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The Comparison of the Danger of Domestic and International Terrorism

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While many Americans today recall the unfortunate events of September 11, 2001 when international terrorists flew aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and killed thousands, fewer will likely remember the largest domestic terrorism event in the nation’s history which took place just a few years earlier when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people including 19 children. As these events fade in the national memory, the question whether international or domestic terrorism represents the largest threat to the nation’s interests remains unanswered. Therefore, in order to provide a timely answer to this question, this paper reviews the relevant literature, followed by a discussion and analysis, to determine whether domestic terrorism or international terrorism represents the biggest danger to the American public. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

Although the two high profile domestic and international terrorism incidents described in the introduction above are among the most recent in the history of the United States, they are certainly not isolated events. Just two years ago, for example, a disaffected American-Muslim Army major went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, taking the lives of 13 people and wounding 29 more (Keteyian, 2009) and several years before, international terrorists tried to bring the World Trade Center down for the first time in 1993 (First strike: global terror in America, 2008).These events, though, are only the most recent and widely publicized attacks on the United States from within and without (Foxell, 2009). For example, Mantri reports that, “In May 1886, an anarchist threw a bomb at Haymarket in Chicago, killing eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. US President William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 by another anarchist, Leon Czolgosz” (p. 88). The definition of terrorism provided by Enders, Sandler and Gaibulloev (2011) states that, “Terrorism is the premeditated use or threat to use violence by individuals or subnational groups against noncombatants in order to obtain a political or social objective through the intimidation of a large audience beyond that of the immediate victims” (p. 321). Today, the threat of continuing terrorism from any source remains a hot issue for policymakers and the general public alike and these issues are discussed further below.

Some authorities argue that international terrorism perpetrated by non-state actors is far and away the greatest threat to the Western world today. In this regard, Wolfendale (2007) argues that, “Non-state terrorism threatens many things: security, lives, values, freedom, democracy, and the existence of civilization itself, and poses a greater threat than the threats posed by war, invasion, accident, natural disasters, and criminal activity” (p. 75). Although he cites other sources of turmoil and violence such as poverty as problematic, Lee (2006) also emphasizes that, “International terrorism (especially its nuclear form) is the most serious non-state threat the world currently faces” (p. 242).

In sharp contrast to the “good old days” of the Cold War when the actors were well known, though, the nebulous but ever-presented threat represented by non-state terrorists is clearly a major problem that contributes to a culture of fear in which citizens are willing to trade civil liberties for an enhance sense of security. From this perspective, international terrorists are succeeding in changing America for the worse without even lifting another finger to attack the U.S. Echoing the sentiments expressed by former vice president Dick Cheney concerning the vile practice of water-boarding of terrorist suspects and the need to “get tough on international terrorists,” Wolfendale notes that, “In current counterterrorism rhetoric terrorism is portrayed as a danger of such massive proportions that it threatens not only lives but ‘our way of life’ and ‘civilization’: a threat so great that as the British Home Secretary David Blunkett stated after the Madrid train bombings, ‘. . . the norms of prosecution and punishment no longer apply” (p. 75).

Clearly, a growing number of political leaders in the West are scared, but their fears may be misplaced with respect to the “next big one,” at least an incident that is on the level of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. According to Foxell (2009), the very nature of the international terrorist threat is shifting from the high-profile types of attacks that have been used in recent years to more insidious, and potentially even more harmful, low-profile attacks that can have enormous economic and human consequences. In this regard, Foxell emphasizes that, “We are seeing quantitatively fewer terrorist incidents based on older paradigms of terrorism such as airplane hijacking, kidnapping, and political assassinations [to] terror stratagems [such] as economic sabotage, financial embezzlement, cyberterrorism, or other forms of white-collar mass-disruption terrorism” (p. 396). In sum, then, international terrorism continues to represent a significant threat to America’s interests at home and abroad, but some scholars argue that an even greater threat exists within the nation’s borders and these issues are discussed further below.

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In a country of more than 330 million people, it is not surprising that not everyone agrees on everything and that some people will believe they are being marginalized in ways that demand violent responses. Therefore, by whatever term it is called, domestic terrorism remains a very real threat to the nation’s interest today. Indeed, Gruenewald (2011) emphasizes that, “Every year in the United States, domestic (or homegrown) extremists commit violent acts, such as homicide. Occurrences of far-right extremist violence, in particular, appear to be on the rise” (p. 177). This theme is echoed by Enders, Sandler and Gaibulloev (2011) who note, “Although much of the empirical literature on terrorism has focused on transnational terrorism, domestic terrorism also poses a significant threat. In fact, domestic terrorist events outnumber transnational terrorist incidents many times over” (pp. 319-320).

Given that such domestic terrorism incidents appear to be increasing, it would therefore be prudent to assess the threat represented by domestic terrorism, especially given that international terrorist sympathizers may well be lurking in America’s midst already in the form of so-called “sleeper cells” just waiting to spring into action at the direction of their international overlords. For instance, according to Lee (2006), “It would be a mistake to limit our conception of non-state threats to international terrorism” (p. 241). Likewise, Foxell (2009) cites the threat represented by “foreign enemy agent terrorists as well as their home-grown American sympathizers” (p. 393). Indeed, there have been an abundance of these home-grown American terrorists, some of whom are affiliated in some fashion with the larger Al-Qaeda international terrorist group. For instance, according to Mantri (2011), “More recently, even the earlier Al-Qaeda operatives included some local recruits, Jose Padilla, ‘Abdullah al Muhajir,’ the millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian living in Montreal, and Ali Mohammed Abdelsoud Muhammed, a former Egyptian military officer who immigrated to America and became a sergeant in the US Army, all worked with Al-Qaeda long before 9/11” (p. 88).

Moreover, the threat represented by domestic terrorism may in fact be highly underrated because of the manner in which these events have been reported and analyzed by local, state and national law enforcement authorities. In this regard, Gruenewald adds that, “Criminal events and terrorist attacks look much the same regardless of the motivation behind them: both are events that can be counted and both display non-random temporal and spatial patterns that are likely associated with endogenous and exogenous characteristics of offenders, targets, and situations” (p. 182). This fine distinction between criminal events and terrorist attacks will likely be lost on their victims, of course, but Mantri (2011) indicates that a casual review of recent events suggests that domestic terrorism is on the rise. According to Mantri, “Apart from radical Islam, there are other major threats to the United States which have resulted in major acts of terror – most notably Oklahoma City, and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing by Eric Rudolph” (2011, p. 89). These high-profile domestic terrorist attacks, though, were preceded and followed by others as well. For instance, Mantri reports that, “Before the Fort Hood shooting, there was an attack on a US recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas; after Fort Hood, there was the failed Christmas Day attack, the attempted Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad, and the attempted attack last Christmas in Portland, Oregon by Somali-born Mohamed Osman Muhamad” (p. 89).

Based on the foregoing events, it would appear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the fine distinction between domestic and international terrorism, with the former being fueled by the latter in many ways that remain of major concern for American policymakers. Nevertheless, there will always be a threat from domestic terrorism so long as different people have different ideas about where the country should be headed and what should be done to accomplish these goals. As Mantri points out, “The domestic attacks disprove the idea that the United States, as a nation, is immune from radicalization at home” (2011, p. 91). In fact, Mantri (2011) suggests that notwithstanding the numerous examples of domestic terrorism cited above, the potential for even more such attacks in the future may be far greater because of the ideological attraction that these acts hold for some people. In this regard, Mantri notes that, “Even more disturbing has been the concept that this is driven by so called ‘lone wolf’ attacks, of people self-radicalizing through the internet and without the support of a much wider terrorist infrastructure or radical community” (2011, p. 91). In fact, a recent highly controversial report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that labeled returning Gulf War veterans potential threats stressed that, “Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States” (quoted in Jasper, 2009, p. 24). Clearly, the scholars disagree concerning what source of ideological influence will have the most impact on domestic terrorism acts in the future, but virtually everyone agrees that it is not so much as matter of “if” but “when” such further attacks will occur. Therefore, determining which source of terrorism represents the biggest threat to the national interests of the United States is a complicated enterprise, and these issues are discussed further below.

Despite the availability of a working definition for terrorism in general, there are some problems in neatly pigeonholing every act of terrorism in a given country as being international or domestic terrorism. In fact, some authorities suggest that there is some degree of overlap between the two types irrespective of their underlying motivation. For example, according to Enders and his associates (2011), “The cause of transnational terrorism will likely differ from that of domestic terrorism. Transnational terrorism is apt to be partly influenced by ‘spillover terrorism,’ where domestic grievances in other countries result in terrorist incidents being staged where the attack captures the most publicity” (p. 323). In other words, although the motivation for a terrorist attack may differ in international terrorism from domestic terrorism, these events appear to precipitate yet further such incidents elsewhere.

The research showed that terrorism from whatever source represents an ongoing threat to the interests of the United States at home and abroad. There has been an increase in both types of terrorism in recent years, leading some scholars to believe that there is a connection between international religious fundamentalism and the incidence of domestic terrorism in the United States. While it is reasonable to conclude that many so-called “home-grown” terrorists are in fact either motivated by or sponsored by international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the historical record also made it clear that domestic terrorism is not a new phenomenon, and these types of events have occurred since the nation was founded – but they appear to be on the rise today. This increased incidence of domestic terrorism was shown to be directly related to the incidence of international terrorism, making the determination as to which represents the greatest threat difficult if not impossible. In the final analysis, though, the primary source of terrorism today was shown to be international terrorism that has not only directly affected the interests of the United States at home and abroad, but continues to fuel radicalization of disaffected Americans as well.

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The Comparison of the Danger of Domestic and International Terrorism. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from
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