Clarifying Terrorism and Why it Matters

 

For years I have been annoyed at arguments about whether or not horrific acts can be called terrorism. I have also heard that terrorism is hard to define. I decided to learn whether calling an act “terrorism” really matters and, if it does, why. I now know why it’s important to know how terrorism is defined and the ways that occurs.

My first step was finding a definition that I thought would be widely accepted (although there is no international definition of terrorism). The FBI has defined terrorism in this way:

International terrorism: Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).

–for example, the December 2, 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, CA, that killed 14 people and wounded 22 which involved a married couple who radicalized for some time prior to the attack and were inspired by multiple extremist ideologies and foreign terrorist organizations.

Domestic terrorism: Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.

–for example, the June 8, 2014 Las Vegas shooting, during which two police officers inside a restaurant were killed in an ambush-style attack, which was committed by a married couple who held anti-government views and who intended to use the shooting to start a revolution.

Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs): The FBI, however, can’t focus solely on the terrorist threat emanating from overseas—we also must identify those sympathizers who have radicalized and become HVEs within the U.S. and aspire to attack our nation from within. HVEs are defined by the Bureau as global-jihad-inspired individuals who are based in the U.S., have been radicalized primarily in the U.S., and are not directly collaborating with a foreign terrorist organization. Currently, the FBI is investigating suspected HVEs in every state.

I also found another definition that I believe further clarified the FBI’s definition:

The Irish political scientist Louise Richardson, who now serves as the vice-chancellor at Oxford, has set out seven key characteristics of a terrorist act: it is politically inspired; it involves violence or the threat of violence; it aims to send a message rather than defeat an enemy; the act and the victim have symbolic significance; the act is carried out by “substate groups” rather than state actors; the victims of the violence are distinct from the audience for which the terrorist’s message is intended; and the act deliberately targets civilians.

I believe this information complements the FBI’s explanation.

Yet these definitions don’t seem to offer enough clarity for the media or our citizens, as we rush to attach the terrorist label.

Why are we in such a hurry to identify people as terrorists? We demand that the government immediately confirm that perpetrators are terrorists, especially if someone is suspected of saying an Arabic statement, such as “Allahu Akhbar” (G-d is great.) Confirming this information is not always easy, so why do we make these sometimes unrealistic demands? I think in the face of uncertainty in these times, we try to reassure ourselves that one more terrorist has been found and arrested (or has killed himself). Terrorists are frightening, and if we are free of one of them, we somehow irrationally feel safer. If a person is a terrorist, we can also explain why he or she took this action; the purpose may seem crazy to us, but now we know what it is. There is something reassuring about that knowledge.

Why are terrorists so difficult to identify? The fact is that their beliefs and affiliations must be verified and corroborated, which is not always easy to do. When those facts are not readily available, relationships, networks, and activities must also be checked out.

In one account a man in a rented pickup truck mowed down people on a busy bicycle path near the World Trade Center. Eight people were killed, and the attack was almost immediately called an act of terror. The attacker, Sayfullo Habibulaevic Saipov, said he was inspired by ISIS.

Yet Devin Kelley shooting at the First Baptist Church in Texas, killing 26 people, didn’t speak of political or social objectives, so the FBI was reluctant to call it a terrorist act.

The same applies to the Las Vegas shooting by Stephen Paddock where 58 people were killed. To this day, the FBI does not know why he took this action. As horrific as it was, it doesn’t meet the definition of terrorism.

So why does an accurate definition matter?

Application of resources—if an act is terrorism, the FBI identifies specific resources in terms of personnel, strategies, and funding to investigate the action. These strategies would not necessarily apply to other acts of violence.

Fomenting fear is a goal—terrorists don’t necessarily want to frighten those they attack, but rather a larger audience, such as all U.S. citizens. So rather than just killing an individual or small group of people, their aim is to frighten all of us.

Prevention of, or difficulty in implementing, future attacks—if it becomes clear that the attack was terrorism, it is put into a database that identifies the organizations, the people involved, the types of locations attacked, and makes it more difficult for terrorist organizations to duplicate those kinds of attacks.

Will the FBI still have difficulty accurately identifying a terrorist attack? At times, yes. We have to decide whether we trust that they will be effective (since they have already prevented numerous terrorist attacks in this country) in categorizing these acts.

So how can we be a more empowered citizenry against terrorism? As the government has stated, report anything or any person that appears suspicious. As much as we might dislike making these reports, we are often the ones on the front line of these attacks. We need to be patient as the FBI works to identify terrorist attacks; although there are people who want to accuse those who speak up as Islamaphobic, we need to trust ourselves and our judgment and take action. We also need to accept that the face and tactics of terrorism are constantly changing, and we need to be flexible and vigilant in identifying these dangerous factors.

We also need to recognize that a shocking act might stimulate terror within us but is not necessarily a terrorist act.

Published in Domestic Policy
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  1. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Susan Quinn: Fomenting fear is a goal—terrorists don’t necessarily want to frighten those they attack, but rather a larger audience, such as all U.S. citizens. So rather than just killing an individual or small group of people, their aim is to frighten all of us.

    This is what I always thought was the difference between terrorism (hence the name) and mass murder, or mayhem or whatever.

    Terrorism is a political act, intending to use a little action for a large effect.  Even if nobody dies, such as setting off smoke bombs in a public place or something like that.  They’re still instilling terror in a mass audience.

    And every one of these individual actors, who shout Islamic nonsense or credit Isis, IS a terrorist.  They have been inspired to do exactly what they did by a common political movement.

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):
    This is what I always thought was the difference between terrorism (hence the name) and mass murder, or mayhem or whatever.

    You’re right on all counts, @thescarecrow. On one hand, ugliness is ugliness. But sometimes distinctions matter. Thanks.

    • #2
  3. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Susan Quinn: Will the FBI still have difficulty accurately identifying a terrorist attack?

    It’s more important that the FBI learn how to identify a terrorist. We’re now learning, during the trial of Pulse Nightclub shooter Omar Mateen’s wife, that his father was an FBI “asset” and the Bureau may have ignored all the signs he was about to kill 49 people because they had daddy in their pocket.

    Or did they? From the Orlando Sentinal:

    According to a motion filed by the defense, prosecutors sent an email on Saturday that stated Seddique Mateen was a confidential FBI source from 2005 through June 2016.

    The email also stated that Seddique Mateen is being investigated for money transfers to Turkey and Pakistan after documents were found in his home on the day of the Pulse attack.

    Salman’s attorneys claim the late disclosure of the information prevented them from exploring whether or not Seddique Mateen knew of his son’s plans to attack the nightclub on June 12, 2016.

    “Mateen’s father played a significant role in the FBI’s decision not to seek an indictment from the Justice Department for false statements to the FBI or obstruction of justice against Omar Mateen” during its 2013 investigation into his alleged threats,” the motion stated.

    The more you find out about the FBI…

    • #3
  4. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Yet there are real dangers of overclassification.  Take this very sound point:

    Prevention of, or difficulty in implementing, future attacks—if it becomes clear that the attack was terrorism, it is put into a database that identifies the organizations, the people involved, the types of locations attacked, and makes it more difficult for terrorist organizations to duplicate those kinds of attacks.

    Does it matter whether we can classify Stephen Paddock as a terrorist based on knowledge of his mental state?  He planned his attack with malevolent genius and carried it off with lethal cunning.  There are lessons here that the FBI better learn regardless of whether Paddock was a terrorist or a mass murderer, right?

    You can be sure that terrorists are going to school on Paddock’s attack whether or not they regard him as a terrorist.

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    EJHill (View Comment):
    We have to decide whether we trust that they will be effective (since they have already prevented numerous terrorist attacks in this country) in categorizing these acts.

    We will probably continue to learn more, @ejhill. Given all the stuff that’s come out of the FBI, and even though people are pointing only to the top guys and defending those on the line, we should be concerned. Please note I had this comment in the OP:

    We have to decide whether we trust that they will be effective (since they have already prevented numerous terrorist attacks in this country) in categorizing these acts.

    History does not necessarily guarantee success.

     

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Quake Voter (View Comment):
    You can be sure that terrorists are going to school on Paddock’s attack whether or not they regard him as a terrorist.

    Very good point, @quakevoter. Of course, how they apply resources may not be as cut and dried as we think. Let’s hope.

    • #6
  7. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    My definition: Terrorism is an act of violence meant to instill fear in the general population.

    • #7
  8. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Stad (View Comment):

    My definition: Terrorism is an act of violence meant to instill fear in the general population.

    More broadly: to elicit a response from a group or groups in society and particularly from the State. 

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Zafar (View Comment):
    More broadly: to elicit a response from a group or groups in society and particularly from the State. 

    You’re saying that the terrorists which to elicit a response, @zafar? What kind of response do you think they are hoping for?

    • #9
  10. Ontheleftcoast Inactive
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    More broadly: to elicit a response from a group or groups in society and particularly from the State.

    You’re saying that the terrorists which to elicit a response, @zafar? What kind of response do you think they are hoping for?

    • #10
  11. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    @ontheleftcoast, who are you suggesting is trying to elicit a response from whom? I like the clip but I’m confused.

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    More broadly: to elicit a response from a group or groups in society and particularly from the State.

    You’re saying that the terrorists which to elicit a response, @zafar? What kind of response do you think they are hoping for?

    I’m not zafar, but I would think it would vary with the situation. Sometimes an overreaction can be exploited. 

    • #12
  13. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    More broadly: to elicit a response from a group or groups in society and particularly from the State.

    You’re saying that the terrorists which to elicit a response, @zafar? What kind of response do you think they are hoping for?

    I’m not zafar, but I would think it would vary with the situation. Sometimes an overreaction can be exploited.

    Like bomb the daylights out of a training camp . . .?

    • #13
  14. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    More broadly: to elicit a response from a group or groups in society and particularly from the State.

    You’re saying that the terrorists which to elicit a response, @zafar? What kind of response do you think they are hoping for?

    I’m not zafar, but I would think it would vary with the situation. Sometimes an overreaction can be exploited.

    Like bomb the daylights out of a training camp . . .?

    Would depend on the training camp and if there is an opportunity to have innocents killed to serve the cause.

    • #14
  15. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    More broadly: to elicit a response from a group or groups in society and particularly from the State.

    You’re saying that the terrorists which to elicit a response, @zafar? What kind of response do you think they are hoping for?

    One that furthers their aims.  

    For example:

    Terrorists lack a State and State organs.   At least to start with this may be because they lack support from a population which may be less extreme, more open to compromise – certainly less ideological.  

    How do they get the population (or target group within society) to support them and turn against the State?  Persuasion hasn’t worked.  

    One way to achieve that is to commit acts which tempt (and in some circumstances force, due to politics) the State to act harshly against the population or target group.

    Do that often enough and people start to agree that the State is the problem and that maybe the terrorists have a good point.  

    That’s also why collective punishment is not just illegal but counterproductive. 

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Zafar (View Comment):

    One way to achieve that is to commit acts which tempt (and in some circumstances force, due to politics) the State to act harshly against the population or target group.

    Do that often enough and people start to agree that the State is the problem and that maybe the terrorists have a good point.

    Fascinating thought, @zafar. I admit these are different times, but can you think of anywhere this has happened? Not saying it hasn’t, just wanting to know.

    • #16
  17. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    One way to achieve that is to commit acts which tempt (and in some circumstances force, due to politics) the State to act harshly against the population or target group.

    Do that often enough and people start to agree that the State is the problem and that maybe the terrorists have a good point.

    Fascinating thought, @zafar. I admit these are different times, but can you think of anywhere this has happened? Not saying it hasn’t, just wanting to know.

    Off the top of my head I would say Ireland, Kashmir, Punjab during the Sikh insurgency.  

    Here’s a reassuringly nerdy paper on the subject – talks about when and why terrorist groups choose provocation  (and when and why they don’t).   

     

    • #17
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    One way to achieve that is to commit acts which tempt (and in some circumstances force, due to politics) the State to act harshly against the population or target group.

    Do that often enough and people start to agree that the State is the problem and that maybe the terrorists have a good point.

    Fascinating thought, @zafar. I admit these are different times, but can you think of anywhere this has happened? Not saying it hasn’t, just wanting to know.

    Off the top of my head I would say Ireland, Kashmir, Punjab during the Sikh insurgency.

    Here’s a reassuringly nerdy paper on the subject – talks about when and why terrorist groups choose provocation (and when and why they don’t).

     

    Fascinating, Zafar. From that paper:

    Three main factors influence the effectiveness of a strategy of provocation for groups. First, provocation requires a forceful response from the government. Second, the appeal of provocation for the group hinges critically on its ability to absorb the costs of a forceful government response. Third, provocation does not work unless the government’s response results in collateral damage among non-group members of the population that hurt the government and help the group. I develop the simplest possible theoretical model that allows analysis of the circumstances under which a group’s optimal strategy is to use either terrorist or guerilla tactics, or both, to provoke forceful response from a completely informed government.5

    • #18
  19. Ontheleftcoast Inactive
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

     

    Zafar (View Comment):
    Off the top of my head I would say Ireland, Kashmir, Punjab during the Sikh insurge

    Not to mention various intifadas…

    It is a tactic which can function at all levels. During John Masters’ service on the Afghan frontier in the 1930s, aerial bombing entered the field in the Indian Army’s attempts to control the depredations of Afghan tribesmen on more settled peoples living in more hospitable location. Things such as the kidnapping of a young Hindu girl, and forcibly converting her to Islam and marrying her (this was often the act of young men whose ability to find a wife was hamstrung by the fact that wealthy and important men could afford multiple wives.)

    Masters noted that when complaints got loud enough from the raided communities, at some point punitive bombing would be ordered. The tribesmen would stage an abandoned hill fort to look from the air as though it was a hotbed of activity, tie up a superfluous old woman in the fort, and wait for British bombs. The woman’s dead body would then be produced in support of a demand for reparations.

    • #19
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