When is a terrorist a Terrorist?

The question seems to have an obvious answer but does it really? In the recent attack perpetrated on the Chapel Hill campus of University of North Carolina, authorities were reluctant to call it a terrorist attack. Yet, Mohammed Taheri-Azar confessed to deliberately hitting nine people on the Chapel and told a 911 dispatcher that he committed the act to "punish the Government of the United States for (its) actions around the world".

Is a terrorist necessarily two or more people plotting against a civilian population or do they have to commit the act? Is a lone terrorist a terrorist or a crazed fanatic? Is Incitement the common denominator or belonging to a terror organization?

These questions have far-reaching ramifications especially for Law Enforcement. Unless the law is clear on what constitutes an act of terrorism and who may be defined as a terrorist, LE's hands are tied. This results in peculiar positions such as the legal difficulties imposed on " behavioral profiling".Some legal clarity might help remove obstacles that make it difficult for Law Enforcement to detect, prevent, pursue and arrest suspected terrorists before they commit their attacks - something all Americans must agree on per se'.

One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter?

Or, should we take the view that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter and therefore uphold the rights of and protect those that might be terrorists. Anyone thinking this is an academic issue should look at the problems with prosecution of the 20th member of the 9/11 cell, Zacarias Moussaoui, who stunned the court during his sentencing hearing by stating that he and another al-Qaeda member had been scheduled to fly a fifth hijacked jet into the White House on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

The prosecution has had to show that the FBI and aviation officials could have taken steps to thwart the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, had Moussaoui not lied to the FBI a month earlier. He is the only person charged in connection with those attacks. In other words, the onus of proof in condemning this terrorist to death lies with the authorities proving that had he told the truth they might have stopped 9/11. Just think of that: You arrest a suspect in a robbery, he admits to his crime, but to prove he contributed materially to the deaths of more than 3000 people during the act you have to prove that if he had told the truth a month before, you could have stopped it because if you can't prove that then there is no reason to sentence him to death - never mind his admission. This Alice in Wonderland scenario gets stranger still.

Confusing definitions of terror

Is there a standard definition that could help. The Department of Defense defines terrorism this way: "the unlawful use of -- or threatened use of -- force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives. The FBI has a slightly different interpretation: the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives. Just to add variety, the State Department defines an act of terror as: "Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant* targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." Add to this that every State has its own statutes and laws concerning terrorist and terror suspects.

Let's look at the differences carefully. According to the Department of Defense, the threatened use of force is important. The FBI needs a more concrete, after the fact position and does not mention the threatened use of force. The State department requires that it be perpetrated against noncombatant targets which just might rule out the USS Cole attack as an act of terrorism which might surprise Al Qaeda.

Is it any wonder that Law Enforcement has a hard time even questioning potential terror subjects, without even beginning to discuss the effects that civil liberty groups, racially organized groups and other staunch defenders of human rights have by placing even further obstacles in the path of LE?

Changing the legal landscape

What might be done to make the efforts of LE at the Federal, State and Local level on a surer footing, enabling action to be taken against suspects and create a more vigorous preventative policy? On the 19th of July, the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, Charles Clarke announced in parliament the fast-tracking of a trimmed-down anti-terror bill, for which cross-party support had been secured, to become law by the end of 2005. The new law makes criminal 'acts preparatory to terrorism' (possibly to include the accessing of any websites offering knowledge of terror tactics and bomb-making information), seeking or providing terrorist training domestically or overseas, and 'indirect incitement to terrorism'. These measures go farther than the US PAtriot Act, and are in stark contrast the the situation previous to the London Bombings on July 7th 2005. In that country, prior to July 7th, Islamic extremists like Abu Hamsa had felt safe enough in Central London to incite his "congregation" to "slaughter the Crusaders like Sheep, wherever you find them". Now, with the prospect of home-grown terror on its soil Britain has reacted.

How can suspects be found under the present legislation?

Other issues like questioning suspects should be carefully defined. The situation at Logan Airport, which uses a questioning process to determine on a behavioural, not a racial basis, whether or not someone is suspect has been already undermined by various law suits. State police have insisted they do not stop people based on ethnicity or race, but instead focus on their behavior, including loitering without luggage, wearing heavy clothes on a hot day and watching security methods at the airport.

However, a law suit filed on behald of the national coordinator for racial profiling,King Downing, alleges he was harrassed by police. Downing, who is black, said he left the gate area and was making a phone call in the terminal when he was stopped by a state trooper who asked him for identification. He declined, and was told to leave the airport. When he tried to leave, he was stopped again, surrounded by four troopers and told that he was under arrest for failing to produce identification.

Downing, an attorney, said that when he agreed to show his driver's license, the troopers then demanded to see his airline ticket. After police inspected his identification and travel documents, he was allowed to leave and no charges were ever filed against him, he said. Nothing here hints at any racially motivated predictors - they asked for his ID and a ticket and he refused. Let's try that on a Highway after a crime has been committed and see what happens to the offender that refuses to produce ID. The ACLU went on to say that this is a perfect example of how Police can stop anyone anywhere about anything. You could see it a different way, and feel that most Americans, concerned for the safety of themselves and their families, would not object to showing ID, especially at Logan Airport with its 9/11 History, and might consider Mr. Downing's act a provocation.

The only way to solve the problem is for a coordinated effort to be made by Legislators at the State and Federal level to end the double standards and unclear definitions. We should not be asking when a terrorist is a terrorist but asking who the terrorists are and letting LE find them.

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