Saturday, March 13, 2010

Terrorism: Defining a Tactic

Via STRATFOR (Global Security & Intel Report) -

The March 4 shooting came right on the heels of another attack against the U.S. government, this one in Austin, Texas, where software engineer and pilot Joseph Stack crashed his single-engine Piper Cherokee into a building Feb. 18 that housed offices of the Internal Revenue Service. In another previous attack, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, opened fire at a troop processing facility at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people. While many government officials are denying that these incidents were terrorist acts, we at STRATFOR disagree. Arguments used to not classify these attacks as terrorism include the failure to generate large numbers of casualties, a lack of foreign ties and the absence of a larger conspiracy. This dismissal of terrorism as a factor in these attacks ultimately has a long-term impact on past and future investigations, and it also seems to ignore the legal definition, as set out in Title VIII, Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act:

[An] act of terrorism means any activity that (A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; 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 assassination or kidnapping.

It is important to note that this definition does not include the magnitude of the violence involved in the attack — it does not have to be a catastrophic event.


Looking back over the last 100 years or so of terrorist attacks in the United States, there are many examples of small, non-catastrophic events. Often these events are no more violent or consequential than a common criminal incident — what sets them apart are the political motivations of their perpetrators. Indeed, catastrophic attacks are the exception to the rule, though the memory of these spectacular incidents is burned indelibly into the public mind.


Terrorist attacks also do not need to have foreign links. Again, the dominant trend over the past decade has been that such attacks are linked to radical Islamist groups based in the Middle East and South Asia. But terrorism does not belong to any set ideology or group. It is a tactic, one that can be used by anyone to pursue any political goal. In fact, looking back over the history of terrorism in the United States, most attacks have been generated and carried out by domestic groups. Militant entities like the Order of the Covenant (a white supremacist group), the Black Liberation Army, the Earth Liberation Front, anarchist groups and anti-abortion groups have more often than not been the perpetrators behind terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.


Finally, in order to be considered terrorism, an attack does not have to be part of a larger conspiracy — it can be carried out by a single individual.


According to the definition of terrorism laid out in the USA PATRIOT Act, the cases of Hasan and Stack clearly fit the label of terrorism and Bedell’s is certainly looking that way. But not examining the possibility of terrorism in the first place risks overlooking important pieces of information that could prove useful in preventing the next attack, or fully understanding the last one.

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