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How the FBI will decide to call something domestic terrorism, like the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats

The public's desire to know immediately whether something is "terrorism" exists in tension with the best investigative techniques.
Image: NYPD Bomb Squad
A member of the New York Police Department bomb squad is pictured outside the Time Warner Center in the Manhattan borough of New York City after a suspicious package was found inside the CNN Headquarters in New York on Oct. 24, 2018.Kevin Coombs / Reuters

Terrorism is defined as violence or the threat of violence, undertaken in pursuit of political, social or religious motives, to pursue some sort of a change or to attempt to illustrate a change. So, if it were to be determined that the recent spate of bombs sent to prominent Democrats was designed around a particular ideology, it could be classified as a case of domestic or international terrorism, depending on who was sponsoring it.

But — though I believe that law enforcement will descend on this person pretty quickly — until they have the evidence about motive in hand, they really cannot make a determination about whether or not these bombs are technically terrorism.

First off, law enforcement doesn't immediately classify something as terrorism because, if they don't have the evidence and they're wrong, then they will be discredited.Besides which, if they designate an attack as terrorism too early, it can lead law enforcement down the wrong trail in the investigation, seeking out facts or evidence to support a theory that could be off. You never want law enforcement to chase a false lead.

An example of that would be in the D.C. sniper case, when we were looking for a white panel van and it turned out that the sighting of one had nothing to do with the men who were committing the attacks. Law enforcement wasted tremendous resources and investigative power — and more people were shot — searching for something that we didn't need to search for at all.

The other reason that law enforcement often hesitates to officially call something "terrorism" when it colloquially seems to be so is that the U.S. government does not designate domestic and international groups as terrorists (or not-terrorists) in the same way.

Internationally, the State Department designates certain groups as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations," and, if a given attack is attributed to a group designated as an FTO or a person affiliated with such a group, then it's classified as terrorism.

It's a little tricker with domestic terrorism: The U.S. government doesn't have one entity that designates domestic groups the way that the State Department designates international groups. Domestic cases of this nature are pursued largely by the FBI as individual acts until they can attribute a given one to an organization.

Furthermore, trying to designate groups as domestic terrorists is often politically difficult because their ideologies overlap with various non-terrorist groups and with actual Americans. The extremist fringe that commits violence often isn't espousing ideas that are very far from an extremist group that's just legally exercising its free speech. Unless everybody agrees that a group, organization or individual is really violent and extremist, it's really hard to designate them as such.

That is a trap through which the U.S. government always has to fight. The Obama administration, for instance, abandoned its report on domestic terrorists under political pressure.

So, if law enforcement is able to determine a motive, it will remain to be seen if there is a connection to a specific ideology or group, and if there's a designated leader of that group or it's more of a matter of loose affiliations. Someone who just decides to undertake violence at their own direction, and not at the direction of a central group or organization, makes it hard to define the act as terrorism. Thus, the entities in charge may just call it a person who conducted a terrorist act.

The desire to know immediately whether something is "terrorism" is a problem; the answer to that question is difficult to determine within minutes when nobody knows who the perpetrator is. Going back and gathering all that evidence takes time, and the public just doesn't want to wait.

We saw that with the Austin bombings in March: People wanted to know right away whether it was terrorism or not, which is a tough position for law enforcement to be in. And then, when the public will not wait for the answer, it leads to speculation and, often times, incorrect speculation. That's very damaging both to law enforcement and public confidence.

The problem in this case is that elements of the U.S. government had already drawn attention to all of the targets; every target was either an advocate against the president and his administration or an opponent in a political contest. It will really be a test for our country, to see if we can investigate this purely, learn from it and try to help make sure that we, as a nation, are not stoking any of the flames that lead to the fire.

As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.