Assessing the Threat of Terrorism

Assessing the Threat of Terrorism

To determine the number of people harmed by terrorist attacks, and to discern whether or not the threat is growing or subsiding, criminologists and victimologists need a definition for “terrorism” that clearly spells out which incidents should be counted and which belong in other categories (like hate crimes or ordinary street crimes).

Several measurement issues confound efforts by criminologists and victimologists to gauge the threat of terrorist attacks accurately. First, terrorist groups don’t always claim responsibility for their violent deeds. Unless arrests are made, the unsolved inci- dents are recorded by the FBI as suspected, as opposed to confirmed terrorist attacks. Some definitional problems add to the confusion. The FBI (2004b) follows the Code of Federal Regula- tions that categorizes terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The FBI distin- guishes terrorism as either domestic or interna- tional, depending upon the group’s origins, base of operations, and objectives. Domestic terrorism encompasses activities that involve acts dangerous to human life such as assassination, kidnapping, or unleashing weapons of mass destruction within the United States and Puerto Rico, in violation of state or federal law, by groups or individuals with no foreign ties. But applying these criteria to real-life situations often raises complications.

The biggest obstacle to consistently categorizing events is establishing motivation. For example, the

many letter bombs mailed by the “Unabomber” from 1978 until his capture in 1995 killed 3 people and maimed 22, including college professors he had never met. But his repeated depredations that fright- ened the campus community were not counted as acts of terrorism by the FBI because this federal prison inmate’s motivation remains unknown and unclear despite his rambling manifestoes, and may have reflected either random selection or a peculiar personal vendetta against his unsuspecting targets.

Another complication is that some politically motivated attacks overlap a gray area between ter- rorism and bias-driven hate crimes. The acts must be counted as either one or the other—but not both. For instance, in 1999 when a member of a white supremacist group went on a rampage, shooting at 32 complete strangers (some of them Jewish worshippers leaving a synagogue), killing 2 (one was African-American, the other Asian- American) and wounding 8, the FBI categorized the incident as an act of domestic terrorism and not a hate crime. Similarly, when a distraught gun- man with no known ties to any group opened fire at a ticket counter in an airport, killing a represen- tative of an Israeli airline and one bystander and wounding another before being shot to death by security officers in 2002, the FBI initially considered the murders to be a hate crime. But later, it classi- fied the incident as international terrorism because the killer was an immigrant from the Middle East. Yet the FBI categorizes assaults and slayings of doctors who perform abortions by extremists in the antiabortion movement as hate crimes, not as acts of domestic terrorism.

To further complicate the issue of threat assess- ment, attempted acts are counted. But what about planned attacks that are foiled? The FBI tabulates these separately as preventions, in which law enforcement agencies thwart a terrorist plot (it is “successfully interdicted through investigative activ- ity”) before anyone is hurt or any damage is done (FBI, 2001: 15–27; 2007b: iv–v).

The FBI formally began monitoring terrorist attacks in the United States in the mid-1970s (see Figure 11.4). First of all, note that nobody on U.S.

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F I G U R E 11.4 Casualties of Terrorism, United States, 1980–2005 NOTES: The FBI uses 12,017 as an estimate for the number of those injured as a result of the September 11 attack; the exact number is unknown. Seventeen persons were infected by and recovered from exposure to the anthrax mailings during September–November 2001. SOURCE: FBI’s Terrorism in the United States, 2005 (FBI, 2007b), p. 31.


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soil was hurt or killed during a number of years (1984, 1987–1992, 2000, and 2003–2005). Based on its database, the FBI attributed 327 incidents within U.S. borders from 1980 to 1999 to the work of terrorists. Of these suspected and con- firmed acts, 239 (73 percent) were carried out by domestic terrorists; the rest were inflicted by groups with international ties. Even before September 11, 2001, two trends had emerged: The number of specific attacks was decreasing, but the average seri- ousness of the strikes (in casualties and property destroyed) was increasing. During the 1980s, 267 incidents that took place on U.S. soil claimed 23 lives and injured 105 people. During the 1990s, 182 people were murdered and 1,932 were wounded in just 60 attacks. Overall, the FBI attributed 205 deaths and at least 2,037 injuries to terrorist attacks between 1980 and 1999. Also, during these two decades law enforcement agencies claimed credit for preventing or aborting 130 terrorist plots, of which 47 (36 percent) were planned by foreigners (FBI, 2001: 15–27). After 2005, the FBI discontin- ued the updating of this graph.

The characteristics of terrorist attacks, the beliefs or political causes fueling them, and the peo- ple and places that were targeted have changed dra- matically over the decades. Starting in the late 1960s, extremists in the antiwar movement and the Puerto Rican independence movement engaged in bombings, and militants in the black power movement carried out assassinations of police officers. By the mid-1980s, these outbreaks of leftwing terrorism had faded into insignificance and the groups responsible for them had disbanded. Soon terrorism from far right fringe groups emerged as the more serious threat. White racists, neo-Nazis, and extremists among antitax, antiabor- tion, and survivalist groups and the militia move- ment were behind a series of random shootings, targeted assassinations, bank robberies to raise money, and abortion clinic bombings. Right wing terrorist attacks peaked in 1995 with the blast in Oklahoma City that toppled a federal building and claimed the lives of 168 people, including 19 children in a day care center, and injured 642 others. A homemade car bomb was set off on the

second anniversary of the fiery massacre that ended the standoff between the FBI and a besieged, heavily armed religious cult in Texas. The two perpetrators were hostile to the FBI and BATF and had indirect ties to the militia movement. Right wing terrorism diminished to some degree after that devastating explosion, but what the FBI terms special-interest terrorism—especially by extremists in the animal rights and environmental movements—became noticeable in the latter part of the 1990s. The only significant attack carried out by international terrorists was the 1993 truck bombing by a small cell of Middle Eastern Islamic extremists at downtown Manhattan’s World Trade Center. The blast failed to topple the twin towers, but the explosion resulted in six deaths and more than a 1,000 injuries.

Looking back over the 1980s and 1990s, about half of the targets of domestic terrorists were civilian or commercial. The remaining attacks were directed at government buildings or the embassies and other properties of foreign governments (espe- cially of Cuba and of the former Soviet Union) or military sites (FBI, 2001: 15–27).

During 2000, the FBI investigated eight terror- ist incidents perpetrated by extremists within the animal rights and environmentalist movements; no deaths or serious injuries resulted. The FBI also pre- vented one attack on a federal building by a right wing extremist. During 2001, 13 incidents took place, mostly minor fires and raids by animal rights and environmental extremists; two bank robberies were carried out by an antiabortion extremist (FBI, 2004). But the relative quiet on the domestic front was shattered on September 11, 2001.

The worst suffering due to terrorism in U.S. history unfolded when 19 hijackers from the Mid- dle East with links to Al Qaeda crashed two air- planes into Manhattan’s World Trade Center towers, causing their collapse. The inferno killed 2,838: This included people inside the aircraft and the skyscrapers as well as police officers and fire- fighters working as rescuers. The hijackers smashed another plane into the Pentagon, killing 189 people working for the Department of Defense. A fourth hijacked plane hit the ground and exploded in

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Pennsylvania, claiming 44 lives; some of the passen- gers and crew fought back against the men who had commandeered it (see Arias and Smith, 2003). The FBI estimated that about 12,000 people were injured that day, although hospital emergency rooms in New York City treated very few wounded survivors. (Stories that circulated about orphans who needed to be adopted after the attacks killed their parents turned out to be urban myths [Bernstein, 2001].)

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 hijackings, what appeared to be the first major bio- terrorist attack in American history was launched. The widespread fears it engendered about terrorists unleashing “weapons of mass destruction” and “germ warfare” surely contributed to the public’s initial support for the war waged by the Bush admin- istration against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (see Greenwald, 2008). However, when the case was “officially solved” years later, it seemed that those who had perished were not victims of terrorist acts:

A spate of letters to prominent people that are con- taminated with deadly anthrax spores kill five people, sicken 22 others, disrupt mail deliveries, force the evacuation of government buildings, and lead to numerous “white powder” scares. One poisonous letter to a TV newscaster explicitly links the anthrax attacks to Islamic terrorism, stating “Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is great.” However, after a lengthy investigation, the FBI concludes that a prominent but mentally disturbed U.S. Army microbiologist with no ties to the Middle East is behind these mailings for a tangled mix of personal and professional career reasons. But he commits suicide before being arrested, so doubts linger about the real identity of the perpetrator and his true motive. (CFR, 2004; Shane and Lichtblau, 2008a; 2008b; and Editors, New York Times, 2011c)

Ironically, after the anthrax-laced letters, domestic terrorism for most of the first decade of the twenty-first century reverted to the pattern that prevailed before September 11. Most of the incidents inflicted minor damage on commercial and government property and nearly all were attributed to the efforts of extremists in the animal rights and environmental movements. The slaying

of two people in 2002 by a distraught individual from the Middle East acting alone was originally considered a hate crime but was later reclassified as an act of terrorism by a “lone wolf” (see FBI, 2008b; and National Consortium, 2012).

During the years since 9/11, a number of attacks by “homegrown violent extremists” (HVEs) holding political beliefs connected to the far right of the political spectrum have injured and killed a number of innocent people, including a manager in an IRS building hit intentionally by a pilot of a small air- plane; a guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.; minority passersby on the street; worshippers in a Unitarian church and a Sikh tem- ple; and dozens of police officers. Fortunately, some extremists bungled their attempted bombings. As for preventions, law enforcement authorities have foiled many plots by would-be terrorists of American far right groups as well as by individuals inspired by Islamic extremism (see cases listed in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis Assessment, 2009; Beutel, 2011; and START, 2014). But which of these acts should be categorized as hate crimes or else dismissed as the work of twisted “lone nuts,” and which con- stitute “genuine” terrorist attacks remains a subject for debate (see Shane, 2010; and Rich 2010)?

The most terrible incident carried out in the United States from 2001 up to 2013 that could have been classified as either an act of terrorism or as a hate crime would be this mass shooting, the worst attack on a military installation in the United States in recent history:

An increasingly unhinged Army doctor is investigated but considered fit for continued duty. He goes to a gun shop and purchases a technologically advanced semiautomatic pistol that holds many bullets in its magazine. One day, he enters his workplace, the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood, Texas, the most populous U.S. military base in the world, and opens fire, getting off more than 200 shots. He kills one civilian and 12 soldiers and wounds another 32 people. Civilian police officers respond to the emergency and he shoots at them, wounding one officer. The assailant is shot, captured, and paralyzed from the chest down after being shot in


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the back by an officer. He is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 29 counts of attempted murder. No terrorist group claims responsibility for the massacre, and it appears the mentally disturbed psychiatrist carefully planned his attack but acted alone, apparently motivated by his jihadist beliefs. The major is put on trial for murder, and 20 victims and relatives of the deceased testify during the court martial. Acting as his own attorney, he makes an opening statement in which he takes responsibility for the mass killing because he “switched sides” in what he believed was a “war against Islam,” and then rests his case without calling a single witness in his behalf, and without making any closing argument. He is convicted by a panel of 13 senior military officers and is sentenced to die. He will be the first soldier exe- cuted under the military code of justice since 1961. (Kenber, 2013)

However, this bloody rampage was not classi- fied by the authorities as either a terrorist attack or as a hate crime. It was officially declared to be an act of workplace violence. The significance of that controversial categorization was that it prevented the victims from receiving combat-related benefits and Purple Hearts (Fernandez and Blinder, 2014).

But another incident caused by two brothers who were not affiliated with any domestic or international group actually was declared an act of terrorism by President Obama: the setting off of two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Mar- athon in 2013:

Thousands of spectators gather near the finish line of a famous long distance race. Suddenly a homemade pressure-cooker bomb made from fireworks, hidden in an abandoned backpack, explodes, and then another is detonated. A college student, another young women, and a little boy die from the blast and more than 260 are injured, many losing feet and legs. Pictures and videos of the crowd before the explosions that were taken by onlookers using smartphones are shown on television, eliciting tips from the public that enable the FBI to identify two suspects, who were apparently motivated by a desire to avenge the suf- fering inflicted on Muslims in Chechnya, in southern Russia. One is a 26 year old amateur boxer and the

other is a 19 year old sophomore majoring in marine biology at a nearby college. Trying to flee, the pair shoots a 26 year old campus officer to death, and then carjack a SUV. A manhunt leads to a car chase, with the brothers hurling makeshift explosives at the pur- suing police cars. The older brother dies after a gun battle, and one officer is seriously wounded. Although thousands of state and local police as well as federal agents lock down the surrounding area and shut down the mass transit system and warn the public to stay indoors, the younger brother flees on foot and eludes the authorities until a suburban homeowner spots him hiding in his powerboat trailered in his backyard. Weak and bleeding from gunshot wounds, the 19 year old is captured and held in solitary confinement without bail at a federal facility, facing 30 counts, of which 17 carry the death penalty. (Warrick and Horwitz, 2013; and McPhee, 2014)

In order to carry out a threat assessment, crim- inologists and victimologists begin by counting the number of people who have been harmed. It is difficult to assess the true scope of the danger of domestic terrorism to people living within the borders of the United States because, as the discus- sion above shows, there is no official consensus about the criteria for classifying an incident as an act of terrorism. The standards differ, seem incon- sistent, and may even shift, depending on political considerations. It appears that not a single person has been killed or wounded on U.S. soil in a “genuine 9/11-type terrorist attack planned and executed by agents of some foreign movement or members of an international organization” since September 11, 2001. If attacks by indepen- dent, unaffiliated, self-directed, homegrown, and often deeply disturbed “lone wolves” of various political persuasions are not counted, then this excellent safety record makes it very difficult to assess the true dimensions of the global terrorist threat against people and property within the United States.

However, politically inspired violence surely is on the rise in other countries. For example, a Global Terrorism Database contains information on over 125,000 terrorist attacks carried out around

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the world between 1970 and 2013 (START, 2014). The worldwide death toll due to acts of domestic and international terrorism by disaffected groups in each country has been monitored since 2005 by the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS) under the auspices of the FBI’s National Counter- terrorism Center (NCTC). That body count surely is rising rapidly as many nations take part in the stepped-up war against global terrorism. The specter of terrorists unleashing weapons of mass destruction (biological and chemical agents and radioactive dirty bombs that sicken, injure, and kill huge numbers of people) conjures up scenarios of incalculable damage, which underscores how the potential threat posed

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