clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What people mean when they label an attack “terrorism”

Feng Yu/Shutterstock

Authorities are treating the two bombings in New York and New Jersey on Saturday as acts of terrorism. The first bombing, which injured no one, occurred near the starting line of a Marine Corps charity race in New Jersey; the second took place in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood and injured 29 people.

The main suspect in both bombings is Ahmad Khan Rahami, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Afghan descent. Rahami is currently in surgery following a shootout with police on Monday.

Speaking at a news conference Monday afternoon to discuss the bombings, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters, "We have every reason to believe this was an act of terror."

A separate stabbing attack that injured nine people at a shopping mall in Minnesota is also being treated as an act of terrorism. Authorities have so far not established any connection between that attack and the bombings in New York and New Jersey.

In a statement, President Obama explained that "The FBI is investigating the Minnesota incident as a potential act of terrorism" and assured Americans that he "will direct the full resources from the federal government to make sure that the investigation goes forward aggressively."

But the debate over which acts should be labeled "terrorism" is contentious. When attacks like the Orlando shooting, the San Bernardino attack, and the November 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado happen, people immediately start arguing over whether it's appropriate to label the incident as terrorism.

It is often said that there is "no definition of terrorism." But that's not quite accurate. What people mean is that there is no one standard definition of terrorism that everyone agrees on.

It's not that we don't have a definition; it's that we have too many.

So it's useful to think about terrorism as three different things: a tactic, a legal term, and a political label.

How analysts think: terrorism as a tactic

Terrorism scholars and analysts primarily view terrorism as one tactic among many. They see so-called terrorist organizations as groups that are first and foremost about accomplishing their goals, whether those goals are establishing a caliphate and bringing about the apocalypse (like ISIS), gaining political and territorial independence for the group they claim to represent (like the Basque separatists in Spain), or persuading governments and corporations to act more responsibly toward animals or the environment (like the Earth Liberation Front).

Thinking of terrorism as a tactic helps us think more critically about these groups and how to deal with them. Because although we often talk about "terrorist groups," the reality is that most of these organizations use a variety of tactics throughout their life span depending on their goals and capabilities.

For instance, calling ISIS a "terrorist" group ignores the fact that in Iraq and Syria, ISIS also uses more conventional military tactics — massing forces, launching complex operations, and taking and holding territory. It also functions as a government, providing law and order, repairing roads, keeping the electricity on, and selecting textbooks for schools.

Treating ISIS as merely a "terrorist" organization fails to understand the way it operates, what its goals are, and how it maintains support and financing — all things that are critical to figuring out how it can be defeated.

Analysts also try to define terrorism along very specific lines in order to separate it from other kinds of violence, such as legitimate acts of war. This can be confusing to non-experts (and sometimes experts, too).

For example, many scholarly definitions of terrorism do not consider attacks against military targets in a combat zone to be terrorism — only attacks against civilians (or "noncombatants").

But what exactly is a "combat zone" when we're talking about the "war on terror?" For groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, the whole world is a combat zone. And who exactly is a "noncombatant"? If ISIS detonates a car bomb that kills US military advisers on the ground in Iraq, is that terrorism or an act of war?

Similarly, many scholarly definitions of terrorism require that the attack have an explicit political motive. That means that although the Orlando shooter pledged his allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call he made during the attack, if it turned out he'd attacked the gay nightclub because of a personal struggle with homosexuality, as some reports at the time suggested, some scholars probably would not have considered it to be an act of "terrorism."

These distinctions explain why you might hear an analyst on the news say a particular attack was "not terrorism" even though it seems to you and many others that it is. The analyst is not necessarily saying the attack was justified or that it wasn't horrific, just that it doesn't classify as "terrorism" as she happens to define it.

How law enforcement thinks: terrorism as a legal term

The FBI, which is usually in charge of investigating major attacks such as the ones in New York and New Jersey on Saturday, is a law enforcement organization and is part of the US Department of Justice. The FBI's primary job is to investigate crimes with the goal of bringing the perpetrators to justice — in other words, to prosecute criminals in a court of law.

This means the FBI's understanding of what constitutes "terrorism" has much less to do with how it views the circumstances of an attack and much more to do with whether or not the facts of the case meet the very specific legal criteria used to prosecute someone on terrorism charges.

According to federal law, as codified in the US legal code, "international terrorism" means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • "Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law"
  • "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"
  • "Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum"

"Domestic terrorism" means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • "Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law"
  • "Appear 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"
  • "Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the US"

And 18 USC § 2332b defines the term "federal crime of terrorism" as an offense that:

  • "Is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct"
  • "Is a violation of one of several listed statutes, including § 930(c) (relating to killing or attempted killing during an attack on a federal facility with a dangerous weapon); and § 1114 (relating to killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the US)"

These are the kinds of criteria the FBI is concerned with when making the determination of whether a specific act constitutes "terrorism." This is why the bureau is so careful not to call something terrorism right away.

Even if the perpetrator of the attack in question is deceased and will thus not face prosecution in a court of law, the FBI, as a law enforcement organization, can't help but approach the case from a standpoint of criminal justice and legal statutes.

Whether you and I (or even individual FBI agents) personally think an attack is terrorism doesn't really matter to the FBI.

How politicians and pundits think: terrorism as a bad word

Terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman writes, "On one point, at least, everyone agrees: ‘Terrorism' is a pejorative term. It is a word with intrinsically negative connotations that is generally applied to one’s enemies and opponents."

He explains:

"[T]he decision to call someone or label some organization ‘terrorist’ becomes almost unavoidably subjective, depending largely on whether one sympathizes with or opposes the person/group/cause concerned. If one identifies with the victim of the violence, for example, then the act is terrorism. If, however, one identifies with the perpetrator, the violent act is regarded in a more sympathetic, if not positive (or, at the worst, ambivalent) light, and it is not terrorism."

Politicians often apply the word "terrorism" to the actions of individuals and groups they see as opponents and enemies in order to delegitimize and demonize them, to incite fear and convince a population to support controversial government actions, and to garner support by promoting an us-versus-them narrative.

George W. Bush invoked terrorism and 9/11 when naming Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.

And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin justify their bombing of the Syrian opposition in the name of defeating terrorism.

The US State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations is often portrayed as some kind of exhaustive, authoritative list of terrorist groups around the world, but the truth is that which groups get included on the list and which get excluded is a largely political determination, not an analytical one.

Groups that may very well engage in the same types of activities as groups on the list have been consciously left off or removed from the list for political reasons — out of fear of offending a country we don't want to offend, or because the group is on our side, is being trained or supported by us or our friends, or is pursuing goals that we find to be in line with our interests.

There's a tired cliché that everyone who studies terrorism has heard a million times and despises: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." It's supposed to convey the idea that people are inconsistent in how they define terrorism and tend to eschew the word when the person or group in question is on their side.

But just because it's a worn cliché people are tired of hearing doesn't mean it's not true.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.