The Spoke / Bombs, Khashoggi, and Deniable Terror Subscribe

This is a picture of a pipe bomb
Stochastic terrorism is a very real danger. Yet it is often invisible.

In March 2016 I set out to write a blog post about the Easter Day bombing in a popular park in Lahore, Pakistan. The park was popular with Christians, especially on Easter, and the attack was designed to inflict mass casualties and psychological damage on that minority community. It was part of a coordinated campaign. A loosely coordinated and long-running campaign. A campaign so deeply embedded in Pakistani society that it can feel like no campaign at all. In that anti-Christian sentiment has become a normalized part of culture, it is like many prejudices around the world. It is like racism in the US and Europe. Unless you are its victim—and even sometimes when you are—such a campaign is often invisible. Until something blows up.

I never finished that post. I couldn’t write it. I was too angry and sad that scores of people were murdered and hundreds injured while enjoying a festival day out. I was viscerally upset that people were murdered for their beliefs and the perceived ethnic differences that came with it. I was incensed that the fires of long existent ire had been stoked until something blew.

I now know to call such an event stochastic terrorism, as defined by the anonymous blogger G2G and quoted in Clayton Delery’s 2017 Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and the Failure of New Orleans Justice: “you heat up the waters and stir the pot, knowing full well that sooner or later a lone wolf will pop up and do the deed. The fact that it will happen is as predictable as the fact that a heated pot of water will eventually boil. But the exact time and place of each incident will remain as random as the appearance of the first bubbles in the boiling pot." The stochastic terrorist is not the terrorist who actually builds, sets, and detonates the bomb. The stochastic terrorist is the person, or group, who sets the conditions that make the bombing expected, if unpredictable, and, in some cases and from some points of view, even justifiable.

Last week, explosive devices were intercepted on their ways to former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Former Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, Democratic donor George Soros, and famed actor Robert DeNiro, among others. The attempted mail bombings of high profile Democratic politicians and wealthy supporters is an example of stochastic terrorism. (I owe the observation to my colleague Dan Kline of the University of Alaska.) The US GOP, led by Donald Trump, stoked the fire until someone, allegedly Cesar Sayoc, had it in mind to blow up high profile people on the left. It looks random—and Trump and the GOP aren’t directly culpable—but it’s not random, and they are indirectly culpable. Fortunately, nothing blew up this time. But it is only a matter of time before something does.

Stochastic terrorism is convenient. It provides its perpetrator convenient cover even if he or she has directly ordered violence. The ongoing case of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is a case in point. The Saudi journalist, once preferred of the Saudi royal family, recently self-exiled to the US due to his criticisms of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. On October 2, 2018 he was brutally murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. While most experts on Saudi power and governance agree that a 15-assassin plot to kill Khashoggi inside the consulate could not have occurred without the crown prince’s assent, M.B.S., as the prince is known, nonetheless denies involvement. At the same time, he proclaims that it’s a “heinous crime” involving, among others, his own aides. The prince would never have ordered the killing, the reasoning goes, but those around him chose to do it of their own accord. The latter claim is somewhat believable because suppression and distrust of the press and M.B.S.’s critics has been in the air. The believability of the latter claim lends some of its credence to the former claim. Maybe he is telling the truth because he wouldn’t have had to give the order.

Even if he did not give the order explicitly, he gave it implicitly. For some time now, the prince has been sounding the alarm against other powerful Saudis, such as Khashoggi, who have criticized him. From late 2017 through early 2018, Saudi security forces rounded up Saudi elites, including other princes and some of the wealthiest men in the world, and imprisoned them inside Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton. By some reports, they were tortured. That this incident went on for several months and has had few if any consequences for Saudi rulership, either within Saudi Arabia or in the international community, demonstrates that stochastic terror is in full effect. The conditions were ripe to punish political critics, and to do so with impunity. Fast forward to Khashoggi’s disappearance and the eventual admission of his death: even if—and that is a highly qualified if—M.B.S. didn’t order the killing, he set the conditions for it. The Ritz-Carlton detentions showed that the conditions were ripe for suppression of opposition by whatever means necessary. If the detentions could be treated as somewhat random—though they were certainly not—then so could the killing of a single pesky journalist.

Stochastic terrorism is, for all its horror, a brilliant method. The perpetrator can incite and even enact violence with a built-in alibi that he set up himself. The idea is already in the air that the victims deserved it, that they are inferior, or, better yet, that they think they’re superior. The actual perpetrator retains plausible deniability because someone else—anyone else—could have picked up on his rhetoric and run with it. It is the supposed perpetrator (the aide, the security official, the bomber) who has taken things too far. It is, to quote G2G, the “lone wolf” who has committed the “heinous crime.”

Jamal Khashoggi sought exile in the United States and criticized M.B.S. and his policies. Pakistani Christians celebrated Jesus instead of Muhammad. Democrats criticized Trump’s rhetoric and GOP policies. In each case, the stochastic terrorist—sometimes an individual, sometimes a group in power—has reason to denigrate the opposition. In each case, the perpetrator has developed and fostered a point of view in which the victims deserve their fate.

As an African-American scholar with one foot in critical race studies, I am reminded that we have seen stochastic terrorism before—and in the US. In the Civil Rights movement there was no small contingent of those in power who believed African-Americans, the victims, were at fault. Thus, the actual perpetrators thought they could get away with their crimes. The men who brutally murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till for the color of his skin thought they could get with it. And they did. They were so bold as to admit guilt only a year later, after they had already been acquitted by a jury and could not be tried again. The men who in 1963 exploded a black church, 16th St Baptist, in Birmingham, Alabama, and killed four little girls inside thought they could get away with it, too. And they almost did: the first conviction did not come until fourteen years after the bombing and the others followed only twenty-three and twenty-five years later. In each case, a prevailing sense of empowerment made the guilty appear innocent and made the victims appear guilty. In each case, the culture that made the distortion possible had been fostered for some time. Each was a case of stochastic terrorism.

Last week was capped with another case. This time it was a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue. During Saturday morning services, a gunman stormed into the Tree of Life Congregation. He took the lives of 11 worshippers and wounded six others, including four police officers. Make no mistake: this attack is rooted in the distorted worldview that Jewish people are attacking white non-Jewish Americans. The gunman claimed during and after the assault that Jews are committing “genocide [against his] people.” A culture of anti-Semitic sentiment has been on the rise in the US for the past several years, and it featured heavily in both the 2016 presidential campaign and the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Born of this distorted worldview and contributing to a growing sense of insecurity among religious worshippers of various faiths, the attack is only the latest well publicized result of stochastic terrorism.

Whether in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or the United States, whether in 2018 or 1963, stochastic terrorism is a very real danger. Yet it is often invisible. Until something blows up. And last week, in the US, a number of people almost did.


Photo Credit: Bruce Stanfield, “Pipe bomb maker’s workshop with tools,” via Shutterstock.