Deciphering Foreign Versus Domestic Terrorism

Karen Greenberg on NPR, April 23, 2013

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Steve Inskeep talks with Karen Greenberg, Director of Fordham University's Center on National Security, about defining terrorism, what it means to call an act domestic versus international terrorism and the political ramifications.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. So let's talk a little bit more about this distinction between domestic and international terrorism. And let's bring Karen Greenberg into the conversation. She is the director of Fordham University's Law School's Center on National Security. Welcome to the program.

KAREN GREENBERG: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: And let's start with the legal implications. I know there are political implications, as well. What difference does it make if we find that this is a domestic terrorist case, or international terrorist case?

GREENBERG: Well, largely, in terms of what we're going to charge him with, if we charge him with domestic terrorism or we charge him with international terrorism, he's still facing the same kind of penalty. He will face, most likely, the death penalty. The charges really have to do with whether or not it takes place influenced by somebody from abroad, or whether it takes place with an international message involved with it, one way or another, and an attempt from a foreign source to influence our government, let's say.

INSKEEP: Now, it's interesting. When you say a message, an attempt to influence the government, that's a big part of this. It becomes a larger case, not because of the death toll, specifically, but because of why someone may have been trying to do it.

GREENBERG: Yes, exactly. And, I mean, that is what the distinction between terrorism and, let's say, the crime of murder is. Does it have a further agenda? And sometimes, that agenda could just to influence or coerce civilians. But often, and statutorily, it can also have the political agenda involved.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And, Karen Greenberg, beyond the legal questions here, I wonder the difference in perception when people hear about this. I mean, on one hand, if you have an international terrorist act, an attempt to influence the agenda of our country, versus something that is homegrown, just as violent, but very domestic, I mean, how do people sort of think about these things differently?

GREENBERG: Well, first, let me just say that a domestic terrorism attack can have a political goal in mind. A group could want to affect the policy of the government, could be angry at the government for one thing or another. So...

INSKEEP: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bombing.

GREENE: Yeah.

GREENBERG: Yeah. Timothy McVeigh is an example of domestic terrorism. I think, actually, Dina's mentioning Fort Hood is a very apt example for what we have here. Nidal Hasan, who was charged with the crimes of murder in the Fort Hood case...

INSKEEP: This is an attack on U.S. soldiers by someone who was in the U.S. military at the time, in Texas.

GREENBERG: Right. And he killed 13 individuals, and wounded many more. And he was not charged with terrorism. His case is still going on. But there was the same questions there: Is this domestic terrorism? Does this have some kind of - what Dina has called - an international flavor? We did know that he had tried to be in contact with and had had some contact with Anwar Awlaki.

So I think - there's going to be this question in cases where individuals are in contact with countries, where there is - radical Islam seems to be an important ideology.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

GREENBERG: But we just don't know. And one of the questions that's going to come up here has to do with how we understand the notion of self-radicalization - again, something that came up in the Fort Hood case - and whether or not these individuals, both the older brother and/or the younger brother, did go through a period of radicalization that may have not have been tied to somebody abroad who was trying to influence them or deploy them.

GREENE: So you can be radicalized in this country and not necessarily have these deep ties to places abroad, or groups abroad.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Correct. And we've seen a lot of this within the context of terrorism trials. In terrorism indictments and prosecutions in the United States, we have seen numerous instances of individuals who, for one reason or another, go on the Internet or find a way to self - to radicalization here, largely initiated by themselves.

INSKEEP: Dina Temple-Raston, let's emphasize that we still do not know the full story here. We may find that the Tsarnaev brothers had a firmer connection to some terrorist group. People are still trying to learn that. But how concerned have federal authorities been in recent years about self-radicalization, about people in the United States essentially picking up information from wherever and acting on their own initiative?

TEMPLE-RASTON: This has been the number one concern for the FBI, and self-radicalization and, in particular, the power of the Internet in helping people sort of meet like-minded people who might spur them to action has been a huge issue. And I think they thought they had a pretty good handle on it, and this latest terrorist attack indicates that maybe this still has a run left in it.

GREENE: And Karen Greenberg, as we answer the questions about this terrorist attack and start labeling it in one way or another, I mean, how will that sort of weigh on people's minds in this country?

GREENBERG: Well, there's a running debate right now in Washington and elsewhere about whether or not the era of al-Qaida as we knew it is over, and therefore, where we stand in terms of terrorism. What I think about this particular case is that it is going to prove pivotal in being a transition point from the post-911 era to an era of managing terrorism. It's a small event in comparison to other events. It is somewhere between domestic and perhaps between international terrorism. And the worry is that it will promote a sort of additional aggressiveness on the part of law enforcement and the U.S. military in response.

INSKEEP: Karen Greenberg is director of Fordham Law School's Center on National Security. Thanks very much.

GREENBERG: Thank you.

GREENE: And Dina Temple-Raston is our counterterrorism correspondent. Dina, thanks for coming in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.