The CQ Researcher : Combating Terrorism
From the July 21, 1995 issue of The CQ Researcher, Volume 5, No. 27, p. 646.
Definitions of Terrorism Often Vary
By Mary H. Cooper
To FBI investigators, the bombing of the federal building inOklahoma City was clearly an act of terrorism. The FBI defines a terrorist incident as “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 goals.” 
The prime suspect in the bombing, Timothy McVeigh, has refused to cooperate with investigators. But people who know McVeigh, a decorated veteran of the Persian Gulf War, say he intensely hated federal law enforcement agencies, which he blamed for the deaths of more than 80 people in the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Investigators think that McVeigh timed the bombing to coincide with the second anniversary of the Waco raid.
But some experts see little in the Oklahoma City bombing to suggest a terrorist’s aim to “intimidate or coerce a government.” According to David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center, “The Oklahoma City bombing was obviously a tragedy and terrible, but I don’t see it as evidence of some conspiracy to engage in terrorism.”
A second suspect, Terry Nichols, also has been arrested in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing. But even if it turns out that only one person was involved, under the FBI’s definition the bombing would still be considered as terrorism.
“Domestic terrorism involves groups or individuals whose terrorist activities are directed at elements of our government or population without foreign direction,” the agency states. The FBI defines international terrorists as “groups or individuals who are foreign- based and/or directed by countries or groups outside the United States, or whose activities transcend national boundaries.” 
However, the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Terrorism appears to rule out individuals acting alone as a source of terrorism. It defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” 
The anti-terrorism bill working its way through Congress would define terrorism under U.S. law. The House bill introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry H. Hyde, R-Ill., contained a controversial provision that would have broadened the definition to include the use of an explosive or firearm “other than for mere personal monetary gain, with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.” That provision was later dropped as overly broad.
The House bill makes no distinction between individual acts and conspiracies in committing terrorism. It defines terrorism as “the use of force or violence in violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State . . . that appears to be intended to achieve political or social ends.” The bill could go to floor as early as next week; the Senate passed its version of the bill on June 7.
If government agencies can’t agree on a single definition of terrorism, the public’s perception is even more confused. The term is called into play to describe a growing range of criminal activities. Few commentators would have described Mafia violence during Prohibition as terrorism. Yet today’s counterpart, violence by South American drug cartels against law enforcement efforts, is widely known as “narco-terrorism.” Violence directed at abortion-clinic workers and patients also falls into the category of terrorism, in the eyes of pro-choice advocates. 
“If you can brand your foes as terrorists, that’s an important moral and political victory,” says Brian M. Jenkins, a terrorism expert at Kroll Associates, a Los Angeles-based international security firm. “However, despite the efforts within the analytical community to define terrorism, the term is used promiscuously, and we have seen all sorts of hyphenates. These by no means represent the strict definition.”
But any such strict definition of terrorism is open to challenge. Stymied by political differences, the United Nations General Assembly was unable to pass a resolution denouncing terrorism until 1985. Over the years, member nations had approved a number of treaties condemning specific terrorist acts, such as aircraft hijacking and violence against diplomats. “So ultimately, when they condemned terrorism, they specified that by terrorism they meant the acts already prohibited by treaties,” Jenkins says, “and that included a significant number of events.”
Nonetheless, the Oklahoma City bombing would not be considered terrorism under the U.N. resolution because bombings are not among the acts prohibited by U.N. conventions. “It is extremely difficult to get agreement on the distinction between dropping a bomb on a city from 20,000 feet as an act of war vs. driving a truckload of explosives into a building,” Jenkins says. “Bombs by their nature are indiscriminate weapons, and the issue is, why is it legitimate to drop a lot of bombs on a city, knowing full well that hundreds of thousands of innocents may be killed, but not legitimate to set off a bomb in a city in which scores may be killed?”
Although U.S. and international law enforcement agencies are eager to better coordinate their counterterrorism efforts, they may never arrive at a watertight definition of terrorism. “Reasonable men and women could probably reach agreement on as much as 90 percent of the elements that go into a definition of terrorism,” Jenkins says, “and that’s probably about as close as it’s going to get.”
 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Terrorism in the United States, 1993, p. 28.
 U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 1994, April 1995, p. vi.
 For background, see “Abortion Clinic Protests,” The CQ Researcher, April 7, 1995, pp. 297-320.