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Attack Dates as Terrorist Messaging

Attack Dates as Terrorist Messaging
15th January 2021 Dr. Carol Winkler
In Insights

In the aftermath of the violent political events of 6 January 2021 at the US Capitol, a cascade of governmental officials, political pundits, media commentators, and scholars repeatedly stressed the notion that a President’s words matter. The oft-repeated litany of Donald J. Trump calling on his supporters to “stand back and stand by” during a presidential debate, to descend on Washington, D.C. for a “wild” protest on 6 January 2021, and to “not take it any longer” and “fight like hell” immediately before his supporters stormed the US Capitol replayed over and over on traditional media outlets, online news sources, and on social media and culminated in the impeachment of the President.

While the words of national leaders do matter, the dates of planned attacks also have symbolic significance for violent extremist groups and their followers. Dates play an important role in constituting extremist groups, including those that seek to pursue political objectives through violence. Key event dates draw together individuals with common beliefs, attitudes, and behavioural tendencies that might otherwise fail to recognise their affiliation and connection. In short, as Myres (2018) noted, groups “are not born, nor do they die; their fate lies in the redistribution of their name across a network of signifiers.” The dates serve as condensation symbols that emphasise the timeless nature of the groups and their ideological perspectives. The historic connections also imply that even if a group suffers temporary setbacks in the contemporary environment, the lasting nature of their identity formation assures ultimate victory (Charland, 1987).

Attacks dates often function as coded references for the ideological underpinnings of extremist groups. On the international stage, al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), for example, have planned and/or carried out attacks on Christian religious holidays to underscore the centrality of their Muslim identity. On Christmas day in 2009, al-Qaeda operative Umar Farouk attempted to down a Northwest Airliner travelling to Detroit, Michigan, while IS-inspired militants have carried out fatal attacks on the Berlin Christmas market, Palm Sunday attacks in Tanta, Egypt, and Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, to name but a few. The religious importance of the Christian holiday attacks draws heightened attention to the vulnerability of collectives that oppose the cause of extremist groups.

Attack dates also have significance for reinforcing the identity of far-right groups, like the ones that stormed the US capital on 6 January 2021. Take, for example, the current FBI warning about upcoming 17 January 2021 planned attacks by the Boogaloo Bois on federal and state capitols (Dickson, 2021). The 17 January date has historical importance to the Boogaloo movement because of the Davis-Coke controversy in 1874. Edmund J. Davis and Richard Coke were political adversaries in the 1873 Texas Gubernatorial contest. Coke, a Democrat who had previously served in the Confederate Fifteenth Texas Infantry and who had voted in the statehouse for the Texas secession from the union, received twice the number of votes in the election as Davis. Yet, Davis barricaded himself in his office and refused to transfer power to Coke because of a state Supreme Court ruling that rejected the election results due to rampant irregularities and fraud on both sides of the electoral contest. Davis requested federal assistance from President Ulysses S. Grant to protect his claim on the governorship, but none was forthcoming. Coke’s supporters used ladders to enter the Texas statehouse and axes to breach the Governor’s office (as Davis had fled with whiskey).  After their successful occupation, the Democrats would go on to control the Texas statehouse for the next century, effectively ending radical reconstruction efforts (Bishop, [n.d.]; Moneyhon, 1980; Noe, 2016).

Using the attack date as a code for the Coke-Davis controversy functions in several important ways to bolster the cause of the Boogaloo Bois. First, it reinforces the contemporary narrative that American elections are rife with fraud and unworthy of their members’ trust. Second, it intimates that the court system has long been biased in favour of those who oppose white supremacy, with the implied conclusion that opinions of the course today should not have authoritative sway over group members. Third, it warrants the use of property destruction and forced entry to obtain the group’s “just” cause.  Fourth, it underscores that with unity, the cause of the Boogaloo movement not only wins the day in the short-term, but proffers the group’s dominance for decades to come. Finally, it provides an imaginary anecdote to the certified results of a recent state of Georgia election where a state generally considered to be a lock for conservative causes elected its first Black senator and the first black Democratic senator from a southern state in a US election.

Other dates associated with the planned attacks of far-right support groups of President Trump also demonstrate the need to consider the implications of the attack dates carefully. While the first attack date of 6 January aligned with the certification of the 2020 Presidential election results, it simultaneously recalled when the Three Wisemen visited Jesus particularly for Orthodox Catholic and Anglican Christians. The multiple meanings of the 6 January date signaled the expansion of the fighting coalition likely planning to storm the capitol to evangelical adherents.

What the incidents described here make clear is that those interested in understanding and being able to better predict attacks by extremist groups need to pay special attention to any announced dates of the planned attacks. They should also identify historical dates of significance to extremist groups that might portend attacks even when they are not amplified on social media. Once identified, analysts should look beyond a specified date as a simple rubric for revealing the timing of the intended attack. Such information viewed historically can also give insights into the likely makeup of the coalescing group, the motivations of those participating, and the tactics the group might employ.