When terror isn’t terrorism

Editor’s Note: 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.

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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

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.