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Confronting terrorism on the state and local level.

The bombing of the New York City World Trade Center in 1993 proved once again that law enforcement cannot ignore the threat of terrorism on American soil. Yet, after that tragedy, most state and local law enforcement administrators still viewed terrorism primarily as an international threat. While the New York bombing proved that foreign-inspired mass terrorism could occur on U.S. soil, many administrators believed that metropolitan centers such as New York, Miami, and Chicago remained the most likely targets. However, the reality that Americans could perpetrate terrorist acts on their fellow citizens in their own country became apparent in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Any previous abstract law enforcement perceptions about terrorism dissipated in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City explosion. For state and local law enforcement, perspectives concerning domestic terrorism and the need for effective antiterrorism efforts changed forever.

A study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) confirmed that state and local law enforcement agencies view the threat of terrorism as real, but their response to the threat varies widely according to the size and resources of the department and the nature of the threat in any given community.(1) In the past, major cities developed preventive and preparation programs, often in cooperation with the FBI and its joint terrorism task forces, whereas smaller cities and counties usually operated on their own. According to the NIJ report, antiterrorism resources varied according to the existing threat potential. Some smaller jurisdictions developed regional alliances to address specific extremist groups and organizations operating within locales.(2) However, the majority of jurisdictions only recently realized the threat presented by extremist individuals and groups and now assess the threat that such groups may pose to their respective communities and to related operational planning and readiness issues.


Unable to pinpoint an exact time or incident to account for the resurgence of extremist activity within the United States, some researchers speculate that the end of the Cold War left American patriots without an enemy. Emotions and rhetoric previously directed toward the fear of a communist takeover became replaced by a fear that the United Nations, backed by a covert group of industrialists, sought to create a new world order marked by a centralization of power and wealth. Some individuals believe that the passage of gun control legislation fanned the flames of antigovernment sentiment, or they attribute this attitude to the growing power and influence of the federal government, with diminishing control of state and local authorities. Other researchers point to the spread of the Christian Identity Movement and its religious-based beliefs in the superiority of the Aryan race. Additionally, documentation exists showing that the right-wing extremist movement grew out of the farm crises of the 1970s.(3)

Reviewing a list of individuals and groups indicted for recent terrorist-related incidents establishes common characteristics that comprise the current terrorist movement. Adherents often move from one group or movement to another and may hold multiple memberships. Major movement themes include white supremacy, although often denied, and an advocacy of the violent takeover of a government that a group believes is corrupt and conspiring to deprive them of their Second Amendment protections. Whatever their philosophy and makeup, such groups appear to encourage and reinforce one another.

Holding an extreme view on an issue is not uncommon or illegal. When that belief turns radical and those individuals holding such views violate the law, attempt to force their will on others, or advocate and engage in violence, all levels of law enforcement should become involved.


While international terrorism received the bulk of media attention during the 1980s, a concurrent growth in the variety of national, right-wing extremist organizations took place.(4) The death of Gordon Kahl, a staunch member of the Sheriff's Posse Comitatus killed in a firefight with state and federal officers in northwest Arkansas, marked the beginning of a new move toward violence among right-wing extremist groups.(5) The emergence of the SherifFs Posse Comitatus; the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord; the Arizona Patriots; the White Patriot Party; and other right-wing extremist groups challenged assumptions about terrorism as the exclusive tool of violent leftists and forced law enforcement to reevaluate and reexamine previously perceived notions regarding the motivation of terrorists.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, with most left-wing extremist organizations in disarray and emerging violent right-wing extremist groups effectively neutralized by the FBI, most state and local law enforcement remained untouched by the threat of right-wing violence. The same time period also introduced increasing concerns and responsibilities for state and local law enforcement. The war on drugs and the increasing violence posed by street gangs, as well as the resulting struggle to meet the demand for law enforcement services, rapidly filled the gap left by the diminishing street unrest and the reduced threat from the extreme left. However, the reprieve from domestic terrorism was short-lived. By the early 1990s, a new movement of domestic terror had started, and by the middle of the 1990s, violent right-wing extremists obviously still existed in the United States.


Although experts have attempted to explain the phenomenon, many definitions of terrorism exist. One such definition is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."(6) In other terms, terrorists intend for their acts to infuriate the public and cause outrage. They sometimes use violence and bloodshed to accomplish these objectives. Referring to the pipe bomb explosion at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, one author stated that "there is a grim economy to the way a terrorist works, born of a dark arithmetic: fear rises exponentially."(7) Portraying a government as ineffective and unable to provide security for its citizens remains an important objective of terrorism.

Extremism is even more difficult to define. Many individuals harbor excessive views concerning subjects they consider important. If not for the violent activities of some individuals or groups, right-wing extremists merely would be exercising their fight to free speech. Extremists become terrorists when they act on their beliefs through unlawful violent acts in order to influence or intimidate others into accepting their viewpoints.

For state and local law enforcement administrators, terrorist organizations, right-wing extremists, and hate groups all generate the same problems and produce the same amount of pressure for a resolution. Law enforcement efforts and resources should concentrate on the criminality of actions, not culture or philosophy. While law enforcement may need to monitor groups that advocate the use of violence to achieve their objectives, agencies should apply the labels of terrorist and extremist with restraint.(8)


Although the FBI assumes the lead federal role in the investigation and prevention of domestic terrorism, every act of terrorism occurring within the United States remains local in nature. Such acts, and the threat thereof, fall within the purview of state and local law enforcement and present significant challenges, far removed from the daily concerns, priorities, and operational considerations of most police administrators.

FBI activities cannot succeed without cooperation and assistance from local law enforcement agencies. Local police officers and deputy sheriffs, along with troopers and state investigators, sense the discontent among terrorist movements, monitor the advocacy of extreme causes, respond to hate crimes, and serve as the foundation for an effective assessment of threatening activities within their communities. In all probability, state or local law enforcement officers will respond first to a terrorist threat or incident. However, state and local administrators should remember that the FBI's unique role in the nation's counterterrorism efforts makes it a critical component in any terrorism-related investigation.


At first glance, the threat of domestic terrorism and the scope of potential methods and targets may appear overwhelming. Activity by right-wing extremist groups has remained difficult to assess because of the cell-type structure and other clandestine tactics many groups have adopted and the fact that most groups operate in rural areas. Problems have appeared to increase since the Oklahoma City bombing. Klanwatch - a project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center that attempts to curb Klan and racist violence through litigation, education, and monitoring - reported that "[t]here were 858 groups operating in the United States in 1996, a 6 percent increase over the 809 groups noted in 1994 and 1995."(9)

Although others who track extremist activity acknowledge the difficulty when determining the level of threat, a concern for future activity remains. The same report, along with numerous others, warns of increased violence, including the possibility of biological and chemical attacks.(10) Disagreement exists concerning the level of threat, but administrators agree that the need to prepare and plan for the possibility of an incident occurring in any jurisdiction, regardless of location or size, remains strong.

By creating a domestic terrorism planning process at the state and local level, administrators can respond better to a terrorist incident and also help to identify and prevent an incident from occurring. First, law enforcement officers must recognize a domestic terrorism threat. Next, as with other important law enforcement challenges, agencies should develop a state of readiness to prevent, deter, and interdict terrorist attacks. Planning, an essential step, should include identifying potential threats and those areas that may be vulnerable to attack, maintaining an inventory of relevant agency resources, and creating interagency agreements. Such agreements should include information exchange, planning oversight, a survey of available resources, and formal involvement in an incident command structure. Agencies also should engage in contingency planning to prepare for "what if" scenarios by exploring the various alternatives for attack in a particular jurisdiction. An effective planning effort also includes an enhanced ability for multiagency response.

The success of the planning process depends on the establishment of a planning team. The team should include a variety of personnel, including senior agency administrators, investigative commanders, agency or jurisdictional prosecutors or legal advisors, senior representatives from local emergency services providers (e.g., fire departments, rescue squads, hazardous material teams), ambulance or hospital representatives, state emergency workers, and local FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms personnel. Other federal agency representatives may have interest in a particular jurisdiction. For example, Department of Energy representatives, if a facility is located in their jurisdiction, or Department of Defense personnel, where military facilities are present, also should have representation on the team. Agencies can plan team participation as limited or as broad as possible, however, as a general rule, teams should involve as many agencies and individuals as feasible. If the planning team becomes too large, the formation of subcommittees addressing individual specific requirements of the plan may prove effective.

The planning team should articulate the elements of the plan, which should include, at a minimum, the following:

* the chain of command;

* command and control (an effective incident command system also would address this and other planning needs);

* the overall purpose of the plan, including a definition of what incidents or elements the plan intends to cover;

* individual contingency event plans;

* notification procedures;

* investigative and intelligence guidelines;

* media planning;

* emergency public notification plans;

* personnel and equipment databases;

* volunteer coordination; and

* a process for keeping the plan updated.

Not only will such a planning process assist in preparing for an event, but the planning steps themselves can enhance working relationships, establish mutual priorities, and identify and analyze the risk and vulnerabilities. Agencies also should have a process for evaluating the plan's effectiveness. The FBI, as well as other federal, state, and local participants, should have roles in reviewing, updating, and continually assessing the finished product. To maximize the effectiveness of this process, the planning team requires the support and endorsement of key administrative officials and elected government leaders.


Addressing the threat of domestic terrorism should include assessing and separating lawful, constitutionally protected rhetoric from criminal threats. To accomplish this difficult and sensitive task, agencies should initiate a formal process of threat assessment - "an intelligence-based methodology whereby situations, circumstances, or conditions are researched and evaluated...."(11) The vast majority of individuals who hold strong extremist beliefs pose no real threat to law enforcement or society. Most remain content with espousing inflammatory rhetoric and attending meetings, rallies, and exhibitions to reinforce their extremist beliefs. Distinguishing between the individuals and groups who advocate extreme views and those who advocate harm becomes the challenge that law enforcement agencies must address effectively.

A close examination, however, reveals a dichotomy both in philosophy and rhetoric that can aid in the threat assessment process. On one side of the equation, the criminal activity and accompanying threats made by such groups and individuals require that they maintain a secretive existence. However, for effectiveness and to gain public support while maintaining their followers, most organizations sponsor public meetings and seminars. Law enforcement personnel can attend such public meetings to monitor and assess the threat potential or seriousness of the proposed actions. Still, administrators should exercise caution to avoid opening investigations based on beliefs alone. If, however, those beliefs encourage or elicit others to commit violence to accomplish extremist objectives, then a legitimate law enforcement interest exists. Focus always should remain on criminal actions, not mere advocacy or impassioned pleas for legitimate action to correct perceived wrongs.

Target Identification

Another contributing factor in threat assessment is target identification. Targets generally follow broad categories based on the motives of the group or on the individual planning the attack. Domestic groups, including right-wing, issue-oriented, radical organizations and separatists, often choose targets for a specific purpose. Targets normally fall into five broad categories, some that overlap, depending on the motives of those planning the attack.(12)

Symbolic or public message targets represent the first, the most common, and by far the largest, category. These may include prominent landmarks, electrical utilities, pipelines, state and local government buildings, universities, certain federal government buildings, and businesses and industries involved in such areas as chemical production, animal research, forest or wood products, and refineries.

The second category includes government-owned or -operated facilities. These consist of tunnels, computer facilities, airports, state capitols, bridges and overpasses, maritime facilities (e.g., locks and harbors), and law enforcement buildings and support structures.

The third category involves military targets (e.g., military bases, museums, and testing facilities). While generally more secure than other potential targets, these offer an immense opportunity to embarrass the military and the U.S. government.

Cyber targets comprise the fourth category of potential targets. An enormous psychological impact could result from targeting utilities, hacking into their networks and control systems, and shutting them down. Other potential cyber targets include air traffic control centers, financial networks, utility distribution networks, emergency 9-1-1 centers, and other vital services that rely on computer-operated control systems and networks.(13)

Individual victims represent the fifth and last major target category. Kidnapping, extortion, assassination, and other human target attacks accomplish terrorist objectives. While intimidation remains the most common tactic used against individuals to gain compliance, domestic terrorists continue to employ violence. Individuals most likely targeted include elected government officials, law enforcement personnel, tax collectors, court clerks, members of the judiciary and prosecution systems, and families in each of these categories.(14) Threat assessment in this area requires not only evaluation of the individual or group making the threat but also an assessment of the vulnerability of the potential victim.


Complicated and legally challenging intelligence issues surround the deterrence of domestic terrorism. Each agency should contact its respective legal advisor and review department policies for guidance. Many terrorist groups rely on the constitutionally protected rights of advocacy and assembly. Therefore, determining the curiosity seekers, followers, and those who may advocate violence requires an intelligence assessment of known and observed activities. For resource considerations, law enforcement should carefully analyze the extremists' activities for evidence of criminal conduct. Content with the opportunity to publicly expound their beliefs, some movement leaders may not pose a threat. Many movement followers who may not understand the objectives of the group, much less their radical solutions, also may not pose a threat. In fact, most extremist leaders talk more about their various complaints than about their radical solutions so that they will not lose their followers.

Dependent upon the nature of the advocacy and associated actions, law enforcement should focus only on those groups that indicate intent to commit violent action. The Regional Information Sharing System (RISS), a regionalized informational exchange network implemented by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, offers relevant analytical information dissemination services, as do many state information systems. There are numerous Internet sites dedicated to the extremist movement that individuals can access without violation of law or policy. The U.S. Department of Justice presently is developing Guidelines for Online Investigations by Federal Law Enforcement Agents. Additionally, many groups will discuss openly their objectives with anyone willing to listen, including law enforcement officials. Officers should review their agencies' policies and consult department legal advisors before implementing intelligence coverage.


After the Oklahoma City bombing, agencies began to ask, "Can it happen in our jurisdiction?" and "If it does, what would we do?" Unfortunately, except in the largest metropolitan centers, agencies offer very little terrorism training other than civil disturbance and special weapons and tactical training. Training initiated after 1995 concentrates mainly on preparation and response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides limited funding to state emergency management agencies. This funding is used primarily on orientation training for first responders, including law enforcement agencies. The FEMA training focuses mostly on the roles and duties of various responding agencies, stressing the need for emergency agencies to work toward a unified response. As part of this effort, some states include limited discussions of threat potential and awareness issues.

While response to an incident is critical, prevention of the act remains preferable. Antiterrorism (pre-incident) training involves preparation and response considerations in an effort to prevent violence from occurring in the first place. To maximize training time, available courses should assist state and local agencies in understanding the nature of extremists and their organizations to better assess their potential for violence. Agencies should disseminate useful information concerning the history and evolution of the right-wing extremist movement. Additionally, law enforcement should become familiar with current trends and activities to make informed interpretations of potential extremist activities.

Departments should discuss issues concerning the various terrorism roles and responsibilities of law enforcement agencies at all levels. Terrorist and extremist organizations and individuals span jurisdictional boundaries, and the investigation and deterrence of criminal activities associated with such individuals strongly suggest a multijurisdictional approach. The training and adaptation of other successful multiagency investigative efforts apply in the investigation of terrorist groups and individuals. Additionally, a review of the legal issues surrounding privacy and intelligence guidelines and the adoption of formal intelligence, investigative case initiation, and case-closing policies remain critical factors in any training effort. Issues of surveillance assessment, as well as an understanding of the psychology and profile of an extremist individual or group, also remain important. As with any complex criminal activity, training becomes critical for developing both an effective approach and a better understanding of the problem. The Bureau of Justice Assistance, in consultation and cooperation with the FBI, developed an antiterrorism training program specifically addressing the needs of state and local law enforcement - an effort that has proven beneficial.


Assessing the nationwide domestic terrorism threat is difficult. Neither the movements nor the solutions are defined easily. However, one fact remains - successful antiterrorism and counterterrorism efforts require the full participation and cooperation of law enforcement at all levels. Critical ingredients to success include coordinated planning, intelligence sharing, and a unified, informed response to terrorist threats. The prevention and response to terrorist acts require unified efforts.

While Americans should not live in fear, they need to recognize and respond to the threat that terrorism presents to the United States. "The United States is the target of the future," and "terrorism is a greater threat to democracy than communism or socialism ever were"(15) represent views articulated by many individuals. All levels of law enforcement must implement effective antiterrorism efforts in combating this threat to ensure the safety of all American citizens and their communities. After all, the very foundation of democracy relies on freedom from fear, terrorism, and terrorist activities.


1 Kevin Riley and Brace Hoffman, Domestic Terrorism. A National Assessment of State and Local Law Enforcement Preparedness (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, National Institute of Justice, 1995).

2 Ibid.

3 Mark Pitcavage, Ph.D., Common Law and Uncommon Courts: An Overview of the Common Law Movement (Tallahassee: Institute for Intergovernmental Research, 1997).

4 Brent L. Smith, Terrorism in America: Pipe Bombs and Pipe Dreams (New York: State University of New York Press, 1994).

5 Ibid.

6 United States Code, Title 22.

7 Pico Iyer, "Lost Magic, Terror at the Games," Time, August 5, 1996, 21.

8 Richard Fairburn, "Labeling Terrorism," Police Marksman, July/August 1995, 41.

9 "Officials Bolster Action vs. Far Right" USA Today, March 5, 1997, Sec. Nation.

10 Ibid.

11 Ed Higgins, Threat Assessments and the Antigovernment Extremist, presentation at the State and Local Antiterrorism Training Program, Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 1997.

12 Stephen Bowman, When the Eagle Screams: America's Vulnerability to Terrorism (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1994).

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.
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Author:Bodrero, D. Douglas
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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