June 23, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Next-Up in the Terrorist-Batter's Box

It was called "the terrorist attack of the century." The last century.

In 1905, former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg was dynamited. The bomb (the WMD of its day) was strapped to a gatepost on his garden fence.

The authorities arrested "Big Bill" Haywood, a labor organizer for the Western Federation Miners. J. Anthony Lukas chronicles the crime, investigation and trial in his book Big Trouble.

Few history books even mention the turn-of-the-century terror incident. But at the time, it was huge. Headlines heralded it as the harbinger of everything from an age of anarchism to a populist revolt.

The incident remains important because it tells us as much about terrorism in the 20th century as three recent attacks here reveal about the 21stcentury terrorist threat. And that is: Not much.

Steunenberg's killing proved to be anything but the product of a vast conspiracy or a bow wave of extremist unrest. It was a one-off.

The same can be said of the recent terror attacks which resulted in the killing of an American soldier in Arkansas, the assassination of an abortion doctor in Kansas, and the shooting of a security guard on the steps of the Holocaust Museum.

Each could rightly be labeled a terrorist act, since because each involved the unlawful exercise of violence in pursuit of a political agenda. The perpetrators, like those who gunned down the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, and took pot shots take at President Reagan, are what counterterrorism experts call "Lone Wolfs." They are not part of an established terrorist network.

Additionally, while they may embrace an "extremist" ideology held by others (just as Haywood may have shared common cause with the Molly Maguires and other labor activists that turned terrorist), they are isolated cases that don't represent a broad, domestic, "extremist" social movement. They are mavericks, acting outside their herd.

This has not dissuaded some from playing politics with tragedies these losers have wrought. Rather, they have grimly set about connecting two unconnected dots, as a means of trashing their political opponents.

The worst of the lot was Paul Krugman's commentary in the New York Times. In "The Big Hate," the economist-turned-pundit blamed the Holocaust Museum shooting and the murder of Wichita doctor George Tiller on the "right-wing" media. Either Krugman doesn't understand the difference between acceptable free speech and murder--or he is an opportunist, exploiting terror to score political points.

Not far behind Krugman came CIA Director Leon Panetta. He accused Dick Cheney of "wishing" the terrorists would attack America because the former Vice President had the temerity to defend the Bush administration's record. (A CIA spokesman later walked back the claim.) Last time I checked, theConstitution gives even citizen Cheney the right to speak freely without being slandered by a high government official.

Playing politics with the issue of terrorism is a bad idea. The terrorists take their politics seriously. We should be fighting them, not libeling one another.

And we should be paying attention to where the really serious next terrorist threat might be coming from--and center our efforts there. There will always be lone-wolfs, but experts agree that counter-terrorism efforts must focus on terrorist networks.

The experts don't all agree on what terrorist networks, after al Qaeda, we should worry about most. But near the top of many experts' lists are groups bent on spreading Islamist radicalization in U.S. prisons. FBI Director Robert Mueller has warned repeatedly that "prisons continue to be fertile ground for extremists."

A second concern high on the list of many counterterrorist professionals is the Somali Diaspora. More than a few cases suggest a concerted effort to incite Somali Americans and recruit them for jihadi warfare overseas.

A third source of worry is Latin America. Hezbollah and Hamas both have networks in South America. Additionally, some experts dread the growing possibility that Latin American-based transnational criminal cartels and gangs will assume a political agenda and cross over into the terrorist world.

None of these concerns merit profiling, persecuting, or even investigating former felons, Somali-Americans, or our neighbors of South of the border as potential terrorists. They do remind, however, that we need to remain vigilant.

Rather than overreact to lone-wolf attacks, we need sustained counterterrorism programs that respect individual liberties, but don't shy away from rooting out terrorist networks wherever they lurk.

James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the Examiner