A more inclusive and universally accepted definition of terrorism is needed to address the growing threat from domestic extremists, USC Price School of Public Policy Adjunct Professor Erroll Southers said this month during a lecture forum presented by USC’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE).
Southers’ talk at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center expanded on his new book Homegrown Violent Extremism, a topic brought to the forefront last year with the Boston Marathon bombings. Despite growing up in the United States, the Tsarnaev brothers, perpetrators of that attack, had radical Islamic motives consistent with how many Americans view terrorists in the post-9/11 world. However, there are many extremist ideologies that threaten national security.
“It’s time to call a duck a duck,” said Southers, associate director of research transition at CREATE. “There are lots of folks who have been engaged in activities that I deem to be terrorism. We’re very reluctant in this country to use that term. I think if we started prosecuting people as domestic terrorists and looking at them that way, it might be quite different.”
Southers described three categories of adversaries: those with religious motivations, racial ideologies and people who oppose single issues such as abortion, gays or immigrants. He indicated that the fastest-growing extremist group in the United States is the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.
Another stimulus for homegrown threats is fear of a future when minorities are expected to be the majority in the United States by 2042.
“I think it was a very useful presentation, highlighting that homegrown terrorism is not just a Muslim phenomenon,” said Stephen Hora, USC Price research professor and director of CREATE. “It’s even more so a problem with these groups like Sovereign Citizens and people on the extreme far right. We have actually seen more incidents from those groups than we’ve seen from Muslim religious fanatics. Erroll illustrated what doesn’t get into the newspaper a lot.”
Family and community will see the signs of a terrorist forming before anyone else, but they often ignore them. The father of the Boston bombers still denies their involvement.
“Things have happened that we don’t talk about in regards to the complicity of our society or our families, or our communities, where these things happen,” said Southers, who gave testimony at the Congressional hearing on the Boston Marathon bombings in May.
Formation of the mental state to become a terrorist can occur at a surprisingly young age, similar to the environment that produces gang members.
“I think what you have to do is look at gangs, cults and terrorist organizations as quite similar and look at the people who are drawn to them and why,” Southers said. “I think that those three have a lot in common, and we should start the conversation considering a younger age group if we could. The process of going online, looking things up and getting engaged happens much earlier than we think.”
Pathways to terrorism
There isn’t one pathway to becoming a terrorist, according to Southers. Many aren’t the stereotypical despondent, ignorant, homeless young men. Research shows that a terrorist can be middle-class, college-educated in Western countries, married with a stable family life and no criminal history.
There are some common factors. Terrorism begins with an alienated individual, legitimizing ideology and enabling environment. There’s usually some sort of grievance felt from conflicted identity, injustice, oppression or socioeconomic exclusion. Finally, there is a tipping point that could be a lost job or inability to fit in socially.
The three parts of a definition for terrorism that receive little debate are that the essence of the activity has to be the threat or use of violence, the targets are civilians (nonmilitary personnel), and the objective is to further some ideology.
“Sometimes we have a reluctance to call things terrorism in this country,” said Greg Papazian, a second-year Master of Public Administration student at USC Price and research assistant at CREATE. “Obviously, per his book, there really is no profile. There are a lot of threats out there we should be looking at a little bit more thoroughly as opposed to just what we perceive to be the most major threat. It’s an interesting topic that is constantly changing.”