ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter
Opinion

The dangerous fault line linking Trump cultists to 9/11

What the global war on terror can teach us about handling paranoid conspiracies

| North America
A mob of Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6: it is a warning to any government that has tried to co-opt hyper-nationalistic, populist movements.   © Reuters

Andrew North is a journalist based in Tbilisi. He has reported widely across the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. He is a regular commentator on Asian affairs.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob is already enshrined in time with its own shorthand -- 1/6 -- drawing an explicit parallel with the impact of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington 20 years ago.

The difference this time is that thousands of American troops have been deployed to the U.S. capital to defend their own government.

I covered the aftermath of 9/11 in the U.S. and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's striking how many harsh reminders there are of that time in the turmoil rupturing America today. The lessons apply far beyond the U.S.

Osama bin Laden gave plenty of warning before sending his Salafist suicide teams to America, first declaring war on the U.S. in 1996. But even when President George W. Bush was warned a month before the Sept. 11 attacks, no additional precautions were taken.

Similarly, it took a decade of missing the clues and patterns for the Japanese authorities to finally recognize the threat posed by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult. That included failing to recognize a mysterious mass poisoning as a chemical weapons assassination attempt -- nearly a year before Aum's infamous 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 13 people and affected thousands more.

It may seem extreme to compare the acts of terror groups to recent events in the U.S. -- though not as extreme as it may have done before Jan. 6. Just as with 9/11, the real warning signs were ignored and America is paying the price for a failure of imagination.

And whether it is the violence perpetrated by white supremacists, or the heavily-armed militia groups taking over state legislatures, surging support for the paranoid QAnon conspiracy online, the vengeful mood has been constantly stoked by President Donald Trump himself, the only person his supporters will listen to. While many used the word "cult" to describe the Make America Great Again, or MAGA, movement that has grown up around him, far fewer thought through where it could lead.

A Make America Great Again campaign cap sits in the debris left behind at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7: the real warning signs were ignored.   © Reuters

Only now, with the media focusing on the perpetrators and the investigative and law enforcement juggernaut of the U.S. government awakened, is it emerging how potent a threat this Trump cult has become. "Hang Pence," the mob shouted. Many of those who smashed down doors and windows, hunting down lawmakers they called traitors, have been revealed as current or former military personnel, police and firefighters. There are growing indications that the invasion was preplanned and now they are being labeled as terrorists.

It is telling that most Republicans have still stayed loyal to Trump -- voting to reject the election results even after the ransacking of the Capitol. And on Wednesday, they ducked another opportunity to split from him by mostly voting against his impeachment. Both votes are testament to the power of the radicalized cult that Trump has fostered -- and how much Republican lawmakers fear its wrath.

That is now a stark warning to any government that has tried to co-opt hyper-nationalistic, populist movements. Democracies are clearly the most vulnerable, with India a case in point. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has been repeatedly criticized for discriminating against the country's Muslims and allowing Islamophobic conspiracies to take root. Deadly communal riots in Delhi in early 2020 could yet be a foretaste of worse trouble to come.

As America grapples with its own domestic extremists, it finds itself employing other measures that echo the global war on terror -- such as restricting content online. But whereas Big Tech companies previously worked to shut off accounts used by Islamic State to incite violence -- Facebook and Twitter did not exist when 9/11 happened -- they are now in the unexpected position of closing down the Commander-in-Chief on the same grounds.

His supporters have cried censorship, and if such restrictions continue and get tighter, such criticism is bound to get louder. Yet for the moment, treating Trump's MAGA movement like an insurgent cult and throttling its ability to organize online may be the only way to stop more violence. To handle the many Trump supporters who are impervious to facts, de-radicalization programs may be required, similar to those that have been employed with Islamic extremists.

With some even calling for civil war on the now-suspended Parler platform, there have also been calls to assassinate a who's who of the Democratic Party, as well as tech bosses Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. An opinion poll released by YouGov on Jan. 7 suggests that up to 45% of Republican voters approve of the assault on the Capitol.

Many of these pro-Trump extremists have now migrated to encrypted communication apps like Telegram, also one of the main channels used by Islamic State, Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia groups.

So instead of being a red line, 1/6 could in fact mark the starting line for more violence. With so many disillusioned Afghan and Iraq veterans now ardent Trump supporters, some are already seeing this as the blowback from America's wars around the world.

Joe Biden clearly wants to focus on his own priorities. But his presidency could yet be defined by how he handles the rise of the Trump cult.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world
.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends January 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more