When terror isn't terrorism

Story highlights

  • Terrorism isn't just an act of violence -- it's a political statement, the politically motivated killing of innocents, writes Philip Mudd
  • So, random attacks by disturbed people shouldn't be falsely labeled terrorism, he says

Philip Mudd comments on counterterrorism and security policy for CNN. He was the deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and the senior intelligence adviser at the FBI. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Terrorism isn't just an act of violence -- it's a political statement, the politically motivated killing of innocents. In the early years after the 9/11 attacks, declaring al Qaeda attacks incidents of terror seemed straightforward: Al Qaeda leadership selected targets and trained or inspired followers who took direction or guidance. And responsibility was clear since they generally claimed the attacks they conducted and rarely claimed attacks they did not.

Philip Mudd
Today, individuals or small groups trying to validate their attacks by claiming allegiance to ISIS seem like the next terror phase, with ISIS advocating attacks but neither directing nor even contacting attackers: In France and other European countries, and the United States, from a national day of celebration in Nice to a gay club in Orlando to an office party in San Bernardino.
    Slow down. What appears to be an evolution in terror, from centralized operations directed by a core group of terrorists to a far-flung, loosely knit ideological movement inspired by ISIS from afar, masks a bigger question: Is what we are seeing even terrorism at all?

    Al Qaeda's approach

    Those original architects of 9/11, from al Qaeda operational chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed through what was then a clearly defined organization, with defined goals, clearly understood their motivations, and they articulated them during public statements in the 1990s.
    They opposed America's presence overseas, and they detested American culture. The political motivation of their strikes was clear: Intimidate America to leave Muslim lands and al Qaeda's latitude to undermine local governments would increase. In their view, America was the foundation that helped corrupt leaders maintain power. Remove America and accelerate the removal of the corrupt locals.
    Further, the most senior al Qaeda players were clear in their commitment. Their single-minded focus on a decades- or centuries-long struggle against Western power informed their choices.
    Fast forward through the 2000s, as groups affiliated with al Qaeda undertook attacks across the world, from Africa through South Asia and farther east, into Indonesia and beyond.
    Like their al Qaeda partners, their goals were similarly clear, and their targets and leadership similarly single-minded. They were the next al Qaeda generation of terrorists, with different names, different areas of operation, and different recruiting bases, from Al-Shabaab in Somalia to al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, now in Yemen. They blended al Qaeda-inspired ideology and targets with an interest in local attacks, occasionally resulting in differences over strategy with al Qaeda's original core.

    Homegrown terror

    Homegrown terror hit America more prominently as the decade progressed, through youth joining groups such as Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa and al Qaeda in Yemen. Social media accelerated this radicalization, by giving widely dispersed individuals access to ideology that was far less accessible even as recently as 9/11.
    The individuals who motivated them shared the al Qaedist way of thinking, starting with a focused ideology of cleansing Muslim areas, ousting regional leaders, and preparing populations in those areas for the dawn of what al Qaeda saw as a golden era. But these mislabeled "homegrown" terrorists were never homegrown: They might have been inspired in isolated locations without access to al Qaeda or its affiliates, but they were linked to a global movement that was led by committed jihadists who used terror for clear political ends.
    This al Qaeda of the past practiced controlled violence. By contrast, the ISIS of the present is more violent, less controlled, less selective about recruits, and less interested in whether the attacker adheres to its ideology.
    Al Qaeda had a stricter leadership structure and logic -- and tied the attacks they committed to a longer term strategy. Targets could be justified, even if by their own interpretation of Islam, and they had to adhere to a certain code of terrorist conduct. ISIS has no such limitation and no such code. ALL violence conducted by it, in its name, or against a common enemy is acceptable, welcome. Embraced.

    The murderers of ISIS?

    Now, years into the ISIS onslaught, we have yet another generation of murderers seen as the next iteration of this threat. A Muslim who may have some affiliation with ISIS Ideas without ever having met an ISIS member, and who appears also to have a personal grievance -- a marital problem, a psychological struggle -- murders dozens at a location that is not always readily identifiable as a political target. Is a gay nightclub a jihadi protest against homosexuality or an individual's response to some personal demon?
    There are two reasons we should move away from this blurring of the line between today's terror -- seemingly random attacks with debatable motivations -- and yesterday's terrorism, perpetrated by politically motivated Islamist revolutionaries, starting with Osama bin Laden.
    First, it's incorrect. ISIS has become, for some murderers, an excuse, a validation, a justification for carrying out acts of violence that are motivated by an individual's hate but sometimes not by what we have come to know as terrorism, the use of violence against innocents for a political purpose.
    Some of these perpetrators appear to claim ISIS was their inspiration because the true inspiration is less ideological. Some were emotionally unhinged. They may have had some sort of interest in ISIS; they also clearly had other psychological demons that led them to kill.
    Second, for those inspired or directed by ISIS -- and for its core leadership -- there is an honor in terrorism, the use of these attacks to counter vastly superior adversaries in Europe, the Middle East, North America and elsewhere. There is, however, no excuse for random murder among true terrorists. By granting ISIS a claim over these attackers, we elevate murder to what they want: a sign that their message of a new caliphate age, driven by ISIS, is gaining traction.
    This immediate characterization of this new phase of attackers as "terrorists," despite their clearly muddled motivations, vaults a mass murderer who cannot validate killing into the realm of a politically motivated jihadist who is embraced by a fringe group that sees his act as justified.

    Terrorist label doesn't fit

    When we don't know the motivations of these new killers who simply cover their actions with an ISIS veneer, why do we give them the validation they seek? At the very least, we are looking at a new category of terror for which we have no label.
    When an apparently emotionally disturbed attacker murders in Nice, Orlando, Germany, or any of the other locations that have become so common today, commentators shift immediately to the bias of placing these attacks in an understandable narrative, to make sense of acts of violence.
    "Another act of terrorism," they might say, an evolution in what we've witnessed for two decades. Using the al-Qaeda past as a frame to understand the present, we are falling prey to a human bias to create clean narratives that follow a clearly understandable storyline answering the questions of why, and puts individual incidents in a broader context.
    In reality, it is not an evolution, it's a different phenomenon. Disturbed individuals who couldn't find a group to validate their actions in the past today have that validation, and it's ISIS. Regardless of whether they either believe or understand the ISIS message, they will claim ISIS inspiration because the alternative -- mass murder without a clear rationale -- is indefensible. Yet would these attacks have occurred without ISIS? Maybe so.
    In cases of mass murder, Americans have evolved to understand the first question about the perpetrator isn't what he did, or who he killed. It's what his mental state was, whether he had the mental capacity to be tried in a US court as a murderer. As time goes on, we might simply apply the same standard to murderers who claim to be terrorists. Before we look at what they did, or who they killed, start with a simpler question: Were they actually motivated by some warped political ideology, or were they looking for validation from ISIS as cover for whatever psychological problem or emotional disturbance they suffered from?
    It's still not clear what the Orlando killer was thinking when he entered that club. We call him a terrorist even as we accept the diametrically opposed proposition that we don't exactly know why he did what he did. A mass murderer isn't necessarily a terrorist. And a self-proclaimed ISIS adherent attacking in the streets of America or Europe isn't necessarily terrorism.