visited members of the Muslim community in Christchurch, lending them support and compassion, sharing in their grief. Significantly, Ardern offered a powerful symbolic gesture by wearing a hijab, which was lauded worldwide as a "sign of respect" for Muslims.

Additionally, Ardern announced a full inquiry into the attacks. She also declared her intention to move swiftly on gun legislation, and encouraged Kiwis to turn in unwanted weapons. And on Thursday, the 21st, Ardern declared a trio of moves: a ban on semi-automatic weapons and assualt rifles, fines for those who don't comply with the new law, and a buyback program for the heavy artilery weapons already in circulation. Advocates for a soft touch on gun control, in New Zealand and globally, are unlikely to favor the new gun legislation, though even many of them will probably give Ardern kudos for trying her best in difficult in circumstances to keep New Zealanders safe.

Whether all of her moves are enough to heal New Zealand and lower the chances of another mass murder/attack remains to be seen. What is certain is that she's offered a great model for leaders worldwide on how to react and respond personally and politically to a major crisis. And even beyond that, as suggested by Sushil Aaron, "Ms. Ardern is emerging as the definitive progressive antithesis to the crowded field of right-wing strongmen like President Trump, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Narendra Modi of India, whose careers thrive on illiberal, anti-Muslim rhetoric."

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Hanoi Summit

                                                                                                   Photo: Getty Images

Below is a recent conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on last week's Hanoi Summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Did Trump fail, reports widely indicate? Why were Kim and Trump unable to agree to a nuclear deal? What are some takeaway lessons from the meeting? Brad and Yohanes answer those and more questions/puzzles below. 

BN: Here in the US, there's been almost universal criticism of Trump's failure to secure a deal--any kind of a deal--in Hanoi with Kim. The ultimate self-proclaimed dealmaker was unable to finalize a nuclear deal with Kim. To use Ben Rhodes's term, "The Blob" has spoken. The easy response is to say that The Blob extremely dislikes Trump, so their unfavorable reviews of the Hanoi summit aren't really a surprise. I suppose, though, let's dig a little deeper. The pre-summit worry—almost across the board, on the right and left, among academics and policy analysts—was that Trump would give Kim a boatload of concessions in exchange for very little in return from Kim. In fact, that was the rumor the day before the summit ended. But Trump didn't make these concessions. In fact, Trump didn't make any immediate concessions--at least, none beyond the actual meeting with Kim (which does confer legitimacy to Kim, DPRK). Yes, days after the fact, Trump did move to scrap large-scale South Korea-US exercises, replacing them with smaller-scale and virtual ones. But even here, it’s questionable whether this was an outright concession by Trump or something that was motivating by his cost-cutting, government waste obsession.

It's clear, then, that this was a summit that Trump couldn't win, no matter what he did. Hence, the story isn't just The Blob's dislike for Trump, it's that members of The Blob (including prominent academics, serious, distinguished people) have put forward unreasonable and contradictory positions to buttress their claims that Trump failed. That's my first take on Trump-Kim II.

YS: I agree with you totally. The only thing that I will blame Trump is his over-euphoria over the summits: Trump thought that he would be successful due to his charm offensives. He already asked Abe to nominate him for the Nobel. This mirrors what Bill Clinton did in the last year of his presidency when he wanted a Nobel. Clinton pushed both Arafat and Barak in negotiations. Arafat realized that, so he refused to budge, forcing Barak to give all the concessions, until in the end, when Barak simply gave up.

And of course, the DPRK is well known for shifting the goalpost. Just ask Clinton, Bush, and Obama. And Trump's desperation for the Nobel was playing into their hands. But at the same time, was it a disaster?  No, I don't see much fallout from the “failure” of both Singapore and Hanoi summits. China will still help the DPRK regardless of whether the summits have been successful or not, simply because Beijing doesn’t want to see the north collapse and refugees streaming across the border. Russia will keep helping DPRK for the sake of putting the US on the edge. In short, nothing’s new.

As I noted a couple years ago, there is no way the DPRK will give up its nukes because it is a crucial part of the regime’s legitimacy, what makes KJU thinks he can sleep well at night, and giving them is a sign of weakness. Since a lot of people think Trump is a serial liar, I will take what Pompeo, who is still trusted, said, that the DPRK asked for full sanctions to be lifted. And this is similar with all previous negotiating tactics by the north: demand complete sanctions relief, get all the benefits, and then proceed not to do what they promised—because there is no way the Kim regime will give up its nukes.

BN: I blame Trump for short-circuiting the diplomatic process. He stepped in at the beginning, once Kim made the offer to meet via South Korea, and believed that fully engaged diplomacy involving teams from both the US and DPRK wasn't needed. He believed his own hype about his dealmaking skills; he could solve the nuclear crisis singlehandedly. Which meant that he sidelined the experts and negotiators from the start. And that's become an acute problem post-Singapore, as you correctly noted, because of Trump's enthusiastic embrace of Kim. The North Koreans believe Trump's so inexperienced and so politically invested—so eager to win a Nobel, as you point out—in the negotiations with Kim that they believe they can woo Trump, sucker Trump. They don't want anything to do with American negotiators like Pompeo and Biegun; they've postponed meetings, stalled talks, etc. And that's led to scant diplomatic progress the since Singapore. As a result, Trump walked into the Hanoi summit with little agreed upon, a very unusual circumstance for a bilateral meeting between world leaders. It's for that reason I didn't expect much at all to come out the Hanoi talks.

That said, it's hardly a disaster. Trump, to my surprise, used careful language to describe the talks and Kim. Similarly, DPRK state media offered a cheerful take on the summit. Even China's state media put forward an optimistic view on Hanoi. All are good signs. As Trump pointed out, neither side stormed out of Hanoi, and both seemed to have departed on good terms. The downside, of course, is that there are no further talks planned as of now, and who knows will when they’ll resume.

YS: At the same time, we have to ask whether this will mean more intransigence from Trump–he does not take humiliation lightly as we all know—or less belligerence from Kim, since he finally knows that even Trump has his limits. If the failure of Hanoi means that both sides will have a more realistic estimate for each other, I'd chalk this up as just a minor bump in the road—and as you noted, everyone involved in the talks is careful not to torpedo them. On the other hand, if the next meeting is a disaster, if there are no further meetings anytime soon, I think North Korea will again turn in a bellicose direction. At the same time, if it’s apparent that Trump is going to lose the 2020 election, or if the investigations place his presidency in jeopardy, then if I were North Korea, I'd try to get the best deal from Trump while I can. There won't be any US president who is more sympathetic to North Korea.

BN: Exactly. You've led me to another point I wanted to make here: while Trump has incentives to seal a deal with North Korea over the status of its nuclear program, Kim also has incentives to seal a deal with the US. Put simply, as you just mentioned, it's unlikely that Trump's successors will be anywhere near as friendly and cozy with Kim, and as eager to earn a political "win" on the DPRK issue. In fact, it's likely that Trump's successors—especially his immediate successor—will take a much tougher stance on North Korea's nukes, human rights abuses, the Kim regime, and so on. Kim has to realize this. Hence, he's got less than two years to finalize a nuclear deal that allows him to significantly loosen the economic noose around his nation. If he doesn't beat the clock, he'll take a big gamble that Trump wins another term or that the diplomatic momentum will carry over to a post-Trump administration. That’s a very risky bet.

I suspect Trump's successor will be inclined to uphold any deal he makes with Kim, as long as Kim abides by the terms of it, but not so eager to reach an agreement if one isn't clinched by the time they enter office. For example, a Democratic president in 2021 will face strong pressure to show his/her toughness, distance the US from global tyrants, prioritize human rights, and, more generally, junk most of Trump's of foreign policy platform.

BN: Lastly, what do you make of Trump's comments on the Otto Warmbier incident? In my view, taken in isolation, it's somewhat understandable. Trump's in the middle of negotiations with Kim, and he doesn't want to do/say anything that might sabotage current/future talks. That led him to pull his punches on Kim. That said, however, a full-throated defense of Kim—that Kim didn't know about Warmbier's condition, how he become ill/injured, etc.—is off-putting, completely tone deaf, and highly unlikely. And of course, it's difficult to see Trump's comments regarding the Warmbier tragedy in isolation. Indeed, when we combine these comments with his lavish embrace of Kim over the last year, his defense of MBS, his praise for Xi Jinping, and his obsequiousness for Putin, it sure looks like Trump has an affinity for many of the world's brutal strongmen.

YS: I agree. Trump wanted to show Kim that he was willing to bend backward for the sake of negotiations. But I agree: that was a terrible Q&A performance. Doesn't look good at all.