The Origins of American Counterterrorism
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Counterterrorism, National Security, Security Studies, Terrorism
Social and Behavioral Sciences
After the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, it was common to see security scholars and practitioners reference the necessity of new counterterrorist policies to address a historically unprecedented threat. These approaches to counterterrorism implicitly communicated two arguments. First, that change in counterterrorism policy was a functional requirement of a changing threat environment, and, second, that terrorism and counterterrorism after September 11th, 2001 were historically incomparable and foundationless.
This dissertation addresses these claims by identifying the origins of American counterterrorism, and by assessing the extent to which those origins impacted later understandings of threats and approaches to security. These research objectives are approached through a discursive institutionalist framework based in constructivism, using historiography and discourse analysis. While histories of American terrorism usually begin with the plane hijackings of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the late 1960s, this research finds the American response to the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Irish-American Fenians, and transnational and domestic anarchists in the late 1800s and early 1900s to be the first examples of counterterrorism. Consequently, starting with the violence of these groups, this project examines the way that officials interpreted and responded to this violence in order to determine to what extent security responses are historically constructed, rather than functional reactions to present circumstances.
In examining these historical events, I found that the threat of terrorism has developed according to a pattern of threat association, that assessments of terrorism have often produced inflated perceptions of threat, that the security response has most often emphasized the use of immigration policy to facilitate a strategy of exclusion, and that these developments are often not concluded in stark moments of “desecuritization,” but instead constitute reoccurring patterns. These findings are particularly applicable to the response to the anarchists, whose violence was associated with their leftist ideology and immigrant identity, which led a security response targeting these wider populations using exclusionary methods, such as immigration restrictions and deportations.
However, responses to the KKK and Fenians differed. Rather than inflated perceptions of threat and exclusionary security strategies, the KKK and Fenians did not elicit threat inflation and were responded to with a mixture of law enforcement, amnesty, apathy and diplomatic measures. I find that threat inflation and exclusion occurred in response to the two groups, the anarchists and al Qaeda, who were associated with both foreignness and deviance, while the two groups who were perceived as primarily domestic and normalized, the KKK and Fenians, were shown restraint.
From these historical origins, I argue that the discourses of threat that agents deployed in the process of making sense of anarchist violence evolved into the discourses surrounding communist subversion in the Cold War era and international terrorism in the 1980s through 2000s. Rather than tied to the present, threats undergo a life cycle of change, which can lead to the internalization of the ideas and institutions crafted in response to earlier violence. This was not a seamless transition from one threat to the other, but there are identifiable instances in which political officials drew on discourses of the anarchist threat in order to describe the threat of subversives, and then drew on these discourses again when delineating the threat of international terrorism and crafting policies to secure themselves against it. The discursive and institutional frameworks built in response to the anarchists affected later instances of threat development.
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Newell, Michael E., "The Origins of American Counterterrorism" (2017). Dissertations - ALL. 766.