Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 6, 2015

Who Cares If We Call It “Terrorism”?

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jason Nairn on January 6, 2015

I recently wrote a post about the definition of terrorism, the public’s perceptions about terrorism, and the importance of the use of the word to the work of homeland security professionals.  The conversation about this topic has continued on … Homeland Security Watch, as well as in professional circles.

There are differences among professionals within the homeland security enterprise about whether the word “terrorism” should be a applied to events such as the Canadian Parliament attack and the Sydney Cafe Hostage Incident.  A recent conversation that took place via email between homeland security educators provides insight into the terrorism terminology tussle.  The emails are a continuation of a discussion prompted by a colleague who shared analysis by Scott Stewart of Stratfor Global Intelligence entitled “The Sydney Hostage Incident was a Classic Case of Grassroots Terrorism”.  (Stratfor is a subscription service and I could not therefore attach the article.  However, you may be able to get the article free here by providing an email address.)

A key phrase in Stewart’s analysis addresses the issue.  Stewart writes:

Despite Monis’ reported mental instability, the sequence of events in this incident clearly demonstrate that he was acting in a planned, logical manner designed to accomplish his goals — however delusional those goals may have been.

Thus Stewart makes the case that this attack, and others like it, are terrorism.  But some do not agree.  Here is the email conversation:

Clinical Psychologist and Homeland Security Educator [responding to the article]:

Hmm – Hoffman would say it’s terrorism if there is a political purpose behind the attacks – that would be necessary, but is it sufficient that the perpetrator’s message is political? But (and I’ll confess to skimming this) I didn’t see where the cafe or the patrons were emblematic of some political regime? Shouldn’t the target also serve as a symbol?

For example, the Pakistan school shooting by Taliban – the school is a military sponsored/funded school that the Taliban perceived as a training ground for future military personnel (though Pakistani’s argue there were lots of civilians’ children in attendance and is not a military prep school). The school is a symbol of the military, government and political regime the Taliban wants to change/eliminate. The King David Hotel, the Edward R. Murrah building, etc – all symbols, as well as civilian/noncombatant locales.

This dude sounds like a garden variety criminal. Self appointed cleric, currently charged with murder of a loved-one (though killing your ex wife is probably not a symbol of great love). So he slapped a pseudo-political label onto his act and was active in social media with other extremist groups…I just don’t buy it. My clinical opinion? Lone Nut.

Related: this is the problem with having no agreed-upon, operational definition of terrorism.

Homeland Security Educator 2:

I think the interesting question in both this instance and the Canadian Parliament attack is, as both incidents were perpetrated by individuals of questionable mental stability, does mental status matter?  Couldn’t it be said that anyone that is willing to put explosives on themselves (in their underwear even!) is likely not in perfect mental health, i.e. a lone nut as the article describes.  I think there is a danger in calling these politically-motivated, pre-planned attacks something other than terrorism, because it reduces the importance of the homeland security element involved in preventing / responding to these attacks.  The HLS element provides the vehicle for collaboration among agencies, countries, etc, and additional resources.  Crimes by lone nuts are addressed by local resources, and if we rely on local resources to do everything, we will be back where we were prior to 9/11, where some agencies had information, nothing was shared with the local agencies that ultimately had to respond, and no one was putting the pieces together.

Why does it matter?  Who cares if we call it “terrorism” or not?

It matters because the use of the word terrorism is important to the funding and resource support for anti-terrorism efforts in the US and abroad.  The recognition of the threat of ongoing terrorist attacks is important for the political framework that surrounds international homeland security (or domestic security, or civil protection, or whatever) efforts.  The correct description of these events as terrorism reminds us, the public-at-large and our policy-makers, of the importance of the collaborative framework of homeland security, and its essential role in preventing, responding to and recovering from these types of attacks.

— This post appeared originally on the Homeland Security Roundtable.

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4 Comments »

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 6, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

If it is a violent act undertaken to influence political decisions then I call it terrorism and, at least in the United States, this is the most common standard under state and federal laws. I perceive that the public is less inclined to recognize a violent act as terrorism when the legal standard may be met but 1) the violence is in most respects indistinguishable from the general level of violence in the culture and/or 2) the prospect for influencing political decisions seems especially delusional and/or 3) the violence is committed by an individual who cannot be credibly connected in a meaningful operational way to a wider and sustained conspiracy.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

January 6, 2015 @ 10:16 pm

This topic is like an onion – many layers that all bring tears to my eyes.

Beginning at the top: out of curiosity, because I have no knowledge of the conversations referenced, were cases of non-Muslim/non-Al Qaeda linked violent episodes brought up? I have to bring this up again because it seems to me that, at least in more popular discourse if not among working professionals, that if it ain’t Islam it ain’t terrorism. Or, not as crudely put, terrorism is a term increasingly connected only with acts committed by those espousing some sort of Islamic-related connection or ideals. If a right-wing or racist group (not to mention left wing groups that burn down housing developments or attack labs involved with animal testing) attacks or plans to attack police officers or other symbols of our government, the outcry and demands for increased homeland security resources is suspiciously lacking.

Similarly, any violence committed any where in the world by Muslims is considered “terrorism,” while pre-9/11 some of it may have been considered insurgency, rebel activity, etc.

The next level would bring into question the utility of labeling all these attacks by different types of actors as “terrorism” in an attempt to clarify the fact that “It matters because the use of the word terrorism is important to the funding and resource support for anti-terrorism efforts in the US and abroad. The recognition of the threat of ongoing terrorist attacks is important for the political framework that surrounds international homeland security (or domestic security, or civil protection, or whatever) efforts. The correct description of these events as terrorism reminds us, the public-at-large and our policy-makers, of the importance of the collaborative framework of homeland security, and its essential role in preventing, responding to and recovering from these types of attacks.”

Resources to everything are not flowing with similar vigor in relation to the recent past. This is especially true of homeland security. Labeling almost any act of violence, especially those carried out by anyone claiming adherence to any vague form of Islamism, “terrorism” in a hope to sustain funding and policy relevance will only backfire. And it’s simply an all around a bad idea too.

The capacity and capabilities required to defend, counter, and defeat a transnational terrorist organization with global reach, such as core Al Qaeda, are vastly different from those one can imagine to fight on the battlefield of ideas to negate the impact of ISIS and other impelling, if simple, narratives that may inspire lone wolf attacks. Those are different than that required to deal with the Taliban or Boko Haram. Those are different from…well, you get the idea.

Finally, if all these attacks are terrorism that requires the public’s attention and policy makers largess, the greatest risks to the U.S. are not prioritized, defenses/mitigation not funded, and the term becomes a buzz word. Or perhaps that has already occurred?

My point, if clouded by snark, is that there should be some sort of conversation about the perception/analysis of the true shape and size of the risks facing us. That should provide insight into what sorts of investments we as a nation should be making into “homeland security,” whether that means border security, public health, or a concerted effort to elect Jeff Bagwell into the Hall of Fame. (Couldn’t resist that last bit today…)

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 7, 2015 @ 12:15 am

I think it is long since time to abandon the term “terrorism” when incidents or events involving violence against innocents of another religion is involved. Strong evidence exist many religions encourage their mentally ill members to perform violent acts, refuse to treat their mentally ill members, and those religions and their sects show strong evidence of mass hysterias.

What are the views BTW of officials [are there any?] of leaders of the major religions on illegal drug usage by their members? Or distribution?

How about discussing the relationship of illegal drugs to HS and terrorism?

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 7, 2015 @ 12:18 am

Is Communist China the only nation-state formally identifying ISLAM as a national security threat?

I try to follow events in Xingang [sic] Province of China somewhat closely!

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