Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 19, 2010

What is an act of domestic terrorism and does it matter?

Filed under: Legal Issues,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on February 19, 2010

The incident yesterday in Austin, Texas raises questions on what is terrorism or, more specifically, what is domestic terrorism.  Reports have varied on whether yesterday’s attack, in which 53 year old Andrew Joseph Stack III – after setting fire to his house  crashed a Piper Cherokee PA-28 into a building housing nearly 200 IRS employees, is an act of terrorism.  He left behind a suicide note, ranting about taxation in the U.S. and the IRS.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said “”At this time, we have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity. We continue to gather more information, and are aware there is additional information about the pilot’s history.”  The White House gave a more tempered answer, with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs telling reporters,  “I am going to wait, though, for all the situation to play out through investigation before we determine what to label it.” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo called the incident “a criminal act by a lone individual.”  Meanwhile, Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX), a Member of the House Homeland Security who represents the area hit,  suggested it was an act of terrorism, saying, “We saw a deliberate and intentional attack against a federal building,” he said. “It’s something that’s exposed a weakness we haven’t seen since 911… that airplanes can fly into buildings.”

For what it is worth, the New York Times ran a piece entitled “In Plane Crash Coverage, Networks Use the Word ‘Terrorism’ With Care,” detailing how the various outlets used and didn’t use the word terrorist and criminal.

So was the incident a terrorist attack?

Under Section 802 of the USA Patriot Act, a person engages in “domestic terrorism” if he commits an act “”dangerous to human life”" that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to:  (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) 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.  Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

At face value – the incident would appear to fit within what is a very broad definition of terrorism.  Let’s take a look:

  • Stack flew his plane into a building — an act that is certainly “dangerous to human life” and “a violation of criminal laws.”
  • It is arguable that he was trying to influence the policy of the government or, more likely, affect the conduct of the government by mass destruction.  In his suicide note, he says “Violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.”  He also says, in referring to the IRS and taxation, “I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”

Of course, the bigger question – does it really matter how this incident is labeled?  The individual committing the act perished in the attack.   The definition of domestic terrorism is relevant mostly to the legal means of gathering information in the investigation, allowing for the seizure of assets, disclosure of educational records, and, ironically, the disclosure of taxpayer information. It also has implications for living individuals who have been labeled as terrorists, including the banning of their ability to handle sensitive biological materials. In this case, the  act, however you want to label it, has been committed.   Many of the materials above could assumingly be gained through the criminal process.

So does it matter?  Besides the statistical notekeeping on incidents, we also must think of the psychological effects of whether the act is criminal or terrorist and how that affects the citizenry’s behavior. There have been studies on these issues and I would welcome comments from those who are experts or more knowledgeable about this effect.

One last note –  the incident could also raise questions about the Federal Protective Services, which has long been responsible for the protection of government buildings and has faced numerous personnel, morale, and operating challenges within DHS.  To be fair, however, how the FPS could have prevented a plane crash into a building in its current operational mode, is hard to say.   In any event, expect hearings and assessments on how to better protect  government buildings around the country.

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16 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 19, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

Okay since the inauguration of President Richard Milhouse Nixon over 100 definitions of terrorism have been added to the US Code. Few have been added to State criminal codes but there are some. Essentially, this inferentially federalized a large number of actions by alleged or actual perps. Was this a good or bad thing?
Also in the post the following sentence appears:
“Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” This statement is accurate for some of the definitions but not all.

Still an important issue and important post.

Comment by David Lopez

February 19, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

I don’t think anyone can blame the agents of the Federal Protective Service. There is no way of stopping an act of a lone wolf with an airplane. The agents of FPS protect and investigate crimes at over 9,000 federal controlled properties nationwide. But, I do believe the agency should receive more funding and manpower, at present there are only 1,200 FPS agents.

Comment by bellavita

February 19, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

Some elements of the homeland security enterprise are concerned about “home grown radicalization” – often a code word for violent extremism that is linked to political Islam.

It is difficult to read Joe Stack’s suicide posting without making a link to other dimensions of violent extremism.

I think it is important to view his (apparent) lone wolf act as an act of terrorism if for no other reason than to remember violent political extremism can thrive in many environments — not just ones linked to theology.

Mark Chubb has written at least indirectly about this over the past several weeks.

Comment by William Warren

February 20, 2010 @ 11:02 am

Two quick points:
First, I see no practical way to prevent a determined individual from using a small plane (general aviation)as a weapon.
Second, using the definition of domestic terrorism given above, it would seem to me that the recent school shooting (Amy Bishop at the University of Alabama on 2/12)would qualify. Bishop actions were in response to the negative action taken against her by her fellow faculty members (employees of the state/state agency).

My point in bringing up these two issues is that that in a free & open society such as ours, one of the most important things you can do is make sure first responders have a plan in place to deal with such disasters when they occur.

Comment by christopher tingus

February 20, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

I do not perceive this gentleman’s obvious frustration w/the IRS and such irrational behavior willing to harm good and innocent folks over a federal tax issue as a terrorist attack, but rather an act in isolation, planned and violent and while referencing the definition herein, one I guess can construe as an act of terrorism, yet I prefer to reference such attack by an individual obviously caring nothing for others and bringing loss of precious Life and saddness to family of innocent(s), I reiterate, not terrorist in nature and intent, however a terrible homocide, a premeditated killing….

….as he knew enough how to fly an airplane and he knew crashing it into a building would place anyone in the building in peril. By doing so, he is a murderer and whatever assets he has, the IRS and anyone harmed, injured and/or killed, their families should be able to pursue whatever assets available from this murder’s estate.

As far as a terrorist attack, the experts can determine, however we cannot lump every such action as terrorism as it somehow diminishes the acts of those who seek our national demise, our destruction as the United States of America. True terrorists who engage in dastardly deeds against our beloved nation!

God Bless those at the IRS at the time of this horrendous act and let’s pray that while the economy challenges many these recession days, people will seek to remedy their issues and frustrations in a responsible manner, communicating.

As I have said before, most of us concur that killing anyone is forbidden as no one has the right to take another Life unless in self-defense, however whether it is an IRS worker or folks at the World Trade Center or elsewhere, whether an act of terrorism or a homicide, killing another is not a solution and by the 21st century, we have had enough time to learn that differences no matter what cannot be dealt with by such violence. The matter is never resolved in such way.

Comment by Mark Chubb

February 22, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

Seems to me the more practical way of approaching this question is to ask how our definition of terrorism would (or should) influence our decisions or actions rather than by considering the intentions and actions of those who perpetrate them. Classifying some acts as terrorism gives us a way of distinguishing criminal acts that warrant special treatment not so much due to their consequences as the nature of the enterprises that produce them. For our definition of terrorism to be meaningful, these acts must require us to respond in a way not otherwise enabled by existing laws and law enforcement tactics.

From a preventive standpoint, acts that fall within our definition of terrorism should require investigative measures or interventions not otherwise available or appropriate to the interdiction of individuals or groups engaged in comparable criminal acts. Put simply, this suggests that terrorists must operate in a way that is sufficiently different from other criminals that it warrants distinctive strategies and tactics.

When interdiction fails, our definitions should provide us with the means of mobilizing a response that would not otherwise be required by a comparable criminal act. Terrorism typically requires coordination among a much broader array of agencies, jurisdictions, and even governments than other criminal acts. Some of the activities involved require the exchange of information and active participation of organizations that have no routine law enforcement function.

The recent cases in Austin, Huntsville and at Ft. Hood do not suggest (to me at least) circumstances that meet either of these criteria. Rather, our reaction suggests a desire to call these incidents terrorism because they incite in us a particularly visceral response. This suggests that the penalties, not the means of combating the crimes, lies at the heart of our response.

While I understand the attraction of grounding our definition of terrorism in principles of retributive justice, I do not see how this would advance our efforts to combat terrorism or undermine the attraction of their cause to others.

Comment by Craig Quirolo

February 22, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

Not a comment a question; Would it be considered an act of domestic terrorism to sell real looking fake passports to the Conch Republic knowing that tens of thousands of them have been sold to people in the mid east, that they have been successfully used to enter foreign countries and that two of the 9/11 hijackers had them? I am baffled that they continue to be sold in Key West given the fact that they look so real and are used to enter and exit countries abroad as well as here in the USA.

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

February 22, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

From Barbara Weibel, August 5th, 2009 [found at http://holeinthedonut.com/2009/04/24/key-west-florida-conch-republic/

....I did a little research in order to reply to your comment [about the 9/11 hijackers having Conch Republic passports]. This original source of this information was an October 3, 2001 Miami Herald article by Jennifer Babson. Peter Anderson, steward for the group that champions the Keys as the “Conch Republic” and that issues its own passports, said that anyone who is issued a passport must provide supporting materials, including proof of address, telephone number, email, a notarized copy of their genuine passport or other official documentation from country of residence, and three photographs. When the U.S. Postal Inspection Service reported to the FBI that the group had apparently issued a passport to someone by the name of Mohammed Atta, the FBI investigated. According to the article, the FBI “did find someone signing the registration book under the name Atta from New York, but cannot say if it was the suicide hijacker.” The story further states: “FBI agents hauled away boxes of records, but have been unable to find Atta’s passport application and his accompanying passport snapshots, a federal investigator said.” Anderson’s group issued a about 10,000 between 1993 and the date of the Miami Herald article. Your comment that “They have sold 10s of thousands of them in the mid east to terrorists” is a rumor that may have as its source the original Herald article, which referenced a Discovery Channel program that featured the Conch Republic. After the show began regularly replaying a segment that included information on the passport program, Anderson said, “we started receiving a lot of requests from people all over the world and from people who were in the U.S. who we had reason to believe may not have been in the U.S. legally.” Anderson says the Conch Republic received a sudden flood of mail order applicants, many of them with Arab surnames and from countries such as India, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, in the fall of 2000. The story does not say that any of these passports were ever issued.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 23, 2010 @ 10:19 am

In every large city in the world fake passport production for almost any country is taking place. Now here is a question? Who in the US government (meaning what organization) is responsible for tracing and preventing production of false US passports? The answer cannot be each Customs (ICE) agent, IMO! A bigger donut hole?

Comment by Nick Catrantzos

March 1, 2010 @ 12:06 am

Many of our definitions of terrorism trace to an instrumental objective. Penal code definitions of terrorist acts provide a means to get dangerous attackers off the street. National security-related definitions mobilize other resources. Sometimes, however, the rush to affix a label (or to avoid one too artfully) becomes a disservice. Too many practitioners appear to be seeing terrorism in every attack of late. Perhaps C.S. Lewis best phrased a cautionary note this way:

If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through everything is the same as not to see.

For more but less elegant discussion, see Terror Label Solves No Problem on http://all-secure.blogspot.com

Comment by seo lace

May 3, 2010 @ 2:52 am

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Comment by Tiagara Electronica

November 3, 2010 @ 1:56 am

We can’t stop terrorism. These are hard times… Just my thoughts. tigara electronica

Comment by Randy Palmer

November 11, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

Someone needs to explain the fact that terrorism will and never can be stopped. Just think of how much money we spend of defense, etc… and look what happenes.

Comment by Tigara Electronica

March 16, 2011 @ 10:20 am

Terrorists are people with no fear of God ..or people paid a lot of money by people who have a lot of money and lots of interests .. as long as the world economy is in the hands of a few, I think terrorism will be just another economic tool..

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June 8, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

[...] terrorism. But it is a discussion worth pursuing, and I hope others will take up the issue, much as Jessica Herrera-Flanigan did in her recent posting to HLS Watch. The ancillary issues, such as risk mitigation and insurance coverage, are ones that should command [...]

Comment by kdv775

November 1, 2011 @ 11:52 am

In my opinion – The act committed by this man is considered domestic terrorism in that it does not differ much from the Oklahoma City bombing. It was against the U.S. government and it involved mass destruction, violence and loss of life. It also included a large audience which are key ingredients for terrorism. It is domestic because it involved victims, targets, audience and the perpetrator were in this country…..
Lone wolf terrorists are much more difficult to detect, and the only course of action would be the defense measures….

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