Domestic terrorismIntelligence experts: Recent attacks on U.S. government buildings are indeed terrorism

Published 15 March 2010

DHS secretary Janet Napolitano said Joseph Stack’s suicide attack on the IRS building in Austin was not an act of terrorism because he acted as a lone wolf; an intelligence think tank’s experts disagree: the definition of a violent act as an act of terrorism has nothing to do with the number of casualties, foreign ties, or absence of a conspiracy; what matters is whether or not the perpetrator’s motivation was to coerce a population or a government to change policy because of political, religious, or ideological beliefs

Last week, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano said on a Washington, D.C., radio that show and said that Joseph Stack’s suicide small-plane attack against the IRS building in Austin, Texas, was not terrorism. “To our belief, he was a lone wolf,” Napolitano said. “He used a terrorist tactic, but an individual who uses a terrorist tactic doesn’t necessarily mean they are part of an organized group attempting an attack on the United States.”

A private intelligence begs to differ. Washington, D.C.-based Stratfor issued a report last week, titled Terrorism: Defining a Tactic, arguing that the recent attacks against U.S. government and military locations are examples of domestic terrorism, despite what government officials and politicians say.

The report examines three recent incidents — Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood; Joseph Stack’s suicidal plane crash into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, nearly a month ago; and John Patrick Bedell’s shoot out at the Pentagon last week — and challenges the arguments that say these attacks do not qualify as terrorism.

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:

Stratfor’s Fred Burton and Ben West, the authors of the report, further note that not defining these incidents as terrorism conflicts with the Patriot Act’s definition of what terrorism is under U.S. law:

[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.

Matthew Harwood writes that Burton and West disagree with Napolitano’s lone-wolf theory as to why Stack’s attack (but, presumably, also Hasan’s and Bedell’s attacks) should not be regarded as acts of terrorism. First, violent attackers do not have to be part of a larger network or organization to qualify as terrorists, as Napolitano states. Burton and West say lone wolves can be a more dangerous form of terrorist because its harder to detect and deter their attacks. “Theodore Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) is the archetypal lone-wolf operative who used violent attacks to publicize a social and political message,” the analysts write. “Therefore his violent acts qualify as terrorism.”



Furthermore, terrorist attacks do not have be catastrophic as 9/11 was. Rather, terrorist attacks historically have been the opposite. “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,” Burton and West note. “Indeed, catastrophic attacks are the exception to the rule, though the memory of these spectacular incidents is burned indelibly into the public mind.”

Also the geographical source of the attack has no bearing on whether or not an attack is terrorism. As Burton and West point out the majority of attacks historically against the United States have been conducted by domestic groups or individuals, such as Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Harwood summarizes Sratfor’s argument to say that in the end, what matters most when determining whether or not a terrorist attack has occurred is whether or not the perpetrator’s motivation was to coerce a population or a government to change policy because of political, religious, or ideological beliefs. By this standard, recent attacks qualify, Stratfor says.

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,” write Burton and West.

Properly categorizing attacks as terrorism is not merely an academic debate, the authors argue. By designating an act that could be terrorism as simply a crime, investigators could miss evidence that suggests trends or further threats. “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.”