Home Homeland Security Losing Sight of Terrorism in the US

Losing Sight of Terrorism in the US


Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

Which of the following best describes a general definition of terrorism?

a) Terrorism is when there is a bombing.
b) Terrorism is mass killing.
c) Terrorism is a war between the US and al Qaeda.
d) Terrorism is an international ideology of extremist Islam.
e) Terrorism is a method of credible, violent, threat and intimidation [of the general population] used to coerce governments for political change.

*See answer at the bottom of the article.

If you had trouble determining which answer of the option above was correct, then you make up a majority of the American people. Terrorism is also contended amongst counterterrorism experts think tanks and agencies. Still 12 years later and the definition is both mutable and amorphous.

Never has America used the word “terrorism” so much and never has it been more falsely applied. This is frightfully become agile enough to mean all the above and more. Worst of all “terrorism” has become a political buzzword associated with suicide, mass killing and remote detonations. American leaders are even starting to label domestic shootings “terrorists” events.


NCTC [Title 22, USC Section 2656f(d)] terrorism is:

“premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

Public Law 107-52, Section 802, entitled the “DEFINITION OF DOMESTIC TERRORISM:”

“…mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping…(5)(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping…”

FBI definition of terrorism:

“Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

DoD (JP 3-07.2):

“The unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies. Terrorism is often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs and committed in the pursuit of goals that are usually political.”

DHS (Title 6, USC 101, Chapter 1 Homeland Security Organization):

“involves an act that—(i) is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources; and (ii) is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State or other subdivision of the United States; and (B) appears to be intended— (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

The discrepancy and confusion lies mainly with the fact that counterterrorism can pursue in prosecution and or operation anything relating to a threshold of violence, damage, or non-combatant attacks.

Law enforcement agencies once viewed terrorism as more public safety than national security issue. It is now the case that mass destruction which is based on hatred without objective might be terrorism.

Rioters used to be at risk of falling prey to labels of insurrectionists and later anarchists, for example. Last year, in Chicago, three anti-NATO dissidents were charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism for planning to make Molotov cocktails and pipe bomb and allegedly targeting political offices. They might more accurately have been criminally charged with vandalism and or maybe attempted assault or murder.

The problem is further compounded by the targeting of political enemies to the right or left of any president that comes into office. Under President George H.W. Bush, the FBI had left-wing terrorists at the top of their list for domestic terrorists (e.g. ecoterrorists). Under President Barak Hussein Obama, right-wingers have been placed in priority of all terrorists by the DHS, the FBI and other agencies (e.g. returning war veterans). A lack of a solid definition is not only a problem for security professionals but a continuance of on-going misuse and political abuse in priority targeting.

Meanwhile public safety threats continue to change. Nationwide shooting sprees, school massacres, and even bombings take place without fitting the proper definition but coming into the cross-hairs of the legal official definitions. Such high public threats have effectively replaced international terrorism as a prime focus. The definition of terrorism becomes increasingly blurred with other high-threat crimes and security priorities as prosecutors seek the maximum penalties within their legal limit and security professionals stretch the resources originally devoted and entrusted to counterterrorism.

Terrorism must first and foremost be considered a method of violently coercing the government. When such similar attacks of hatred target the people or society, it could be due to hatred and reduced to mass violence and distruction. If demands on society, a new term could be used, or we might call it social terror, instead of the overbroad form of domestic terrorism.

Second, there must be a political ideology and objective. Let us say, for example, that a militant group attacks a government in rebellion. Does that action then constitute terrorism since they threaten the government’s survival? No, but under current law, maybe, depending on the department or agency involved. This should be considered insurrection and not terrorism and dealt with accordingly.

The issue becomes one of purpose and objective. Where methods of terrorism could be employed by any group at any time, there must be a politically motivated reason associative with unmet ideological demands for reform. Terrorism works with propaganda, intimidation and violence on soft-targets like civilians or non-combatants. In the end, terrorists must threaten the government directly, even if using indirect means. It is for this reason that a military coup, assassination, a revolution, rioting, mass murder are not terrorism in and of themselves but other forms of aggression.

All of above could all be terrorism when threats are made to be the focus of the operation. However, when there is no objective of intimidation and fear, there can be no accurate or just labeling as terrorism. And this is the problem with the law and growing consensus.

A threat must also be credible or else it might be more akin to a prank or an angry expression of speech. There may also be other explanations for the acts of mass violence not related to terrorism, including: revolution, revenge, hatred, insanity, kidnapping for money, extortion or independence movements.

Modern terrorism went rapidly from kidnapping and airline hijackings to suicide bombings and mass murder. All of them however have demanded political change and violence if their demands were not met.

In the labeling of terrorism there must be an “all things considered” approach and a full checklist. Terrorism may in the end remain arbitrary but with a checklist of the fundamentals it is less so. Lastly, the US will be better posed to identify it universally and distinguish its signature from new violent developments or trends that arise.

*Answer all the above could be true but “e” is the most accurate definition of terrorism among the choices.



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