x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Four years in the crosshairs

Barack Obama's supporters and security officials fear that assassins will target the country's first black commander-in-chief.

Barack Obama, the US president-elect, and his daughter, Sasha, are seen through bulletproof glass at his election night rally in Chicago.
Barack Obama, the US president-elect, and his daughter, Sasha, are seen through bulletproof glass at his election night rally in Chicago.

WASHINGTON // While Barack Obama's soaring victory speech in Chicago last week heralded a new era in US politics, the five-centimetre-thick shield of bulletproof glass on stage signalled another new reality: Mr Obama may face more death threats than any president in history. The three-metre-tall slabs of glass made their first appearance alongside Mr Obama, but underscored a long-standing fear, held by Mr Obama's supporters and security officials, that assassins will target the country's first black commander-in-chief. The Secret Service, the federal agency responsible for protecting candidates and presidents, has been guarding Mr Obama since May 2007, the earliest they have ever started for a presidential contender.

Just last month, two white supremacists were arrested and charged with plotting to kill the 47-year old Illinois senator, a plan that is said to be one of hundreds hatched since Mr Obama declared his candidacy almost two years ago. The exact of number of threats is not clear and neither are the kinds of security enhancements officials have in mind for Mr Obama. The Secret Service does not discuss the specifics of its operations.

Ed Donovan, the agency's spokesman, said only that the duty of protecting Mr Obama would require "expansive operational planning". But Fred Burton, vice president of counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor, an international intelligence and analysis company based in Austin, Texas, said the Secret Service is entering uncharted territory. "The challenges are unique" with Mr Obama, said Mr Burton, a former special agent in the state department's bureau of diplomatic security. "There will be some security and specifically protective intelligence challenges that we haven't seen before."

Mr Burton said that, so far, George W Bush has probably earned the dubious distinction of being the most targeted president in history. Mr Bush, who has overseen two wars and employed an aggressive foreign policy that includes killings of terrorist leaders, has earned himself plenty of enemies, Mr Burton said. But while Mr Bush faces the threat of a well-planned attack by groups like al Qa'eda - which most recently claimed responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister - Mr Obama's biggest threat may come from a different, more elusive kind of assassin: a lone gunman.

A "lone wolf", as Mr Burton puts it, is less likely to discuss his plots with others and more likely to act impulsively, making his plot harder to foil, Mr Burton said. Four sitting US presidents and one major-party presidential candidate have been assassinated, all by gunfire. In each case, a lone gunman pulled the trigger. John F Kennedy was famously felled by a sniper's bullet as he rode in an open car in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. The prevailing theory is that one man, Lee Harvey Oswald, carried out the assassination, though conspiracy theories abound. Mr Kennedy's brother, Robert, a leading candidate in the 1968 Democratic presidential primary, was shot in the ballroom of a Los Angeles hotel by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a man of Jordanian descent. William McKinley, the 25th US president, died of gangrene eight days after he was shot in the abdomen by Leon Czolgosz in 1901. Mr McKinley was greeting the public at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when the shots rang out. James Garfield, the 20th president, died 80 days after he was shot in the back by Charles J Guiteau after only six months in office. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, was killed in a Washington, DC, theatre when John Wilkes Booth, a famous contemporary actor, shot him in the back of the head. There have also been more than a dozen unsuccessful assassination attempts in recent presidencies. In 1981, John Hinckley Jr fired six shots at Ronald Reagan outside of a Washington, DC, hotel. A ricocheted bullet hit Mr Reagan in the chest, nearly killing him. In 1994, Francisco Martin Duran opened fire on Bill Clinton's White House with a semi-automatic rifle before a tourist tackled him. No one was hurt. Most recently, in 2005, Vladimir Arutiniani, a Georgian man, threw a live grenade in the direction of Mr Bush's podium as he spoke in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The device failed to detonate. But many worry that Mr Obama's skin colour will make him an even more likely target. In January, Bennie Thompson, a congressman from Mississippi, wrote to top security officials warning that Mr Obama's security "gives rise to unique challenges that merit special concern". "As an African-American who was witness to some of this nation's most shameful days during the civil rights movement, I know personally that the hatred of some of our fellow citizens can lead to heinous acts of violence," Mr Thompson wrote. He was referring to such black leaders as Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights icon, who was killed by a sniper in 1968 as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis. Medgar Evers, another prominent civil rights activist, was shot in the back by a member of the Ku Klux Klan as he walked up the driveway of his Mississippi home. In Mr Obama's case, experts say his security will include ramped-up surveillance and monitoring of white extremist groups, like Aryan Nations, the National Alliance and the Klan. Thomas Robb, the Klan's national director, said recently of an Obama presidency on the group's website, WhitePride.tv, that "there may be a backlash, there may be many white people throughout this country who will become awakened". On Friday, he said in an interview that the Klan and other "legitimate" white nationalist groups do not advocate violence against Mr Obama. "We're not wishing any violence against him at all," he said, calling the recently charged would-be assassins in Tennessee "two morons". "But there are all kinds of weird people in this world." For his part, Mr Obama said he spends little time dwelling on death threats. "It's not something that I'm spending time thinking about day to day," Mr Obama told The New York Times in February. "I think anybody who decides to run for president recognises that there are some risks involved, just like there are risks in anything." "I've got the best protection in the world," Mr Obama told the newspaper. "So stop worrying." sstanek@thenational.ae