Domestic Terrorist Groups

According to the Code of Laws of the United States, specifically 18 U.S.C. § 2331, domestic terrorism is defined as any activity that (a) involves acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; (b) is intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (c) occurs primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Throughout the history of the United States, multiple domestic terrorist groups and individual terrorists have used violence against the government and civilians to further their political, religious, or economic agendas and ideology. This entry briefly reviews the history of domestic terrorism in the United States, describes several notorious domestic terrorist groups, and discusses the use of surveillance in curbing their activities, including implications for privacy.

A Brief History of Domestic Terrorism in the United States

One of the first events to be considered an act of domestic terrorism occurred in 1622. The Powhatan Native Americans attacked the Jamestown colony and killed 30% of the inhabitants. After gaining independence from Britain in 1776, the newly formed republic experienced a few random uprisings and rebellions. During the Civil War (1861–1865), both the Confederacy and the Union engaged in guerrilla warfare against citizens to gain control over their communities. Burning the homes of individuals loyal to the enemy or derailing railroad trains to prevent supplies and food from reaching their intended destinations was a common occurrence during the Civil War. One of the most notorious events during this time was the “March to the Sea,” led by Union general William T. Sherman. General Sherman and his 62,000 troops marched from Atlanta to Savanah, Georgia, burning and destroying homes, farms, businesses, and railroads.

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is commonly considered the first terrorist organization in the history of the United States. This white supremacist group emerged during the reconstruction efforts following the Civil War. Between 1868 and 1870, the KKK lynched, bombed, and burnt the homes of freed slaves and their white supporters and intimidated black voters, with the goal of restoring white rule in the southern states. In 1871, a series of anti-KKK laws and crackdowns on their activities by the federal government considerably reduced the influence and membership of the Klan until the first part of the 20th century.

The last three decades of the 19th century brought anarchist terrorism to the United States. Anarchist terrorists used violence to eliminate any form of organized government and social hierarchy. One notorious terrorist attack in the United States was the Haymarket affair on May 4, 1886, which began when someone threw a bomb at the police during a labor protest rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Seven police officers and a civilian died as a result of the ensuing violence that day; hundreds were injured. In August 1886, eight alleged radical anarchists were convicted for their role in the events of that day; one was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and the other seven were sentenced to death.

On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot to death in Buffalo, NY, by Leon Czolgosz, a radical anarchist. Czolgosz was tried and convicted in September 1901, and on October 29, 1901, he was executed. On June 2, 1919, a group of Italian anarchists launched simultaneous bombing attacks in New York City; Boston, Massachusetts; Cleveland, Ohio; Patterson, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Government officials, such as Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, were the primary targets of these bombs. As a result of these bombings, Palmer attempted to crash radical labor organizations, organizing the so-called Palmer Raids, which resulted in the detention of thousands of suspected anarchists and the deportation of many of them.

From 1920 to 1960, the United States experienced limited domestic terrorism actions. During these 4 decades, terrorism in the world was characterized by anticolonial sentiment, which gave rise to terrorist groups using guerrilla-type actions against colonial powers. In the 1950s, the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party was gaining momentum in its fight for independence from U.S. rule. The party conducted violent protests and uprisings throughout Puerto Rico, but it did not limit its activities solely to the island. On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican Nationalists attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman in the Blair House, across the street from the White House. During their attempt to gain access to the president, the two assailants exchanged fire with members of the White House Police and U.S. Secret Service. Both assailants were wounded and arrested. On March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican Nationalists shot 30 rounds from semiautomatic pistols from the U.S. Capitol’s visitors’ balcony, injuring five U.S. representatives. All were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

During the 1960s and 1970s, domestic terrorism in the United States had a revolutionary, leftist political connotation mixed with a strong anti–Vietnam War sentiment. Groups such as the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weather Underground Organization, and the Black Liberation Army targeted federal, state, and local buildings and officials in their struggle to gain notoriety for their cause. On August 24, 1970, four radical, antiwar activists planted a bomb in Sterling Hall, a University of Wisconsin–Madison building that hosted the Army Mathematics Research Center. The blast resulted in the death of a physics researcher and wounded others. On March 1, 1971, members of the Weather Underground bombed the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and in 1975, the same group bombed the U.S. State Department building in the nation’s capital. No one was killed in either of the attacks. During this period, radical groups fighting for Puerto Rican independence continued to be active. On January 24, 1975, members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacíon Nacional) bombed Fraunces Tavern, in the heart of New York City, killing four and injuring 63 people.

The 1990s brought terroristic violence from white nationalist and other extreme far-right groups and from lone wolves. In addition, radical Muslims also started operating in the United States. On February 26, 1993, a 1,200-pound bomb in a truck parked in a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center exploded, causing 6 deaths and injuring more than 1,000 people. Seven Islamic terrorists linked with the radical Muslim terrorist organization al Qaeda were convicted for the attack. On April 19, 1995, a bomb was detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people and injured more than 500. Two right-wing, antigovernment extremists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were arrested and convicted for the bombing. McVeigh was executed in 2001, and Nichols was sentenced to life in prison. On July 27, 1996, a bomb exploded at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, killing one person and injuring 111 others. Eric Robert Rudolph, an anti-abortion, antigay radical, was convicted for this blast and for another attack on an abortion clinic.

On September 11, 2001, four commercial airplanes were hijacked by 19 members of al Qaeda. The planes were crashed into the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane, which was thought to be en route to the White House, crashed in an open field in Pennsylvania. The attacks took nearly 3,000 lives and injured many others. The September 11 terrorist attacks marked the start of an era of global terrorism and the so-called War on Terror.

Since September 11, 2001, radical Islamic groups and individuals, along with white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, have been very active. The year 2009 saw two notorious failed terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by individuals linked to al Qaeda. At the beginning of 2009, Najibullah Zazi actively plotted to bomb the New York City subway with other radical Muslims. On December 25, 2009, a Nigerian national, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, traveling from Paris to Detroit, Michigan, tried to detonate a bomb he was carrying in his underwear. He was subdued by the passengers and crew members while the plane was approaching Detroit International Airport.

On November 5, 2009, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, Nidal Malik Hasan, fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others in Fort Hood, Texas. Although the act has been labeled as “work-related violence,” many believe that the connections of Malik with al Qaeda extremists indicate an act of domestic terrorism, as he confessed that he had opened fire to protect Taliban fighters from U.S. soldiers.

On May 1, 2010, a Pakistani immigrant with strong links to al Qaeda, Faisal Shahzad, parked an SUV full of explosives in New York’s Time Square. The bomb failed to detonate. On April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring at least 264 others. The Boston police identified the bombing suspects as two brothers, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Muslim extremists linked to terrorist groups in Chechenia. Tamerlan died in a shoot-out with the police, while his brother was arrested. In 2015, Dzhokhar was convicted of all the indicted charges and sentenced to death (as of 2016, he was still in prison).

Notorious Domestic Terrorist Groups

Left-Wing Terrorist Groups

The Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization

The Weatherman was formed in 1969 out of the Students for a Democratic Society national convention in Chicago, Illinois. It advocated for bombings, armed resistance, and assassinations to defeat U.S. imperialism and create a communist world without social classes. By the mid-1970s, most of the leaders of the organization were on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. The unofficial end of the Weather Underground occurred in 1981, after many of its leaders turned themselves in to face charges.

The Symbionese Liberation Army

The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was an urban guerrilla group founded in late 1973. The group was led by Donald DeFreeze, an ex-convict, and comprised primarily middle-class, white, college-educated individuals. The SLA was responsible for multiple bank robberies; the murder of the Oakland, California, school superintendent in November 1973; and the kidnapping of the 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst on February 4, 1974. Hearst resurfaced in April 1974, participating in an SLA bank robbery in San Francisco. She was captured in 1975 and convicted of bank robbery; she served 21 months in prison and was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001.

Animal Liberation Front

The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) is a single-issue extremist organization that started its operations in the mid-1970s. The main goal of the organization is to use vandalism, arson, animal releases, harassing telephone calls, and threats and attempts to disrupt the business activities of people and organizations that support animal research and testing. According to the FBI, the ALF is upgrading its tactics to the use of direct violence against food producers, biomedical researchers, and law enforcement and to planning assassinations of researchers, corporate officers, and employees of such organizations.

Earth Liberation Front

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is a single-issue extremist organization that came about in 1992. Its activities have been directly linked with those of the ALF. Following ALF’s tactics, the ELF engages in economic sabotage to halt the exploitation and destruction of the environment. The FBI has estimated that from 1996 to 2002 the ALF and the ELF have together committed more than 600 criminal acts in the United States, resulting in damages in excess of $43 million.

Right-Wing Terrorist Groups

Ku Klux Klan

The Order

The Order was founded in 1983 by Robert Jay Mathews, a racial supremacist activist. The Order’s members believed that there was a strong component of Zionism within the U.S. government. Their main methods to fight Zionism were bank and armored car robberies, counterfeiting, and murder. Very active in the Pacific Northwest in 1984, members of the group bombed a synagogue in Boise, Idaho; seized $500,000 from an armored car in Seattle, Washington, and $3.6 million from another one in California; and murdered Jewish Radio personality Alan Berg. The Order disappeared after the prosecution and imprisonment of most of its members in December 1985.

Racist Skinheads

The skinhead movement has its origins in working-class youths in England during the 1960s. In the United States, the first groups appeared in the Midwest and in Texas in the 1980s. In the 1990s, most of the skinhead groups unified to form the Hammerskin Nation, but since then, other groups have emerged to challenge the power of the Hammerskin Nation. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2011, 133 skinhead groups were active in the United States. Violence and hate crime actions are ingrained in the skinhead movement. Their violence seems to be spontaneous and opportunistic. They usually target nonwhites and social and religious minorities.

Militia Extremists

The militia movement is a fairly new right-wing extremist movement. These groups are armed paramilitary groups with a defined antigovernment, conspiracy-oriented ideology. Militia groups were formed after the 1993 Waco standoff between Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement; 2 years later, almost every state had representation in one or more of these groups. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the militia movement declined from 441 groups in 1995 to 72 in 2001. Since 2008, however, the militia movement has experienced a revival. In 2011, according to some accounts, there were 330 active militia groups. The majority of their violence is targeted at law enforcement, judicial, and government officials; those who are arrested are often charged with weapons, explosives, and conspiracy violations.

Domestic Terrorist Groups and Surveillance, Security, and Privacy

Surveillance is an important tool to prevent and disrupt domestic terrorism incidents in the United States. Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies depend on surveillance to obtain valuable intelligence. In the post-9/11 era, government surveillance programs have expanded. These programs are sensitive and secretive in nature, which in turn has contributed to public suspicion and the growing debate over privacy laws.

A good example of such programs is Project Prism. Conducted by the National Security Agency, this program reportedly collects Internet communications and information from nine major Internet providers in the United States, targeting specific individuals and organizations that are suspected to have terrorist links. Controversy about privacy issues for American citizens was aroused when a former agency contractor, Edward Snowden, publicized the extent of the program and a series of alleged privacy violations, in the name of national security, affecting millions of American citizens with no ties to terrorism.

Marcos L. Misis

See also National Security ; Threat Assessment ; War on Terror

Further Readings

Borgeson, K. & R. Valeri. Terrorism in America. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2008.

Fagin, J. A.When Terrorism Strikes Home. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2006.

Martin, G.Essentials of Terrorism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2014.

McCann, J.Terrorism on American Soil: A Concise History of Plots and Perpetrators From the Famous to the Forgotten. Boulder, CO: Sentient, 2006.

Rapport, D. C. “The Fourth Wave: September 11 in the History of Terrorism.” Current History, v.100/ 650 (2001).

Simon, J.Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat. New York, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013.