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Fact Check: Who Commits Domestic Terrorism?

President Obama recently got into an off-the-cuff debate with Tea Party activists in Iowa. Most of this back-and-forth focused on Vice President Biden allegedly saying Tea Party Republicans “acted like terrorists” in holding the credit of the United States hostage during the debt deal. The video is below:

However, we’re going to focus in on another, brief point that was brought up by the female Tea Party activist around 47 seconds into the video.

She said this:

“You do realize that 90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals and not people like me.”

The number — a whopping 90 percent — seemed a bit high. So I did some fact-checking. I do not know which source she is quoting (and would be interested to find out), but all evidence I’ve reviewed pointed to one conclusion. Namely:

Status: False, with bits of truth.

Before I begin, let me clarify my analysis of this claim as false: the woman that made this statement is right when she says terrorist attacks are not done by people like her. She seems to be a political activist (from what little I can tell from the video), not any sort of terrorist. I am not, in any way, implying that she or anyone in the Tea Party, are terrorists. I am not, in any way, equating right-wing terrorists with right-of-center ideals. Neither am I, in any way, equating left-wing terrorists with left-of-center ideals.

I am simply analyzing her claim that “90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals.”

And while environmental radicals perpetrate a huge number of domestic terrorist incidents, I find no evidence to back up such a high estimate as 90 percent. Two other points provide necessary context that her assertion is lacking. The first is that right-wing terrorism has seen a marked rise in recent years. The other is that left-wing and environmental terrorist groups generally target property, while right-wing terrorism often targets human beings.

–DEFINING TERRORISM–

First, we should define terrorism, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Terrorism

    U.S. law defines“domestic terrorism” according to several points. Domestic terrorist acts:(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States 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 United States.

    The FBI provides a more succinct definition of terrorism as “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.”

So, terrorism is an inherently political or ideological act. But let’s focus our definitions further, to differentiate different types of terrorism. We’ll use definitions found on the FBI’s website:

  • Left-Wing Terrorism

Generally profess a revolutionary socialist doctrine and view themselves as protectors of the people against the “dehumanizing effects” of capitalism and imperialism.

  • Right-Wing Terrorism

Primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes…Right-wing extremists champion a wide variety of causes, including racial supremacy, hatred and suspicion of the federal government, and fundamentalist Christianity.

  • Single Issue (Or “Special Interest”) Groups:

Single-issue extremists attack targets that embody distinct political issues like environmental degradation, abortion, genetic engineering, or animal abuse.

One problem is immediately evident. The woman in the video (Stacey Rogers) described “left-wing environmental radicals.” According to the FBI’s definitions, however, left-wing terrorists are distinct from single issue terrorist. We can probably safely assume that in her statement, “left-wing” is only a descriptor, and that the true focus is on the “environmental radicals” aspect.

But even so, special interest terrorism, as a category, seems to cut across ideological lines. It contains both left-wing single issue causes (environmentalism, animal rights) and right-wing (abortion). FBI classification lumps environmental terrorists in with other special interest terrorists, making it a little harder to isolate environmental terrorists from the other special interest terrorists in our analysis.

This would seem to suggest that the 90 percent claim is wrong on its face. After all, if environmental radicals were responsible for 90 percent of all domestic terror attacks, would they really be lumped into a category with several other terrorist causes? That would leave only 10 percent of all terrorist attacks to be divided not only among the various causes in the special interest category, but also among the two other categories the FBI lists alongside special interest terrorism.

–WHO COMMITS DOMESTIC TERRORISM?–

One of the initial difficulties we run into when fact checking this statement is that it doesn’t describe any particular period. And terrorism, like anything else, changes over time. For instance, an FBI report notes that right-wing terrorism dominated the interwar period:

In the period between World War I and World War II, the domestic threat primarily came from right-wing groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, which often adhered to principles of racial supremacy or embraced antigovernment and antiregulatory beliefs in favor of individual freedoms.

So it is important to observe, for the sake of context, that terrorism and terrorist ideas evolve and change along with the times. However, it is obvious that  Rogers is not describing the interwar period. Why would she? We can safely assume she is describing some sort of recent history — but what period should we include?

To provide context (and reach a more accurate conclusion) we will consider most of the post-war period (the late 1940s to today), with a concentration on the past decade. As we shall see, certain shifts have occurred in the targets and perpetrators of domestic terrorism.

According to an FBI report, left-wing terrorism generally dominated the post-war period, with such groups as the Weather Underground.

Beginning in the 1950s, the most serious domestic terrorist threat shifted to leftist-oriented extremist groups that generally professed a revolutionary socialist doctrine and viewed themselves as protectors of the people against the adverse effects of capitalism and U.S. foreign policies.

The decline of this type of left-wing terrorism seems to have been caused both by law enforcement and the collapse of the Soviet Union “depriv[ing] many of these groups of their ideological foundation and patronage,” according to that same report.

I use the term “this type of left-wing terrorism” because left-wing terrorism continued in the 1990s and 2000s, but in a different form.

With respect to domestic terrorism, left-wing political groups and special interest terrorism—that is, terrorism committed by extremists who use violence to compel society to change its attitudes about specific causes—asserted themselves during the 1990s… The majority of domestic terrorism incidents from 1993 to 2001 were attributable to the left-wing special interest movements the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

The vague statistics I’ve been able to dig up support this. Another FBI report breaks down the numbers of terrorism incidents from 1980 to 2001 (domestic and international).

Terrorism Statistics. Original chart found on the FBI website.

Terrorism by Group Class 1980 – 2001 Total 482

International 164

Left-Wing 130

Right-Wing 85

Special Interest 81

Individual 14

Unknown 8

If I’m reading this chart correctly, then the 318 terrorist incidents not classified as “International” are domestic. Now, we are trying to analyze what percentage of these terrorists are “environmental radicals.” Problem is, this is a sub-group within the special interest category, and we can’t separate them out. So, instead we’ll just take the percentage of special interest terrorism as a whole, knowing that it will include other categories like animal rights terrorism and anti-abortion terrorism.

About 25 percent of listed incidents from 1980-2001 were special interest terrorism incidents. And since this category contains various groups, the number for environmental terrorism incidents is surely less. That falls far short of 90 percent.

But Rogers did characterize these movements as “left-wing,” so let’s take a look at the left-wing numbers too. Left-wing terrorism made up about 41 percent of all domestic incidents (defined as incidents not labeled in the chart as “International”) from 1980-2001. Still short of 90 percent.

Combining both left-wing and special interest terrorism still only brings us up to about 66 percent. This is obviously a huge percentage. But only a portion of it includes environmental radicals. Furthermore, some right-wing groups are included in this 66 percent, like anti-abortion terrorists. And more importantly, it is 24 percentage points short of 90 percent.

And, significantly, these numbers are only through 2001. The 1990s, as noted, saw a rise in environmental terrorism. But have any notable shifts occurred since then?

An FBI report looking at the period between 2002 and 2005 said that 24 recorded terrorist incidents happened in this period, and 23 of them were domestic. Of these 23 incidents, all but one “were committed by special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements.” But, in the next paragraph, the report says that “eight of the 14 recorded terrorism preventions stemmed from right-wing extremism, and included disruptions to plotting by individuals involved with the militia, white supremacist, constitutionalist and tax protestor, and anti-abortion movements.”

So, even though almost all domestic terrorist attacks were perpetrated by environmental and animal activists, the slim majority (eight of 14) of all preventions were of right-wing terrorist threats.

Why is this? While I did not see any explanations in this report, allow me to offer a theory. The same report notes that although left-wing terrorism remains pervasive, right-wing terrorism is more dangerous. This seems counter-intuitive. All terrorism is dangerous, how can one be more dangerous than another. The answer to that is in what the two brands of terrorism target.

In short, left-wing terrorists tend to target “materials and facilities rather than persons.” Right-wing terrorists, however, often targets human beings. The report observes:

Right-wing extremism, however, primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes, began to overtake left-wing extremism as the most dangerous, if not the most prolific, domestic terrorist threat to the country during the 1990s. In contrast to the ALF and the ELF, which have pursued a philosophy that avoids physical violence in favor of acts of property damage that cause their victims economic harm, right-wing extremists pursued a qualitatively different method of operation by targeting people.

This shift of right-wing terrorism overtaking left-wing terrorism as the more dangerous extremism seems to have started in the 1990s, according to an FBI report from 2002.

A South Poverty Law Center report notes that right-wing terrorist threats in the form of militias seemed to die down during the early 2000s, but then began appearing again toward the late 2000s.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a resurgent right-wing terrorist threat, caused by racial tensions, economic hardship and the expansion of social programs.

–CONCLUSION–

I’m not quite sure where Rogers got her information. I certainly could not find any evidence to corroborate her claim that “90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals.” The only information that even approached validating this statement was the report on terrorist activity between 2002 and 2005, which said that all but 1 of domestic terrorist attacks during that period were perpetrated by environmental and animal rights extremists.

But that ignores the fact that plotted incidents prevented by authorities were a majority right-wing. Furthermore, her claim is stripped of any and all context. Right-wing terrorism is, generally speaking, more dangerous to individuals than left-wing terrorism. That is because right-wing terrorism generally targets people, while left-wing terrorism mostly targets property and materials.

Finally, the comment implies an absolute, and ignores the fact that terrorism patterns shift. Such a shift seems to be upon us right now, with right-wing terrorism currently on the rise. The statement does not indicate any of this.

Her general point about the pervasiveness of left-wing — and, in particular, environment — terrorism is correct. It is the more pervasive form of domestic terrorism. Though, stripped of context, and using a number that seems (at best) misleading and (at worst) incorrect, I rate her claim false.

–SOURCES–

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/obama-tea-party-video_n_928025.html

http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-threat-of-eco-terrorism

http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terrorism-2002-2005

http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-terrorist-threat-confronting-the-united-states

http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/splc-report-return-of-the-militias

http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terror/terrorism-2000-2001

http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/rightwing.pdf

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/60421.html

http://www.fbi.gov/albuquerque/priorities

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/2331.html