Last Thursday 5 men were indicted in Ohio on multiple charges related to an attempt to blow up a bridge in Brecksville, just south of Cleveland. The men have been described by the government as ‘anarchists’ and were acting ‘out of anger against corporate America and the government’. The men had connections, of varying degrees, with Occupy Cleveland and this foiled plot and the investigation surrounding it present some interesting and pressing points about how domestic terrorism cases are pursued and the state of left-wing terrorism in America.
The FBI is likely thrilled with this latest bust, not only from a homeland security standpoint, but because it relieves a little bit of the pressure from civil rights groups who claim that the Bureau unfairly uses informants in Muslim communities for domestic terrorism investigations. This bust, where fake explosives were provided by an FBI informant, sends a message that, fair or unfair, the FBI uses informant based prosecutions for everyone. Entrapment? Perhaps, but at least they’re not profiling!
However, regarding entrapment, this raises two questions: 1) When did the FBI informant make contact with the group? Before or after they had mobilized and committed themselves to violent action? Understanding this is crucial in determining what the process of radicalization was like and how much guidance the informant had in the development of the plot. This distinction has proven to be legally irrelevant in the past, but in assessing the likelihood of future plots from former occupiers this could prove important. And 2) How many informants does the FBI have within the Occupy movement and what is their directive? Are they being sent in with the express purpose of making counterterrorism busts? Are they being given specific targets or broad instructions to make cases?
An Emerging Left-wing Threat?
Occupy was quick to distance themselves from the Ohio 5, however some on the right have highlighted that an ideological connection exists between Occupy and the plotters and additional evidence shows that some were involved in Occupy at a fairly high level (leasing property for the movement). With its broad reach and agenda for societal change, Occupy can best be classified as a social movement. Social movements can provide the necessary milieus from which for more extreme forms of political action, sometimes violent, can emerge. People can meet, exchange ideas, and form cliques. The Weather Underground in the U.S. and the Red Army Faction in West Germany both emerged from the broader left-wing social movements of their day. The major debate is over whether these milieus should be regarded as ‘conveyor belts’ or ‘safety-valves’, moving individuals or groups towards violent extremism, or serving as a non-violent political outlet. The Ohio case seems to provide evidence favoring the former but it’s also important to keep in mind that outside of this incident the movement has been almost entirely peaceful. So what does Occupy have to do with the Ohio 5? I would argue nothing when it comes to endorsing, planning, funding, or supporting a terror plot but the existence of the Occupy milieu provides a base from which violent extremism can emerge.
Whether more, frustrated occupiers choose to pursue violence remains to be seen, but it’s important to remember that non-violence is not exclusively a moral choice in conflict, it’s also a strategic one. Simply because individuals have used non-violence in the past does not necessarily mean they are opposed to violence in principle. Especially in a large, international movement it’s impossible to assess what every participant’s moral stance on the use of violence is, even if there is nearly universal strategic unity on non-violence at the moment. Small, tight knit groups may begin to break away and choose a different strategy, a violent one, in the pursuit of the same goals. I’m not writing this as an alarmist, it would be irresponsible and unfounded to predict a new wave of left-wing terrorism, but large, decentralized social movements comprised of educated and unemployed young people, who frankly have achieved little through non-violent means throw up some red flags.
Hopefully this case will serve as an impetus for the leaders of Occupy to reassert their commitment to a non-violent strategy, and become tactically innovative within that realm. However the alternative scenario is that this serves as inspiration for frustrated individuals who may undergo a risky shift.