This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
Before a case can be added to our dataset it must pass a certain set of criteria, called the decision tree. There are five questions that we ask about each case when deciding if it is relevant to our project. The answer must be yes to the first three questions, and it must be yes for one of the last two for the case to be included.
First, did the indictment for the case occur during our date range (1/1/1990 – present)? If it occurred prior to 1990 it is excluded. However, if the attack or incident occurred prior to 1990 but the indictment wasn’t issued until 1990 or later, the case can be included.
Second, did the case end with charges filed in the United States? Our analysis is primarily interested in the prosecution of political violence, so this step in the decision tree is a very important part of which cases are included. It is responsible for the exclusion of the largest domestic terrorist attack in history, 9/11. Since all of the attackers died, there were never charges filed against them, and they are excluded. Another example is the Tsarnaev brothers who detonated bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in our database, but his brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a shootout with law enforcement (Boston, 2014). He is excluded. This criterion also excludes any incident which may have been claimed by an extremist group, but a perpetrator was never caught and charged. This applies to many attacks in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that were claimed by the Earth Liberation Front or Animal Liberation Front but no charges were ever filed. On the other hand, a person may be included even if they never went to trial as long as they were charged. Benjamin Matthew Williams is an example of this. He and his brother, James Tyler Williams, were charged for murdering a couple because they were gay, but Benjamin committed suicide in jail before being sentenced. He is included in the dataset.
Third, did the charges include at least one felony? Cases of political violence that result only in misdemeanor charges will be excluded. For example, the ELF is often known to use destruction of property and vandalism to further their political agenda. Depending on the extent of the damage, this may result only in misdemeanor charges. These cases are excluded from the database.
The next two questions work together to determine why the case is being classified as terrorism. There are two ways in which a case can fit our definition. First, was the crime in furtherance of terrorism, extremism, or political violence? If yes, the case is included. This can be anything with a clear socio-political motive or something to aid a designated foreign terrorist organization. For example, arson attacks on abortion clinics are included due to an obvious political motive. Financial crimes with the intent of providing material support to a terrorist organization are also considered to be in furtherance of terrorism. One gray area when it comes to this question is how to separate the person from the crime. On April 22, 2018, Travis Reinking entered a Waffle House with an AR-15 and killed two people. Prior to this incident, he had breached security at the White House demanding to speak to the President and was claiming sovereign citizenship. While the FBI does consider sovereign citizens to be extremists, his actions at the Waffle House did not appear to be motivated by that identity. He has since been found unfit to stand trial and is in a mental hospital (Waffle House, 2018). Because of this, the incident is excluded.
If the crime in question does not have a clear socio-political agenda, it may still be included if it is designated as terroristic or extremist by any official state speech outlet. This includes, but is not limited to, reports from the Department of Justice or FBI, congressional testimony, and investigations by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the government arrested many immigrants from the Middle East on immigration violation charges. All of these incidents are listed as terrorism by various forms of state speech even though they are not politically motivated.
Many cases in our dataset fall into both of the last two categories; they have a clear political motive and are designated as terrorism by state speech. Some of the most interesting cases to analyze will be cases that are included for only one of those reasons. The questions we will then have to ask are, if there is an obvious socio-political motive, why doesn’t the government classify it as terrorism? Conversely, if there is no obvious socio-political motive, why does the government call it terrorism? It will be important to investigate these questions as we move through our analysis.
Boston Marathon Bombing. (2014, March 28). Retrieved October 3, 2018, from https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/boston-marathon-bombings
Waffle House shooting suspect not fit to stand trial, ordered to mental facility. (2018, August 22). Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/waffle-house-shooting-suspect-not-fit-stand-trial-ordered-mental-n903006