When determining if a violent act fits the criteria of a terrorist attack, identifying the perpetrator’s motivate is a key element. Individuals inspired by violent ideologies to commit heinous acts are also billed as terrorists even if that person never had direct contact with a member from a designated terrorist group. The U.S. also has laws prohibiting individuals from attempting to support terrorist organizations, and several U.S. citizens have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Mitch Silber, former Director of Intelligence Analysis at the NYPD to discuss his definition of terrorism and the policy ramifications of such a definition.
The Cipher Brief: How do you define terrorism?
Mitch Silber: The definition I work off of is: “politically motivated violence directed at civilians by non-state actors.”
To be crystal clear, to me, the Las Vegas shooting is not terrorism because no political motive has thus far been revealed. In this particular case, there was no political element to it. Terrorism is used to coerce some kind of action. This was mass murder.
TCB: What does it mean when someone is arrested on terrorist charges here in the U.S.?
Silber: The idea is that an individual or a group of individuals is going to provide material support to a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), whether it’s weapons, money, or even themselves as a foreign fighter. That is the most frequent cause for arrest of individuals on domestic terrorist charges.
The law which prohibits providing material support to FTOs – 18 U.S. Code § 2339A – is a federal statute. That’s the most frequently used mechanism for arresting people on terrorism-related charges. Law enforcement waits until people cross that line of doing something that meets the definition of providing material support to an FTO, and then that is what they are locked up for.
TCB: Does politically motivated violence undertaken by the extreme right fall under the category of terrorism?
Silber: Clearly there are real threats coming from the extreme right. They do have a political agenda, they are non-state actors, and they carry out attacks against civilians, so they do meet the criteria of terrorism.
Take anti-abortion violence for example. There is a political element to it, it is carried out by non-state actors, and it targets civilians who work at the clinics. So that clearly falls under the domestic rubric of terrorism.
TCB: Does citizenship play a role when considering whether to target terrorists abroad, such as in the case of the 2011 drone strike carried out against al Qaeda cleric and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen?
Silber: I’m sure there are different opinions out there on this topic, but the bottom line on Anwar al-Awlaki is not that difficult. He is a person who essentially switched his loyalty from the U.S. to an enemy of the U.S., and therefore, in my mind, was fair game to be killed on the battlefield. To me, it’s not any different than if an American had signed up to fight for the Wehrmacht in World War II and was killed by an American tank shell. Once you’ve pledged your loyalty to an enemy with whom the U.S. is at war, it’s relatively straightforward.
TCB: Does violence perpetrated by lone wolf actors who carry out their attacks in the name of terrorist organizations but who may not necessarily have a political motive still constitute terrorism?
Silber: Whether someone is acting alone or with another person or two, it doesn’t make that much of a difference to me. Too much emphasis is being placed on this concept of lone wolves and more often than not, the individual was not totally alone anyway. He or she may be part of a virtual, online community and then decide to act on his or her own. So that person may be a lone actor but not a lone wolf.
The other important question is what motivated a person to commit this act of violence? Were they inspired to act by ISIS’ message? Were they following ISIS’ ideology online? Were they liking ISIS Tweets and or liking the group on Facebook? Were they promoting the ISIS and al Qaeda worldview?
If someone says that they are inspired by ISIS or al Qaeda, then it’s just as legitimate of a terrorist act as if they received a direct message from al Qaeda or ISIS to carry out an operation. It’s also the operational relationship with the FTO – are they directly commanded and controlled by them? Do they follow their advice? Or are they inspired by them?
If you look at the shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando, we are still learning more, but it appears that in both of those cases, the perpetrators were inspired to act on behalf of ISIS.
TCB: Bottom line, what constitutes the definition of terrorism really hinges on the motive and whether that motive is political?
Silber: As far as I’m concerned, motivation is the key, which is why so much effort is being focused on Las Vegas to see if there was that type of political motivation and to better understand the context of it. But political motivation is the key differentiator between criminal violence and terrorism.