During a press conference in San Bernardino on Thursday, law-enforcement officials noted that the two dead suspects in Wednesday’s massacre had stockpiled an enormous arsenal: thousands of rounds of ammunition, 12 pipe bombs, and material to build more. They said that the couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, seemed to be preparing for more carnage in separate attacks. They noted “international travel,” and said that “if you look at the amount of obvious preplanning … there was obviously a mission here.” Anonymous officials told various news organizations that they believed the couple was in touch with suspected terrorists.
But when a reporter asked David Bowdich, who heads the Los Angeles field office of the FBI, whether the attack was terrorism, he was careful not to make a ruling.
“It would be irresponsible and premature for me to call this terrorism,” Bowdich said. “The FBI defines terrorism very specifically, and that is the big question for us, what is the motivation for this.”
This is a debate that plays out nearly every time there’s an act of mass violence. Sometimes, it’s a matter of legal proceedings—deciding what laws apply in charging suspects. That’s less important here, since both of the alleged attackers are dead, but the issue has become politically contentious. So how does the FBI define terror?
“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:
- Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
- Appear 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
- Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.
The definition for international terrorism is basically the same, except that it involves activities “outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries.” The “federal crime of terrorism” includes acts “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.”