The Continually Expanding Definition of Terrorism

Brian Church (L), 20, Brent Vincent Betterly (C), 24 and Jared Chase, 24, are seen in these handout photos from the Chicago Police department. The three anti-NATO protesters were charged with terrorism last week for an alleged plot that involved the production and use of Molotov cocktails. A lawyer for the men has said that the incendiary materials were planted by undercover agents.

Public Intelligence

Though the United States has been engaged in a Global War on Terror for more than a decade, the U.S. Government surprisingly does not have a standardized definition of terrorism that is agreed upon by all agencies.  The State Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and a number of other government agencies all utilize differing definitions of what constitutes an act of terrorism. This lack of agreement has allowed individual agencies to present different and, in some cases, far more inclusive definitions of terrorist acts enabling the use of expanded investigative procedures that might not be applicable in other agencies.

The FBI utilizes a definition of terrorism based upon the agency’s general functions under 28 CFR § 0.85.  Under this regulation an act of terrorism is defined by “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 USA PATRIOT Act expanded this definition to include domestic acts within the definition of terrorism.  Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act modified the legal definition of terrorism (18 USC § 2331) to include a category of “domestic terrorism” that is defined by “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State” intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population”, “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” or “affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” that are conducted primarily within the jurisdiction of the U.S.  At the time, this expansion of the definition of terrorism was decried by the ACLU as “broad enough to encompass the activities of several prominent activist campaigns and organizations.”

One of the defining features of terrorist acts has always been a component of violence.  Even under the expanded definition of terrorism created by the USA PATRIOT Act, there must be an act that is “dangerous to human life” indicating some form of physical harm to others could arise from the action.  However, the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Department of Homeland Security, extended the definition of terrorism further by including any act that is “damaging to critical infrastructure or key resources.”  Though this definition differs from the legal definition of international and domestic terrorism under 18 USC § 2331, the modified definition is currently used by DHS as the basis for their own activities and intelligence products that are disseminated to federal, state and local law enforcement. The modified definition of terrorism is presented in a revised Domestic Terrorism and Homegrown Violent Extremism Lexicon published last year by DHS:

Any activity that involves an act that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive to critical infrastructure or key resources, and is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state or other subdivision of the United States and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

Notice that the statement “potentially destructive to critical infrastructure or key resources” is part of a disjunction, indicating that the act need not be “dangerous to human life” for it to be considered an act of terrorism.  This means that, according to DHS, a non-violent actor could be capable of committing an act of terrorism simply by engaging in “potentially destructive” behavior towards some part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.  Due to the fact that large sections of domestic infrastructure, including everything from banks to bridges to milk processing plants, are now considered critical infrastructure, a wide range of “potentially destructive” actions could be investigated by DHS or any one of the dozens of fusion centers around the country as potential acts of terrorism.  The DHS Domestic Terrorism Lexicon states that the definitions presented in the document are designed to “assist federal, state, and local government officials with the mission to detect, identify, and understand threats of terrorism against the United States by facilitating a common understanding of the terms and definitions that describe terrorist threats to the United States.”

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service states that this ambiguity in the definition of terrorism can create confusion “in the investigative process regarding exactly when criminal activity becomes domestic terrorism.”  The report also notes that the government often uses the terms “extremist” and “terrorist” interchangeably creating further ambiguity as to what exactly constitutes an act of terrorism.  A 2009 study from Syracuse University found that U.S. Federal District Courts, the Department of Justice’s National Security Division and federal prosecutors all rely on different criteria to determine whether or not specific cases involve terrorist acts.  This lack of agreement has led to widespread failures to obtain prosecutions of suspects recommended for charges by investigative agencies.  In fact, the study found that from 2004-2009 “assistant United States attorneys all over the country declined to bring any charges against two out of every three (67%) of the thousands of terrorism matters that the investigative agencies had recommended for criminal prosecution.”  The Syracuse study ends with a warning about the ambiguity surrounding the definition of terrorism:

The strong evidence that various parts of the government do not share a common understanding about terrorism has important consequences for all Americans. Those most immediately affected are the thousands of people whom the investigative agencies each year incorrectly recommend for prosecution in federal court. But to the extent that the investigators systematically waste their time targeting the wrong suspects, the chances increase that they will fail to identify the real terrorists who right now may be seeking to plant bombs, spread poisons or otherwise harm a much larger number of innocent people.

To solve these problems the study offers a surprisingly straightforward solution: come up with “a clear and understandable definition of terrorism.”

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14 comments for “The Continually Expanding Definition of Terrorism

  1. NoTownKasper
    May 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    Oh for fuck’s sake…who wrote this drivel? There is no ambiguity except among people looking for a loophole to exploit. If you engage in violence for political ends and are not a member of an active, government sponsored military, you are a terrorist. Guess what? That includes these idiots and their mollies.

    This whole article reeks of some petulant child, throwing a tantrum because they’re finally being forced to behave. “Planted by undercover agents”? Are you serious?

    Yeah…every time some so-called ‘activist’ gets what they deserve…it’s because of illicit action by law enforcement…it couldn’t possibly be that these idiotic fucking anarchists were actually planning something. Look at them for crying out loud. They’re trash.

    • Jake
      May 23, 2012 at 11:33 pm

      The whole point of this article was to point out that pretty much ANYTHING that you do that might be illegal can be an act of terrorism now. You can egg a solar panel as a joke and be charged with “domestic terrorism” Gimme a break. 15 yrs. ago it would be considered a childish prank and MAYBE get charged with a simple misdemeaner. Now, you can go to jail for years. This SHIT is getting out of control. Their need to be a UNIVERSAL concensus on what “terrorism” is or corrupt politicians, Government agencies, and down to local police, will use it to further their ambitions and needs. Aso, don’t be so shallow about looks. Are you saying “If they look like a terrorist they are a terrorist?” As for planting evidence, who knows, thats why their are judges and jurys.

      • michaeljbeglinjr
        July 15, 2012 at 5:11 pm

        THE AMERICAN hit it right on the head. He summed it up with one sentence. It’s a shame nobody “important” will pay attention to it. It’s just the voters who want their Representatives to do their jobs. The politicians have ignored us for so long, they wouldn’t know how to even listen to us. Our government is getting drunk on power.

    • TheAmerican
      May 24, 2012 at 8:49 pm

      Dear Mr. Oh for fucks sake,
      This is important so pay attention. As an American, YOU not only have the right to question, but the DUTY to question and rise against this government. This comes from our founding fathers who did want the American way of life to change back to what it was in England. So what is sad about this whole “terrorist” thing is that any American who rises up against the government and questions them, will be procecuted as a terrorist. Well to quote you, “Oh for fuck’s sake”. This government has too much power and sticks their nose into other country’s business in order to gain mineral rights, and cheap good. Our foreign policy sucks. And now, with those starements, I have become a terrorist …
      PAy off the debt, and mind our own business. Its just that simple.

    • Roosterfire
      March 3, 2013 at 9:40 pm

      I must subscribe to your journalism page NoTownKasper, your bright and intuitive retort are just the patriotic ignorance I was looking for.

  2. NoTownKasper
    May 23, 2012 at 6:36 pm


    The days of being able to throw a tantrum because you didn’t get what you want are coming to an end. Deal with it.

    • Public Intelligence
      May 23, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      You should try actually reading the article next time.

  3. May 23, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    I agree, read the article and reflect on it instead of flaming far-right conservative comments. Judging others solely by their looks? Are you kidding?

    Considering the fact that there is no all agreed upon definition of what actually constitues a terroristic act I see opening a wide loophole for whatever some agency considers ‘out of the line’.

    Some day it even may be deemed a terroristic act to have or express an opinion that doesn’t align with the the course of government or some multinational corporation… all thanks to “the continually expanding definition of terrorism”

    Greetings from Germany

  4. WGO
    May 27, 2012 at 3:01 am

    It’s not worth our while to respond to the inflammatory remarks made by the likes of ‘NoTownKasper’ who is almost definitely among one of many employees of many outsourced companies contracted by DoD or some subsidiary thereof to do exactly what he/she is doing.. trying to counteract sources of good, relevant & sane information like this that calls into question the decency and legality of this terrorism witch hunt.

    I’ve come across them time and time again on just about every website there is worth visiting and on Twitter regarding any significant political topic. They’re stance is obvious and this one is more so than most – it’s such a ridiculous statement that we really must refrain from taking it seriously and responding. I can’t stand the idea of good people allowing themselves to be affected by these sponsored attacks. What we really should be responding to is the fact that every American citizen is paying for this via taxes!

    Keep the faith people and don’t get derailed by non-logical arguments – or plain and pathetic statements such as the very first one regarding this article that most people should see.

    Instead – send this article out as far and wide as you possibly can. Let’s put our energies into reaching people who really should know this and empowering them by doing so.

    Solidarity & Peace

  5. a US libertarian
    May 27, 2012 at 5:40 am

    This war on terror has spiralled out of control and will continue spiralling further and further out of control until people in the United States come to their senses and understand what is happening in the country and the economical, political, social and religious forces which cause it to continue.

    Despite the ludicrous and idiotic nature of much of what has transpired within the country, much of what has transpired has transpired by the consent of a majority of the population, consent in most cases given due to ignorance of the subject or due to failure to complain at times complaint is due.

    “He who does not condemn condones”. – Unknown

  6. Don Barksdale
    June 2, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    No Town Kasper: The days of being able to walk around free, say what you want, have a good job, look out for your family (unless you’re a cop), do much of anything without having the gestapo tracking you are coming to an end.
    I’m not a friend of anarchists, but at least they are doing SOMETHING. Geniuses like you think that when the boot comes down, they will leave you alone because you’re a good Boy Scout. Ha!

  7. A U.S. Libertarian
    June 3, 2012 at 1:32 am

    @bickering users
    @Anyone else listening

    Please, everyone, calm down. Fighting amongst ourselves is not a productive way to reverse any of the terrible policies in our country.

    We must all be civil, ignore the trolls, and all work together to think of something to reverse this trend if it will ever be reversed at all.

    If we allow users who intend on disrupting our efforts to derail us into fighting with them and eachother, what have we achieved?

    This is not the way that will restore the Constitution to its former self, this is not the way to free the country again.

    The true way to get what we want is for all of us who agree something is wrong to get together, online or offline, and all of us have a serious discussion on what is wrong with the nation and how to fix it.

    We must all discuss this issue with eachother with an open mind and hand, and not with a shut mind, an angry tongue, and a closed fist.

    What was the old comment about houses and division?

    • Roosterfire
      March 3, 2013 at 9:44 pm

      Wiser than I my friend, I hope your approach can find a way to break the hypnotic like state of patriotic drones; who will be the ones handing us over as terrorists.

  8. ellen fields
    March 26, 2014 at 12:34 am

    I know for a fact that the police are more interested in protecting individuals involved in the government and in their own police force. I reside in Forest,Va and presently being terrorized by individuals using a mechanical device shocking my bed. The police are aware of this and doing nothing! Va. law defines terrorism as an action against the government and insurgents therein. I have reported it to Homeland Security and nothing has been done about it. I believe because I appear as unimportant to them and as long as its not happening to them and their families. I would appreciate any individuals comments on this situation.

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