Answering San Bernardino:Defining Terrorism and Home Grown Extremism

As details of the mass shooting in San Bernardino continue to emerge, America is once again confronted with difficult questions. In the immediate aftermath, many wondered: was this a terrorist attack or a personal grievance? What differentiates the events of San Bernardino from last week’s attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs?

Although officially declared an act of terrorism by the FBI earlier this morning, defining terrorism itself is a contentious issue, and its variations are legion.  The terrorist nature of the attack prompts further questions regarding how the suspects were radicalized and whether they were directed or simply inspired by the Islamic State.  The origins and motives of the suspects’ radicalization remain unclear.
The Homeland Security Digital Library has compiled the resources below to address the difficulty of defining terrorism and the threat of home grown extremism.


Defining Terrorism

Sifting Domestic Terrorism from Other Illegal Activity: This 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) lays out the United States’ legal definitions for domestic terrorism, hate crimes, and homegrown violent extremists.

Defining Terrorism: A Strategic Imperative: In this article published in Small Wars Journal, author Eric Chase argues that “a universally accepted definition [of terrorism] would influence domestic policy, international agreements, and global strategies to counter terrorism” and calls upon the international community to build consensus around a common definition in order to combat extremism.


Home Grown Extremists and “Lone Wolves”

Age of the Wolf: A Study of the Rise of Lone Wolf and Leaderless Resistance Terrorism: This study from the Southern Poverty Law Center traces the rise of lone wolf terrorism in an effort to encourage federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to devote greater resources to preventing violence at the hands of lone actors.

Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists: This paper from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) defines the term lone wolf terrorist as “individuals pursuing Islamist terrorist goals alone, either driven by personal reasons or their belief that they are part of an ideological group” and suggests four possible types of lone wolves.

Motivational Elements and Characteristics of ‘Home-Grown’ Islamic Terrorists: Through a series of case studies, this paper examines why Muslim citizens of the United States and Europe “use violence/terrorism against their home societies.”

Can ‘Dangerous Speech’ Be used to Explain ‘Lone-Wolf’ Terrorism?: This working paper from the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society defines dangerous speech as “speech acts directed toward a general community for the purpose of inciting many members of its audience toward acts of mass violence” and assesses its impact on recent lone wolf attacks.



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