Terrorism, Domestic (United States)

Terrorism, Domestic (United States)


The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines domestic terrorism as terrorism involving groups based in, and operating entirely within, the United States and its territories, without foreign direction. The FBI further divides domestic terrorism into three basic categories: right-wing, left-wing, and special-interest terrorism. Terrorist organizations in the United States had their beginnings with the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866. White racist movements remain major contributors to terrorism, but the toll of terrorist activities has also included socialist, anarchist, and minority nationalist groups, as well as terrorism associated with the environment and animal rights. Of the 205 lives claimed in terrorist incidents within the United States between 1980 and 1999, more than 80% died in a single attack: the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

Domestic Terrorist Groups

At the center of domestic counterterrorism efforts is the FBI, whose Counterterrorism Division defines domestic terrorism thus in a 1999 report titled Terrorism in the United States:

"Domestic terrorism involves groups or individuals who are based and operate entirely within the United States or its territories without foreign direction, and whose acts are directed at elements of the U.S. government or population. Domestic terrorist groups can represent right-wing, left-wing, or special interest orientations. Their causes generally spring from issues relating to American political and social concerns."

Right-wing terrorism. Right-wing terrorist groups, as defined by the FBI, are motivated by notions of white racial supremacy, as well as anti-government and anti-regulatory beliefs. They may also include extremist Christian groups such as those that bomb abortion clinics, although these groups are sometimes lumped in with special-interest terrorists. Moreover, many acts of right-wing terrorism, such as racially motivated attacks by "skinhead" gangs, are legally classified as hate crimes rather than domestic terrorism. They thus fall within the realm of the FBI Criminal Division, rather than the Counterterrorism Division.

Not all anti-government groups are necessarily racist: for example, some members of the militia movement in the 1990s attempted to distance themselves from anti-black and anti-Semitic hate groups. On the other hand, all these groups are united by a suspicion of, or hatred for, the federal government, often coupled with a conspiratorial view of history and politics. These putative conspiracies may have their origins in Washington—which, in the view of many right-wing terrorist groups, seeks to take away Americans' guns and impose ruinous taxes and regulations on them—or they may be international in origin. Many of these groups in the 1990s, for instance, spoke of black helicopters supposedly operated by United Nations forces on U.S. soil.

The Ku Klux Klan. Strictly speaking, the Ku Klux Klan is not a terrorist organization, as its acts of violence have tended to be retaliatory rather than symbolic. Still, given its influence on events in the United States, no discussion of right-wing terrorism would be complete without its mention

Formed by ex-Confederate soldiers after the Civil War, the Klan was an attempt to strike back at the federal government for its imposition of martial law and military occupation in the South. However, the victims of Klan violence—recently freed slaves—were far more vulnerable than the Southern whites, no matter how disenfranchised and dispossessed as they might have seen themselves to be. The Klan, which terrorized and killed African Americans throughout the South, was outlawed by the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. In 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Klan Act unconstitutional, but by then Reconstruction was over, and the Klan had faded into the background.

D. W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation helped influence the formation of a new Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Over the next decade, the Klan grew in strength nationwide, and prominent persons—including future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black—belonged to the organization. Ironically, it was the Klan in 1925, before Martin Luther King, Jr., was born, who undertook the first major "March on Washington" of the twentieth century.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Klansmen conducted terrorist attacks and acts of murder against African Americans and civil rights workers, but the triumph of the civil rights movement spelled the end of the Klan as a force. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other anti-racist organizations successfully gutted the Klan with a series of lawsuits. With its assets stripped, the organization split into numerous splinter groups.

Other racist groups. Alongside Klan movements have been other racist groups, most notably the American Nazi Party (whose founder, George Lincoln Rockwell, was assassinated in 1967 by a member of his own party) and various "Aryan" organizations such as the White Aryan Brotherhood and the Aryan Nations. These groups have often found themselves confronted with a contradiction. Persons on the right, even the extreme right, tend to be patriotic, if sometimes ambivalent about the government in power, whereas Nazi and Aryan groups ultimately pay homage to one of America's most hated historical enemies, Adolf Hitler.

On the other hand, many racist groups, such as the White Patriot Party, have built the "patriot" theme into their name. Others, such as the so-called "Christian Identity Movement" (whose members reject that name) identify white America with the 10 lost tribes of Israel. The Christian Identity Movement and other such groups are profoundly anti-Semitic. None of these groups is, in strict terms, a terrorist group (though they are certainly classifiable as hate groups), but as with the Klan, discussions of right-wing terrorism require reference to such groups.

The bible for adherents of white racist and anti-government belief systems is not Hitler's Mein Kampf, but a distinctly American version, more dime novel than political manifesto. This is The Turner Diaries by Andrew MacDonald, a.k.a. William Pierce. Published in 1978, the novel pictures a race war that results in the triumph of whites over blacks, Jews, and other "mongrels." It identifies April 20, 1999, as the 110th birthday of "The Great One" (Hitler was born April 20, 1889), and depicts a terrorist bombing of a government building that seems to have provided Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh with a model for his attack.

Anti-government groups. The remainder of right-wing terrorist groups are united by an anti-government stance that may or may not also embrace racism. Such groups emerged on the national scene with a February 13, 1983, attack on law enforcement officers in Medina, North Dakota, by a group named the Sheriff's Posse Comitatus.

The years since have seen a proliferation of groups such as the various "militias" (anti-government paramilitary groups organized at a state level) or the Freemen. Some of these engage in terrorism by other means, such as the filing of bogus liens and other groundless legal claims that tie up government resources. Sometimes referred to as "paper terrorism," these acts clogged up courts in some western states during the 1990s.

Just as the Klan had a natural base in the South, and some racist groups have found a home in the Midwest (for instance, the American Nazis, which operate primarily in Chicago), the wide-open spaces of the West have provided a natural venue for anti-government groups and individuals. Many of these reacted strongly to the 1992 FBI raid against the Ruby Ridge, Idaho, residence of white separatist Randy Weaver, which resulted in the death of Weaver's wife and son.

The presidency of William J. Clinton proved particularly odious to anti-government groups and individuals, who perceived the Clinton administration as leftist. Anti-government groups claimed that Attorney General Janet Reno was to blame for the April 19, 1993, attack on the Waco, Texas compound of the Branch Davidians, a religious sect reportedly hoarding a cache of illegal weapons.

After a 51-day siege by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, a combined FBI and Delta Force team assaulted the compound, whereupon the Branch Davidians set the buildings on fire. Seventy-six people, including cult leader David Koresh, died in the conflagration. Outside the compound, a group of anti-government protesters, which had been keeping vigil for weeks, watched as the blaze erupted. Among those present was a 25-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran named Timothy McVeigh.

Oklahoma City. Exactly two years after the Waco incident, at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a Ryder rental truck parked in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exploded. Inside the truck was a 4,800-pound bomb of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, a combination similar to that used in the 1993 World Trade Center blast. The blast tore a hole along the side of the nine-story building, injuring some 500 persons and killing 168—including 19 infants in a day-care center.

Within minutes, word began to spread throughout the nation that—in a variation on language that would often be used by members of the media in the next few days—"terror had struck the heartland." Authorities already had two suspects, who they had named "John Doe No. 1" and "John Doe No. 2," and initially many reporters speculated that Muslim extremists had caused this blast, as they had the World Trade Center bombing. The men ultimately charged for the Oklahoma City bombing, however, would turn out to be from much closer to home.

About 90 minutes after the blast, police in Perry, Oklahoma, stopped McVeigh for driving without a license plate. When they searched his trunk, they discovered anti-government literature, along with significant traces of PETN, a compound used in the making of the bomb. Soon afterward, having recovered the vehicle identification number of the Ryder truck from its axle, authorities traced it to a rental outlet in Junction City, Kansas, where the owner identified McVeigh as the man who had rented the truck under the name "Robert Kling." McVeigh also matched the composite sketch of "John Doe No. 1."

On April 21, federal authorities arrested McVeigh, along with brothers Terry and James Nichols. James was later released, but McVeigh and Terry Nichols stood trial. Although McVeigh had been involved with the militia movement for a time, he had long since separated himself from any group. His philosophy was strongly anti-government, and it appears that he chose the Murrah Building because he thought (incorrectly) that the personnel involved at Waco worked in that building.

Both McVeigh and Nichols were found guilty, and McVeigh was given the death penalty, while Nichols received a life sentence without parole. McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001. Exactly three months later, the foreign-sponsored terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania, would eclipse the Oklahoma City death toll by a factor of nearly 20.

Left-Wing and Special Interest Terrorists

So great has been the impact of right-wing terrorism, due to the Oklahoma City bombing (as well as the visibility of hate groups such as the Klan and neo-Nazis), that the significance of left-wing and special interest terrorism has tended to be obscured. In these cases, the death toll is much smaller, but a number of incidents have claimed lives and property.

Left-wing terrorists, according to the FBI, have a revolutionary socialist agenda, and present themselves as protectors of the populace against the alienating effects of capitalism and U.S. imperialism. Notable early participants in left-wing terrorism were various socialist and anarchist groups from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leon Czolgocz, who shot President William McKinley in 1901, embraced anarchist beliefs, though no anarchist group would accept him for membership.

Puerto Rican nationalists. From the 1950s, Puerto Rican nationalists have been among the most prominent left-wing terrorists. These might seem at first glance to have a special-interest agenda, but due to their socialist rhetoric and goals, the FBI has categorized them as left-wing terrorists. On November 1, 1950, members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party attempted to assassinate President Harry S Truman, and during the 1950s, members of the group stormed the U.S. House of Representatives.

On May 1, 1961, Puerto Rican-born Antuilo Ramierez Ortiz hijacked a National Airlines flight and diverted it to Havana. This was the first successful hijacking of a U.S. plane, and Ortiz, who returned to the United States in 1975, was sentenced to 25 years for his crime. On January 27, 1975, members of the Armed Forces for Puerto Rican Liberation (known by its initials in Spanish, FALN), bombed a bar on Wall Street in New York City, killing four and wounding 60.

The late 1960s and early 1970s. Two days after the FALN attack, members of the Weather Underground claimed responsibility for a bombing at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. The "Weathermen," as they were commonly known (after a line from the song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" by Bob Dylan), were formed from the radical Students for a Democratic Society group in 1969. Their leaders received training in Havana, and over the next few years, they conducted a wave of bombings and robberies. Their death toll was small, however, and consisted primarily of three group members killed when a bomb they were building accidentally exploded at a Greenwich Village townhouse in March 1970.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was also the heyday of the Black Panther Party and other African American nationalist groups that used terrorist tactics. Among the most notorious events associated with the Black Panthers was an August 7, 1970, raid on a California courthouse by University of California professor Angela Davis and Jonathan Jackson on behalf of Jackson's imprisoned brother George. Davis and Jackson kidnapped several people, critically wounded a district attorney, and killed a judge. Jackson died in the struggle, and on August 21, 1971, George Jackson died in a prison riot he incited after his lawyer reportedly smuggled a pistol to him.

Also notable among left-wing groups of the era was the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), which on February 5, 1974, kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst. Formed in 1973, the group declared war on "fascism," which it equated with America, and it waged its war primarily through bank robberies. Hearst, allegedly brainwashed by the group, adopted the name "Tania" and participated in the robberies. Most of its members, including leader Donald DeFreeze, were killed in a May, 1974, shootout with authorities. Hearst was captured by the FBI in September, 1975. In January, 2001, outgoing president Clinton pardoned her, along with several Puerto Rican revolutionaries held in federal prisons.

Rudolph and Kaczynski. Special-interest terrorism, as its name indicates, is focused on specific issues. Such terrorism tends to be predominantly left-wing, but there are exceptions, most notably the acts attributed to Eric Robert Rudolph. These might be classified as right-wing attacks, as the bombing targets included abortion clinics and a nightclub frequented by homosexuals. On the other hand, the bombing at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, 1996, during the 1996 Olympics, an attack that killed two people and injured 112, is not currently tied to an obvious political agenda. As of mid-2003, Rudolph had evaded capture, and remained on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list.

Also difficult to classify are the crimes of Theodore Kaczynski, the accused Unabomber. Beginning in 1978, when a bomb disguised as a package went off at Northwestern University, a mysterious bomber terrorized universities and airlines (hence the name una in the nickname given to him by the FBI). After a total of 10 attacks on universities and airlines, the Unabomber struck a computer store in Sacramento, California, on December 11, 1985, causing his first fatality.

The Unabomber was spotted on February 20, 1987, placing a bomb at another computer store, this one in Salt Lake City, Utah. This sole sighting provided authorities with a sketch of the Unabomber, who then ceased activities for six years. In June 1993, after two more bombings that month, the Unabomber sent the New York Times a letter outlining an agenda based in environmental and anarchist themes. His last two attacks, in 1994 and 1995 (the latter just five days after Oklahoma City) struck an advertising executive and a timber industry lobbyist respectively, again suggesting an anti-capitalist, environmentalist agenda.

After reading the Unabomber's manifesto, David Kaczynski noted similarities between the writer and his brother Ted, and alerted authorities. Ted Kaczynski, once a promising mathematics graduate student, had abandoned society for the isolation of a cabin in Montana, where he was arrested on April 3, 1996. In January 1998, on the eve of his trial, a judge rejected Kaczynski's request to represent himself in court. Kaczynski filed a guilty plea, and was sentenced to life in prison. Though Kaczynski's acts seem terroristic, inasmuch as they are arguably directed at human beings as symbols rather than purely as humans, the FBI did not officially classify his bombings as domestic terrorism, noting a "lack of information regarding the subject's motivation."

Special-interest terrorism in the 1990s. In the 1990s, special-interest terrorism of the political right included attacks and threats against abortion clinics. Special-interest terrorism on the political left involved motivations that included the environment, animal rights, and opposition to globalization. The FBI paid special note to the left-wing groups in this instance, not because of political bias, but because attacks on abortion clinics are classified as hate crimes, giving them an entirely different legal definition and involving other arms of the national justice system.

On the other hand, the acts of groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) or the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) fit within the FBI's definition of terrorism. The ALF, affiliated with similar groups worldwide, conducts raids on research laboratories and other facilities where, in the view of group members, animals are mistreated. Radical environmentalists have been charged with "tree spiking," or putting metal spikes in trees to harm loggers who cut them, and of mailing packages rigged with razor blades. In October 1998, the ELF was charged with setting fire to a ski resort in Vail, Colorado.

The FBI also noted the rise of anti-globalization demonstrations, which are founded in an opposition to the growth and international influence of Western corporations and financial entities. Though officially grouped with left-wing terrorism because of its strongly anarchist undertones, anti-globalization activities might also be considered special-interest in nature. During the World Trade Organization ministerial meetings in Seattle from November 30 to December 3, 1999, anti-globalization demonstrators conducted extensive acts of vandalism.


On June 21, 1995, just two months after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 39, "U.S. Policy on Counterterrorism." Its purpose was to provide guidelines for deterring terrorism on America's shores, as well as terrorism against Americans and allies abroad. In accordance with PDD 39 and PDD 62, issued the same day, U.S. government agencies developed the United States Government Interagency Domestic Terrorism Concept of Operations Plan, or CONPLAN for short.

Presented in January 2001, CONPLAN outlines the response to a domestic terrorist attack, or a foreign-sponsored terrorist attack on U.S. soil, such as those that occurred eight months later, on September 11. CONPLAN identifies the FBI as the lead agency for domestic counterterrorism, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the lead consequence management agency. It also outlines responsibilities for the Attorney General and Department of Justice, FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Defense, Energy, and Health and Human Services.



Abanes, Richard. American Militias: Rebellion, Racism, and Religion. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1996.

Ellis, Richard J. The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

George, John, and Laird Wilcox. American Extremists: Militias, Supremacists, Klansmen, Communists, and Others. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996.

Terrorism in the United States 1999. Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1999.


Architecture and Structural Security
ATF (United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms)
Coordinator for Counterterrorism, United States Office
Domestic Emergency Support Team, United States
Domestic Intelligence
Domestic Preparedness Office (NDPO), United States National
FBI (United States Federal Bureau of Investigation)
GAO (General Accounting Office, United States)
General Services Administration, United States
Terrorism, Intelligence Based Threat and Risk Assessments
Terrorism, Philosophical and Ideological Origins
Terrorism Risk Insurance
Terrorist and Para-State Organizations
Terrorist Organizations, Freezing of Assets
Terrorist Threat Integration Center
United States, Counter-Terrorism Policy

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