The Idea of Terror: White Supremacist Violence and the Making of Counterterrorism
My book manuscript seeks to unpack the intuition that “we know terrorism when we see it” and probe how the concept of “terrorism” preserves power structures that privilege whites in Western democracies. While differential treatment of Islamist and far-right extremists by governments is well-documented, we lack an understanding of how counter-terrorism and counter-extremism discourse and law in Western societies interact to produce a system that naturalizes such differential treatment in the first place, thereby making the “we know terrorism when we see it” logic possible and widely intelligible. I ask: whose interests are served by labeling divorced from law, and how do groups atop power hierarchies maintain their positions by strategically employing the “terrorist” classifier, both in discourse and in national security policy?
Firmly rooted in interpretive ethnographic approaches, my research uses interviews with current and former national security bureaucrats and policymakers in Germany and the United States to gain insight into how the people making counterterrorism and counter-extremism policy securitize various ideologies as “threats” and think about their roles in combating those threats. I find that even individuals who view far-right extremism as a dire threat to national security nevertheless express a sense of hopelessness at the ability of existing institutions to address that threat—and, moreover, that these individuals are unable to imagine profound structural changes to their respective countries’ security architectures. I draw on critical race theory to understand this duality as a display of hegemonic power, in which the construction and persistence of whiteness demands that it not be probed too deeply, even when its detrimental effects on national security are obvious.
The rest of the project traces the implications of my theory for militant organizations and international norms surrounding the use of force. Using a variety of computational text-as-data methods, as well as close reading of primary sources in multiple languages, I show how military action abroad legitimizes government interests while militant organizations co-opt them for their own propaganda. In doing so, I connect seemingly ad-hoc applications of the “terrorist” classifier and near-instinctual intuitions of what “terrorism” means to paint a more comprehensive picture of how the “terrorism” label acts as a site of power production and reproduction for state actors—and how this particular process of preserving status quo hierarchies can in fact be counterproductive for reducing political violence.
Terror as Justice, Justice as Terror: Counterterrorism and Anti-Black Racism in the United States
Critical Studies on Terrorism 15 (1): 83–101 (2022) (PDF)
How do counterterrorism policies in the United States reproduce anti-Black racism? Research on U.S. domestic counterterrorism policy post-9/11 has largely focused on the experiences of Muslim Americans while marginalizing both separate and overlapping effects on non-Muslim people of color, particularly non-Muslim Black communities. I argue that domestic counterterrorism policy, as an act of determining what types of political contention states find non-threatening, is both rooted in the historical treatment of Black resistance and continues to derive power and legitimacy from oppressing Black communities. Using the case of the Black Liberation Army and its members, I show that federal counterterrorism institutions in the U.S. are shaped by opposition to Black liberation, although those institutions also target non-Black communities. This article thus extends understandings of discrimination and prejudice within the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus and advocates for greater attention to anti-Blackness not only in policing but also in security institutions more broadly.
The Idea of Terror: Institutional Reproduction in Government Responses to Political Violence
International Studies Quarterly 64 (3): 499–509 (2020) (PDF)
Winner of the 2021 Genevieve Gorst Herfurth Award for Outstanding Research in the Social Sciences, UW–Madison
Despite the recent global uptick in white supremacist terrorism, governments continue to face accusations of not taking the threat seriously, either discursively or in terms of policy responses. Why do acts of white supremacist violence consistently fail to constitute turning points for policy change? Rather than considering acts of political violence as critical junctures for change, I argue that such acts instead reveal how persistent institutions of power actually are. I develop a theory of hegemonic components of national identity that links institutionalized white supremacy to the differential treatment of non-white perpetrators, even when they are deemed terrorists, through a process of institutional reproduction. Drawing on interviews with German national security elites, I show that even when white supremacist violence is treated as terrorism, both legally and discursively, it does not engender policy responses and attitudinal changes on par with those following other terrorist threats.
Racism By Designation: Making Sense of Why Western States Rarely Designate White Supremacists as Terrorists (conditionally accepted at Security Studies; with Zoltán Búzás; manuscript available upon request)
Why do states designate some actors engaged in political violence as terrorists but not others? Why have Western states designated so few white supremacist actors as terrorists compared to other actors engaged in political violence? Formal terrorist designation mechanisms have practical implications for national security and foreign policy as well as normative implications for what actors are illegitimate in the eyes of the state, yet they have received little attention in political science. We draw on the norms literature and critical work on racism and terrorism to argue that designation patterns reflect and reinforce broader practices of racializing the “terrorist” category. While Arabs/Muslims are stereotypically seen as terrorists, whites benefit from the presumption of not being terrorists. The result is a racial double standard at the core of the norm against terrorism, such that white supremacists are disproportionately less likely to be designated as terrorists than other groups. Using detailed case studies of designation in the United States and United Kingdom, we illustrate the value of this argument. Additionally, we suggest that although recent designations of white supremacist groups have the potential to transform our normative understandings of terrorism and reduce its discriminatory application to designations, these moves function more as window-dressing. Our argument illustrates the deep entrenchment of racism in Western states’ counterterrorism practices and calls for further study of racialized norms surrounding “terrorism” in mainstream international relations.
Diversity in Proxy War Studies: Politics, Positionality, and Colonial Persistence. In The Routledge Handbook of Proxy Wars (2023), edited by Assaf Moghadam, Vladimir Rauta, and Michel Wyss. Forthcoming. (with Layla E. Picard)
Historically, research on proxy wars has instrumentalized local actors, reproducing Western-centric lenses found throughout international relations scholarship and thereby limiting understanding of the dynamics and consequences of conflict. As a corrective, we propose three axes of diversity—political/factional alignment, degree of local knowledge concerning the site of conflict, and positionality relative to hegemonic discourses of knowledge and politics—to guide scholars in critiquing and challenging dominant approaches in the field of proxy war studies. Through case studies of the “Secret War” in Laos and the Yemeni civil war, we show how our approach allows for consideration of imperial and racial dynamics that may be reproduced within a proxy war framing, as well as the complex interests and costs experienced by local actors during and after war.
Critical Reflexivity and Research on State Responses to the Far Right. Chapter submitted for inclusion in The Ethics of Researching the Far Right, edited by Joan Braune, Aurelien Mondon, Meghan Tinsley, and Antonia Vaughan. (draft available upon request)
Terror is What (the United) States Make(s) of It: A Social-Constructivist Perspective on the Concept of Terrorism (with Amélie Godefroidt)
What counts as “terrorist” violence? While scholars largely agree that terrorism entails the actual or threatened use of violence aimed at generating a psychological impact in order to pursue a political motive, uneven application of the term means that what precisely constitutes “violence,” a “psychological impact,” or a “political motive” is not yet clear. Building on hegemonic theory, we first argue that these commonly agreed-upon definitional criteria are still valuable but should be used differently. Particularly post-9/11, terrorism has come to mean violence perceived as challenging the established power structures in a given society, which is terrifying as it threatens the ontological security of a state and its (majority) citizens. Second, we demonstrate the prominence of the United States’ discourses and policies on understandings of what counts as “terrorism” today, and call for further study of the differential and intersubjective understandings of “terrorism” in different cultures and contexts.
“Germany’s White Supremacist Problem–And What It Means For the United States.” Lawfare, January 30, 2022.
“What Does a ‘Terrorist’ Designation Mean?” Lawfare, July 19, 2020.
“The U.S. labeled a white supremacist group as ‘terrorists’ for the first time. It’s less significant than you think.” The Monkey Cage, April 30, 2020.
“Identity, Law, and How Political Elites Define Terrorism.” Political Violence at a Glance, October 18, 2019.
“Why do Facebook and Twitter’s anti-extremist guidelines allow right-wingers more freedom than Islamists?” The Monkey Cage, August 1, 2019.
“Anna Meier and Aaron Winter on the Shawcross Report.” Enemies of the People, May 31, 2022.
“Is Official Terrorist Content Illegal Online? Terrorist Designation and the Online Realm.” Tech Against Terrorism Podcast, April 13, 2022.
“Anna Meier on White Supremacy and the Idea of Terror.” Enemies of the People, February 1, 2022.
“From Oklahoma City to Jan. 6: How the US government failed to stop the rise of domestic extremism.” USA Today, December 30, 2021.
“Anna Meier on Terrorist Designation and Tofu.” Say More on That, January 6, 2021.
“Holiday Baking and Understanding Terrorism Policies with Anna Meier.” Proofing and Lies, December 28, 2020.
“Facebook Can’t Decide What Terrorism Looks Like.” OneZero, November 27, 2019.
“Terrorism expert: Cudahy woman’s arrest highlights growing ISIS presence on social media.” WTMJ-TV Milwaukee, June 14, 2018.