When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Rerun: Max Rose and Ali Soufan on White Supremacist Terrorism
This rerun from July 2020 features former congressman Max Rose and counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan talking about their work addressing the threat of transnational violent white supremacist groups in the United States and across the world.
This episode aired long before the events of January 6th, but the conversation was prescient. If we want to stop threats like last week’s violent mob at the Capitol in the future, we need to listen to people like Max and Ali, who know the dangers of white supremacist terrorism and how to curb them.
At the time of this recording, Max was a congressman representing New York’s 11th district, which includes all of Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter at @MaxRose4NY.
In this episode, Ken references a New York Times op-ed co-authored by Max and Ali in February 2020. Read “We Once Fought Jihadists. Now We Battle White Supremacists” here.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Max Rose: What we are doing is using every tool at our disposal to make sure that America wakes up to this threat before there is a cataclysmic attack. We all know that America will do the right thing after there's a huge attack. What we are trying to do is actually the hardest thing to do in politics, and the hardest thing to do in government which is to establish a sense of urgency before the crisis.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
Today we’re re-airing a conversation from July that holds particular resonance this week. Six months ago, I spoke with Max Rose, then-congressman for New York’s 11th congressional district, and Ali Soufan - former FBI agent and preeminent counterterrorism expert. They had recently published a New York Times Op-Ed titled: We Once Fought Jihadists. Now We Battle White Supremacists. They came on the show together to talk about the threat of transnational violent white supremacist groups in the United States and across the world.
We had this conversation long before the events of last Wednesday, January 6th, but the conversation was prescient. Those who paid attention could see this coming - the violent mob at the Capitol, driven by white supremacism and stoked by President Trump. If we want to stop threats like this one in the future, we need to listen to people like Max and Ali, who know the dangers of white supremacist terrorism and how to curb them.
All 3 of us joined the call from our homes in July, where we were - and still are - recording the show due to the ongoing pandemic. The sound quality suffers accordingly at times, but the conversation is well worth it.
Max Rose, Ali Soufan, welcome to Burn The Boats. Ali, you're a former FBI agent. You served as an interrogator on the Joint Terrorism Taskforce, and you're the author of a couple of books about Al-Qaeda. You were also the lead investigator of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 of my fellow sailors. Now, you've turned your sights on the threat of White supremacists in America.
Max, you're a member of Congress, decorated army officer, wounded in Afghanistan on the front lines of a war which, no doubt, the intelligence supplied by some of Ali's interrogations played a role in. Now, you have been personally targeted by White supremacists. I'd like to start by asking how you two met and joined forces to help meet this threat. Ali, give me your version.
Ali Soufan: I was testifying in Congress, and Congressman Rose was a member of the Homeland Security Committee. After the hearing, we started to talk to each other, and we realized that there was a lot of things that can be done in order to bring more awareness to the threat. So we started to develop a professional relationship that led into a friendship. At one point, we authored an op-ed together in the New York Times. That op-ed really upset a lot of people, all bad guys thankfully. One American group called The Base - which means literally Al-Qaeda - did a recruitment video with footage of all of our faces intercut with shots of masked men machine-gunning a spray-painted Star of David. The Scandinavian-based terrorist group, the Nordic Resistant Movement, they called us by name referring to us in one of the recent statements as the Jew Max Rose and the Arab FBI agent Ali Soufan, but they are not racist in any way, shape or form. They just put in facts.
A lot of White supremacists from around the globe were really upset about us working together. And Max spearheaded the fight to start designating some of these groups as terrorist organizations, and he was extremely successful recently with forcing the state department's hand to designate RIM, Russian Imperial Movement, as a neo-Nazi organization, as a specially designated terrorist group. This is the very first time in our history that the US government designated a White supremacist organization as a terrorist organization. We have a lot to be thankful for Max and all the great work that he's doing.
KH: That op-ed clearly as Ali put it upset a lot of bad guys, but it also shocked a lot of Americans raising the specter of homegrown White supremacist organization targeting Americans with the assistance of foreign agents and foreign organizations. Why has this country, not only the public but our law enforcement establishment, been slow to recognize this threat the same way it has recognized the threat about the extremist movements?
MR: Yeah. First of all, let me just say how much of an honor it has been to get to know Ali who I thought was a legend before I even had the chance to meet him throughout this process. What we are doing is using every tool at our disposal to make sure that America wakes up to this threat before there is a cataclysmic attack. We all know that America will do the right thing after there's a huge attack. What we are trying to do is actually the hardest thing to do in politics, and the hardest thing to do in government which is to establish a sense of urgency before the crisis.
And in that manner, we are very intentionally, but I think correctly framing this as a threat that the American people and the government should be very familiar with because these domestic White extremist organizations first off are not domestic in any way, shape and form, and have mirrored themselves, built themselves based off of a Jihadist threat. Why else would The Base call themselves Al-Qaeda? Why else would they establish this very strong connection with these global organizations to include the movement of money, information, recruiting and human beings?
It has been that framing that I hope wakes up the American people because we don't want them to be woken up after a significant attack. If Ali hadn't become such a prima donna in his old age I wouldn't have had to inject myself into this situation. He could've just done this himself, but you're a legend for so many years. Sometimes, the upstart has to step in and push them along a little bit.
KH: Ali, you have said that you feel that 9/11 could've been prevented, and by implication we are living through an era right now where the next attack is around the corner but from a wholly different set of organizations. What aren't we doing now that we should be? When you look back on the mistakes that were made, the information you did not receive that you feel like the FBI should've received in the run up to 9/11, where are we right now? Are we in the mid 90s with the rise of Al-Qaeda or are we in January of 2001?
AS: I think we are probably in the 90s. We start seeing White supremacist organizations, as Max mentioned, operate in similar fashions to the Jihadi terrorist organizations that we dealt with, at the time Al-Qaeda, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, all these different groups. Now, we see these White supremacy groups transcending any national barriers. The way they recruit, the way they disseminate their propaganda exactly like the Jihadis exploited, for example, conflicts in Afghanistan or in the Balkans or in Syria now, in Iraq. These White supremacist groups also are using the conflict in the Ukraine as a lab and as a training ground for them.
We see that facts of these global connections here at our homeland. Since 9/11 for example White supremacists and far-right terrorist extremists if you want to call them, they killed more people on American soil than Jihadis. 2018 I think was the worst for far-right violence since Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. We don't have the numbers from 2019 yet. So there's a lot of similarities going on with the way they operate, with the way they link together with other groups internationally, they formed alliances.
Ideologues, for example, similar to the global Jihadi movement, violent White supremacists have ideologues that radicalize individuals from around the globe including US nationals. Some of these ideologues play a role in the White supremacy movement very similar to Jihadists ideologues played in the Islamic terrorism movement. People like Anwar al-Awlaki for example was to the Jihadis very similar to how Jerry Taylor, Craig Johnson or Kevin McDonald or Richard Spencer is for the White supremacist movement. Those guys they travel around the world, they go to Scandinavian countries, European countries, they go to the Ukraine, and they give lectures about White supremacy and about neo-Nazi ideology and try to recruit people into the movement.
Last year, Russell Travers, former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, he told an audience in Washington, DC, that America now is being seen as exporter of White supremacist ideology. We're being seen exactly how the world was seeing Saudi Arabia as an exporter of radical Islam and Wahhabism. That's how we're being seen because most of these ideologues that go around the world and recruit people and convince them to conduct terrorist attacks are US citizens and they are based in the US. That's why it's extremely important what Max is leading in Congress to take that threat and show it to the American people, explain it to the American people. What we did in 9/11, we operate within the system.
People in the CIA and the FBI, we knew that there was a threat. We were fighting this threat during the millennium operation in Jordan, or after the East Africa embassy bombing, or in operations countering terrorism operations in Albania, in England, in Germany, you name it, we’re iin the forefronts of the fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But everything was within the system and nobody had the courage to explain to the American people that there is this guy, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda network, and they are really bad and they are trying to do something bad for America. Nobody had the courage to explain the threat and articulate it to the point that when the Bush Administration was elected there was a big division inside the administration if they should recognize the threat of terrorism from the Jihadis as a real threat.
Remember, people were focusing more on Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress than on terrorism, and they thought this is kind of a wag the dog kind of thing. We start believing politicians press clippings rather than the facts that we're getting from the intelligence community. And I think we are in the same position with the White supremacy today.
KH: The parallels are indeed frightening, but many Americans I think can be forgiven for not taking it incredibly seriously. I want to put this question to you, Max. As a soldier, when you look at these clowns in their Hawaiian shirts, the boogaloo boys, they look like they're playing games. They're in costumes and there's an element of farce it appears, to the most outspoken elements of the White supremacist movement. It's terrifying in that they're carrying black rifles and they're there to intimidate, but a lot of my military buddies in particular laugh at these clowns. What's your thought when you see them on the Capitol steps and they're really making fools of themselves in the eyes of most Americans, but in the back of your mind you know that they are the tip of the iceberg?
MR: So let's also remember that it was 19 or so individuals with box cutters who killed 3,000 Americans. So this is not a competition of resources. As HR McMaster I think very correctly said, you either fight America asymmetrically or stupidly. I believe that these folks are smart enough to understand that they would engage in asymmetric warfare. Let's lay out the facts that should startle the American people, even your tough guys buddies from the military.
KH: I was in the Navy. You got tough guy buddies.
MR: Yeah. How many Navy Seals does it take to screw in a light bulb? Just four. One to screwing the light bulb and three to write books about it. I was never cool enough to be a Seal. I'm too insecure, so I just got to make jokes about them. So look, go back to the attack in New Zealand, 51 Muslims killed in a mosque. The entire mass attack is livestreamed by someone who had earlier trained with the Azov Battalion in Ukraine, wore the insignia, had significant interactions with them.
Then, you have the conflict in Crimea with the Azov Battalion on one side, formally an extremist group integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard upon the Russian invasion of Crimea, and then on the Russian side the Russian Imperial Movement now a specially designated terrorist group by the United States, the first time a White extremist organization has been designated as such. Over 20,000 foreign fighters have gone to fight in that conflict from over 50 different countries. That is more than double the number of foreign fighters that went to go fight with the Mujahideen during the height of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan in the 80s.
Move to central Europe. Nordic Resistance Front, again a terrorist group designated as such by multiple central European nations, have killed multiple people. Move on, National Action, Sonnenkrieg in the UK also have killed people, also have attempted to kill people and engage in terrorist attacks. Sonnenkrieg is actually an offshoot of an American terrorist organization called Atomwaffen. Move on to Canada. Combat 18, again a designated terrorist organization by Canada who has killed people. Members of their organization have traveled on multiple times to train with and support American terrorist organizations such as The Base. Recently that occurred.
All of these organizations as well as more like RAM who has killed people in Southern California as well as The Leaders of Charlottesville have had active coordinations, active meetings, in-person meetings as well as the movement of money and guidance with all these global networks. The global network exists and they have blood on their hands. If that doesn't scare you, then you have your head in the sand, but you're very correct that we haven't seen the large scale attack yet, although they have killed people, more people may I add than the Jihadist threat has killed in recent years.
What would that attack look like? It may not look like 9/11. It might look like Oklahoma City, but it also could look like small arms attacks in 10 cities all happening at the same time, it could look like a cyber attack coordinated with a small arms attack on a healthcare institution, it could look like inciting racial violence, tearing apart America, it could look like a whole assortment of things. To not be cognizant of and wary of this threat I think is not to be rooted in reality.
KH: Ali, do you think that the extremist elements we've seen take part in some of these anti-shutdown protests or the extremist elements period, whether they're being provocative or not, are being treated differently, perhaps more leniently by law enforcement as compared to say Islamic extremists?
AS: It's a very difficult question to answer because I think law enforcement and the FBI have taken this threat extremely seriously, but the problem is they don't have the tools available under their fingertips that they use for example against Jihadis or international terrorist organizations. These tools are not available.
KH: You mean legal tools.
AS: Legal tools, yeah. A lot of people say, "If this guy was a Muslim or his name is Muhammad, then the FBI will treat this case differently," and it is true but not based on the name or on the race. Based on the legal designation. For example, we don't have a domestic terrorism legislation in the United States. We do not have penalties really associated with domestic terrorism. I'll give you a perfect example. Timothy McVeigh in 1995, Oklahoma City bombing. You know Timothy McVeigh blew up a whole federal building killing so many people, the biggest terrorist attack on American soil before 9/11.
Do you know we could not charge him with terrorism charges? We charged him with murder because it's very difficult to prove domestic terrorism because there's no legislation. So what's happening, a lot of people are being arrested, they're arrested with weapons, they are arrested with explosives by the FBI, and because there is no body, because they didn't kill an individual or the FBI stopped them on the way to commit the terrorist attack, they're protected by the First Amendment and the Second Amendment. In the first amendment, they have the right to go on Facebook and say, "I want to kill all the Jews. I want to kill all immigrants. I want to kill all the Blacks." That's protected speech.
The Second Amendment protecting the fact that they were carrying weapons when they were stopped. This is a problem. This is why we decided to figure out a way. How can we give tools to people on the front line in order to protect our communities. But a lot of these guys are really evil and they are operating very similar to how the Jihadis are. Max mentioned the Atomwaffen Division for example and its connection to one group in the UK. They established affiliates, inspired groups in over a dozen countries in the Western world where they planned or they actually carried out acts of violence. US members of the Atomwaffen Division, they travel to promote their evil narrative.
These are US groups that operate exactly like Al-Qaeda, exactly like ISIS. They have affiliates around the world. They are using social media to recruit, they are using the conspiratorial narrative against Jews and against anybody who doesn't look like them or believe like them. They are trying to fight for the purity of the race like the Jihadis wanted to fight for the purity of the religion.
When they conduct a terrorist attack, they lionize that individual and they put all this propaganda about them exactly like the Jihadis do with marketing videos. This is actually a real threat that we're dealing with.
MR: Absolutely. Now, there is one difference though, and I think this is stark. If someone is an adherent of ISIS, they collaborated with ISIS and they are a Texas resident and they go out and they legally buy an AR-15, they go out and they legally buy 40 magazines, they go out and they legally buy a kit and they legally buy 5,000 rounds of ammunition, we can arrest that person, provide them with material support to a terrorist organization and lock them up before they kill people. Now, if it's another Texas resident becomes a member of Atomwaffen or The Base and communicates with RAM and Azov and Nordic Resistance and Combat 18, constantly, constantly communicates with them, buys the same amount of ammunition, the same weapons, the same kit, we do not have a charge for that person until they start killing people.
MR: That's insane, and that's got to be fixed.
KH: Max, you're the lawmaker. What's the status of any legislative efforts in Congress? I know you've got the transnational White supremacist extremism review act. Is there anything else trying to fix this?
MR: Sure. Let's simplify this a little bit here. There's two things that you can do for these domestic terrorist organizations, and they are terrorist organizations by every sense of the word. The first is that you can create a domestic terrorist designation. That is riffed with all types of ideological debates that are legitimate. I think it will take a generation for us to get to the bottom of whether or not in America we should have a domestic terrorism charge.
The second thing that you can do is you can update the list of foreign terrorist organizations. Now, in order for an entity to be labeled a foreign terrorist organization, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, there are 61 of them. That's executive action. The state department just does it. Now, they have a thorough review process and so on and so forth and it has to be renewed every five years and Congress plays a role, but it does not require legislation. Now, for some reason this administration has, and every other previous administration before it, has been unwilling to do that.
Now, why is the FTO designation so important? We've already established through this conversation that these domestic organizations are not domestic at all. They're global. They're connected to the global organizations that we just listed. When they put out videos, as they have, burning the US flag, burning the Israeli flag, holding AR-15s, wearing masks mimicking Jihadi John saying that they're going to kill Ali Soufan, saying that they're going to kill Max Rose, we could immediately charge them with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization if any one of these organizations that we just listed abroad were actually listed as FTOs. None of them have, and this is scary beyond just not being able to charge these organizations with providing material support.
It's scary in the fact that we do not fully understand the threat that we face. All of the analyses that we've presented to you thus far are based off of tangential research. We have not been able to unleash the full power of the CIA in terms of addressing this because we're not labeling any of these organizations as foreign terrorist organizations. We cannot tell you today how many Americans have gone to fight with them. We can guess. We can't tell you for sure. We cannot tell you today how many Americans are supporting these organizations with foreign money and vice versa, how many foreigners are coming to America, how many foreigners are sending money to America. We can't tell you for sure what their social media presence is nor can we clamp down upon it. We will not fully know the threat that we face until we follow through with these designations.
So there's certainly legislation that we are pushing to establish the intelligence community to push them to mandate that they study this. There are resolutions that we are pushing, and they are bipartisan by the way, to say that it is the belief of Congress that these organizations should be labeled as FTOs, but the administration has to do the right thing. I don't believe that until they label these organizations as foreign terrorist organizations you can't say that you're tough on terrorism. Now, they did label the Russian Imperial Movement as a specially designated terrorist group. There's about 1,000 SDTGs and that was a good step. It's the first time that a White extremist organization has been labeled as that, but we will not be satisfied until they update the FTO list.
KH: Ali, you are one of our country's foremost experts on extremism, but in particular Al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism. You've been in the room with people who have planned and engineered the deaths of many, many Americans. I'm wondering how you apply that experience to this in trying to understand the driving forces, the psychological forces behind White fanaticism. Is there a religious element? In the case of Al-Qaeda, it was grievance driven there were the three prongs, the occupation of the Holy Lands, the liberation of Palestine. What is the ideological underpinning or the conspiracy mindset, you tell me, that drives the larger movement?
AS: Actually, the ideological underpinning basically existed way before the Jihadis were able to put their stuff together. We had the Nazis, we had this idea that some races are better than others. You have these conspiracy theories that the Jews control the world, so a lot of it already exists, but their ideology is basically ... The Jihadis, they wanted Armageddon. They are fighting for Armageddon because Armageddon, there will be a big battle between everyone, between all the religions around the world and Muslims will win and Muslims will control the world. That's what they are looking for.
With these guys, they have an acceleration of this theory. Basically, they want to accelerate racial tension, accelerate war, create racial war in order to destroy the current world order or social order that exists in different European countries, bring back the purity of the race and they based it on Nazi ideology, the racial narratives, significant history of anti-Semitism throughout the decades, throughout the centuries. They use it as an underpinning of their war, of their ideologies.
There's a lot of similarities when it comes to the ideology. Guess what, some groups in the White supremacist movement, they call it White Jihad. Some groups, even though they are so White supremacist they actually like a group like Hezbollah. That gives you an idea about the anti-Semitic narratives that actually empower these guys very much similar to people like Hezbollah or other groups. We need to start paying attention to this.
MR: Let me just also say this. It is clear as day that if the intelligence community and the law enforcement community listened to Ali in the run-up to 9/11, there's a very good chance that 9/11 would not have happened. Very rarely in life do we get a second chance to not make the same exact mistake again. Here, Ali Soufan is saying that we are back in the mid 90s again looking at the formation of a new global terrorist movement. Let's not make the same mistake again.
KH: Max, can you talk about the tension though, between wanting to keep Americans safe and upholding as a fundamental American value the right to protest and the right to free speech?
KH: I'm thinking about the recent presidential declaration to describe Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization.
MR: The thing about that, that was a totally political statement. There is no domestic terrorist designation. That was the President tweeting in his pajamas in his room like a teenager with no knowledge of national or international law. That was nothing. That was just a random tweet that has zero follow-up, zero.
AS: And I 100% agree with my friend here. Let me tell you, the President tweeted at one point that he wants to declare the cartel as a terrorist organization. Did he declare the cartel as a terrorist organization? No, because he can't. Can you tell me who's the head of Antifa? I can tell you who's the head of Atomwaffen. I can tell you who's the head of The Base, I can tell you these guys. I can tell you how they operate, I can tell you the organization and how it's structured, I can name the affiliates for you, how they raise funds, how they recruit people. I can tell you all these things. These are really terrorist organizations. Can you just give me who's the leader of Antifa? This is not terrorism. This is anarchy, criminal. This is a state or local issue.
MR: Ken, let me say this about your question. You're making this far more complicated than it needs to be. Go back to that video where they're mimicking Jihadi John and they're burning the US flag and they're threatening Ali's life, threatening my own, threatening my colleagues' lives, saying that we need to bring death and destruction to the kike revolution and to the United States of America. If at the end of that video they had said, "All prayers be to ISIS and Al-Qaeda," boom, they're locked up for 30 years providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. This right now has nothing to do with the constitution. We've established the law, we've established the system for how we're going to crack down on terrorists.
Right now, what we're discussing is are all terrorists to be treated equally, or is it just the ones that are Jihadists that have allegiance to traditionally Islamic organizations, or is all terrorism terrorism? These are global terrorist organizations, and we have just got to expand our system to address them as well. This has nothing to do with people's right to peacefully congregate, this has nothing to do with people's right to the First Amendment, but there is zero right to engage in terrorist coordinations, to take part in a terrorist organization, to plan terrorist attacks, or to express support for terrorist organizations. That is not protected by the constitution in no way, shape or form.
KH: You are confident, Max you first as the Congressman, that the legal guardrails exist to prevent the abuse of any terrorist designation that the 61 organizations you mentioned that have been declared terrorist organizations have had to meet specific criteria that do not include a midnight tweet from the President, that we are safe from the kind of overreach that would jeopardize our First Amendment rights.
MR: Absolutely. The question now is are we willing to apply the tools that we have equally? If you want to start to talk about a domestic terrorist designation, then we start to get into some of these questions. What we are purposefully trying to say is that as it pertains to the threat of White extremist terrorist organizations based in the United States of America, that debate and conversation is not yet necessary because they're part and parcel of a global movement just like there are member of ISIS and Al-Qaeda or at least sympathizers to ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the United States of America today. We don't talk about the need for a domestic terrorist designation for them. This is no different. What my fear is is that we are paralyzing ourselves with a theoretical debate right now that is not necessary. All the while, we're allowing these organizations to continue to grow, continue to organize, continue to openly flaunt their desire to inflict violence upon Americans, and we are not doing anything.
AS: These people, they talk about they want to kill immigrants, they want to start race wars, they want to accelerate history and have a big clash that ends up with getting rid of anyone who's not purely White. We're not talking about you have the right to hate or you have the right to don't like Mexicans or don't like Muslims or don't like Arabs or don't like Jews. This is not what we're talking about.
We're talking about individuals and entities and groups organizing on a transnational level with the main goal to bring down the world order and put together a Hitler type world order. What are we waiting for? A lot of people think Al-Qaeda just started on 9/11. No, my friend. Al-Qaeda started in 1989 and continued to build their organization and their structure and fix it. They ended up on the eve of 9/11 with the organization that we destroyed the way it exists, but now it morphed into another monster that have way more people today than Al-Qaeda had back on the eve of 9/11. On the eve of 9/11, the people who pledged Bay’ah, oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden were about 400. Today, Al-Qaeda alone, I'm not mentioning ISIS which is a breakaway from Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda alone have more than 40,000 fighters across the Muslim worlds. They are not only in Kandahar and in Kabul. They are also in Idlib in Syria, they are in Somalia, they are in Sahel region, the whole area of Sahel region, they are in Libya, they are in Yemen.
Before the Saudi war in Yemen, Al-Qaeda were about 700 AQAP, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Today, AQAP is more than 8,000 people. We're not paying attention to this either. The threat level, the terrorism level both from the Islamic extremists and from the White supremacists evolved in a way that needs the attention of the national security apparatus and the politicians here in the United States, otherwise we're asking for trouble.
KH: I want to pan out just a little bit and see if I can get a much deeper historical perspective on White supremacy in America. This is provoked, Max, by the letter that you just wrote to Secretary Esper stating that US military bases and property should be named after men and women who served our nation with honor and distinction, not sought to tear it apart to uphold White supremacy. It probably goes without saying, but what are the connections between the modern White supremacist movement and fidelity to the Confederate ideals?
MR: Yeah. Let me first just say something about the Confederate monuments and things like that. I have a federal army based in my district with one street named after Robert E Lee, and it is my belief that Robert E Lee was not a patriot, he was a traitor with not only the blood of Americans on his hands but the blood of New Yorkers on his hands, and he was also a virulent racist that believed Black people should be enslaved, so he should not be honored. We have plenty of incredible public servants who paid the ultimate sacrifice who should be honored. Now, with that being said though, as we look at this White nationalist terrorist threat, it is really, really important that we do not conflate that threat with the long history of racism in America and support for states' rights in America and support for segregation. That entire thing, as disgusting as I believe it is, that is very different.
Many of the roots of this White terrorist nationalist threat actually began in the late 70s, early 1980s. Interestingly enough, it often sees it rear its roaring head during times when there's a Republican administration. Because what they start to see, it really skyrocketed during Reagan, skyrocketing again now during Donald Trump, ironically out of anger that the administration is not going far enough. There's linkages, there's connections, there's similar at times ideological cross-currents particularly centered around racism, but I - it is so dangerous in this country where we start to see these two as exactly the same, and it actually leads to us underestimating the threat of White nationals and terrorist organizations. They're very different.
AS: I cannot agree more. We see that with the Jihadis. If you look at the Jihadi movement as it is today and as manifested itself by Osama bin Laden, it is rooted in what? There's an iceberg, and that threat is actually the tip of the iceberg, but it's an iceberg of a big debate in the Middle East and in the Muslim world about the role of religion. Then, you have the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia and how it was used as a soft power by the Saudis to counter Iran. Then, you have groups like the Muslim Brotherhood who have a totally different view about democracy and about the wider participation in the political process. All the things that created a lot of historical narratives and ideological narratives and political narratives that made somebody like Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri say, "You know what? The only way to move forward is violence. The only way to make a difference is violence." That's exactly what we see.
We have a lot of history of racism, Europe has history of anti-Semitism, we have the same thing here in the United States. There's a lot of these ideological narratives, political narratives, and then these people saying, "You know what? Nothing's happening for us. We have to accelerate. Violence is the only way to protect our race." These two things are very different. One lead into the other, but they are very different.
MR: It's also important to bring the conversation full circle and also to social media. Right now, and this is just a fact of the First Amendment, if someone wants to support a Birther argument about President Obama, if someone wants to say that Brown vs Board of Education should be overturned or the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendments should be overturned, they are disgusting human beings by every sense of the word, but that is protected First Amendment speech. If you look at the ways in which the leading social media organizations have established themselves, they have said, "that's protected speech on our platforms." Keep in mind that when it comes to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, there's no such thing as constitutional protected speech on their platforms. You sign a code of conduct right when you sign up for their programs and they could say tomorrow, "All speech is not allowed. We are banning all speech." That would be bad business, and that's the reason why they don't do that because they monetize speech. They don't protect speech. They monetize it.
But what they have collectively agreed is that we do not allow for terrorist content on our platforms. But all the while, they have allowed for The Base, Atomwaffen, RAM, all these organizations to use their platforms to speak, all the while because they are looking at terrorist designations as a list, they're looking to the State Department to say “what are our cues”. Interestingly, as we pushed and pushed and pushed and finally got the Russian Imperial Movement as a specially designated terrorist group, it was only then that the social media companies took down their words. It was only then. Previously, that was speech. We got to label these organizations as what they are, part and parcel of global terrorist organizations, not entities that are protected by First Amendment speech.
KH: One of the most interesting things I noticed in the course of preparing for this interview for which I went to those websites, Atomwaffen and The Base and others, I dove deep into the social media black hole that they inhabit. Not much of what I saw there surprised me. What really surprised me was the type of ads I started getting from the Trump campaign, from Republican Senate candidates. I think there's a nexus there if those algorithms are any guide. That really surprised me.
MR: Yeah. Let me just say this though. I'm not going to allow for this debate to become “the Republicans are using this for their politics and this and that,” because then it becomes unnecessarily polarizing. There is no reason why. There's not enough of these people to shift the electoral map. There are enough of these people to carry out multiple 9/11 attacks. So let's label them as terrorists. There's a bipartisan movement emerging in Congress calling for this. Let's just do it. We can't allow for this to devolve in terms of this is a political thing.
AS: It's so refreshing, and I testified on this in Congress a couple of times, but it's so refreshing that I met a lot of members from the Republican party, and they came to me after the hearing, and they were like, "We never heard of this. We're really shocked.
KH: I want to thank you both for elevating this issue, for not just your advocacy on behalf of the critical subject but your bravery given that you have put yourself out front and now been targeted by some of these groups. We end every Burn The Boats with the same question, and I'll start with you Max, what is the bravest Burn The Boats kind of decision you've ever been a part of or had to make?
MR: Watching my guys in Afghanistan make split second decisions every day about whether to go left or right, whether to shoot or not. It's an effort in heroic bravery that I'm still astounded I was a witness to and had the privilege to support. We have so much to learn from the types of bravery our post 9/11 vets have showed day in and day out downrange. We don't often acknowledge just the simple ones that they do every day. I would say that is that.
KH: Thanks, Max. How about you, Ali?
AS: Having dinner with Max Rose.
MR: They're coming after us, man.
AS: It's just like we took an oath to defend this constitution and defend this great nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That oath does not stop with a paycheck.
KH: Thank you both. It's been an honor having you.
Thanks for listening to this rerun of Burn the Boats. We’ll be back with a new episode the week after next, talking to former CIA agent Mike Howard about his career in the CIA and as the Chief Security Officer at Microsoft.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.