The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) describes domestic terrorism as “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or its territories without foreign direction (emphasis added) committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (“Terrorism in the United States – 1999,” FBI/CTD, p. ii).
Recent media coverage of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s remarks to the U.S. Senate in February and September 2010 make reference to the terms “domestic terrorist,” “domestic terrorism” and “domestic extremism” (view articles here, here and here). In reality, Secretary Napolitano was not making reference to domestic terrorism at all (i.e. violent acts from white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists, eco-terrorists or the like); rather, she was talking about violent homegrown Muslim extremists. In her remarks on September 22, 2010, Napolitano made it a point to clarify this difference by stating, “To be clear, by ‘homegrown,’ I mean terrorist operatives who are U.S. persons and who were radicalized in the United States and learned terrorist tactics either here or in training camps in places such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan." Obviously, the media wasn’t listening. Napolitano never used any of the aforementioned terms in her Senate testimony.
Too often, I read or hear the media misusing the term “domestic terrorism.” To be clear, domestic terrorism are violent acts committed by U.S. citizens in the United States without foreign influence or direction. Hence, if a U.S. person residing in the United States is inspired by Al-Qaeda or a violent interpretation of Islam, they are not a domestic terrorist. They are international terrorists because the violent ideology or terrorist edict they embrace emanates from foreign sources outside the United States.
Labeling violent homegrown Muslim extremism as “domestic terrorism” is not only incorrect, but irresponsible. It adds confusion to an already complex topic. It also gives the false impression that our government is closely monitoring domestic terrorist threats when they are truly more interested in deterring Muslim terrorist threats (both transnational and homegrown). Some government officials have even downplayed the seriousness of real domestic terrorism.
Of further concern, this mislabeling may indirectly erode the rights of U.S. citizens. Government agencies responsible for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts have different regulations, controls and oversight. Most are authorized to monitor sources of international terrorism. Few, however, are permitted to monitor domestic terrorist activity. This sensitive and often "politically charged" issue is left primarily to law enforcement agencies to monitor. As a result, when the media mistakenly identifies foreign inspired extremists as “domestic terrorists,” they are blurring the lines between what distinguishes a U.S. citizen from a foreign national or resident alien. In turn, this has the potential to desensitize government officials, Homeland Security personnel and the American public to the distinct and different roles between our national intelligence apparatus and law enforcement agencies, thus permitting the possibility of more Federal agencies monitoring the activities of U.S. citizens. In turn, the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens begins to slowly erode as more agencies justify their missions to monitor “domestic terrorism” under the false pretense that violent “homegrown” Muslim extremists or transnational terrorists living in the United States constitute a domestic terrorist threat.
Perhaps there are better terms to describe exactly what Secretary Napolitano was referring to during her respective testimonies to the U.S. Senate. In 1994, the FBI began using the term “International Radical Terrorism” (IRT) to describe the phenomenon of transnational or homegrown Muslim terrorists of various nationalities who unite to use violence in an effort to seek common political, social, economic or personal objectives. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing illustrates the emergence of the IRT trend. Persons indicted or identified as having had a role in the bombing included Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians and U.S. citizens. Other accurate terms could also include “Violent Muslim Extremist” or “Homegrown Muslim Extremist.”