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The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property in order to coerce or intimidate a government or the civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Since the September 11th Attacks on the United States in 2001, which resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and severe damage to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the United States has changed its priorities to focus upon eradicating terrorism in the world. Terrorism involves the systematic use of terror or violence to achieve political goals. The targets of terrorism include government officials, identified individuals or groups, and innocent bystanders. In most cases terrorists seek to overthrow or destabilize an existing political regime, but totalitarian and dictatorial governments also use terror to maintain their power.

The Oklahoma City Bombing

In June 1997 the murder and conspiracy trial of Timothy J. McVeigh ended in the death sentence. The 29-year-old former Army sergeant was convicted of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The blast, which claimed 168 lives, was the worst terrorist act ever committed on U.S. soil. McVeigh pleaded not guilty, but the elaborate case mounted by federal prosecutors led to a swift jury verdict of guilty on all 11 counts.

After a nationwide manhunt, investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had linked McVeigh to the blast using remnants of a Ryder rental truck believed to have carried the bomb. At trial, prosecutors established further ties: telephone records and testimony by the owner of the rental office suggested McVeigh had rented the truck under an alias in Junction City, Kansas, two days before the bombing. Residue from explosives had also been found on McVeigh's clothing.

Prosecutors portrayed McVeigh as an anti-government extremist. The defendant's sister, Jennifer McVeigh, told the court that he was angry over the government's destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in April 1993, and that he had hinted at taking action. Personal correspondence was introduced as evidence in an effort to round out the portrait of McVeigh as a follower of far-right politics, who was disillusioned and willing to commit acts of terror. Key testimony came from Michael J. Fortier, an Army friend and co-conspirator who had surveyed the Federal Building with McVeigh, and his wife, Lori Fortier. The Fortiers said that McVeigh wanted the bombing to start a civil war.

Led by Oklahoma attorney Stephen Jones, the defense team was critical of every phase of the prosecution. Defense attorneys attacked the methodology of the FBI in preparing physical evidence as well as the government's witnesses. In particular, they charged that the Fortiers were liars who hoped to escape prison time and to profit financially from their testimony. Maintaining that McVeigh was railroaded, the defense pointed to the existence of a human leg found in the ruins of the building to suggest that the actual Oklahoma City bomber had died in the explosion.

After the jurors returned a guilty verdict on June 2, the trial moved into an unusual penalty phase. The defense, seeking leniency, made a lengthy presentation about the Waco siege, at which McVeigh had been present, in what seemed to observers an odd effort to explain his motives in Oklahoma City. It also called to the stand William McVeigh, who made an emotionally charged appeal for his son's life. But the statements of survivors who had lost family and friends in the Oklahoma massacre apparently swayed the jurors, who decided on execution.

Further readings

Gottman, Andrew J. 1999. "Fair Notice, Even for Terrorists: Timothy McVeigh and a New Standard for the Ex Post Facto Clause." Washington and Lee Law Review 56 (spring).

Hoffman, David. 1998. The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror.Venice, Calif.: Feral House.

"Responding to Terrorism: Crime, Punishment, and War." 2002. Harvard Law Review 115 (February).

Rodgers, Jim, and Tim Kullman. 2002. Facing Terror: The Government's Response to Contemporary Extremists in America.Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America.


Venue "Venue and the Oklahoma City Bombing Case" (Sidebar).

Domestic Terrorism

The attacks of September 11, 2001, constituted the most severe terrorist attacks ever committed on U.S. soil. However, these were certainly not the first acts of terrorism carried out against the United States by foreign terrorists, nor were they the first attacks carried out against the World Trade Center. In February 1993, a bombing of the World Trade Center killed six people and injured more than a thousand others. The bomb left a crater 200 by 1,000 feet wide and five stories deep. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Joint Terrorist Task Force identified and helped bring to trial 22 Islamic fundamentalist conspirators. The trial revealed extensive plans for terrorist acts in the United States, including attacks on government facilities.

During the 1990s, the United States also became more concerned about domestic terrorist activities carried out by U.S. citizens without any foreign involvement. Beginning in 1978, an individual who came to be known as the Unabomber targeted university scientists, airline employees, and other persons he associated with a dehumanized, technology driven society. The suspect killed three people and injured 23 others with package bombs. At the Unabomber's insistence, major newspapers published his 35,000-word manifesto describing his anti-technology philosophy. In April 1996, a suspect, Theodore Kaczynski, was arrested for crimes associated with the Unabomber. After a rather bizarre trial, in 1998, Kaczynski pled guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without the possibility of Parole.

However, it was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 19, 1995, that galvanized concerns about domestic terrorism. The bombing killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others. The FBI arrested Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who were charged with murder and conspiracy. McVeigh and Nichols were connected to the right-wing militia movement, which opposes the powers held by the federal government and believes in the right of its members to bear arms.

In June 1997, McVeigh was found guilty of murder and conspiracy, and sentenced to death. He attempted to appeal his conviction for three years, but gave up in late 2000. On June 11, 2001, McVeigh was executed by lethal injection. Nichols faced similar charges in his 1997 trial. He was acquitted on charges of first- and second-degree murder, but was found guilty of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and Involuntary Manslaughter. A federal judge sentenced Nichols to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, at the state level, Nichols faced 161 counts of first-degree murder, which could result in the death penalty. The Oklahoma state trial was scheduled to begin in March 2004.

A year after the Oklahoma City bombing, a bomb erupted at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the celebration of the Olympic Games in July 1996. The bomb killed one woman and injured 111 others in what President bill clinton called an "evil act of terror." The initial investigation focused on Richard Jewell, a security guard at the park. At first Jewell was considered to be a hero when he alerted authorities to a knapsack containing a pipe bomb. Shortly thereafter, however, he was considered a prime suspect. After a later investigation cleared Jewell of wrongdoing, he sued a number of media outlets for Defamation.

During the next seven years, the Atlanta bombings remained largely unresolved. On May 31, 2003, authorities arrested Eric Rudolph, who is considered the primary suspect. Authorities also suspect Rudolph of bombing abortion clinics in Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama, as well as the bombing of a gay and lesbian nightclub in Atlanta.

Congress has responded to the threat of domestic terrorism with the enactment of several laws. In 1996, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214. The law allocated $1 billion to fund federal programs to combat terrorism. The act also established a federal death penalty for terrorist murders and strengthened penalties for crimes committed against federal employees while performing their official duties. In addition, the act increased the penalties for conspiracies involving explosives and for the possession of nuclear materials, criminalized the use of chemical weapons, and required plastic explosives to contain "tagging" elements in the explosive materials for detection and identification purposes.

Following the attacks of September 11, Congress, at the urging of President george w. bush, moved swiftly to enact the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (usa patriot) Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272. The act seeks to enhance domestic security against terrorism by setting up a Counterterrorism Fund in the U.S. Treasury, and appropriating money for combating terrorism to the FBI's Technical Support Center. It also increases the president's authority to seize the property of foreign persons, organizations, or countries that the president determines have planned, authorized, aided, or engaged in hostilities or attacks against the United States. Other provisions of the act focus on enhancing surveillance procedures used by federal law enforcement personnel, and attempts to control Money Laundering, which is believed to be a major source of income for terrorist organizations.

One year later, Congress enacted the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-296, 116 Stat. 2135. The act formally endorsed the establishment of the Homeland Security Department, which had been created through Executive Order by President Bush in 2001. The Homeland Security Act reorganized several federal agencies to fall under the authority of the Homeland Security Department in an effort to coordinate the government's efforts. The American public has become familiar with the new department because of the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System, which indicates the likely threat of terrorist attacks against the United States. The two lowest levels are low (coded in green) and guarded (coded in blue). The other three levels include elevated (yellow), high (orange), and severe (red). Throughout much of 2003, the level was set at elevated or high due to a number of threats identified by department officials.

International Terrorism

The September 11 attacks have been viewed as a continuation of a series of deadly terrorist activities that had taken place overseas. In the late twentieth century, terrorism became a tool of political groups in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The growth of international terrorism led to kidnappings, Hijacking of airplanes, bombing of airplanes and buildings, and armed attacks on government and public facilities. In the 1980s, several countries, including Libya, Iran, and Iraq, were identified as supporting international terrorism by providing training, weapons, and safe havens.

Interests of the United States overseas were major targets of terrorism. In November 1979, a group of Islamic students overran the U.S. embassy in Iran and took many hostages. Although some of the hostages were later freed, the Iranians detained 52 American hostages for a period of 444 days until they were released in January 1981, just after the swearing-in of President ronald reagan. In 1983, a 12,000-pound truck bomb exploded in a U.S. compound in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American soldiers.

By the 1990s, the terrorist organization al Qaeda (Arabic for "the Base"), led by Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden, developed as the primary culprit in terrorist attacks on U.S. interests at home and abroad. Al Qaeda is believed to be responsible for the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center and, later, the September 11 attacks. On August 7, 1998, truck bombs exploded nearly simultaneously at the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The blasts killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured another 4,600. Four members of al Qaeda were later convicted for their part in the bombings. In October 2000, an al Qaeda operative conducted a suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors and injuries to over 30 others.

The activities of Bin Laden and al Qaeda were well known prior to the September 11 attacks. Bin Laden had issued a religious edict, known as a fatwah, calling for attacks on U.S. troops and civilians.

Although many members of al Qaeda are Middle-Eastern, U.S. officials, in 2001, captured John Philip Walker Lindh, a U.S. citizen who had trained with terrorist organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lindh fought for the Taliban government of Afghanistan even after the September 11 attacks. Lindh, who became known as the "American Taliban," was indicted on ten counts, including conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals. He reached a plea bargain with federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty to supplying services to the Taliban. In October 2000, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The United States has responded to international terrorist organizations and the nations that support them through a variety of military actions. In March 1986, President Reagan ordered the military to conduct a strike on Libya, which was believed to have been responsible for the bombing of a nightclub in Germany as well as other terrorist acts. After the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, President Clinton ordered strikes on al Qaeda military camps in Afghanistan. However, these attacks appeared to have little effect upon the terrorist activities of the organizations that perpetrated the violent acts.

Following the September 11 attacks, the United States changed its strategy regarding terrorists significantly. President Bush announced that the United States would consider nations that harbor terrorists as equally responsible for terrorist activities. In the latter part of 2001, the United States led an international coalition that removed the Taliban regime from power in Afghanistan. In March 2003, the United States led another coalition in an attack on Iraq, which the Bush administrated asserted had supported terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. Within weeks, Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, was removed from power.

The attacks on Iraq did not receive support from a number of nations, including traditional U.S. allies Germany and France. Moreover, the removal of the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq did not appear to end the threat of terrorism in the Middle East or elsewhere. In May 2003, shortly after the United States declared that the active phases of its armed military operations in Iraq had concluded, terrorists bombed residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing at least 34 people, including nine Americans. Four days after the Saudi Arabia attacks, bombs erupted in Casablanca, Morocco, killing 43 people. Authorities suspect that al Qaeda operatives were responsible.

Further readings

Abrams, Norman. 2003. Anti-terrorism and Criminal Enforcement. St. Paul, Minn.: West.

Alexander, Yonah, and Edgar H. Brenner, eds. 2001. Terrorism and the Law. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational Publishers.

"Backgrounder: Terrorism." 2003. Federal Emergency Management Agency. Available online at <www.fema.gov/hazards/terrorism/terror.shtm> (accessed November 21, 2003).

"Domestic Terrorism."1997. Close Up Foundation. Available online at <www.closeup.org/terror.htm> (accessed November 21, 2003).

Noone, Michael F., and Yonah Alexander. 1997. Cases and Materials on Terrorism: Three Nations' Response. Boston: Kluwer Law International.

Piszkiewicz, Dennis. 2003. Terrorism's War with America: A History. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Shanty, Frank, and Raymond Picquet, eds. 2003. Encyclopedia of World Terrorism. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe Reference.


War on Terrorism.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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