What Does Terrorism Look Like on a College Campus?

Different definitions, a wide variety of terrorist motivations and changing tactics make addressing terrorism a challenge.
Published: August 13, 2017

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran Feb. 1, 2017.

A definition of terrorism is not as easy to come by as you may think. Defining terrorism can be as difficult as trying to understand it because there is no universally accepted definition.

Some cities have ordinances that define terroristic acts, states have statutes and various agencies of the federal government define terrorism differently.

For example, the U.S. State Department defines terrorism as “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

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The FBI’s definition is somewhat different: “The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

And the Defense Department is different still: “The unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies. Terrorism is often motivated by religious, political or other ideological beliefs and committed in the pursuit of goals that are usually political.”

The point here is that there is no universally- accepted definition for acts of terrorism.

Generally, institutions of colleges and universities don’t have their own definitions of terrorism. They rely on state or federal guidelines when defining when violent acts are acts of terrorism. The location of the terroristic acts (government facility, shopping mall, church, college campus) is not as important as the motivation and intent of the perpetrators.

What differentiates college and university campuses is their openness and accessibility. Some reports indicate American campuses are targeted by threats of terrorism or terrorist acts every week.

There are few places better than a college campus for a terrorist to find a target-rich environment. Faculty, students and staff are generally unknown to one another, and their movements are extremely predictable due to class schedules.

At larger institutions, it is not uncommon for thousands of people to enter and exit buildings every hour or so. If an individual can enter a classroom and target classmates, professors and others, think of the success a terrorist would have at a football game, in the residence halls or the many other areas where people congregate on campus.

‘Lone Wolf’ Attacks on the Rise

If there are accepted legal definitions of terrorism and a relative degree of understanding among law enforcement professionals as to what constitutes an act of terrorism, why do official explanations and media coverage become so muddled following a related incident of violence? One reason is that the tactics of the criminal perpetrators – the individuals instigating terrorist acts – continue to change and evolve.

The 9/11 terrorists for example were organized by a cell or group, planning and carrying out their mission under the direction of an identifiable organization and leadership.

In contrast, the more recent incidents on U.S. soil, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, the Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting, the 2016 New York City Seaside bombing and the Ohio State University (OSU) vehicle/ knife attack were conducted by individuals acting alone or with another person and by all accounts on their own volition.

The popularized term used to describe these solo actors is “lone wolf.” They express outright support or some degree of sympathy for the causes espoused by recognized international terrorist organizations and the leaders who have declared jihad against the West.

In researching the characteristics of these offenders, Clark McCauley, Sophia Moskalenko and Benjamin Van Son explain in Characteristics of Lone-Wolf Violent Offenders: A Comparison of Assassins and School Attackers that “a lone-wolf terrorist plans and carries out an attack without assistance or organizational support.”

FBI Director James Comey noted the difficulty in heading off “lone-wolf” attackers acting on the Islamic States terrorist group’s calls for violence. He called this kind of inspired violence “the greatest threat to the physical safety of Americans.”

The determination of whether someone was inspired to action by a terrorist leader or organization becomes more subjective. Lisa Beyer of Bloomberg News acknowledged the differing definitions but outlined the basic criteria as “the perpetrator acts alone and without specific instructions; is politically motivated; and has no formal ties to an organization.”

Other common factors are that they hold resentments or other grievances and may display mental illness. In other words, there is a difference between being inspired and being directed.

The evidence of self-radicalization often includes an analysis of a perpetrator’s Internet use, contact or communication with others and even religious practices.

While there may be reasonable suspicion that a person harbored radical beliefs, a criminal investigation working toward criminal charges in a terrorism case may not acquire sufficient proof under a probable cause standard. How does this debate translate within the classrooms and halls of colleges and universities?

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