The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.
Often in the aftermath of high-profile violent attacks, or sometimes even while these events are still unfolding, we find commentators, reporters, and general observers asking “Is this terrorism?” They ask each other, they ask authorities, they ask experts, and they ask the researchers responsible for the collection of the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at START.
The fact that there is no single definition of terrorism, and that different audiences view this question from different perspectives for both valid and questionable reasons means that the resulting discourse can be chaotic and confusing. My goal with this Discussion Point is not to revisit the long-standing issues and implications stemming from the lack of a universal definition of terrorism. These have been discussed at length elsewhere, by both scholars and in popular media. Instead, my goal is to discuss some of the cases that fall into a gray area between terrorism and other types of violence. In doing so, I illustrate that even when armed with a single definition— a carefully conceived, painstakingly articulated, systematically applied definition—we can still find ourselves facing a situation where the answer to the questions “Is this terrorism?” and “Is this not terrorism— is it something other than terrorism?” are both “Yes.”
This scenario frequently leads to the follow-up question “Why does it matter whether we define a violent attack as terrorism?” There are many reasons why it matters how we label these violent events; however, there are also many ways in which the label actually lacks the significance and symbolism that many observers grant it.
Is This Terrorism?
The Global Terrorism Database defines a terrorist attack as the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non‐state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation. The GTD collection team parses this definition into a set of criteria, and maintains extensive guidelines about what constitutes threat, what constitutes force, what constitutes non-state actors, and so on. Ultimately, however, what often comes as a surprise to observers is that terrorism is more about motives and goals than about the magnitude of terror. Although fear and intimidation are relevant definitional factors, mass-lethality and heartbreaking tactics are not.
For example, in the wake of events like the 2012 murder of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or the 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster in which a co-pilot locked a pilot out of the cockpit and committed suicide by crashing a commercial airliner into the French Alps, killing 150 people, social media sites were littered with comments such as “if this isn’t terrorism, I don’t know what is.” In response to an academic conference presentation on terrorist and non-terrorist aerial hijackings several years ago, an audience member asked in disbelief “What is a non-terrorist hijacking? Hijackings are inherently terrorist!” (The answer: non-terrorist aerial hijackings are those in which the perpetrators simply want to travel to a particular destination.) Although people react to the terrifying nature of these events, the fact remains that they are not terrorist attacks because by all accounts the perpetrators lacked a broader ideological goal or motivation.
Beyond this common misconception, other attacks are much more challenging to classify, due to either insufficient or conflicting information about the nature of the attack and the motivations of the perpetrators. To accommodate this complexity and allow users interested in a more narrow definition of terrorism to filter out ambiguous cases, the GTD includes two variables— Doubt Terrorism Proper and Alternative Designation. Approximately 17 percent of all the attacks in the GTD between 1970 and 2014 occurred around the edges of our definition of terrorism. For each of these, we note the alternative, or the type of gray area that overlaps with our definition: insurgency/guerilla action (79%), other crime type (15%), inter/intra-group conflict (5%), lack of intentionality (0.5%), and state actors (0.5%).
Each of these scenarios comes with many tricky questions that we consider as systematically as possible. For the purpose of this particular discussion, I will avoid the particularly thorny issue of terrorism versus insurgency and focus specifically on attacks that may be classified more generically as other crime types. This is perhaps the most common source of confusion among the media and casual observers. To distinguish between terrorist attacks and other violent crime types, we typically ask ourselves whether there is any indication that the perpetrators of a violent attack had an ideological goal, rather than some other type of goal such as personal animosity or financial gain, or no discernable goal at all. The challenge arises when attacks are carried out with ambiguous, or multiple goals.
For example, violence carried out solely in order to extort money from a victim would not typically qualify as having an ideological goal. However, organizations that routinely carry out terrorist attacks for the purpose of intimidating a broad audience in pursuit of an ideological goal do not engage exclusively in terrorism. Indeed, there are events in the GTD that took place in locations including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Russia, in which source materials explicitly report that authorities are uncertain whether the attack was motivated by political goals, an extortion attempt, or both.
One might assume that the distinction between terrorism and other types of violence may be relatively straightforward in cases where sources identify individual perpetrators by name. Presumably a full investigation reveals any group affiliations, ideological motivations, or identities the perpetrator has, allowing us to determine the goals of the attack. In fact, this is often not the case. Even when sources provide a great deal of information on the background of individual perpetrators, these details can fail to illuminate a clear reason for the attack at hand. Individuals are complex, containing myriad and fluid ideological perspectives that may or may not be relevant to a particular act of violence.
One of the most unusually difficult cases to disentangle occurred in 2013 when Christopher Dorner engaged in a series of fatal and non-fatal shootings in California that were both personally and ideologically motivated. Dorner published a manifesto on Facebook describing many grievances both personal (e.g., his recent firing from the LAPD) and societal (e.g., allegations of racism in policing). In the GTD, we exclude the initial attack Dorner carried out against targets he selected in retribution for the decision to fire him, but we include his subsequent attack targeting other police officers. To my knowledge, this is the only case in the GTD where an extended event includes individual attacks that qualify for inclusion and others that do not.
Cases in which an individual perpetrator has some type of personal link to the victims, but there is also evidence that suggests broader ideological motivations are undoubtedly among the most problematic to classify. In the early hours of the recent shooting in San Bernardino carried out by assailants inspired by the Islamic State, reports that the suspected perpetrators were familiar to the victims made it impossible to rule out personal animosity as a motive. Likewise, the February 2015 murder of three North Carolina students by a neighbor has been attributed to both an ongoing dispute over parking and anti-Muslim, radical atheist ideology.
Why Does It Matter?
Sometimes those who contact START researchers to ask “Is this terrorism?” follow up with “Why does it matter?” The answer to this question is entirely in the eye of the beholder, and out of curiosity I am often tempted to respond with the same question— why does it matter? I know why it matters to the GTD team; we are tasked with systematically compiling a comprehensive database of terrorist attacks as a type of violence not unlike oncologists collecting data on types of cancer. Uniformly applying the GTD definition of terrorism is critical for rigorous analysis. Because we publish updates to the GTD annually we have the luxury of waiting for as much information as possible, including statements, manifestos, communiques, testimony, and evidence, in order to make a determination on whether or not a particular act of violence satisfies the GTD inclusion criteria.
For different reasons, law enforcement officials are similarly motivated to gather as much information as possible before classifying an attack. While this determination can impact which agencies or personnel are involved in the response, authorities’ concerns during and immediately following the attack are far more specific and pragmatic. Regardless of attackers’ motives, has the threat been neutralized? Are all the perpetrators accounted for? Have the victims been helped? Has evidence been secured? Ruling in or out a particular narrative for the attack serves no purpose in pursuit of these goals. During a press conference the day after the San Bernardino attack, the head of the Los Angeles field office of the FBI told reporters “It would be irresponsible and premature for me to call this terrorism.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referenced the more tangible objectives that authorities have in her testimony to a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on the Benghazi attacks when she said, “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator… to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.”
With respect to bringing perpetrators to justice, there are various ways in which this can be accomplished, with or without invoking the term “terrorism.” Much can be made of the fact that perpetrators are sometimes not charged with terrorism-related offenses. However, prosecutors are tasked with using whatever tools are at their disposal to secure an outcome that is in the best interests of the state. This means that the specific charges brought against a perpetrator may not exhaustively use all of the adjectives that describe the scope of his or her crimes. Rather, the charges filed are those that a) are applicable within a particular jurisdiction; b) can be most straightforwardly proven, and c) yield a maximally punitive sentence.
For example, Maj. Nidal Hasan was sentenced to death following a conviction on 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder corresponding to the terrorist attack he carried out using a pistol at Ft. Hood in 2009. Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who carried out the 2014 terrorist attacks in Boston, were each sentenced to death following convictions on charges including “use of a weapon of mass destruction” under the Terrorism section of the United States Code. Dylann Roof was charged with murder, attempted murder, and use of a firearm, all in the commission of a hate crime in connection with the 2015 terrorist attack involving the shooting deaths of nine parishioners at historically black Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
In contrast to the relatively mundane objectives of researchers and law enforcement, politicians, pundits, and the general public often use the term “terrorism” as a weapon, a political football loaded with a profoundly negative connotation and derisive judgment that far surpasses most, if not all, other labels for violence. Compared to other violent actors, perpetrators of terrorism tend to be viewed as especially inhuman and depraved. Authorities on whose watch terrorist attacks occur seem to be held to a far greater level of responsibility for not preventing these attacks. Perhaps this is because terrorist violence is linked to a broader cause or ideology, so observers view it as more predictable or preventable than random acts of violence. Where conventional violence is merely a matter of course; terrorism is a matter of national security.
As a result, invoking the label of terrorism or refraining from doing so is a powerful tool that leverages this symbolism and coded meaning. It is because of this power that the choice can be viewed from all sides of the political spectrum as subterfuge, political semantics, or racism. The question of whether or not authorities and observers uniformly afford perpetrators the same consideration regardless of their identity or their target is undoubtedly an important one. A hypothetical attack carried out by a middle-aged white male against a Planned Parenthood clinic could be an act of terrorism inspired by anti-abortion ideology; it could also be an act of domestic violence against his spouse who works at the clinic. Likewise, a hypothetical attack carried out by a young Muslim woman in an office building could be inspired by radical Islamism, or by personal retribution. Regardless, there is little value added by applying the label of terrorism sooner rather than later. We do not need this label as a crutch to tell us how horrified we should be if instead we can base this judgment on the details of the attack as they are known.
The assumption that the terrorism label imbues a more sinister connotation is understandable given exhaustive media coverage of devastating terrorist attacks, but this assumption is logically flawed. Yes, many terrorist attacks have been deadly, devastating, heartbreaking, and indeed, terrifying. However, the same can be said for many acts of violence that do not constitute acts of terrorism, including mass shootings in schools, movie theaters, office buildings; airline disasters; and serial killings. On the other hand, definitions of terrorism typically require some degree of violence, but not lethality. In fact, more than half (53%) of all terrorist attacks recorded in the GTD between 1970 and 2014 did not result in any fatalities. This proportion varies dramatically across time and place (e.g., North America: 85%; Western Europe: 75%; South America: 63%; Southeast Asia: 53%; and the Middle East and North Africa: 44%). While some terrorist attacks target crowded schools, restaurants, and places of worship, others target energy infrastructure or vacant buildings with the goal of undermining the state and calling attention to a cause without physically harming anyone. Despite the fact that the word “terrorism” is frequently used as a proxy for seriousness and scariness, in reality it is not a precise indicator.
We routinely adopt labels as shorthand to help process complex information, but there are limits to their usefulness, particularly for a term like “terrorism” which is so frequently misunderstood in popular discourse. Some have argued that due to extensive and often adversarial misuse we should retire the term altogether. From the perspective of researchers and analysts who study terrorism as a unique form of political violence, this would amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. However, human behavior is complex and can be difficult if not impossible to precisely classify in some cases, so we must be sensitive to the significance that the term “terrorism” should and should not convey.
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 “Lack of intentionality” refers to situations where it is not clear whether the perpetrator acted with purpose. He or she may have been underage, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or acting carelessly without intention to carry out an attack in pursuit of political objectives. “State actors” refer to situations in which source materials contain conflicting information or speculation regarding whether or not the perpetrators of the attacks were state actors. Attacks that are clearly carried out by state actors are excluded from the GTD.
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 This is certainly not unique to terrorism. Consider, for example, the case of mob boss Al Capone, who was linked to violent crime and gang warfare but his longest prison sentence (11 years) stemmed from a conviction on charges of tax evasion.
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