Politics

Donald Trump’s Disorganized Brand of Terrorism

Donald Trump raises his fist as if in solidarity.
President Donald Trump in Valdosta, Georgia, on Dec. 5. Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/Getty Images

On a recent episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick spoke with Juliette Kayyem, who served as assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, about the Capitol riot, how Donald Trump stoked this particular type of violence, and how counterterrorism techniques can inform the response to this extremist right-wing movement. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is transcribed below.

Dahlia Lithwick: I want to start by asking you about this phrase stochastic terrorism because you’ve been saying it and saying it. And I feel like I wrote it this week, and then one of my dear friends was like, “What the hell does that mean?” Can you explain what it means?”

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Juliette Kayyem: It doesn’t roll off the tongue, I know. I think the first time I used it publicly was in 2018. I had been looking at what Trump was doing, and inciting violence was not the right terminology, because it was a particular type of violence. It was a violence that was directed toward political gain. Now, that could be whether it’s against a mayor he doesn’t like, or a governor he doesn’t like, or people he doesn’t like, or media personalities, as he’s often wont to do. And the means that he did it is stochastic terrorism. Stochastic means random.

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It’s a way of thinking about violence. And it’s when a leader uses his platform to motivate and incite violence in a way in which the violence is much more likely to occur, but who does it and where it’s done is utterly random. So, after a Trump speech, is it more likely someone might do something? Yes. Or a Trump tweet. And he’s able to do this or was able to do this by plausible deniability, that the incitement was sufficiently vague. It wasn’t “Go to Fifth Avenue and Central Park West and do this, you person.” It was things like “Liberate Michigan,” and things like what he said about the Proud Boys that they viewed as a victory at the debate. And so, that language would incite. And you could see the cases over the four years, the white supremacy or the attempted terrorism cases—almost all of them were deep followers of Trump and his Twitter feeds and all the craziness online.

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But I will say, after the election, something has changed and he’s now directing it. And he’s directing it for a particular political purpose, which is that the election was not fair and not legitimate. And it gets picked up by all of his supportive senators and Fox News. And then, around Christmastime is when I started doing red code: He’d picked a date, which is Jan. 6, and that was going to be it. That, to me, now is directed. And the idea that, for whatever reason, people much smarter than me and much deeper into the weeds of the intelligence weren’t picking up on this seems political in nature. That because the president for four years had said, “You cannot look at this kind of terrorism,” they weren’t ready, but it’s organized, it’s coordinated, it has its leader.

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I’m not calling all of Trump supporters terrorists. There’s a violent element that is a domestic terrorist element that is organized, and we saw it in the Capitol. I saw it that day. I was on air that day, and I saw military formation. You could see it going up the staircase. When men are able to walk up a staircase crowded, that is a military formation. They know how to do that, they walked up a staircase that was quite crowded in singular line. They knew exactly what they were doing.

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I don’t feel comfortable calling Trump a terrorist just because I think that then we’re going to get into that debate. But it’s important to say that he’s the spiritual and operational leader of a domestic terrorism movement and that’s where we’ve landed. And that’s what I’ve been writing and talking about. And I did it not for name-calling but because now, I think, can we think about the prisms of counterterrorism as a solution?

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For me, the value of what you’re doing is saying, Look, I’m just going to call this domestic terrorism. We can have a conversation about what Trump’s responsibility is, but we’re not going to sit around and talk about free speech for the next three months.

That’s exactly right. Part of it is I’m a half-glass-full person. And part of it was everything seems so overwhelming right now—the lack of a framework to try to just understand it, whether it’s for me or even my kids. On a personal level, I had been using stochastic terrorism. And in terms of social media, stochastic terrorism also gets us out of the lone wolf framework. In other words, there’s no more lone wolves. This is amplified. They all know each other. They’re all communicating on these horrible websites, so then you can start to see it as something organized, not as, Oh, a bunch of random guys, funnily dressed, are showing up in Congress. And how did they get in? I know exactly how they got in. They planned on getting in, and then we had not a very effective defensive posture.

That is what’s important so that you get to the counterterrorism framework: OK, what can we do, knowing now that this is an organized domestic threat? All of a sudden, the tools become more obvious: do all the things that you would otherwise do with any criminal organization. You prosecute, you investigate. All of these investigations now are not only punishment, they’re preventive, because we still have the inauguration coming up. They are to say to people who might be curious, or looky-loos, Don’t do this. And I think that’s going to be effective.

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You cut off the money. What the private sector is doing is fantastic. You deplatform the leader. So, thank you, Twitter and Facebook, for this short moment in time—we’ll get back to you later. You isolate, you shame, you use every political gesture you can. So, I don’t view the impeachment through the lens of anything but that he has to leave here isolated, because, as a leader of a terrorist organization, he can’t be seen to be a winner. So, the whole sort of “unity,” “love,” and “let’s move on” message actually makes us less safe. We think, Oh, if we just lower the temperature, let him move on, go to Mar-a-Lago … No, because he’s now launched something that is very, very dangerous. And we have to view it as an organized element that is feeding off the big lie that he and others—people who should know better—have promulgated about the election.

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Crushed is a little strong, but you just want to weaken him, because it’s now about recruitment. It’s about whether we can contain this, prosecute those who’ve been violent, off-ramp those who may want to off-ramp. There’s something to shame, and to them realizing what’s going on. And we’ve got a lot of people in that camp. Let’s make sure he can’t recruit. And so he needs to be loser. That’s sort of the framework.

Yesterday, it dawned on me this is probably the most spontaneous cross-disciplinary, throw-everything-at-the-wall counterterrorism effort in America since 9/11 because it’s not coordinated in the way that we would think about 9/11 working with states and the military. This is the Joint Chiefs putting out a release that makes it clear that he’s isolated. And then, Twitter takes him off. And Deutsche Bank says, “We’re not doing business with him anymore.” All of it. Every single thing has to be thrown at him.

To hear their entire discussion, listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, OvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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