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Terrorism and Terroristic Threats

Terrorism has been a grave concern throughout the country and around the world. Whether perpetrated by foreign nationals with a vendetta against the U.S. government or radical groups within the country, political violence seems increasingly common (and in many ways it is). Regardless of its source, this particularly heinous crime involves acts meant to inflict terror on a particular group of people through deadly and provocative means.

Federal laws prohibit terrorism and terroristic threats (threatening to detonate a bridge if your demands aren't met, for instance), while most states also have anti-terrorism laws and procedures in place.

What is Terrorism?

Most crimes punish an act itself. The intent of the person carrying out the act may affect the defenses available or the severity of the punishment; but in the case of terrorism the intent of the person is critical to the definition of the crime because of its very nature. To commit terrorism is to intend a particular goal through causing fear in others.

Federal code (18 U.S. Code, Chapter 113B) defines it as acts (or attempted acts) of violence that appear 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.

Most acts of terrorism or terroristic threats would be considered a crime regardless of the intent of the person responsible. These acts, such as shootings, bombings, and other acts of violence would result in criminal liability regardless of the intent or purpose of the perpetrators. These crimes become terrorism when they are intended to intimidate civilians and the government.

In many circumstances, intent is difficult to prove. Normally, the burden of proving intent is on the prosecution, but in the case of terrorism, acts that "appear to be intended" to intimidate or coerce may still qualify as terroristic crimes without additional evidence.

Foreign and Domestic Terrorism: Is There a Difference?

U.S. Code defines both foreign and domestic terrorism roughly the same, hinging on the perpetrator's intent. The coordinated terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, were considered acts of international terrorism because they "transcend[ed] national boundaries in terms of the means by which they [were] accomplished," per the legal definition.

However, despite "domestic terrorism" being defined by U.S. Code, there are no specific penalties prescribed for such acts. Inclusion of the term allows the federal government to investigate such crimes, but they're charged as murder, assault, or other related crimes. In other words, there is no "substantive offense" for domestic terrorism under federal law.

One prominent example of a domestic terrorism-related conviction involved Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995. McVeigh hoped the bombing would lead to a revolution. He was convicted for his use of weapons of mass destruction and for the murders for which he was responsible and put to death by lethal injection, but he wasn't charged with "terrorism" per se.

Additional Unlawful Conduct

In addition to terrorism and terroristic threats there are certain acts that are punished. These include:

  • Financial transactions with countries supporting international terrorism;
  • The bombing of public places, transport, or government facilities;
  • The possession, acquisition, or use of missile systems designed to destroy aircraft;
  • The production, acquisition, possession, or use of radiological dispersal devices;
  • Use, threat, attempt, or conspiracy involving weapons of mass destruction; and
  • acts of nuclear terrorism.

Harboring terrorists, or providing them with material support, is also prohibited.


The penalties for terrorism and terroristic threats are severe. Penalties include:

  • Imprisonment for any term, including life, or the death penalty for acts that result in a person's death;
  • Imprisonment for any term, including life, for kidnapping;
  • Imprisonment for up to 35 years for maiming;
  • Imprisonment for up to 30 years for assault with a dangerous weapon, or an assault resulting in serious bodily injury;
  • Imprisonment for up to 25 years for destruction of property;
  • Imprisonment for any term of years up to the maximum for the underlying offense for attempts or conspiracy; and
  • Imprisonment for up to 10 years for threats.

These penalties are strict enough in themselves, but federal law also prevents the convicted from serving these sentences concurrently with others.

State Terrorism Laws

More than half of the states have some form of anti-terrorism law(s), often providing guidance for terrorism charges regardless of whether the act is domestic or international in scope. While an act of domestic terrorism involving a bomb threat against government officials wouldn't be charged as "terrorism" at the federal level, state laws often allow for specific terrorism charges.

For instance, the elements listed in New Jersey's terrorism law don't include the requirement that the perpetrator be a foreign national, be influenced by foreign ideologies, or in any way involve "conduct transcending national boundaries," contrary to the elements of a federal charge.

Facing Terrorism or Terroristic Threat Charges? Get Legal Help

Federal charges relating to terrorism or terroristic threats put a person at risk of not only severe criminal penalties, but also a disastrous impact on their reputation. If you've been accused of terrorism or terroristic threats you should be prepared to respond with the best defenses possible. Contact a local criminal defense attorney for to discuss your specific situation and learn how he or she can help.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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