Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

By Stevie Kiesel, PhD Student

In 2018, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history tore through the state. The Camp Fire killed 85 and caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damage. The towns of Concow and Paradise were nearly completely destroyed. Not even a year later, Australia experienced an uncharacteristically destructive bushfire season that ultimately killed 34 people, burned nearly 50 million acres, and destroyed almost 6,000 buildings. The fires also wrought devastating impacts on the environment, and cleanup costs alone have exceeded $5 billion.

The most extreme terrorist groups aspire to achieve this level of death and destruction. It therefore comes as no surprise that jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State and its affiliates, have touted these fires and others in their propaganda. A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” Voice of Hind, an online magazine published by an Islamic State affiliate in India, has encouraged adherents to use fire as a comparatively simple means of attack to “annihilate the disbelievers.” Jihadist publications and videos have touted the use of fire for years, from the Islamic State publication al-Naba (as well as their now-defunct magazine Rumiyah) to Al Qaeda’s magazine Inspire. In 2019, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for widespread crop fires that caused a great deal of damage in Iraq and Syria.

The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. In a recent example from April 2020, John Michael Rathbun was charged with attempted arson after trying to use gasoline to start a fire at a Jewish assisted living center in Massachusetts. Rathbun was active on white supremacist internet forums—so active, and so lax about what he was posting, that his attack was discovered after he posted his plans on a public calendar on Telegram. Similarly, in 2019 far-right extremist Tristan Morgan accidentally set himself on fire while attempting to burn down the Exeter Synagogue in the United Kingdom. Despite the tactical errors in these cases, the threat of arson terrorism should be taken seriously. Arson has a long history of being used to terrorize black neighborhoods, businesses, and churches in the United States. Even when no lives are lost, the psychological and economic impact of these attacks can be severe.

Environmental and animal rights extremists also have a history of arson attacks. Arson was particularly appealing to their ideology because they wanted to destroy facilities or machinery that they felt were doing harm, but they did not necessarily want to harm humans or animals. For example, the Earth Liberation Front advocated a tactic called “monkeywrenching,” which refers to sabotage and property destruction against industries that they perceive to be damaging the environment. Common monkeywrenching tactics include arson, sabotaging logging and construction equipment, and tree spiking. The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for a number of fires, the most destructive being the 1998 fire at a Colorado ski facility, which reportedly caused $12 million in damage. Other special interest groups that have a history of engaging in arson include the Animal Liberation Front (animal rights) and the Coalition to Save the Preserves (environmental protection). Anti-abortion extremists have also conducted arson attacks, though organizationally they would be considered lone wolf attacks rather than attacks affiliated with a specific group.

While these cases demonstrate clear interest and intent to weaponize fire by a wide range of terrorist groups, a more systematic look at arson as a terrorist tactic is possible by using the Global Terrorism Database developed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. This database, whose information is publicly available from 1970 through 2018, captures arson as a unique weapon type. The four charts below show some interesting trends about arson use throughout history.

Charts compiled by author using data from the START Global Terrorism Database.

*Note that for Chart 4 (Top 15 Groups Using Arson, 1970-2018), the top result was an unknown group (n=1,792) followed by the groups listed in the chart.

Arson is an attractive tactic for many types of terrorist groups. Fire can be incredibly destructive in terms of lives lost, property and economic damages, and psychological impact. Arson is a low-cost and low-skill tactic, and elements of nature (such as high winds) can be used as a force multiplier. Additionally, arson can function as just one element of a complex attack, with a potential for “ambushes (luring), intentional depletion of resources (diversion), and follow-on or secondary attacks.” Large fires are also incredibly appealing to terrorist groups with apocalyptic or accelerationist ideologies, such as jihadist and extreme right-wing groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a significant impact on terrorism. Because of ongoing public safety measures and many people’s discomfort with crowded areas at the moment, typical soft targets for terrorist attacks are not as plentiful as before the pandemic. Arson may become a more attractive method to terrorists during this time because fires can drive people out of their homes and, much like a virus, once started, fire can spread far and leave devastation in its path. Another worrying development that has accelerated during the pandemic is the rise and increased reach of conspiracy theories. These theories can be incredibly radicalizing, particularly when people are spending more time at home and online while suffering anxiety over the pandemic and the economy. One example of a conspiracy theory whose adherents have committed arson attacks: the theory that 5G cellphone towers are somehow responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. This theory has led to more than 70 arson attacks on cell phone towers, which can put people’s lives at risk if the towers are damaged and access to emergency services is disrupted. Such attacks on critical infrastructure have not gone unnoticed, particularly on white supremacist messaging boards. As COVID-19 forces terrorists to adapt, the potential for arson attacks should not be ignored.

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