Who is a terrorist, actually?

By Daniel Byman

Anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters organized by F.L.O.W.E.R, a frontline organization based in Atlanta to combat racism, face off against far-right militias and white pride organizations in downtown Stone Mountain, Georgia, on August 15, 2020.
Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images

When I write about the threat of white supremacist terrorism, I often receive complaints from readers that I am focusing on the wrong problem and that my articles are ill-informed and misleading (I’m putting the complaints politely). Instead of focusing on white supremacists, they argue, I should instead write about the “real” terrorists like antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Their opinions are backed up by statements from the police and Trump administration officials and pictures of burning cities. The terrorism label, for them, is a way of distinguishing who is in the wrong. Brian Jenkins, a leading scholar of terrorism, observed in 1981, “Terrorism is what the bad guys do.”

When it comes to Black Lives Matter, there’s no credible case for labeling it a terrorist organization. One analysis of the Black Lives Matter protests found that 93 percent were peaceful, and some of the violent incidents at the rallies were simply opportunistic vandalism.

Most of the protest leaders have tried to stop looting and other violence, recognizing this is counterproductive as well as wrong. Moreover, Black Lives Matter is an open movement with a host of organizations participating along with self-proclaimed supporters rather than a tight group with a defined membership. Thus, labeling the movement as a whole as violent is false.

But not all violence is terrorism, either. In many instances, even those who do actively promote and use violence don’t merit the label “terrorist.”

So what about individuals and groups that have been credibly linked to violence in Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, and other cities? Where does antifa fit in? Or right-wing militia-type groups like Patriot Prayer? How about individuals such as the Kenosha, Wisconsin, protests shooter? Should we call all of these people terrorists?

The answer is not as straightforward as you might think.

What does “terrorism” mean?

It’s easy to dodge this question and conclude that there is no real agreement on the definition of terrorism. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, as the tired old saying goes — an argument one still hears walking the halls of the United Nations. As my colleague Chris Meserole and I have pointed out, even close US allies don’t agree with the United States — or even with one another — as to which groups are terrorists.

However, serious analysts such as Bruce Hoffman and Boaz Ganor as well as US statutes and various government agencies have all tried to define terrorism. Important for all these efforts is an attempt to put aside the question of the justness of the cause — whether someone is the “bad guy” — and focus on the goals and actions of the perpetrator. So one can favor a cause (national liberation, say) but still label the violence used to achieve it as terrorism. Conversely, one can oppose a cause without considering those advocating for it to be terrorists.

Serious terrorism definitions have several factors in common, most of which are self-evident but a few that require a bit more explanation.

First, terrorism involves violence or the threat of it: Marches, protests, and similar peaceful activities do not meet the criteria. Stone-throwing or other low-level forms of violence, including street brawls and physical assaults, could technically be counted, but it’s best to maintain a high bar when using the terrorism label. Otherwise, major terror attacks like the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — in which a gunman killed 11 people in the deadliest attack on Jews on American soil — get diluted by numerous non-lethal events.

Second, terrorism is inherently political. The target and motivation need to be linked to a broader cause or ideology. It need not be a wholly rational or achievable cause. But having such a cause is what distinguishes terrorism from crime, personal passion, or other common reasons for violence.

Third, terrorism is perpetrated by nonstate actors. That’s a political science term that basically means anyone who’s not acting as the agent of a recognized government. Soldiers and police officers, for instance, are state actors. Members of paramilitary groups, militias, private corporations, and non-governmental organizations are all non-state actors.

To be clear: There is no moral difference between a state agent such as a soldier planting a bomb in a marketplace and killing dozens of civilians versus this same action being done by a non-state actor, but it is important for our definitions.

The United States also tries to carve out “clandestine agents” of the state — such as when Libyan intelligence officers bombed Pan Am 103 in 1988, killing 270 innocent people — as part of its terrorism definition, which further muddies the waters.

A fourth criterion — and one that is highly relevant to this discussion — is that terrorism is “designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target,” in Bruce Hoffman’s words. The purpose of the violence, accordingly, is not just (or even primarily) to hurt, kill, or destroy the immediate target, but rather to convey a message.

It is this psychological effect that gives terrorism its power, inspiring fear in individuals far from the blast zone, fomenting civil wars, reshaping foreign policy by producing an over-reaction, and otherwise having far more impact than the death toll and destruction of the initial attack itself.

Part of the psychological effect is also a high degree of intentionality. Shootings at an anti-racism rally may scare others in another city, but for it to count as terrorism the shootings needed to be intended to have a broader effect — the purpose of violence at the rally, in other words, is to shape opinion far outside the city in question. It’s not enough for the violence to inadvertently scare (“terrorize”) people far away from it. Rather, such fear must be the goal.

There’s another commonly used criterion that involves who is being targeted by the violence: Many terrorism definitions require that the targets be civilians or noncombatants. If an attack targets military forces on the battlefield in the middle of a war, for instance, it might not be considered terrorism, but rather a regular military or guerrilla operation.

But this gets complicated really quickly: What if it’s an attack on military forces, but it takes place far outside a war zone? What if there’s no war at all, and the soldiers are just stationed at a military base somewhere?

Take, for example, al-Qaeda’s suicide bombing of USS Cole, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer, while the ship was refueling off the coast of Yemen. The attack killed 17 sailors, but did so outside a designated war zone. Whether that incident counts as a terrorist attack could vary depending on how this criterion is applied.

And what about police officers? They’re not soldiers, but nor are they pure civilians like shoppers at a Walmart are. This adds to the fuzziness.

Terrorism definitions are muddy, and there is legitimate disagreement as to which deeds qualify. However, some factors, especially the intentional psychological effect, are important when considering how to categorize recent unrest and violence in the United States.

Examining the facts — not the rhetoric

Let’s apply these definitional criteria to the individuals and groups in question here.

The marches, counter-marches, and most of the violence surrounding them in Portland and other cities are certainly political (with the exception of some of the opportunistic looting and property destruction), and involve non-state actors: two boxes checked. After that, however, things get more fraught.

As mentioned above, there is no evidence Black Lives Matter either advocates for or engages in violence. So right there, it’s disqualified for the terrorism label.

The violent label better fits some supporters of antifa, which is short for “anti-fascist” and is not a group but rather a loose network of like-minded individuals. Some self-proclaimed members, often anarchists, vandalize property, and many go to rallies to fight with (they would say defend against) white supremacists and others they label fascists.

The Anti-Defamation League notes that a lot of antifa activity occurs online, often in the form of harassing right-wing extremists and white supremacists and doxxing them — outing them to their employers and communities.

But the ADL also says that: “While some antifa use their fists, other violent tactics include throwing projectiles, including bricks, crowbars, homemade slingshots, metal chains, water bottles, and balloons filled with urine and feces.” Because of this violence, they deserve to be rejected and condemned (and, when they use violence, arrested).

However, this threat is blown way out of proportion. Claims that antifa is devilishly cunning or crazily violent are common, leading to many conspiracy theories — President Trump claims, for example, that they have weaponized soup cans. It’s gotten so outlandish that jokingly comparing antifa’s dastardly antics with those used by the Roadrunner to trick Wile E. Coyote in the Looney Tunes cartoons has become a meme on Twitter.

But antifa in the United States was not linked to deadly violence until August 29, when self-proclaimed antifa member Michael Reinoehl allegedly shot a right-wing activist who was a member of Patriot Prayer. (In 2018, an antifa supporter attacked an ICE facility armed with a rifle and was shot to death.)

However, even when they use violence, antifa’s targets are local — they do not seem to be intentionally trying to cause a broader psychological effect.

Reinoehl, for example, claimed he was simply providing “security” at Black Lives Matter protests (on his own initiative, it seems) and said that he shot the Patriot Prayer member in self-defense, believing he and a friend were about to be stabbed. In an interview with Vice before he was killed by police seeking to arrest him, Reinoehl claimed, “I could have sat there and watched them kill a friend of mine of color. But I wasn’t going to do that.” The ICE facility attacker may have been suicidal, and reports so far suggest his focus was just on that particular facility. In neither case were they seeking a broader psychological effect.

Elevating this violence to terrorism, as President Trump has called for, exaggerates its scope and scale. As Colin Clarke and Michael Kenney argue, “Though sucker-punching someone in the face is certainly violent, it’s not terrorism.” If antifa transitions and Reinoehl-type shooters become more regular or are embraced by more within the network, then the terrorism question should be reconsidered. This is especially so if future violence is intended to have a far-reaching psychological effect.

However, the amorphous nature of the movement makes any designation difficult in practice as it is not clear where antifa begins and ends and who, if anyone, is responsible for its violent activities beyond the individuals in question.

Patriot Prayer is a group with a political cause — it’s pro-Trump and anti-left — and it engages in violence. Patriot Prayer has connections to law enforcement and white supremacists and to the hate group Proud Boys but insists it rejects racism. Its members often go to rallies, armed, seeking conflict with members of antifa.

So far, though, these clashes have not been lethal, a supporter of the group has threatened opponents with “bullets put into your head.” Although terrorism includes the threat of violence as well as violence itself, given the level of vitriol on the internet today, such threats don’t justify calling the entire group a terrorist group.

Like with antifa, when Patriot Prayer members are violent, their goals and targets do not seem intended to create a broad psychological effect. On Facebook, Patriot Prayer describes itself as “encouraging the country to fight for freedom at a local level using faith in God to guide us in the right direction.” Its focus is local and its members are largely about fighting the other side in the streets. So for Patriot Prayer, the terrorism label similarly doesn’t work.

Finally, there’s Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with murder in the fatal shooting of at least two people during a night of protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in late August.

Rittenhouse was at least loosely tied to a political cause, casting himself as a defender of law and order against violence associated with marches protesting the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back seven times by a police officer as he was being put into a police car. Rittenhouse in his social media posts described himself as pro-police and claimed to a Daily Caller reporter that he traveled to Kenosha to protect businesses and help anyone who was hurt.

Available evidence suggests no intentionality on Rittenhouse’s part to cause a broader psychological effect. He seems to simply have seen himself as doing his part to help out law enforcement — even though he was armed with a powerful assault-style weapon and not a trained law enforcement official.

Why does the terrorism label matter, beyond semantics?

Part of it, of course, is simply a question of demonization. Taking away the “terrorism” label forces us to think more clearly and critically about why the groups or individuals are acting as they are.

More important, though, it affects which agencies and government authorities are invoked to deal with these groups and individuals. Protests, even violent ones, are traditionally a matter for the police and, if they need backup, the National Guard. Terrorism, in contrast, involves the FBI and other national security agencies.

In a post-9/11 world, terrorism is considered a grave threat that must be crushed. When President Trump uses the term terrorism as a label for largely peaceful protesters, he is abusing the word and making an overreaction more likely.

The cities affected by the protests and the nation as a whole should condemn and try to stop any violence while encouraging peaceful demonstrations. However, using the terrorism label obscures more than it clarifies, creating a misleading impression of the demonstrations and the proper response.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter @dbyman.

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