Terrorism: Crime or Asymmetrical Warfare?
Thus it is said that one who knows the enemy
and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
The definition of a
dictates our response. For instance, while responding to a robbery-in-progress
call you and your partner should be formulating your tactical plans. Indeed, as
you receive more information, perhaps from dispatch, other units or air support,
you change your plans based on the information. In addition to affecting your
tactical plans, the definition of a crime may also change your investigative
approach. When investigating a homicide or sexual assault crime, investigators
typically begin with the victim. On the other hand, with a property crime, we
tend to focus initially on the crime scene. Even our methods of prevention
change by the definition of crime. How many times have you heard victims tell
you their house was robbed? They dont mean that two men booted the door
brandishing handguns. They usually mean that someone jimmied the rear sliding
glass door and snuck in while they were away. Of course, we know a robbery
didnt occur - a burglary occurred. By properly defining the crime, we can
offer the victim some prevention methods.
This series of six
explores terrorism and the first responder. In this introductory article, we
will begin by exploring the definition of terrorism with the expectation that a
clearer definition of terrorism, what is a terrorist act, and what is terrorist
activity, will make us more effective. By the end of the series, we will have
explored a variety of terrorist-related subjects, culminating with a look at how
and possibly why terrorism has changed dramatically in the last three decades.
Beginning with the FBIs Definition
hotly debate the definition of terrorism. Indeed, from certain standpoints one
persons terrorist could be anothers freedom fighter
. For some, terrorism is Asymmetrical Warfare, such as, a weaker opponent
using unconventional tactics against a stronger, more conventional foe
. In Asymmetrical Warfare terms like Guerilla Fighter, Insurgent or
Revolutionary describe those fighting against an established government. On a
national policy level, it will be very important to differentiate between
national liberation movements and terrorism. As a country, the United States has
found ourselves supporting some national liberation movements and at other
times, supporting embattled governments. However, several aspects of terrorism
and terrorists differentiate them from ordinary revolutionaries and criminals.
Furthermore, for domestic law enforcement it may be more important to
concentrate on the difference between terrorism and traditional crime. For
purposes of this series of articles, we will be exploring and building on the
Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) definition of domestic terrorism:
Domestic terrorism refers to activities
that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal
laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate
or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by mass
destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and, occur primarily within the
territorial jurisdiction of the United States
Motive Makes the Difference
A primary part of this definition that
separates terrorists from ordinary criminals is motive. For someone to commit a
terrorist act his or her motivation must be a social, political or religious
cause. The term religious cause is added to the definition because there is
significant evidence to believe that religious motives are dramatically changing
the nature of terrorism. For instance, in his study on mass casualty bombers,
found a religious motivation can be identified in not only the majority of
cases (47), but also in a majority of the casualties (3,952).
So, a street gang or members of organized crime might terrorize a neighborhood,
but since their primary motive is personal gain or perhaps revenge, and not a
social, political or religious cause, they are not terrorists.
A Crime is a Crime
The next critical component
the definition is the occurrence of a crime. Holding, espousing and, in some
ways, acting on radical political, social or religious beliefs is not a crime.
An individual or a group can hold radical political beliefs and express them in
a lawful manner. A typical instance might be a lawful demonstration. In later
articles, when we look closer at the difference between a terrorist incident and
terrorist activity, we will see that some types of lawful activity (for
instance, buying on-way airline tickets) can be an indicator of an impending
terrorist incident. Instances of lawful activity supporting criminal activity
if often found in the investigation of organized crime.
Fear is the Purpose
The third key component
definition of terrorism is the intention to intimidate or coerce a civilian
. According to Pain, not any political extremism can be called terrorism but
only that one which admits (and really practices) politically motivated violence
against a civil population
. Terrorist commit acts of violence against civilians in order to produce
fear. Often, the savage violence and seemingly random selection of victims is
what causes the fear. This fear may be similar to the fear created by hate
crimes. While burglary traumatizes the victim, generally it does not extend
beyond their neighbors and ultimately recedes from everyones memories. If you
are the victim of a burglary, you have options that decrease the likelihood that
you will be a victim again. You have some power over the situation. However,
victims of hate/bias crimes are particular sensitive and unsettled because they
feel powerless to alter the situation since they cannot change their racial or
For both terrorist and hate crimes, everyone
who is in the victims group feels similarly unsettled because the random nature
of the violence means they have an equal chance of becoming a victim. Consider,
for example, that after September 11th, nearly everyone who had flown
on a commercial airliner thought to himself or herself about what they would
have done, what it would have been like. Nearly everyone who works or visits a
high-rise building had similar thoughts. It was not just the devastation and
violence with which these acts were committed, but it was also the randomness
and the normality of the locations that made us fearful. In other words,
victimization was random and solely based on membership in the group being
attacked - the United States of America. Anyone of us could have been a
victim. As Mylonaki observed, terrorism is designed to have far-reaching
psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target.
Like the victim of a hate crime, we are all in it together.
The definition of terrorism could be stated
as a crime motivated by political, social or religious beliefs that is designed
to cause widespread fear. Implicit in this definition is that the victims are
non-combatants and the perpetrators are criminals. For domestic law
enforcement, it does not matter if the victim is in uniform or the location a
military/government building a crime is a crime. Moreover, the strength of
American law enforcement is its ability to respond to criminal incidents,
investigate and bring the suspects to justice.
Using the definition explored in this
article, we can begin to look at tactical responses, investigative techniques
and prevention. While a crime is a crime, the type and definition of crime and
the criminals helps to guide our response as law enforcement professionals.
Throughout this series of articles, we will be approaching the subject of
terrorism through the lens of this definition in order to aid police officers,
detectives and police managers in deterring, investigating and responding to
About the Author
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster retired from
the Los Angeles Police Department after 24 years of service. He is the author of
Police Technology (Prentice Hall, July 2004) and numerous articles on
technology, leadership, terrorism and policing. Raymond is a part-time lecture
at California State University, Fullerton and a part-time faculty advisor at the
Union Institute and University. He has three current book projects. They are
on terrorism, policing and leadership. Raymonds complete CV can be viewed at
www.hitechcj.com/id55.html and he can be reached by email at
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