Terrorism has long been a grave concern throughout the United States and around the world. When a person or group uses or threatens violence against the state or the public as part of a political attack, it's considered an act of terrorism. Sometimes foreign nationals with a vendetta against the U.S. are the perpetrators. In many other cases, radical groups within the country use terrorism to intimidate or coerce other citizens.
Whatever the source, political violence seems increasingly common. In many ways, it is. And all too often, it goes beyond mere threats by possible terrorists. Attacks often show up in the news A terror-related violent crime seems to pop up somewhere around the globe every day. Americans often hear, for example, of attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories. And terrorism has been a major part of public consciousness in the United States ever since the 9/11 attacks.
Again, regardless of its source or target, this crime involves acts meant to inflict terror on a particular group of people. It is executed through deadly and provocative means.
Federal laws prohibit terrorism and terroristic threats. An example of such a crime could be threatening to detonate a bridge if your demands aren't met. Most states also have anti-terrorism laws and terrorism-related procedures in place.
Crimes of terrorism or terroristic threats carry severe penalties. If you or a family member are facing criminal charges linked to terrorism, it's important to contact a defense lawyer. Their legal advice could save you from many years in prison. Terrorism is treated as a serious criminal offense. A good criminal defense lawyer could prevent the most severe of consequences.
Law Enforcement, Government Agencies, and Terrorism
The Department of Homeland Security is the largest law enforcement agency within the U.S. government. It employs 80,000 law enforcement officers and works to prevent acts of terror in the United States. It also has a host of other responsibilities related to keeping the nation safe. Homeland Security partners with other government agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to accomplish its mission.
What Is Terrorism?
With most crimes, the law punishes an act itself. The intent of the person carrying out the act may affect the defenses available. The nature of that intent may also affect the severity of the punishment.
But in the case of terrorism, a person's intent is critical to the definition of the crime by its very nature. To commit terrorism is to intend a particular goal by causing fear in others. Federal code (18 U.S. Code, Chapter 113B) defines terrorism 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
- Affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping
Most acts of terrorism or terroristic threats would be considered crimes regardless of intent. They would result in criminal liability no matter what the perpetrators wanted to achieve. Examples of such acts are shootings, bombings, and other acts of violence. 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 with terrorism, acts that "appear to be intended" to intimidate may still qualify as terroristic crimes. Additional evidence may not be required to make this distinction. Thus, acts that appear to use coercion may still qualify as crimes of terrorism, as well.
Foreign and Domestic Terrorism: Is There a Difference?
The U.S. Code defines both foreign and domestic terrorism roughly the same way. The definitions hinge on the perpetrator's intent. As an example, the coordinated terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were considered acts of international terrorism. That's because the law says that acts of international terrorism "transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished."
However, even though the U.S. Code defines domestic terrorism, there are no specific penalties prescribed for such acts. Inclusion of the term "domestic terrorism" in federal law allows the government to investigate such crimes. But these acts usually result in charges only for the underlying crime of violence — murder, assault, etc.
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. He was 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. McVeigh was put to death by lethal injection over the murders. But he wasn't charged with "terrorism," per se.
Additional Unlawful Conduct
In addition to terrorism and terroristic threats, certain other acts are punished as terrorism. These include:
- Financial transactions with countries supporting international terrorism
- The bombing of public places, facilities of public transportation, 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
- Acts of nuclear terrorism
Harboring terrorists or providing them with material support is also prohibited.
Under relevant federal law, an act of terror could be characterized by various factors. It could be identified, for example, by reckless disregard of the risk involved in a violent act.
Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant has committed a terrorist crime. Terrorism is a serious charge, and a threat of violence can carry severe criminal penalties. An act of terrorism on a criminal record is damning and will follow a person for the rest of their life. Under federal law, a terroristic threat is often treated as a felony. Often, offenses are qualified as third-degree felonies.
The penalties for terrorism and terroristic threats are severe. They 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 up to the maximum for the underlying offense for attempts or conspiracy
- Imprisonment for up to 10 years for threats
These penalties are strict in themselves. But federal law also says convicted terrorists can't serve these sentences concurrently, or at the same time as any others. That means each terrorism conviction adds years to the time the defendant must spend behind bars. Combined with the years from other sentences, that could put a convicted terrorist in prison for life.
State Terrorism Laws
More than half of the states have some form of anti-terrorism law. Such laws often provide guidance for terrorism charges. States often level their own charges regardless of whether the act is domestic or international in scope. For example, a bomb threat against government officials wouldn't bring domestic terrorism charges on the federal level. But state laws often allow for specific terrorism charges in those cases.
Often, state and federal governments alike will use a "reasonable person standard" to decide whether an act or threat constitutes terrorism. In other words, if a reasonable person were to consider an act or threat terroristic in nature, then that act or threat would qualify as terrorism.
This is perhaps an overly reductive way to explain this standard as it applies to terrorism. However, it is used across many jurisdictions to legally identify terrorism. For instance, the elements listed in New Jersey's terrorism law don't require:
- That the perpetrator be a foreign national
- That the person be influenced by foreign ideologies
- That the person be engaged in "conduct transcending national boundaries"
Concerning the last bullet point, this is directly contrary to the elements of a federal charge for terrorism. New Jersey criminal law categorizes terrorist acts or threats as second- or third-degree crimes.
And in Texas, the state penal code defines a terroristic threat as any threat indicating an intention to do violence to a person. That penal code indicates that a threat to destroy a place can constitute such a crime, as well. Under Texas law, the threat must involve specific intent. Penalties for the crime are treated as Class B misdemeanors. But they can also be treated as felonies.
Under Pennsylvania law, an act of terror or a threat to commit an act of terror can involve:
- Creating or causing danger to another person
- An act or threat of mass destruction
- A violent offense that compromises national security
- A serious public inconvenience, particularly in a place of assembly such as a park or event venue
Facing Terrorism or Terroristic Threat Charges? Get Legal Help
Federal charges relating to terrorism or terroristic threats put a person at risk of severe criminal penalties. They also can have 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 an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your specific situation and learn how they can help. At the law offices of criminal defense attorneys, you can receive the help you need if you're facing charges for committing a terrorism crime.