A Terrorist By Any Other Name

Does it really matter if we call those who use fear for political gain terrorists? Is a terrorist by any other name something different? Do they cease to be as destructive or divisive? 

Regardless of what those who inspire them will say, terrorists are criminals. There are those who will argue that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But, if someone detonates a bomb in a public place, launders money for an organization seeking some end, or distributes propaganda online that promotes a violent extremist group or ideology, they are a criminal. Our laws say so. There are people currently in jail serving time for these and similar crimes and not all of them are from a single religion or background. While Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman didn’t create and lead his criminal enterprise for political reasons, many people died, no doubt certain neighborhoods lived in fear, and public officials were corrupted for their benefit. While their aims were different from a stereotypical "terrorist" organization and domestic criminal activity elicits a specific response at times, in large part the outcomes in the affected populations were the same. So why do we let the emotions that come from the aftermath of a terrorist attack cloud our judgement in how to prosecute the associated conflict?

Orlando police officers direct family members away from the Pulse nightclub. (Phelan Ebenhack | AP)

Orlando police officers direct family members away from the Pulse nightclub. (Phelan Ebenhack | AP)

With every major incident, whether the shootings at Fort Hood, Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, or any number of other recent events, many Americans wait to see who the perpetrator is before they decide how they will react to the attack. To be sure, terrorist attacks are meant to scare the public, and the public is disproportionately frightened by the specter of sensational terrorist attacks. We would be a more resilient country if all these attacks were treated under the rubric of crime.

Crime Continuum and Criminal Pathways

Professor Boaz Ganor

The populace only sees the public act of terrorism—the shooting, the explosion, the unexpected attack—and corresponding loss of life and feeling of safety. But leading up to that are countless steps that enable the attack. As terrorism expert Dr. Boaz Ganor describes it in his book The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle, terrorism requires both opportunity and capability. The enabling actions include spreading propaganda over the Internet; money laundering; and the smuggling of weapons, people, and other illicit items through means not available to the law abiding public. The remarkable thing about the preceding list of “material support” to a terrorist group is that the items are remarkably similar to the support system needed to fuel a drug cartel or other organized criminal enterprise. For Al Capone, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Hassan Nasrallah, or Ayman al-Zawahiri, these pathways were the lifeblood of their organizations, and the desired endstate—whether profit from the drug trade or counterfeit cigarettes or death and destruction of a city or society—is hardly the important issue. These elements fall on various points of the crime continuum, but each make a contribution to the criminal enterprise.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

To complicate matters, these pathways—which manifest themselves as online bank utilities, email or Twitter, package livery services or commercial airlines—are public domain and thus not solely the province of terrorist masterminds or the heads of drug empires. Law abiding citizens use these same pathways to pay their bills, save money for the down payment on a house, tweet cat memes, send Grandma her Christmas gift, and fly to Orlando for a family trip to Disney World. Whether a criminal like El Chapo or a terrorist like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, these are the tools of their trade. Their exploitation of these pathways can lead to similar destruction in communities, which begs the question: Is there a need for different approaches to deterrence and punishment based on marginal difference in outcome? And whether the offender is a money launderer for El Chapo or a dealer of stolen antiquities for ISIS (or Bernie Madoff), should the law or a jury of peers view them differently?

Response Continuum

Just as crime exists on a continuum (terrorists, money launderers, propagandists, etc.), the tools at our disposal to respond lie on a spectrum. There are kinetic responses led by our military—the so-called hard force that we see in the form of bombings or military raids by special forces, for example. On the softer side, there are counter-threat finance activities or the community engagement elements of Countering Violent Extremism programs that seek to reveal these efforts for what they are and prevent vulnerable populations from joining terrorist or criminal enterprises in the first place. There is also a vast middle largely inhabited by law enforcement agencies that pursue efforts to degrade and dismantle terrorist organizations and transnational criminal enterprises alike by leveraging their authorities to investigate crimes and bring criminals to justice.

The case of the Lebanese-Canadian Bank is a prime example of law enforcement’s spectrum of responses to terrorism. This case centered on a vast trade-based money laundering scheme across five continents that funded a variety of illegal activities benefiting at least one designated terrorist organization and multiple criminal enterprises, some solely for monetary profit and some with political ends. This case was investigated vigorously and ably by multiple Federal law enforcement and had effective legal and policy outcomes at various points along our response continuum.

Aside from semantics and legal considerations, there are communications advantages to broader use of the criminal moniker. Referring to these men and women as common criminals—and removing the narrative of ideology related to martyrdom or “rebels with a cause”—impacts the recruiting tool many of these groups use to attract new members, supporters, and sympathizers. Doing otherwise can provide legitimacy to their cause. Denying terrorist groups this platform can be a major boon to communities, local police, and foreign partners in the broader effort of countering violent extremism. These steps fall on the softer power end of the spectrum described above but can be critical steps to countering a dangerous ideology.

We do ourselves no good by rhetorically boxing in our responses to any sort of crime...

Our national response is also affected by communications and perceptions. When the American public sees images of terrorism, the media often reacts by showing their minds often gravitate toward the military and military action, creating a selection bias along the continuum of available responses. This is certainly not the case with investigations into money laundering, human trafficking, or other cases, even those involving material support to a terrorist organization. Federal law enforcement agencies have broad authorities and the resources to prosecute these individuals and seek justice without putting our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in harm's way. While the latter may be necessary at times, it need not be obligatory.

We do ourselves no good by rhetorically boxing in our responses to any sort of crime—whether motivated by a perversion of ideology or money or power. That those who perpetuate criminal enterprise use the infrastructure that powers our daily life (the Internet, the international banking system, air travel, etc.) necessitates a nuanced response to increasingly complicated criminal enterprises. Whether Osama bin Laden or the Zetas, the end result is largely similar. Government’s integrated response can span the use of the military, law enforcement, and soft power elements. While not calling perpetrators and their organizations terrorists would not have stopped previous attacks, it may be a step forward on the continuum of responses to slow their growth and lead to better policy outcomes in combating these threats.

Matthew Wein is a former Policy Advisor to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary of Policy where he focused on Law Enforcement Policy and International Engagement primarily in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. He also served as an advisor to the DHS Director of Operations Coordination on Counterterrorism and Intelligence issues. He is a graduate of the University of Florida.

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Header Image: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by marines to a helicopter at Mexico City's airport. (Omar Torres | AFP | Getty)


[1] Ganor, B. (2005). The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers. New Brunswick. Transaction Publishers.