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Opinion | Terrorism Is Terrorism

When detectives from the New York Police Department’s intelligence bureau arrested Jose Pimentel on Nov. 20, 2011, he was in a Washington Heights apartment putting the finishing touches on a pipe bomb he was building in an Al Qaeda-inspired plot to attack military and police targets in the city. On March 22, 2017, James Harris Jackson was arrested for the racially motivated sword killing of Timothy Caughman. Mr. Jackson, a white supremacist, said he had planned to kill more people of color in New York, hoping to start a race war.

Mr. Pimentel and Mr. Jackson were charged under the New York State antiterrorism law. Enacted shortly after Sept. 11, it allows New York to bring terrorism charges regardless of whether the ideological motive is “foreign” or “domestic” or whether the weapon is a bomb or a sword. This approach is a model for tackling today’s terrorist threat.

Consider this: Dylann Roof, an admitted white supremacist, was not charged with terrorism for killing nine black parishioners in South Carolina in 2015; nor was Robert Bowers, an avowed racist and anti-Semite, for killing 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. However, Sayfullo Saipov, who in 2017 ran over more than a dozen people with his rented truck on a West Side bike path, killing eight, was charged with federal terrorism counts because he did it for ISIS, a designated foreign terrorist organization. The same was true of Akayed Ullah, whose 2017 bombing in the Port Authority subway station killed nobody.

The requirements to be charged as a terrorist in current federal terrorism statutes and those of many states do not match today’s threat. The most often used federal law, “Providing Material Support to Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” requires a documented connection between the suspect and a terrorist group, as designated by the secretary of state, such as ISIS or Al Qaeda. Other federal terrorism laws that do not require such a connection are so specific about the type of weapon used (for example, a bomb or a chemical, biological or nuclear device) or the intended target that mass casualty attacks against civilians by “domestic” terrorists using assault weapons or vehicles don’t count as terrorism for charging purposes.

That does not make sense in a country where we have seen a constant stream of such terrorist attacks to advance wide-ranging political agendas. While 34 states and the District of Columbia have their own antiterrorism laws, many have the same pitfalls as federal law.

Even before Sept. 11, the federal government realized that crimes motivated by terrorism needed to have specific laws with severe penalties. Amid a rising tide of attacks leaving scores dead, why do our current laws give more consistently severe penalties to those plotting on behalf of foreign organizations than to those who want to kill their fellow Americans over American issues? As an example, Conor Climo, a white supremacist arrested last month in Las Vegas for plotting to attack a synagogue and a gay bar with firearms and explosives, faces 10 years for his plot, while in 2018 Alexander Ciccolo was sentenced for twice as long in a plot involving similar tactics because he was acting in support of a foreign group.

The legal line between foreign and domestic terrorists is not just blurry but also misleading. First, it overlooks the fact that a majority of individuals who carried out attacks within the United States for what we consider foreign terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have been Americans. For example, Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse gay nightclub in 2016 was born in Queens and grew up in Florida. To not consider him a domestic terrorist in the most intuitive sense of the term risks perpetuating the notion that as a Muslim, he was somehow not one of our own. Second, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that ideologies lumped in the domestic bucket can also be rooted abroad (see Nazism). Given what we have learned about Russian trolling and covert online influence campaigns, we may also underestimate the foreign influence stirring hate on the internet that can incite violence.

We’ve learned in the New York Police Department that extremists of all varieties are also acting increasingly alike. As examples, ISIS and the lethal neo-Nazi group the Atomwaffen Division have both learned that pushing internet propaganda telling their audiences whom to hate, why to hate them and how to kill them is an effective mobilization tool. They have both relied on anonymized or encrypted social media channels, chat applications and gaming platforms to avoid law enforcement while getting their messages out. They have both encouraged relatively unsophisticated but deadly tactics that can be deployed with little planning and money, making such attacks doable for a wider pool of followers.

Make no mistake, they have learned from each other: James Alex Fields’s vehicle attack at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 that killed Heather Heyer and injured 28 others was a page out of the ISIS playbook. Mr. Fields was charged with a hate crime, but not as a terrorist.

These so-called foreign and domestic groups are also recruiting from the same pool: young men, driven by anger or failure, some with mental health problems, looking for a scapegoat for perceived injustices or just seeking to be a part of something. And we are seeing crossover. Devon Arthurs of Florida belonged to the Atomwaffen Division. In 2017, he killed two of his roommates who were also members, stating that they disrespected him after he quit the group, converted to Islam and began to support ISIS. The moment that Mr. Arthurs switched from Atomwaffen to ISIS, certain federal laws applied to him that didn’t before. With terrorist groups looking to mobilize the same people in the same ways here at home, attempts to categorize their ideologies as either “foreign” or “domestic” are meaningless.

Given this convergence of the terrorism threat, we need to make two important changes. First, we should rethink the use of the terms “foreign” and “domestic” to describe today’s terrorist threat. If the killer is not connected to a foreign terrorist organization and uses a car or a gun to kill 20 people for some political agenda, he or she is still a terrorist.

We also need to eliminate any legal or moral differentiation between equally violent ideologies in drafting and applying our terrorism laws. Today’s violent actors include familiar threats such as white supremacists and Qaeda foot soldiers, but also followers of new ideologies, like incels — involuntary celibates — a movement linked to mass attacks resulting in numerous deaths.

The New York State terrorism law is a model in tackling this threat in its refusal to distinguish between foreign and domestic influence for terrorist violence. Such statutes would acknowledge that law enforcement has been successfully countering a terrorist threat here at home — that is to say, domestically — for decades.

Regardless of the provenance of the ideology they followed, virtually all violent extremists who have killed our neighbors or sought to do so have been members of our own communities. Once our discourse and laws reflect that reality, responding to challenges such as an invigorated white supremacist movement will seem substantially less daunting.

Ravi Satkalmi is the deputy director for intelligence analysis and John Miller is the deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism for the New York Police Department.

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