Attacks in New York and Washington Analysis

Domestic Terrorism

The September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington were the most destructive ever on U.S. soil. But law-enforcement officials have also long struggled with a range of U.S.-based terrorist groups. Domestic extremists include hate groups motivated by ultra-conservative ideals that are often anti-Semitic and racially motivated; eco-terrorists who use violence to campaign for greater environmental responsibility; and socialist groups who oppose the World Trade Organization.

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While homegrown Muslim extremists have proven more lethal in Europe than in the United States, U.S. authorities continue to worry about the prospect of attacks by militant Muslims who are American citizens. Domestic extremists have a “longstanding [sic] trend” of committing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2002-2005 Terrorism Report (PDF), the bureau’s latest comprehensive report on such incidents. (Fletcher, 2008)

Section 802 of the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act (Pub. L. No. 107-52) expanded the definition of terrorism to cover “domestic,” as opposed to international, terrorism. A person engages in domestic terrorism if they do an act “dangerous to human life” that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States and if they do not, may be regarded as international terrorism. (ACLU,2002)

In FBI terminology, domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States (or its territories) without foreign direction, committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives. (Jarboe, 2002)

The FBI divides terrorist-related activity into three categories:

terrorist incident is a violent act or an act dangerous to human life, in violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state, to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives; suspected terrorist incident is a potential act of terrorism in which responsibility for the act cannot be attributed at the time to a known or suspected terrorist group or individual; and terrorism prevention is a documented instance in which a violent act by a known or suspected terrorist group or individual with the means and a proven propensity for violence is successfully interdicted through investigative activity. (Jarboe, 2002)

Not all politically motivated violence qualifies as terrorism (for instance, the FBI and some terrorism experts did not regard the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who says his anti- modern beliefs were behind a seventeen-year mail-bombing campaign, as a terrorist), nor do all groups that espouse extremist ideas turn to terrorist acts. Experts do not consider all political assassinations or hate crimes to be terrorist attacks. (Fletcher, 2008)

Domestic terrorism has existed for more than a century, dating back at least to the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley. Extremists across the political spectrum — including white supremacists, Puerto Rican separatists, abortion opponents, and environmentalists — have used a variety of terrorist tactics to pursue their goals. According to the FBI, both domestic and international terrorist groups have, since the early 1990s, adopted looser organizational structures similar to the al-Qaeda network, which allows groups to plan larger attacks without fear of infiltration by law-enforcement agencies. (Fletcher, 2008)

The FBI classifies domestic terrorist threats mostly by political motive, dividing them into three main categories: left wing, right wing, and special interest. Religious sects have also been connected with terrorist incidents.

Another type of domestic threat cited by federal law-enforcement officials in the period after September 11 is the alleged presence of Islamic extremists in the United States, operating either as an arm of a foreign organization or a homegrown cell. A 2007 survey by the conservative Heritage Foundation looks at least nineteen ” foiled” terrorist plots, all within U.S. borders. Experts say often the groups linked to such plots are not wholly domestic; groups like al-Qaeda are establishing smaller, localized cells that rely on people who have longtime residence within a country to organize grassroots attacks. (Fletcher, 2008)

The definition of domestic terrorism is broad enough to encompass the activities of several prominent activist campaigns and organizations. Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, Vieques Island and WTO protesters and the Environmental Liberation Front have all recently engaged in activities that could subject them to being investigated as engaging in domestic terrorism.

One recent example is the Vieques Island protests, when many people, including several prominent Americans, participated in civil disobedience on a military installation where the United States government has been engaging in regular military exercises, which these protesters oppose. The protesters illegally entered the military base and tried to obstruct the bombing exercises. This conduct would fall within the definition of domestic terrorism because the protesters broke federal law by unlawfully entering the airbase and their acts were for the purpose of influencing a government policy by intimidation or coercion. The act of trying to disrupt bombing exercises arguably created a danger to human life – their own and those of military personnel. Using this hypothetical as a starting point, we will go through the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act and explore the new governmental powers that could be brought to bear on Vieques Island protesters whose conduct falls within the overbroad definition of domestic terrorism. (ACLU, 2002)

The USA Patriot Act, passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, is aimed at providing the tools law enforcement officials need to prevent further terrorist attacks.

But almost since its passage, and especially throughout the debate over the reauthorization of provisions that expired at the end of 2005, some lawmakers and civil libertarians have contended the act infringes on the rights of U.S. citizens.

When President Bush signed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, or USA Patriot Act, into law on Oct. 26, 2001, he said the legislation would “help law enforcement to identify, to dismantle, to disrupt, and to punish terrorists before they strike.” (Belt, 2006)

We’re dealing with terrorists who operate by highly sophisticated methods and technologies, some of which were not even available when our existing laws were written,” Mr. Bush said. “The bill before me takes account of the new realities and dangers posed by modern terrorists.”

The act gave the government broad new legal and investigative authority and increased power to sanction organizations and individuals who do not cooperate with investigations. It also provided some legal protections for those who assist law enforcement in its investigative work. (Belt, 2006)

However, in May 2002, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled against the Justice Department’s proposed plan for greater information sharing between intelligence officials and domestic law enforcement.

The court argued the proposal would eliminate congressionally mandated barriers between the intelligence community and criminal prosecutors that could allow prosecutors to “advise FBI intelligence officials concerning ‘the initiation, operation, continuation, or expansion of [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] searches or surveillance'” — a change from previous procedure.

A federal appeals court, however, overturned the ruling in November 2002, stating that the U.S. government has an expanded authority to use wiretaps and other surveillance techniques in its efforts to track suspected terrorists. (Belt, 2006)

The Patriot Act was reaffirmed March 10, 2006 after nearly nine months of debate in the House and Senate.

The provisions in the act, set to expire on Dec. 31, 2005, were temporarily extended twice to give lawmakers more time to debate the bill.

Several events delayed the reauthorization, including Hurricane Katrina battering the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, diverting attention to the immediate needs of residents there. And then in December 2005, a New York Times report revealed a program allowing the National Security Agency to wiretap those suspected of potential terrorist activities within the United States without warrants from the FISA court.

The warrantless wiretapping program galvanized Democrats who opposed the bill to draw attention to what they considered civil liberties rollbacks in the legislation.

The expiring provisions included one that let federal officials obtain “tangible items,” such as business records, from libraries and bookstores, in connection with foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations.

Other provisions clarified that foreign intelligence or counterintelligence officers should share information obtained as part of a criminal investigation with counterparts in domestic law enforcement agencies. (Belt, 2006)

The FBI, in the last 10 years, has seen, if we were to categorize it, a rise in anti-government sentiments – anti-government from the standpoint of militia groups, Aryan Nations, skinheads, KKK. The thing that probably binds them all together, in one way or another, is the anti-government sentiment. And what the FBI is also starting to see entwined with that is religious extremists – the Christian Identity movement. They are seeing more and more of that in some of the militias.

The trend is that there’s now a multitude of these groups out there — the common-law courts, the sovereign citizens, the secessionists, the Republic of Texas — that type of group. Even these particular groups, while they may profess anti-government sentiments, they’ve developed mature political agendas, and appear content to proceed within the bounds of legitimate political activity – recognizing that anything toward any type of violent activity will produce an overwhelming reaction by law enforcement. So what they have done is they’ve stayed within the bounds of legitimate political activity.

The trend the FBI has seen also is “leaderless resistance” – the lone offender, or the lone wolf out there, who may go to meetings, who may attach to some particular group or ideology, that the FBI doesn’t know about. He’s the one with the bomb-making materials, who’s a member of Christian Identity, who attends various meetings (it could be Aryan Nations meetings, it could be a militia meeting, things like that) and attaches to that ideology, and is out there doing his own thing. That’s law enforcement’s biggest challenge in the future, is to identify that individual – to identify who they are. (MSNBC, 2001)

FBI Director Robert Mueller sees a rising threat from homegrown terrorists, but he cautions that foreign groups are far from vanquished and still consume more bureau resources.

We have certainly hundreds” of people in this country that the bureau is investigating with varied levels of intensity, Mueller told a group of reporters Wednesday. “But if you’re looking at terrorism across the board… we have several thousand cases — although they may be intelligence cases” to gather information [from] rather criminal cases headed for prosecution. With attention focused on the arrests of four groups of largely homegrown plotters in the past year in Miami, Atlanta, Toledo, Ohio and Torrance, Calif., Mueller took pains to point out that al-Qaeda and other international terrorists still represent a large threat. (Sniffen, 2006)

We’ve decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership and taken away their sanctuary, but there are still individuals in the al-Qaeda hierarchy who are capable of organizing, financing and supporting attacks in the United States or against United States interests around the world,” Mueller said. “One cannot dismiss the potency of al-Qaeda to undertake attacks,” he added, but there are now also groups here and in other countries “motivated by radical Islamist ideology to undertake actions on their own.”

FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said, “Many, if not most, of those cases are dealing with material support for terrorism. These are not bomb-throwers; these are people out there raising money or recruiting.” (Sniffen, 2006)

With the rise in homegrown plots here and abroad, Mueller said the bureau is putting some of the new resources it acquired after 9/11 to work on trying “to identify the various stages of radicalization and… those who would be vulnerable to radicalization and those who would do the radicalization, so you could address them before they could engage” in attacks.

Those include doubling the number of FBI intelligence analysts, tripling its linguists and putting analysts in all 56 bureau field offices. At the same time, the FBI has ramped up its regional joint terrorism task forces from 35 to 101 since 2001, expanding the number of federal, state and local agents assigned to them from 1,000 to nearly 4,000. (Sniffen, 2006)

The FBI is looking at where radicalization can occur. Mueller said that was not necessarily in mosques but anywhere radical fundamentalism could be taught by individuals or even one charismatic individual, including gyms, schools, universities and prisons.

I hope the American people understand this problem (of terrorism) is going to be with us for a substantial period of time,” Mueller said, “and the FBI does a heck of a good job.”

He added that the bureau had expanded its resources and transformed its anti-terrorism focus from after-the-fact arrests to prevention, while “we’ve maintained our operational tempo” against public corruption, organized crime, civil rights, white collar crime and gangs. (Sniffen, 2006)

How much does the average American citizen need to be vigilant about domestic terrorism? Aside from Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, the FBI thinks this country has been very lucky with respect to terrorist incidents. Part of it is that it’s a credit to law enforcement – and it’s not just the FBI, it’s all of law enforcement.

If you get into the area of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, experts think the threat of a WMD incident is low, but when it does occur, as we saw in Oklahoma City, the consequences can be devastating. So they are out there. The FBI is working the credible threats, and working with law enforcement, working with our state and local partners and first responders. (MSNBC, 2001)


ACLU. (2002, December 6). How the U.S.A. patriot act redefines “domestic terrorism.” Retrieved February 19, 2009, from American Civil Liberties Union:

Belt, D. (2006, March 27). Domestic security: The homefront and the war on terror. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from Public Broadcasting System:

Fletcher, H. (2008, April 21). Militant extremists in the United States. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from Council on Foreign Relations:

Jarboe, J. (2002, February 12). Congressional testimony. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from Federal Bureau of Investigation:

MSNBC. (2001, April 20). Domestic terrorism: the FBI view. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from Rick Ross institute:

Sniffen, M. (2006, September 8). Domestic terrorism threat on the rise, says FBI chief.

Retrieved February 19, 2009, from Insurance journal:

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