What is “Terrorism”

You don’t have to play linguistic nihilism against your opponent, when they play it against themselves better and harder than you do.

Back around 2000, I was working on the “homeland security” beat, I thought it’d be a good idea to make sure that when I described something as “terrorism” I knew what I was talking about. Naturally, I thought, the FBI are the agency that would define “terrorism” since they are the lead agency for investigating both foreign and domestic. I mean, you have to know what something is in order to prosecute someone for it, right? You can’t just collect a case file of evidence related to a crime, turn it over to a federal or state prosecutor along with a prisoner, and say, “prosecute them for, uh, wossname.”

Under the French absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV, there was a thing called a “lettre de cachet” – basically, a monarchial directive to the court system that said, “try this guy, find him guilty, and lock him away.” That was nothing new (or old) – in this – it’s the process of making a “political prisoner” or “disappearing someone.” The entire facade of a system of justice is to prevent exactly that sort of thing; this is the “rule of law” that US politicians talk about as if it’s right up there with baseball, NFL football, and Facebook. The argument, then, is that you don’t have a “rule of law” or a justice system if you cannot define what is a crime, and what isn’t: you simply have autocratic rule under cover of justice. The Bastille in Paris was the prison where the king of France kept his political prisoners, and the revolution is marked from the day when the Paris citizens rose, stormed the prison, and freed the prisoners. It was mob justice when they beat the jailers to death; ICE agents take note.

Freeing the prisoners and murdering the warden at the Bastille; A good start. Things immediately went into the weeds.

The FBI recently said that it had been prosecuting ${rnd(100)} white supremacy cases so far this year. Then, it said that it didn’t really track that stuff. Then they tried to throw up their hands and say that they really don’t know what any of this stuff is and it’s really hard to count it. [stderr] Congress and the press appeared to accept that as evidence that the FBI is on the job and all’s right in the world. See? Justice is being done.

When the FBI today pretends that they don’t track white supremacist violence, or domestic terrorism, or ${whatever} they are lying. They used to regularly publish reports about terrorism. [fbi.gov]

2002 In Review

The FBI recorded seven domestic terrorist incidents, one international terrorist incident, and one terrorism prevention in 2002. The seven domestic terrorism incidents included a string of attacks over a period of several months claimed by special interest movements. These attacks are attributed either solely to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an extremist environmental movement active in the United States during the past 20 years, or jointly to the ELF and the Animal Liberation Front, an extremist animal rights movement that has carried out numerous terrorist attacks since 1987. The international terrorist incident involved fatal shootings at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport.

In the one terrorism prevention, law enforcement in Florida exposed a plot to attack Islamic facilities in the United States in response to international events, including the September 11 attacks.

Two deaths resulted from terrorist activity carried out in the United States in 2002.

A major international terrorist incident during 2002 involved the October 12 bombing of the Kuta Beach nightclub area on Bali, Indonesia. The attack, carried out by the Jemaah Islamiya, a terrorist organization active in Southeast Asia, resulted in 202 deaths, including those of seven Americans.

Oh, how awkward. The FBI is saying sotto voce that Earth First!/ELF are the domestic terrorists that matter. And, they managed to prevent an attack on a muslim facility in Florida. Wait – I thought only muslims did that sort of terrorism and here we have muslims being the target of a terror attack that the FBI itself scored as a “terror prevention” success. [splc][see below divider]

Hoover would roll over in his grave if there was a woman FBI agent, or a brown one

But that’s all aside from the point. The reason that report is interesting is because the FBI is writing a report about something that they declare within the report that they’re not sure what it is:

From its inception the FBI’s counterterrorism program has had a mission to prevent planned acts of terrorism and, should a terrorist act occur, to mount a swift investigative response. During the first 75 years after the Bureau’s founding in 1908, the terrorist threat to the United States came primarily from domestic sources. In recent decades, however, the problem of terrorism has developed into an international and global concern, and the FBI’s counterterrorism program has evolved significantly as its counterterrorism responsibilities have increased. As a result, the FBI has steadily improved its ability to assess and counter the dynamic variety of domestic and international terrorist threats. The following summary provides a brief discussion of the definition of terrorism, followed by an historical overview of the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts – from discrete, ad hoc responses to terrorist threats to its current top priority status – through a retrospective of the formative events and legislative initiatives that have contributed to its development.

[emphasis mine]

Here you go:

Over the past several decades, the United States has begun to articulate terrorism as a distinctive category of criminal activity. The United States Code (USC) uses several definitions of terrorism that address specific legal situations, all of which have entered into the legal lexicon only since the 1970s. The FBI subdivides the terrorist threat facing the United States into the broad categories of international and domestic terrorism, each of which involves violent acts intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, or influence the policy or conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. In cases of international terrorism, these acts transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they intend to intimidate, or the locale in which perpetrators operate (18 USC § 2331(1)). In cases of domestic terrorism, the FBI defines the source of coercion as a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States, or its territories, without foreign direction (18 USC § 2331(5)). These legal definitions revolve around terrorism as coercion – as a violent means to a political end.

Seems like a pretty straightforward definition, then: a crime of violence committed for political ends is “terrorism.”

That was 2005, back when the FBI knew what “terrorism” was and tracked it. I suspect that too many people asked “how is ‘terrorism’ different from what the CIA does?” which is a good question. It’s such a good question that the FBI subsequently un-defined terrorism and decided that the term hasn’t got a definition. Here’s the FBI on “terrorism” in 2019: [fbi.gov]

International terrorism: Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).
– for example, the December 2, 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, CA, that killed 14 people and wounded 22 which involved a married couple who radicalized for some time prior to the attack and were inspired by multiple extremist ideologies and foreign terrorist organizations.

Domestic terrorism: Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.
– for example, the June 8, 2014 Las Vegas shooting, during which two police officers inside a restaurant were killed in an ambush-style attack, which was committed by a married couple who held anti-government views and who intended to use the shooting to start a revolution.

“International terrorism” is defined as “terrorism by international terrorists.” Do not pass Philosophy 101, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Definition by example is also sloppiness – is it “terrorism” if you kill two police officers exactly? What about 10? I’m being facetious, but this is important: the FBI is a part of the Department of Justice and is responsible for defining and building cases regarding criminal activity. You simply can’t say, “if it’s kinda like this, it’s terrorism.” The rest of the legal code is not that vague. The reason it can’t be that vague is so that you can argue in a court of law that “terrorism” is what this suspect did, and it’s not what the CIA does because the CIA does things for ${reasons} that are different from what the suspect did.

Basically, I think the FBI is right, in a sense – “terrorism” is political violence. The violence, in civil society is illegal under criminal laws. Declaring the violence to be “terrorism” is just adding superflous information. Suppose eating cake was illegal. It is not necessary to charge a cake-eater with “eating chocolate cake” – the crime is “eating cake.” Unless the fact that the cake was chocolate somehow adds to the seriousness of the crime, then leave that part out. If chocolate cake needs to be particularly illegal, then there needs to be a definition of “chocolate” cake in specific and how to determine when you’re dealing with it and what additional penalties apply for chocolate cake as opposed to angel’s food (which is already illegal to eat under the “eating cake” law) – it’s pretty straightforward.

The FBI then punches its credibility in the face:

Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs): The FBI, however, can’t focus solely on the terrorist threat emanating from overseas – we also must identify those sympathizers who have radicalized and become HVEs within the U.S. and aspire to attack our nation from within. HVEs are defined by the Bureau as global-jihad-inspired individuals who are based in the U.S., have been radicalized primarily in the U.S., and are not directly collaborating with a foreign terrorist organization. Currently, the FBI is investigating suspected HVEs in every state.

[emphasis mine]

OH LOOK, the KKK can’t possibly be “Homegrown Violent Extremists” because they are a group, not individuals and they are not jihad-inspired.

They even offer some of the history of the agency:

Following two significant anarchist bombing attacks in the spring of 1919, the U.S. Department of Justice established a General Intelligence Division, headed by J. Edgar Hoover, to gather and analyze intelligence concerning communist, anarchist, and other radical threats in the United States. In 1920, the General Intelligence Division was incorporated into what was then known as the Bureau of Investigation. Hoover continued to head the division and was appointed the Bureau’s Assistant Director under Director William Burns (1922-24), a position he held until his own appointment as Director, a position he held from 1924 to 1972. Discontinued at that time, the division was re-established in 1935 to monitor communist and fascist activities.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ordered Hoover to go after the KKK. Prior to that, the FBI had more or less ignored the existence of the KKK and only occasionally investigated incidents as specific crimes. (I.e.: “Look there’s a dead guy over there hanging from that tree. Maybe it was a murder. Let’s check it out!”)

When Johnson ordered Hoover to go after the KKK, Hoover spun up the program known as COINTELPRO, which depended on getting agents into extremist movements. Years later, when activists did a black bag job on an FBI field office and raided their files, it was disclosed that the FBI COINTELPRO program had been targeting:

  • Peace marchers
  • The Weather Underground and the SDS [OK, weather underground was doing bombings]
  • The Black Panthers
  • Environmentalists

Hoover was a bigoted self-hating piece of shit, who ran the FBI for his entire adult life: 1924 – 1972. He was a block-headed thug who ran the FBI as his personal police force and maintained kompromat on politicians, and investigated members of other agencies in order to keep score or earn brownie points with various corrupt presidents. His greatest skill was choosing his alliances well for self-promotion: the FBI invented Hollywood “outreach” and were rewarded with decades of schlock hagiography theater representing the FBI as amazing steely-eyed professionals, not christofascists. That’s a long and impressive legacy of corruption and ineptitude. The FBI made a big deal out of the high level professionalism of its agents but:

In 1921, Hoover rose in the Bureau of Investigation to deputy head and, in 1924, the Attorney General made him the acting director. On May 10, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Hoover as the fifth Director of the Bureau of Investigation, partly in response to allegations that the prior director, William J. Burns, was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal.When Hoover took over the Bureau of Investigation, it had approximately 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents. Hoover fired all female agents and banned the future hiring of them.

The Hoover FBI building still bears his name; it’s a fittingly ugly monument.

The FBI is still ignoring domestic extremism and is still investigating NODAPL protesters and Antifa. Authoritarians don’t need to know what “terrorism” is. Let me ask you: do you think the FBI is scary? Do they use fear to manipulate political attitudes? Who is a “terrorist”?

------ divider ------

The Florida incident (Florida Man strikes again!)

When Robert Goldstein threatened to kill his wife, police investigated and discovered a plot to attack Islamic targets in Florida.

Strange to say, but a lot of Floridians were glad in retrospect that Dr. Robert Goldstein, a Jewish podiatrist in the small Gulf Coast town of Seminole, threatened to kill his wife in August.
When police came to investigate the Goldsteins’ marital troubles, Kristi Goldstein authorized a search of their townhouse. It turned out to be quite a search.

Dr. Goldstein, 37, had rigged the place with trip wires and surveillance cameras — and the cops soon found out why. They say the podiatrist was plotting a series of attacks on Islamic targets in Florida. Investigators found a scrupulously detailed, three-page “mission template” with a schematic plan for the first bombing. The objective: “Kill all ‘rags’ at this Islamic Education Center.”

Goldstein did seem ready to kill. Authorities seized 20 live bombs, two light rockets, a .50-caliber sniper rifle, an assortment of assault rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition. They also found a typed list of some 50 Islamic worship centers across the Sunshine State.

Watch out for those podiatrists. They can get hardcore. That’s not “domestic terrorism” that’s “podiatrists gone wild.”


  1. says

    The only consistent definition of terrorist throughout history has been, “Any person or people that prevents us from acting, doing and getting what we want with impunity.” Nebulous definitions allow for nebulous limits of acceptable actions, which is why it’s never clearly defined.

    To quote from the movie, “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007):

    Pamela Landy (Joan Allen): “You do not have the authority to kill her.”
    Noah Vosen (David Straithairn): “Oh yes I do! And you had better get on board.”
    Landy: “Noah, she’s one of us. You start down this path, where does it end?”
    Vosen: “It ends when we’ve won.”

    Without any definition of what “winning” means.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    A huge missing piece of the picture is the Obama administration (specifically Janet Napolitano) caving to conservative whining about a leaked DHS report on the dangers of right-wing terrorism, along the lines of “how dare you suggest that conservatives could be terrorists?”. Napolitano actually apologized for the expressed concern that returning veterans could be recruited by right-wing extremists, and shut down further investigation. That was 10 years ago.

  3. says

    Yes, Rob and Tabby are correct. I should have mentioned it.

    The US military is full of christian nationalists and violence nihilists. They wear code tattoos and patches and other recognition signs – that became a problem when DHS analysts mentioned that if you see someone wearing a “come get them” tattoo it’s more or less the same as an MS13 member wearing a gang tattoo. Then, the shit was really in the fan.

    Its hard to deny you have a white supremacist problem when they post selfies of themselves in uniform toting government-issued military weapons. Tim McVeigh etc.

    Don’t hurt their feelings, though! They are fine people!

  4. says

    Marcus wrote:

    I thought, the FBI are the agency that would define “terrorism” …

    Isn’t that the job of your parliament?

    As an example, from the German Strafgesetzbuch (Penal Code):

    § 278c StGB Terrorist offense
    (1) Terrorist offenses are
    1. Murder (§ 75),
    2. Criminal assaults according to §§ 83 to 87,

    10. …
    if the deed is suited to induce a severe or longer lasting disturbance of public life, or to induce severe damage to economic life; and is committed with the intent to intimidate the general public profoundly, to coerce public administrations, or to severly unsettle or destroy the political, constitutional, economic or social fundaments of a country or an international organisation. …

    § 278b StGB Terrorist organisations …

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    I never saw anyone point this out in the major commercial media, but couldn’t help but notice it over and over in ’03: the definitions of “terrorism” as violence-for-political-intimidation and the justifications for the Bush “shock and awe” military doctrines overlapped just about perfectly.

  6. says

    @Pierce R. Butler: remember all the fanfare about “we are going to drop the Mother Of All Bombs on you while you cower there in your trenches”? That wasn’t terrorism. That was “regime change”!

  7. says

    That wasn’t terrorism. That was “regime change”!

    Of course. What did you expect? That’s how labels always work. One side’s “freedom fighters” are the other side’s “terrorists.”

  8. dangerousbeans says

    IMO, seems like terrorism is non-state violence with political aims, as opposed to just punching some dude in the pub.
    Which doesn’t avoid the question of how is what the CIA or cops do any different, but instead makes it clear that the answer is “because we are the ones doing it and we are giving ourselves permission to do it”.
    Which fits with Jörg’s definition @6

  9. says

    I wish they’d just call it what it is – violation of the state’s monopoly on political violence.

    (Edit: Including violating the state’s monopoly on political violence by using political violence against the state itself; they really really hate that one.)

  10. dangerousbeans says

    calling it terrorism and saying that the state is busy keeping people safe from it seems like a better way to frame the discussion, for them at least :\

  11. says

    Today I saw <a href="https://www.facebook.com/NowThisPolitics/videos/481762205733201/"this video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioning McGarrity of the FBI as to why they don’t label white supremacy as terrorism. His answer reeks of historical ignorance and racism, spewing nonsense like “the Pulse shooter had links to al qaeda and isis” but ignoring the link of american white supremacy to white terrorist acts in Europe and New Zealand.

    The Symbionese Liberation Army and Weather Underground were white people and labelled home grown terrorists. The Front de libération du Québec were white Canadians and labelled home grown terrorists. When did white people stop being capable of terrorism?

    The unwillingness to say white spremacists are terrorists most likely began in the 1990s with the rise of anti-choice bombers and shooters, blowing up buildings and murdering doctors. In 1998, Eric Rudolph was convicted of bombings, not terrorism, even though the Olympic Park bombing was labelled a terrorist act.

  12. dangerousbeans says

    When did white people stop being capable of terrorism?

    When white terrorism started lining up with the state’s interests. There was a case here in Australia where a white dude killed an Indigenous kid (Elijah Doughty), because Elijah stole the dude’s dirtbike. This is (arguably) terrorism, because the dude is involved in “violent acts intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population”. It’s just consistent the settler state’s goals towards Indigenous people.

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