What a Terrorist Looks Like

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What makes a terrorist, a terrorist? Out of all the pieces that make up a terrorist, Jeffrey Bumgarner Department head of criminal justice and professor at North Dakota State provided some insight.

He stated that there’s no reliable profile to identify a terrorist. A terrorist can be anyone, man or woman, old or young. However there can be similar causes can be identified between terrorists such as religion, political separatism, ideology and more. In general, leftists terrorist groups in the U.S. have been urban while right-wing hate groups and anti-government movements have generally been rural.

The reasons behind why people terrorize range. For some it’s wanting to do something about what they believe in, for others it may be a want to inflict harm on others and, despite popular conceptions, poverty is rarely a factor. In recent years many terrorists have come from families that range from middle to upper class and are active, educated members of society.

Part of identifying an act of violence as a terrorist act is hard because there’s no agreement on what a terrorist act is, “Most definitions include some element of targeting a civilian population to intimidate or coerce.  The federal criminal code (see 18 USC 2331) defines terrorism as violent acts which ‘appear to be intended to—1) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; or 2) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or 3) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping,’ ” Bumgarner said.

Although an increase in the focus of terrorist attacks have shifted to Islamic related terrorism since 9/11 terrorism has seen many areas of focus through the decades. The Ku Klux Klan was the focus in the 60’s, left leaning groups were the focus in the 70’s and the 80’s and 90’s was focused on the rise of anti-government groups, militias and the Christian Identity Movement.

There has also been a shift in how people terrorize. In the 70’s and 80’s the concern was small scale bombing and potential airline hijacks, while today “there has been a concerted effort by terror groups to carry out large scale, mass casualty attacks, including the targeting of transit systems and airports,” Bumgarner said.

A growing concern in today’s society is self-radicalization. That is, people take it upon themselves to become radicalized to the point of terrorism. This is a challenge for law enforcement. Social media and the Internet make acts of terrorism by people who are not directly tied to terror organizations more common.

To protect against terrorists law enforcement uses tips from informants who observe suspicious behavior. To investigate suspected terror plots several “fusion centers” and joint terrorism taskforces (JTTFs) exist around the country and work together to create and share intelligence.

Bumgarners message to the NDSU community is as follows; “Terrorism is an important issue for us all as it impacts a wide array of public policies, including crime policy, immigration policy, foreign policy, etc.   So one should be informed.  Also, just because we are in North Dakota doesn’t mean acts of terror can’t happen here.  They can happen anywhere.”

The biggest thing any citizen of the United States can do is to be aware, if something seems threatening or concerning on social media perhaps consider letting authorities know about it and be aware for people’s safety, don’t dismiss what intuition is saying.

Some reading on terrorism out there include works by Walter Laqueur, Ted Gurr, Brian Jenkins, Martha Crenshaw and John White, among others.

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