Domestic terrorism

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Aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in United States history

Domestic terrorism or homegrown terrorism is a form of terrorism in which victims "within a country are targeted by a perpetrator with the same citizenship" as the victims.[1] There are many definitions of terrorism, and none of them are universally accepted.


While there are many potential definitions of domestic terrorism, it is largely defined as terrorism in which the perpetrator targets his/her own country. Enders defines domestic terrorism as "homegrown in which the venue, target, and perpetrators are all from the same country."[2] The term "homegrown terrorism" stems from jihadi terrorism against Westerners. Wilner and Dobouloz described homegrown terrorism as "autonomously organized radicalized Westerners with little direct assistance from transnational networks, usually organized within the home or host country, and targets fellow nationals."[3] The Congressional Research Service report, American Jihadist Terrorism: Combatting a Complex Threat, describes homegrown terrorism as a “terrorist activity or plots perpetuated within the United States or abroad by American citizens, permanent legal residents, or visitors radicalized largely within the United States.”[4] The United States Department of State defined terrorism in 2003 as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."[1] However, the U.S. government cannot charge someone with domestic terrorism because no such criminal law exists.[5]

Under the 2001 USA Patriot Act, domestic terrorism is defined as "activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or of any state; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S." This definition is made for the purposes of authorizing law enforcement investigations. While international terrorism ("acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries") is a defined crime in federal law,[6] no federal criminal offense exists which is referred to as "domestic terrorism". Acts of domestic terrorism are federally charged under specific laws, such as killing federal agents or "attempting to use explosives to destroy a building in interstate commerce".[7] Some state and local governments in the United States do have domestic crimes called "terrorism",[8] including the District of Columbia.[9]

In 2020, in response to Public Law 116-92, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice/FBI published the following definition of domestic terrorism: "Domestic Terrorism for the FBI’s purposes is referenced in U.S. Code at 18 U.S.C. 2331(5), and is defined as activities: Involving acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; Appearing to be intended to: Intimidate or coerce a civilian population; Influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion; or Affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping; and Occurring primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States."[10]

The 2020 publication notes the US Government broadly divides the domestic terrorism (DT) or domestic violent extremism (DVE) threat into several threat categories, with the two largest being:

  • “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism: This threat encompasses the potentially unlawful use or threat of force or violence in furtherance of ideological agendas derived from bias, often related to race or ethnicity, held by the actor against others or a given population group. Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists purport to use both political and religious justifications to support their racially-or ethnically-based ideological objectives and criminal activities.”
  • “Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremism: This threat encompasses the potentially unlawful use or threat of force or violence in furtherance of ideological agendas, derived from anti-government or anti-authority sentiment, including opposition to perceived economic, social, or racial hierarchies, or perceived government overreach, negligence, or illegitimacy.”

Facts and studies[edit]

Homegrown terrorism is not new to the world. Security analysts have argued that after the end of the Cold War, military conflicts have increasingly involved violent non-state actors carrying out asymmetric warfare,[11] of which terror attacks are one part.[12] The United States has uncovered a number of alleged terrorist plots that have been successfully suppressed through domestic intelligence and law enforcement. The United States has begun to account for the threat of homegrown terrorism, as shown by increased volume of literature on the subject in recent years[when?] and increased number of terrorist websites since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, began posting beheading videos in 2003. A July 2009 document by the FBI estimated that there were roughly 15,000 websites and web forums that support terrorist activities, with around 10,000 of them actively maintained. 80% of these sites are on U.S.-based servers.[13]

According to the Congressional Research Service's study, American Jihadist Terrorism: Combatting a Complex Threat, between May 2009 and November 2010, law enforcement made arrests related to 22 homegrown jihadist-inspired terror plots by American citizens or legal residents of the U.S. This is a significant increase over the 21 plots caught in the seven interim years after the September 11 attacks. During these seven years, two plots resulted in attacks, compared to the two attacks between May 2009 and November 2010, which resulted in 14 deaths. This spike post-May 2009 shows that some Americans are susceptible to ideologies that support a violent form of jihad.[4][14]

Roughly one-quarter of these plots have been linked to major international terrorist groups but an increasing number of Americans are holding high-level operational roles in these terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups.[14][15][16] The former CIA Director Michael Hayden called homegrown terrorism the more serious threat faced by American citizens today.[17] The UK, likewise, considers homegrown terrorism to be a considerable threat. On June 6, 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a wide-ranging strategy to prevent British citizens from being radicalized into becoming terrorists while at university. The strategy is intended to prevent extremist speakers or groups from coming to universities.[18]

On July 23, 2019, Christopher A. Wray, the head of the FBI, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the agency had made around 100 domestic terrorism arrests since October 1, 2018, and that the majority of them were connected in some way with white supremacy. Wray said that the Bureau was "aggressively pursuing [domestic terrorism] using both counterterrorism resources and criminal investigative resources and partnering closely with our state and local partners," but said that it was focused on the violence itself and not on its ideological basis. A similar number of arrests had been made for instances of international terrorism. In the past, Wray has said that white supremacy was a significant and "pervasive" threat to the U.S.[19]

Lone wolf terrorism[edit]

Domestic terrorism is often linked to lone wolf terrorism. Sociologist Ramón Spaaij defines lone wolf terrorism as an act of terrorism committed by one person who "acts on his or her own without orders from—or even connections to an organization".[20] From the late 20th to the early 21st centuries, lone wolf terrorism in the United States has primarily been associated with white supremacy, Islamic fundamentalism, and anti-government extremists such as Dylann Roof, Robert Bowers, Wade Michael Page, Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., and Omar Mateen. Many lone wolves share a common trait in that they seek acceptance from other groups but are typically met with rejection.[21]

In their 2007 book Hunting the American Terrorist former FBI Deputy Assistant Director Terry Turchie and former FBI special agent Kathleen Puckett described six criteria to define a lone wolf:[22]

  1. The act of terrorism was organized by few or only one person that was not operating with an organized group
  2. The individual is willing to use lethal violence to achieve their goal
  3. Their primary goal is ideological, political, or religious in scope
  4. The individual is willing to accept full-scale collateral damage
  5. The individual is not intending to commit suicide, unless the situation calls for it
  6. The individual is intending to commit homicide to get their message public, or to use such acts as the message


There is no one path toward violence. Homegrown terrorists have been high school dropouts, college graduates, members of the military, and cover the range of financial situations. Research published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations in 2011 suggested that domestic terrorism in countries with majoritarian political systems may result from of a lack of opportunities for meaningful political engagement.[23] Some domestic terrorists studied overseas and were exposed to radical Islamist thought, while others took their inspiration from the internet.[24] An article published in the British Journal of Sociology suggests that discrimination against minorities, particularly in the form of residential segregation of Muslims in European countries such as England, France, and Germany, can contribute to radicalization of Muslims living in these countries.[25]

Marc Sageman writes in his book, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century that, contrary to popular belief, radicalization into terrorism is not the product of poverty, various forms of brainwashing, youth, ignorance, lack of education, lack of employment, lack of social responsibility, criminality, or mental illness.[26] He says that intermediaries and English-speaking imams, such as the late Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (d. 2011), who are often found through the internet on forums, provide key roles in the radicalization process. Social networks provided in forums support and build upon an individual's radical beliefs. Prison systems are also a concern as a place of radicalization and jihadist recruiting; nearly three dozen ex-convicts who attended training camps in Yemen were believed to have been radicalized in prison.[14] The only constant appears to be "a newfound hatred for their native or adopted country, a degree of dangerous malleability, and a religious fervor justifying or legitimizing violence that impels these very impressionable and perhaps easily influenced individuals toward potentially lethal acts of violence," according to Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman's September 2010 paper for the Bipartisan Policy Center.[15]


Training for potential homegrown terrorists is often very fast-paced, or rushed, as some groups under attack by U.S. forces may feel the need to implement operations "more precipitously than they might otherwise occur," according to Bruce Hoffman.[27] This was the case with the failed Times Square plot carried out by Faisal Shazad. Pakistani Taliban (TPP) was on record as providing financing and four months of training for Shazad directly prior to his actions in Times Square. Shazad reportedly received only three to five days of training in bomb-making.

Some individuals go abroad to a region containing extremism, predominantly Pakistan, but also Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia. In the case of the London Underground bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, the operational leader of the cell, received military and explosives training at a camp in Malakand, Pakistan in July 2003. Later he took Shezad Tanweer to Karachi, Pakistan, in late 2004 to February 2005 where they crossed the border to receive training at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.[28]

Training and usage of recruits is varied. Some, such as Shahzad, received little training and ultimately failed in their goals. Others, like the sleeper agent David Headley’s reconnaissance efforts, were essential towards Lashkar-e-Toiba’s (LeT) success in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Scholars say that some lone wolves may achieve objectives, but the vast majority of individual operators fail to execute their plans because of lack of training and planning. There is also a question as to whether such individuals are radical, or suffering other problems. The American convert, Abdulhakim Muhammad (née Carlos Bledsoe), who killed a U.S. military recruiter in Little Rock, Arkansas, and wounded another, had many other targets and plans, which went awry. It was not until some time after his arrest that he first claimed to have been working for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But, investigators found no evidence of this. The lead county prosecutor said that, aside from Muhammad's self-serving statements, it was "just an awful killing", like others he had seen.[29] Bledsoe's father described his son as "unable to process reality."[30] He was charged with capital murder and related charges, not terrorism, and pleaded guilty.

The American Nidal Hasan, the US Army major and psychiatrist charged in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, had come to the attention of colleagues and superiors years before the shootings; they documented their concerns about his mental state. The Department of Defense has classified the event as "workplace violence" rather than terrorism, pending Hasan's court martial. Some observers believe that his personal characteristics are more like those of other mass murderers than terrorists; he did not belong to any group.

The Somalian Al-Shabaab ("the youth") have recruited strongly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The 30+ Somali-Americans received training by senior al-Qaeda leaders in Somalia. Hoffman believes this indicates that radicalization and recruitment is not an isolated, lone-wolf phenomenon unique to Somali-Americans, but that there is terrorist recruitment infrastructure in the United States.[31] After more than a dozen of 20 American recruits were killed in fighting in Somalia, the number of Americans going to join Al-Shabaab has declined since 2007–2008.[32]

Role of the internet[edit]

“The Internet is a driver and enabler for the process of radicalization", says a report of the Police Department of the City of New York of 2007.[33] The internet has a wide appeal as it provides an anonymous way for like-minded, conflicted individuals to meet, form virtual relations, and discuss the radical and extremist ideology they encounter. The virtual network created in message boards or private forums further radicalizes and cements the jihadi-Salafi/racial supremacist message individuals have encountered as they build a community. The internet acts as an enabler, providing the aspiring jihadist/supremacist with a forum in which they may plan, share information on targets, weapons, and recruit others into their plans. Much of the resources needed to make weapons can be found on-line.[33]


Inspire is an online English-language propaganda magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Purported to be created by Samir Khan, a U.S. citizen and cyber-jihadist, the magazine uses American idioms and phrasing and does not appear to have British or South Asian influences in its language.[34]

The magazine contains messages calling for western jihadists, like this one from AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi, "to acquire weapons and learn methods of war. They are living in a place where they can cause great harm to the enemy and where they can support the Messenger of Allah... The means of harming them are many so seek assistance from Allah and do not be weak and you will find a way."[34]

STRATFOR suggests that the magazine is meant to "fan the flames of Jihad."[34]

History and examples[edit]


  • January 5–6, 2012: Nigeria attacks, around 37 Christians are targeted and killed by Boko Haram militants.
  • April 16, 2013: Baga massacre, 187 people are killed in Baga in Borno State. It is unclear whether the Nigerian military or Boko Haram is responsible for the massacre.
  • June 18, 2009: Al-Shabaab claimed the 2009 Beledweyne bombing, which killed 35 people including Somali security minister Omar Hashi Aden.






Ulrike Meinhof of the Red Army Faction


  • Brit Hakanaim: Ultra-orthodox radical Jewish organization which operated in the 1950s and worked against the secularization in the newly-born Israel.
  • Some Israeli Arabs were involved in terrorists activities numerous times according to the Shin Bet, most of them had connections to Palestinian terrorist organizations, with a minority of them operating by their own. Some notable examples are the bombing of No. 361 Egged bus in Meron, where Israeli Arabs from Bi'ina were involved, and the 2017 Temple Mount shooting.


New Zealand[edit]


  • Norway attacks: July 2011, a right-wing extremist who spoke against Islam and immigration, Anders Behring Breivik was responsible for a car bomb explosion that killed 8 in Oslo and killing 69 at a summer camp on the island of Utøya.



United Kingdom[edit]

United States[edit]

A non-exhaustive list of examples of U.S. attacks that have been referred to as domestic terrorism:

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c Gary M. Jackson, Predicting Malicious Behavior: Tools and Techniques for Ensuring Global Security (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), p. 235.
  2. ^ Enders, Walter; Todd Sandler; Khusrav Gaibulloev (2011). "Domestic versus transnational terrorism: Data, decomposition, and dynamics". Journal of Peace Research (3 ed.). 48 (3): 319–337. doi:10.1177/0022343311398926. S2CID 37430122.
  3. ^ "Wilner, Alex S., and Claire-Jehanne Dubouloz. "Homegrown terrorism and transformative learning: an interdisciplinary approach to understanding radicalization." Global Change, Peace & Security 22.1 (2010): 33–51". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ a b "p. 1. – Jerome P. Bjelopera and Mark A. Randol, American Jihadist Terrorism: Combatting a Complex Threat, (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, December 7, 2010)" (PDF). Retrieved July 19, 2013.
  5. ^ Greg Myre (August 14, 2017). "Why The Government Can't Bring Terrorism Charges In Charlottesville". NPR. Archived from the original on June 22, 2019. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  6. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 2331
  7. ^ Greg Myre (August 14, 2017). "Why The Government Can't Bring Terrorism Charges In Charlottesville".
  8. ^ O’Connor, Thomas F. (September 13, 2017). "It is time to make domestic terrorism a federal crime".
  9. ^ "Chapter 31B. Terrorism".
  10. ^ Staff (November 12, 2020). "Domestic Terrorism: Definitions, Terminology, and Methodology". Department of Homeland Security/Department of Justice/Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  11. ^ "Non-State Conflict and the Transformation of War". E-International Relations. August 29, 2011.
  12. ^[bare URL PDF]
  13. ^ "Jason Ryan, Pierre Thomas, and Xorje Olivares, "American-bred Terrorism Causing Alarm for Law Enforcement," ABC July 22, 2010". July 22, 2010. Retrieved July 19, 2013.
  14. ^ a b c "Toni Johnson, "Threat of Homegrown Islamist Terrorism," Council on Foreign Relations, December 10, 2010". Archived from the original on November 29, 2011. Retrieved July 19, 2013.
  15. ^ a b "Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, "Assessing the Terrorist Threat," Bipartisan Policy Center, September 10, 2010" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on November 22, 2011. Retrieved July 19, 2013.
  16. ^ "Brian Michael Jenkins, "Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001," RAND Corporation, 2010" (PDF).
  17. ^ Yager, Jordy (July 25, 2010). "Jordy Yager, "Former intel chief: Homegrown terrorism is a 'devil of a problem,'" The Hill, July 25, 2010". Retrieved July 19, 2013.
  18. ^ "Brendan Carlin and Abul Taher, "Cameron plans to crack down on home-grown terrorism,", June 6, 2011". June 6, 2011. Archived from the original on September 27, 2020. Retrieved July 19, 2013.
  19. ^ Chalfant, Morgan (July 23, 2019) "FBI's Wray says most domestic terrorism arrests this year involve white supremacy" The Hill
  20. ^ Spaaij, Ramón (2010). "The enigma of lone wolf terrorism: An assessment". Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. 33 (9): 854–870. doi:10.1080/1057610X.2010.501426. S2CID 143549592.
  21. ^ Springer, Nathan R. (2009). "Patterns of radicalization: Identifying the markers and warning signs of domestic lone wolf terrorists in our midst". Naval Postgraduate School (Thesis).
  22. ^ Turchie, Terry D.; Puckett, Kathleen M. (January 1, 2007). Hunting the American Terrorist: The FBI's War on Homegrown Terror. History Publishing Company. ISBN 9781933909349.
  23. ^ Qvortrup, Matt Haunstrup (November 2012). "Terrorism and Political Science". The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 14 (4): 503–517. doi:10.1111/j.1467-856X.2011.00472.x. S2CID 154986366.
  24. ^ "Associated Press, "Congressional Panel on Homegrown Terrorism Divided on Discussion," March 10, 2011". Retrieved July 19, 2013.
  25. ^ Hekmatpour, Peyman; Burns, Thomas J. (2019). "Perception of Western governments' hostility to Islam among European Muslims before and after ISIS: the important roles of residential segregation and education". The British Journal of Sociology. 70 (5): 2133–2165. doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12673. ISSN 1468-4446. PMID 31004347. S2CID 125038730.
  26. ^ Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, (Philadelphia, PA: University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2008)
  27. ^ "Hoffman, Bruce. "Rethinking terrorism and counterterrorism since 9/11." Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 25.5 (2002): 303–316". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  28. ^ "ANSER | Public Service, Public Trust" (PDF). ANSER. Archived from the original on July 19, 2011.
  29. ^ Dao, James (February 16, 2010). "A Muslim Son, a Murder Trial and Many Questions". The New York Times. Arkansas;Yemen. Retrieved June 23, 2010.
  30. ^ Dao, James (January 21, 2010). "Man Claims Terror Ties in Little Rock Shooting". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 25, 2010. Retrieved January 22, 2010.
  31. ^ "Hoffman, Bruce, "Internet Terror Recruitment And Tradecraft: How Can We Address An Evolving Tool While Protecting Free Speech?," House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment, May 26, 2010" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on December 5, 2010. Retrieved April 12, 2011.
  32. ^ Schmitt, Eric (June 6, 2010). "Al Shabab Recruits Americans for Somali Civil War". The New York Times. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
  33. ^ a b ""Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat." (New York Police Department, 2007)" (PDF). Retrieved November 23, 2014. (pages 8–9)
  34. ^ a b c Security Weekly. "Scott Stewart, "Fanning the Flames of Jihad." STRATFOR (July 22, 2010)". Archived from the original on July 6, 2013. Retrieved July 19, 2013.
  35. ^ Karousos, Manos (February 8, 2022). "Te Lawrence Massacre: Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, Kansas (1863)".
  36. ^ Saint Albans City, Vermont: Local Hazard Mitigation Plan (PDF) (Report). Saint Albans City Council. March 13, 2017. p. 36.
  37. ^ Cathryn J. Prince (May 14, 2014). "The St. Albans Raid – The Confederate 'Invasion' of Vermont". Military History Now.
  38. ^ "The Raid: The Northernmost Land Action of the Civil War".
  39. ^ "SLA: The shootout". Court TV. October 12, 2001. Archived from the original on August 15, 2007. Retrieved August 18, 2007. Perry and Hall exited the house, but were shot by officers who concluded they were trying to kill police rather than surrender.
  40. ^ "Sabotage to A-7 Aircraft at Muniz ANGB, PR" (PDF). Retrieved August 5, 2022.
  41. ^ a b c d e Kären M. Hess, Christine H. Orthmann & Henry Lim Cho, Police Operations: Theory and Practice (6th ed.: Delmar Cengage Learning, 2013), p. 322.
  42. ^ a b Kären M. Hess, Christine Hess Orthmann & Henry Lim Cho, Introduction to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (12th ed.: Centgage, 2018), p. 453.
  43. ^ Greg Myre, Boston Bombings Point To Growing Threat of Homegrown Terrorism, NPR (April 20, 2013).
  44. ^ Peter Forster & Thomas Hader, Combating Domestic Terrorism: Observations from Brussels and San Bernardino, Small Wars Journal (July 18, 2016).
  45. ^ Chattanooga shooting a 'terror attack,' FBI Director James Comey says, Fox News (December 16, 2015).
  46. ^ Matthew Grimson, David Wyllie & Elisha Fieldstadt, FBI says it probed Orlando shooting suspect Omar Mateen twice, NBC News (June 13, 2016).

Further reading

External links[edit]