Terrorism Incidents – Introduction – History – Definitions

Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001[4]
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The threat of terrorism affects all communities both nationally and internationally and transcends all geographic and demographic boundaries. No community is immune and all jurisdictions, suburban, urban and rural areas are at risk. We cannot assume that we can prevent all acts of terror and therefore must prepare to minimize the damage and recover from attacks that do occur.

Terrorists look for visible targets where they can avoid detection before or after an attack such as international airports, large cities, major international events, resorts, and high-profile landmarks. Terrorists often use threats to create fear among the public, try to convince citizens that their government is powerless to prevent terrorism, and to get immediate publicity for their causes. Different types of terrorist weapons include explosives, kidnappings, hijackings, arson, shootings, and NBC’s (nuclear, biological agents and chemicals).

The consequences of a terrorist attack are wide-ranging and can include: loss of life and health, destruction of families, fear and panic, loss of confidence in government, destruction of property, and disruption of commerce and financial markets. Before terrorism strikes, learn about terrorism and be ready to deal with any terrorist situation by preparing as you would for any other crisis. If you have information regarding suspicious or criminal activity that may be terrorist related and are in doubt who to contact or notify dial “911” to report the incident to the local police.[1] [2] [3]

History and Origins

The word “terrorism” traces its roots in the English language to the French revolution (1789-1795) when British statesman Edmund Burke used the term, terrorism, along with terrorist, to describe the actions of the Jacobin-dominated French government. The Jacobins ruled France in what was called the Reign of Terror from 1793-94. During that Reign of Terror, thousands of “enemies of the state” were put on trial and guillotined. By 1798, the term was being applied generally to anyone who attempted to achieve political goals through violence and intimidation. The word is thought to have been coined by the Jacobins themselves, but the French “terrorisme” is not recorded until 1798. If the Jacobins did coin it, they are the only ones to have used it self-referentially. The term has always had negative connotations since then.[5]

Definitions of Terrorism

No one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance. In fact, the nature of terrorism is always changing. What is called terrorism one year may be called war, liberation, freedom fighting, or revolutionary action another year. Terrorism is an emotionally charged word that is frequently used to politically and socially denigrate somebody or some group.

The United States Code is a consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States. It is prepared by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the United States House of Representatives. The definitions of Terrorism in the U.S. Code – 18 U.S.C. § 2331 defines “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism” for purposes of Chapter 113B of the Code, entitled “Terrorism”:[6]

“International terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.*

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

18 U.S.C. § 2332b defines the term “federal crime of terrorism” as an offense that:

  • Is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct; and
  • Is a violation of one of several listed statutes, including § 930(c) (relating to killing or attempted killing during an attack on a federal facility with a dangerous weapon); and § 1114 (relating to killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the U.S.).

The U.S. State Department uses the following definitions relating to terrorism contained in the U.S. Code – Title 22 -Chapter 38 – Section 2656f(d): [7]

(1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than 1 country;

(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;

(3) the term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism;

The U.S. Government has employed this definition of terrorism for statistical and analytical purposes since 1983.

Foreign Terrorist Organizations

Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) are foreign organizations that are designated by the Secretary of State in accordance with Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), as amended. FTO designations play a critical role in our fight against terrorism and are an effective means of curtailing support for terrorist activities and pressuring groups to get out of the terrorism business.[8]

Sec. 219. (a) Designation.[9]

(1) In general.-The Secretary is authorized to designate an organization as a terrorist organization in accordance with this subsection if the Secretary finds that-
  (A) the organization is a foreign organization;
  (B) the organization engages in terrorist activity (as defined in section 212(a)(3)(B) 1a/ or terrorism (as defined in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989 (22 U.S.C. 2656f(d)(2)), or retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism); and
  (C) the terrorist activity 1a/ or terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Dept. of Homeland Security Seal[12]

Eleven days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge was appointed as the first Director of the Office of Homeland Security in the White House. The office oversaw and coordinated a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard the country against terrorism and respond to any future attacks.

With the passage of the Homeland Security Act by Congress in November 2002, the Department of Homeland Security formally came into being as a stand-alone, Cabinet-level department to further coordinate and unify national homeland security efforts, opening its doors on March 1, 2003.[10]

Citizens should report suspicious activity to their local law enforcement authorities. The “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign across the United States encourages all citizens to be vigilant for indicators of potential terrorist activity, and to follow NTAS Alerts for information about threats in specific places or for individuals exhibiting certain types of suspicious activity. Visit www.dhs.gov/ifyouseesomethingsaysomething to learn more about the campaign.[11]

U.S. Terrorism Reports & Lists

  • U.S. State Department – Country Reports on Terrorism – U.S. law requires the Secretary of State to provide Congress, by April 30 of each year, a full and complete report on terrorism with regard to those countries and groups meeting criteria set forth in the legislation. Beginning with the report for 2004, it replaced the previously published Patterns of Global Terrorism. The report covers developments in countries in which acts of terrorism occurred, countries that are state sponsors of terrorism, and countries determined by the Secretary to be of particular interest in the global war on terror.[13]
  • U.S. State Department – Political Violence Against Americans, formerly Significant Incidents of Political Violence Against Americans, is produced by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Intelligence and Threat Analysis (DS/DSS/ITA) to provide readers with a comprehensive picture of the broad spectrum of political violence that American citizens and interests have encountered abroad on an annual basis. NOTE: This series was not produced for the years 2003-2007.[14]
  • FBI – Most Wanted Terrorists – The alleged terrorists on this list have been indicted by sitting Federal Grand Juries in various jurisdictions in the United States for the crimes reflected on their wanted posters. Evidence was gathered and presented to the Grand Juries, which led to their being charged. The indictments currently listed on the posters allow them to be arrested and brought to justice. Future indictments may be handed down as various investigations proceed in connection to other terrorist incidents, for example, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.[15]



  1. FEMA – Emergency Response to Terrorism – Self-Study Book: http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/ertss.pdf
  2. FEMA – Terrorism: http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1549-20490-0802/terrorism.pdf
  3. Defense Technical Information Center – The Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a405206.pdf
  4. Image Source: http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Pentagon.htm [Accessed March 11, 2014]
  5. National Criminal Justice Reference Service – Abstract – Terrorism and International Law – What is being Done?: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/abstractdb/AbstractDBDetails.aspx?id=52267
  6. Definitions of Terrorism in the U.S. Code – http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/terrorism-definition
  7. Cornell University Law School – U.S. Code: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/22/2656f
  8. U.S. Department of State: http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm
  9. Immigration and Nationality Act – Section 219 – Designation of Foreign Terrorist Organization: http://www.uscis.gov.edgesuite-staging.net/ilink/docView/SLB/HTML/SLB/0-0-0-1/0-0-0-29/0-0-0-5017.html
  10. U.S. Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov/creation-department-homeland-security
  11. U.S. Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov/ntas-public-guide
  12. Image Source: http://www.dhs.gov/ [Accessed March 11, 2014]
  13. U.S. State Department – Country Reports on Terrorism: http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/
  14. U.S. State Department – Political Violence Against Americans: http://www.state.gov/m/ds/rls/rpt/19691.htm
  15. FBI – Most Wanted Terrorists: http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/wanted_terrorists