What Defines a Terrorist? Motive Matters.

Las Vegas Mandaley Bay
Photo: Jose Sanchez/AP

The attacks of Sept. 11th seared the chaos and violence of terrorism into Americans’ consciousness, rendering the term terrorism synonymous with the international jihadist movement. But it’s also frequently applied to acts of mass-casualty violence, like the recent lone gunman assault in Las Vegas, which misses the point that terrorism is a violent tactic with a political goal.

Terrorism is the creation of a psychological effect – terror – to create a political effect of changing the target’s actions. While attacks inspired and perpetrated by ISIS members and sympathizers in Manchester, London, San Bernardino and elsewhere are considered terrorism for their political motivations – namely to resist Western military presence in the Middle East and coerce withdrawal – the level of sheer violence might not meet that of the recent shooting in Las Vegas. But the amount of human harm caused, rather than a political motive behind the violence, is not the defining feature of terrorism.

“While definitions for terrorism differ, the overwhelming majority of them distinguish terrorism from other crimes of violence by the purpose of the actor, not the severity of the harm caused,” said Robert Eatinger, the former Senior Deputy General Counsel at the CIA.

Following the mass shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month, in which 58 people were killed and another 489 injured, some have sought to portray the shooter, Stephen Paddock, as an individual who committed an “act of terror.”

But while commentators consistently refer to heinous acts of violence as “acts of terror,” there remains a level of ambiguity of what the term “terrorism” actually means.

“To be crystal clear, to me the Las Vegas shooting is not terrorism because there was no political motive,” said Mitch Silber, the former Director of Intelligence Analysis for the New York Police Department. “In this particular case, there was no political element to it. Terrorism is used to coerce some kind of action. This was mass murder.”

Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University and author of Insider Terrorism, agrees that political motive is necessary, defining terrorism as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.”

The unifying theme of most expert definitions? Terrorism is inherently political. But not all entities adhere to that definition. For example, in Nevada – the legal jurisdiction in which the mass shooting took place – state law does not require the criteria of political.

“Paddock’s act appears to fall squarely within Nevada’s definition of an act of terrorism, but that does not mean the act was terrorism,” said Eatinger. But if we accept that an “act of terrorism” is the same definition of “terrorism,” then something that is not an act of terrorism is therefore not terrorism. Thus, under Nevada’s legal definition, “the murder of a single person on the streets of Las Vegas by a member of al Qaeda whose specific purpose in committing that murder was to coerce the United States to withdraw its forces from the Middle East would not be terrorism,” Eatinger notes. “Yet, almost certainly, even Nevada law enforcement authorities would say that murder was terrorism.”

An act of terror, and terrorism itself, are not one and the same. Terrorism is, to varying degrees, part of a larger system of objectives and operations, not merely a one-off murderous rampage. “Is it systematic – of a sustained, planned and premeditated campaign of violence, which is another hallmark of terrorism; or just a serendipitous, spontaneous or episodic outburst of violence that has no political motive?” asks Hoffman.

But if terrorism is, at its core, about systemic political change, then how is it distinct from other forms of organized political violence – such as rebellion or insurgency?

It must be first noted that terrorism is often a label applied to an entity’s adversary to damage a group’s legitimacy. Successfully attaching the label of “terrorist’” to a group challenging one’s power becomes strategic – such as, for example, Syria’s Assad government labeling of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces rebel group and others as terrorists.

When not considered as a pejorative label, terrorism can be described as a tactic of the politically and conventionally weak. Groups challenging a state’s authority often use terrorism as part of a “survival phase.” The use of terrorism attempts to delegitimize the state’s claim to a monopoly on violence and goad it into overreactions – often including indiscriminate violence – that alienate specific groups, while terrorist forces attempt to legitimize themselves and harness the popular support of a disaffected society.

“Historically, smaller, numerically inferior, poorly armed entities have had to use terrorism as a tactic,” said Hoffman. “As groups grow larger, seize and control territory, exercise sovereignty over populations, and are able to more openly recruit, they become guerilla bands.”

If done strategically, terrorist groups can create the conditions for a more decisive clash by moving into the next two phases of political rebellion – the strategic stalemate and eventually the strategic offensive characterized by conventional confrontation, which is commonly thought of as classic insurgency and eventually civil war. In other words, terrorism is inherently about using fear to asymmetrically coerce others toward fundamental political change. Without a clear political motive as part of systematic effort toward a change in the relations of power, then a grotesque act of violence – whether it induces the emotion of terror or not – is simply that: a grotesque act of violence.

Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.

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