Case Studies in FTO Affiliation

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Recently, my research partner Tia Turner and I completed our preliminary analysis of the correlation between attack lethality, measured in the number of fatalities per any given attack, and the perpetrator’s affiliation to a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The variables that account for attack lethality and FTO affiliation in tPP are “Number Killed” and “Affiliation with FTO” respectively. For each perpetrator entered into the tPP dataset, these variables are essential to our understanding of how the United States justice system decides to prosecute individuals. Then, how exactly do we decide whether or not an individual is affiliated with an FTO? Though it might seem that this answer would be obvious through an examination of the legal documents surrounding any criminal proceeding, the answer is not always so overt. The following blog post provides several brief case studies on instances in which the variable “Affiliation with FTO” interacts uniquely with a perpetrator and his/her actions.

The goal of the “Affiliation with FTO” variable is to prescribe a “Yes” or “No” value to whether the perpetrator(s) of an attack belong to an FTO or otherwise have some sort of link to an FTO. It is easy to classify someone as belonging to an FTO if s/he clearly declares s/he belongs to that organization or has traceable links to the FTO through activity abroad. For example, Ramzi Yousef who is often credited as being the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, was an affiliate of al-Qaeda. He had travelled to Afghanistan to receive training in bomb-making through the nascent organization at the time. After the attack, Yousef escaped arrest and was at large for two years plotting various attacks mainly with the Abu Sayyef organization, rather than al-Qaeda, until he was arrested in 1993.[1] Yousef’s affiliation with an FTO is clear because of his traceable links to multiple FTOs and his terrorist activity abroad. Although Yousef was affiliated with more than one FTO, he is coded as being affiliated specifically with al-Qaeda due to his affiliations and the time of the attack.

However, in many cases the association with an FTO may not be so clear. For example, there are many perpetrators in our dataset who may claim association with an FTO, but have maintained absolutely no contact with formal members of said FTO. Safya Roe Yassin is one such case. In early 2018, Yassin pleaded guilty to “two counts of transmitting threatening communications across state lines”. [2] She maintained the fact that she held multiple Twitter accounts in which she would frequently tweet in support of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Though she never communicated with an actual member of ISIS, she corresponded with an FBI informant whom she believed to be an ISIS operative working overseas. She retweeted several tweets containing personally-identifying information on various members of the government while simultaneously threatening violence. Eventually she was arrested and indicted on the aforementioned charges due to her threatening tweets. Because she never maintained communications with a formal ISIS member, she is valued as “No” under “Affiliation with FTO”.

In my previous blog post, I identified many individuals who appear in our dataset due to something that is called a state speech act. These individuals are included because some governmental and/or law enforcement entity deems the act carried out as terroristic; otherwise, arrests an individual on charges of terrorism for which they are later acquitted. Many of those who were arrested in the post-9/11 dragnet were arrested on terrorism charges and appear in our dataset purely due to state speech act. Most of the individuals arrested during the post-9/11 dragnet were also of foreign origin in that either their parents were born abroad and they were American citizens, or they were a US resident or naturalized citizen who had been born abroad. In these cases, unless the perpetrator was actually found to have been associated with an FTO, they are valued as “No” under the “Affiliation with an FTO” variable.

Many foreign-born individuals appear in our dataset who have no “Affiliation with an FTO”. For example six members of the Animal and Earth Liberations Fronts (ALF and ELF), Stanislas Meyerhoff, Joseph Dibee, Jennifer Kolar, Darren Thurston, Rebecca Rubin, and Kevin Tubbs, set off four incendiary devices at the BLM Wild Horse Corrals in Litchfield, California. The devices destroyed the barn, causing $207,497 in damages. There were no casualties in the incident. Following the attack, the perpetrators sent out a communique, claiming responsibility for the arson in the name of ELF, but also posted the letter on the ALF website. In their statement, the group criticized BLM’ slaughter of wild horses, and threatened future targeting of “industries and organizations that seek to profit by destroying the earth.” The perpetrators were part of a group calling themselves “The Family,” which committed nearly 20 arson and ecotage attacks over a six year period. Two members of “The Family” are Canadian citizens, but are not valued as having affiliation with an FTO because they acted in the name of ELF, a domestic extremist organization.

On the other hand, there are several US-born individuals who appear in our dataset and are affiliated with an FTO. In 2005, Carlos Gamarra-Murillo, an American citizen, was arrested and charged “for engaging in the business of brokering and exporting defense articles without a license and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization”[3] in an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sting. An informant posing as an arms supplier made a deal with Murillo to exchange five dozen M-60 machine guns, five dozen grenade launchers, 600 M-16 A1 assault rifles, and other assorted weapons for 4,400 pounds of cocaine.[4] When Murillo met with two undercover agents in Tampa, Florida to finalize the $4 million deal, he was arrested. He appears in our dataset due to his charge for providing material support to an FTO, and because of this he is valued as “Yes” under  the “Affiliation with FTO” variable.

While these are just a handful of the unique cases we would expect to encounter when it comes to deciding on a value for “Affiliation with FTO”, there are many more nuanced cases which coders might find difficult to classify. Generally, to be coded as belonging to an FTO, the perpetrator must have been in contact with, carried out an act in furtherance of, or formally belonged to an FTO appearing either on the State Department’s lists of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Delisted Foreign Terrorist Organizations, or otherwise have been identified as an FTO which does not appear on this list by members of the tPP.

– Meg


[1] Lambert, Laura. “Ramzi Ahmed Yousef.” Encyclopćdia Britannica. April 20, 2018.

[2] “Buffalo Woman Pleads Guilty to Twitter Threats on Behalf of ISIS.” The United States Department of Justice. February 28, 2018.

[3] U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Department of Homeland Security. “MAN SENTENCED TO 25 YEARS IN PRISON FOR SCHEME TO ARM COLOMBIAN TERROR GROUP WITH 4,000 GRENADES AND 2,000 FIREARMS.” News release, August 9, 2005. Official Website of the Department of Homeland Security.

[4] Theintercept. Trial and Terror. April 17, 2017.

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