Different definitions, a wide variety of terrorist motivations and changing tactics make addressing terrorism a challenge.
A definition of terrorism is not as easy to come by as you may think. Defining terrorism can be as difficult as trying to understand it because there is no universally accepted definition.
Some cities have ordinances that define terroristic acts, states have statutes and various agencies of the federal government define terrorism differently.
For example, the U.S. State Department defines terrorism as “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”
The FBI’s definition is somewhat different: “The unlawful use of force or 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.”
And the Defense Department is different still: “The unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies. Terrorism is often motivated by religious, political or other ideological beliefs and committed in the pursuit of goals that are usually political.”
The point here is that there is no universally- accepted definition for acts of terrorism.
Generally, institutions of colleges and universities don’t have their own definitions of terrorism. They rely on state or federal guidelines when defining when violent acts are acts of terrorism. The location of the terroristic acts (government facility, shopping mall, church, college campus) is not as important as the motivation and intent of the perpetrators.
What differentiates college and university campuses is their openness and accessibility. Some reports indicate American campuses are targeted by threats of terrorism or terrorist acts every week.
There are few places better than a college campus for a terrorist to find a target-rich environment. Faculty, students and staff are generally unknown to one another, and their movements are extremely predictable due to class schedules.
At larger institutions, it is not uncommon for thousands of people to enter and exit buildings every hour or so. If an individual can enter a classroom and target classmates, professors and others, think of the success a terrorist would have at a football game, in the residence halls or the many other areas where people congregate on campus.
‘Lone Wolf’ Attacks on the Rise
If there are accepted legal definitions of terrorism and a relative degree of understanding among law enforcement professionals as to what constitutes an act of terrorism, why do official explanations and media coverage become so muddled following a related incident of violence? One reason is that the tactics of the criminal perpetrators — the individuals instigating terrorist acts — continue to change and evolve.
The 9/11 terrorists for example were organized by a cell or group, planning and carrying out their mission under the direction of an identifiable organization and leadership.
In contrast, the more recent incidents on U.S. soil, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, the Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting, the 2016 New York City Seaside bombing and the Ohio State University (OSU) vehicle/ knife attack were conducted by individuals acting alone or with another person and by all accounts on their own volition.
The popularized term used to describe these solo actors is “lone wolf.” They express outright support or some degree of sympathy for the causes espoused by recognized international terrorist organizations and the leaders who have declared jihad against the West.
In researching the characteristics of these offenders, Clark McCauley, Sophia Moskalenko and Benjamin Van Son explain in Characteristics of Lone-Wolf Violent Offenders: A Comparison of Assassins and School Attackers that “a lone-wolf terrorist plans and carries out an attack without assistance or organizational support.”
FBI Director James Comey noted the difficulty in heading off “lone-wolf” attackers acting on the Islamic States terrorist group’s calls for violence. He called this kind of inspired violence “the greatest threat to the physical safety of Americans.”
The determination of whether someone was inspired to action by a terrorist leader or organization becomes more subjective. Lisa Beyer of Bloomberg News acknowledged the differing definitions but outlined the basic criteria as “the perpetrator acts alone and without specific instructions; is politically motivated; and has no formal ties to an organization.”
Other common factors are that they hold resentments or other grievances and may display mental illness. In other words, there is a difference between being inspired and being directed.
The evidence of self-radicalization often includes an analysis of a perpetrator’s Internet use, contact or communication with others and even religious practices.
While there may be reasonable suspicion that a person harbored radical beliefs, a criminal investigation working toward criminal charges in a terrorism case may not acquire sufficient proof under a probable cause standard. How does this debate translate within the classrooms and halls of colleges and universities?
Labeling individuals as terrorists or subjectively assessing behavior is looked upon with suspicion, incredulity or even disdain in the diverse, open academic environment of the university setting. In a community with a high degree of diversity where debate and political action are encouraged, there is far more tolerance of views that call into question U.S. policies or challenge American culture.
Two days after the attack on OSU, campus staff member Stephanie Clemons Thompson, the assistant director of residence life in OSU’s office of student life university housing, posted a statement of support for the perpetrator Abdul Razak Ali Artan on Facebook. She described Artan as a Buckeye, and asked for members of the OSU community to come together and remember him as a student first.
A victim of the OSU attack, Professor Emeritus William Clark expressed to the student newspaper, The Lantern, restraint in judging his attacker.
“Before I pass judgment … I’d like to see what exactly the circumstances are and exactly why he took the course of action he chose,” he said.
KUOW reports that Will McCants, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, believes that we may need a new category.
Today’s violent jihadist threat is very different from those in the past. Followers appear more troubled and more confused about their intentions and motivations than their predecessors.
The reality is that college campuses are targets for attacks from a wide variety of terrorists with a wide variety of motives.
In his 2003 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI at that time, said that schools and universities were soft targets for multiple small-scale attacks. He went on to describe the threat as being from single individuals sympathetic or affiliated with terrorist organizations “acting without external support or surrounding conspiracies.”
Director Mueller could not have anticipated how accurate his analysis came to be with the November 2016 attack at OSU.
Terrorist Motivations Run the Gamut
The factors influencing an individual to act in deliberate and concerted ways are many and varied. The FBI divides threat motivations into five categories:
1. Political: These persons can be at either end of the ideological spectrum, right or left leaning. Their likely targets are government institutions, leaders or symbols.
2. Religious: These persons have a belief in a God-inspired mission and reward after death. Their targets may be other religious groups, public gatherings, etc.
3. Racial: These are more commonly identified as “hate groups.” Holding that a defined social order places one race over another, they act to oppress or eliminate others. Targets may be churches, individuals or organizations representing minority groups.
4. Environmental: Targeting business, technology or research, the goal of adherents is to slow down or stop what they believe to be harmful to the environment.
5. Special Interest: The catch-all category for groups that cannot be included in the other classifications. Examples of the issues would be animal rights or anti-abortion with targets being facilities, organizations or individuals that are counter to their cause.
What Sets Campus Terrorism Apart?
Based solely on the location, terrorism on campus is not any different than terrorism anywhere else. The venue, place or location of a terroristic act is not a defining factor.
Then what sets higher education institutions apart? There is no one answer, but many factors contribute:
- Educational institutions are softer targets with a more open environment than other venues. They are easily accessible because they are, by design, open and inviting places.
- Some attacks may be prompted by ideological opposition to what is being taught, who is teaching and/ or specific research that is being conducted at the institution.
- It’s becoming harder for terrorists to attack other types of targets (government installations and buildings, hotels, shopping malls, etc.)
The large numbers of people who congregate on campus represent a higher possibility for mass casualties. Campus public safety officials should be especially aware of conditions and programs that are specific to many campuses:
- The multi-national/multi-cultural environment
- The conduct of certain research at the institution
- The study-abroad programs at some institutions
- Programs and courses that are being taught that are in direct conflict with principles of terrorist organizations
- Professors and other teaching staff that take public positions contrary to the beliefs of terrorist groups
In Part 2 of this series we will look at what institutions can do to detect and respond to terrorists and the threat of terrorist acts before they occur.
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