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Considered opinionThe Devil’s puzzle: Defining international and domestic terrorism

By Bennett Seftel and Fritz Lodge

Published 2 November 2017

It’s becoming a familiar scene. A vehicle becomes a weapon of terror. This time in New York City, where a driver in a rental truck suddenly careened down a bike and pedestrian path on the west side of the city on Tuesday, killing at least eight and injuring more than ten people. New York officials say it was an act of terror, and the incident is likely to reignite the debate on what constitutes domestic and international terrorism and whether it matters. An argument can be made that distinguishing between what constitutes an act of terrorism and what doesn’t still provide significant value.

It’s becoming a familiar scene. A vehicle becomes a weapon of terror. This time in New York City, where a driver in a rental truck suddenly careened down a bike and pedestrian path on the west side of the city on Tuesday, killing at least eight and injuring more than ten people.

New York officials say it was an act of terror, and the incident is likely to reignite the debate on what constitutes domestic and international terrorism and whether it matters.

Bennett Seftel and Fritz Lodge write in the Cipher Brief that

Terrorism has remained at the forefront of American national security concerns ever since the September 11 attacks. And as globalization continues to extend its reach, terrorists have demonstrated a dangerous ability to connect with a wide audience through their use of the Internet, as the line that once separated what constitutes an act of “domestic terrorism” versus “international terrorism” appears increasingly blurry.

“September 11 and the subsequent rise of homegrown terrorism has really muddled the traditional line between international terrorism and domestic terrorism,” says Mike Leiter, Cipher Brief expert and former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

In fact, individuals based in the U.S. who have used trans-nationalist ideologies to fuel their violence, as in the cases of San Bernardino and Orlando attacks, have been labeled as terrorists, even if they had not traveled outside the U.S. to receive any sort of training or indoctrination.

“The link has become relatively tenuous when you are talking about a transnational ideology, which motivates someone who can be born, raised, and basically everything here in the U.S. and then suddenly carries out an act that is labeled as international terrorism as opposed to domestic terrorism,” Leiter explains.

….

Domestic perpetrators, such as the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, plan and carry out their attacks within the territorial boundaries of the United States, so domestic criminal law is applied to investigate, prosecute and punish the attacker or attackers. But the case becomes much more complex when the act of terror is perpetrated by foreign individuals with a chain of accomplices and logistical support that extends into countries where U.S. law cannot reach, as was the case with the 9/11 hijackers.

In order to catch these terrorists, the U.S. must work with foreign countries to extradite these individuals or can conduct targeted strikes to remove them from the battlefield, as permitted by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). In essence, the legal structure built around international terrorism empowers intelligence agencies and law enforcement to use powerful tools to hunt and capture terrorists, including warrantless wiretaps, the ability to develop a wider range of informants under the material support statute, and many more tactics that would not necessarily be available in a case of “domestic” terrorism.

….

Ultimately, while the lines between domestic and international terrorism become increasingly murky, Leiter maintains that distinguishing between what constitutes an act of terrorism and what doesn’t still provide significant value.

“Differentiating between terrorism versus non-terrorism violence is still important because depending on the motivation of any violence act, you might have a very different policy response,” says Leiter. “Something that is motivated by an individual simply being crazy versus a political act, you’re going to try to prevent that in different ways, and it may have different consequences on the population.”

Read the full article: Bennett Seftel and Fritz Lodge, “The Devil’s puzzle: Defining international and domestic terrorism,” Cipher Brief (1 November 2017)