Police arrested U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson for allegedly plotting a domestic terrorism attack, according to reports by NPR. Hasson, 49, possessed a weapons stockpile and a list of civilian targets when police apprehended him on February 15. What can we learn about terrorist agendas from this incident?
Title 22 Chapter 38 U.S. Code § 2656f contains a definition of terrorism. It defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Hasson planned to murder Democratic lawmakers, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and several TV news personalities, from networks often considered liberal-leaning, like MSNBC and CNN. They are noncombatant targets. Hasson seems to have linked them as his list of targets due to their similar political ideologies. His attack plans were clearly premeditated. Therefore, Hasson’s attack would qualify as terrorism per the U.S. legal definition. Terrorism, unfortunately, has a lengthy global history. We can use this history, however, to better understand terrorist threats at home and abroad.
The Five Audiences of Terrorism
“There are five audiences that terrorists are trying to influence,” said Dr. Andrew R. Wilson, Ph.D., Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. They include “the incumbent government, constituent population, non-constituent population, the members of the terrorist organization itself, and international public opinion.” According to Dr. Wilson, acts of terrorism often affect several of these five groups simultaneously. This result is both a benefit and a hindrance.
First, terrorists often wish to disrupt the incumbent government of a nation. They can do so by committing a notable crime that makes the government or its law enforcement appear weak and ineffective. Second, they can influence a constituent—or native—population. Terrorists may do this through intimidation or positioning themselves as heroes. For example, Lt. Christopher Hasson may have hoped that murdering prominent liberal news reporters would scare other liberal voices into silence. The non-constituent population is the third group affected. “If you’re a terrorist, you want to horrify this population,” Dr. Wilson said. “You also might want to make them critical of their government or to pressure the government to accede to your demands. Alternatively, you might want to induce them to overreact and take the law into their own hands.”
Terrorists also might act in order to motivate other terrorists to action. Public killings of suspected traitors can cause other terrorists to fall in line; successful acts of terrorism can inspire them and become a rallying cry. According to the NPR report, a Norwegian nationalist—and convicted terrorist—named Anders Breivik inspired Hasson’s murder plot. Intentionally or not, Breivik found this fourth kind of audience in Hasson. Fifth, and finally, terrorists seek to sway international public opinion. When foreign governments legitimize extremist groups by granting them public platforms or even by endorsing them with guns and money, these groups gain leverage on the global stage.
9/11 and Al-Qaeda’s Severely Flawed Perceptions
When Al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, the entire world heard them. They reached all five of the audiences targeted through terrorism—though the audiences’ reactions bore little resemblance to Al-Qaeda’s intended outcomes.
Although their infiltration through American security was undeniable, the 9/11 terrorists failed to undermine the nation or to make it look weak. Just two weeks after the attacks, then-President George W. Bush’s approval ratings reached the highest in Gallup Poll history. Furthermore, according to Dr. Wilson, “the non-constituent population—the vast majority of Muslims who do not ascribe to bin Laden’s vision—are implacably hostile to Al-Qaeda.”
Dr. Wilson also explains the relationship between Al-Qaeda and its constituent population. “Al-Qaeda’s objectives are grand and appealing to some in the Muslim world, but their natural constituency is actually only a very narrow sub-group of a sub-group of Sunni Islam. Al-Qaeda’s territorial fantasies are out of all proportion to its very narrow base.” Further evidence is found in the fact that other Sunni Muslims betrayed and helped destroy Iraqi Al-Qaeda. And while pre-9/11 Al-Qaeda acts inspired the large-scale World Trade Center attacks, very few of the terrorists’ operations since then have held any significance—and certainly have done no favors for the group in terms of global public opinion.
Foreign and domestic terrorism have reared their ugly heads time and time again in world history. Radicalized persons commit violence against civilians for political goals and innocent people pay the price. Unraveling the mysteries of terrorists’ motives and methods may help prevent future incidents.
Dr. Andrew R. Wilson, Ph.D., contributed to this article. Dr. Wilson is Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. He received a B.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and earned his Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University.