Since the mid-1990s domestic terrorism has been strongly associated with conspiracy theories. While acts of domestic terrorism have no necessary relationship to conspiracy theories, the two have been linked in two major ways. First, conspiracy theories have been defined as causes for, or leading to, domestic terrorism.
In this thinking, particular conspiracy beliefs lead to acts of domestic terrorism. Second, a number of conspiracy theories have arisen about acts of domestic terrorism. In other words, conspiracy theories provide explanations for what is behind terrorism. Because of both of these aspects, there is a strong link between domestic terrorism and conspiracy theories.
The terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” have been used to describe a wide range of violent actions against societies and governments. One of the major definitional difficulties associated with domestic terrorism, regardless of the connection to conspiracy theories, is coming up with a clear and rigorous meaning that is consensual. There is no clear agreement on what domestic terrorism is.
For example, an armed and violent political organization can be classified as a terrorist group or as freedom fighters, depending on the political perspective of the classifier. Also, there are differing opinions whether the notion of domestic terrorism applies solely to actions carried out by ordinary individuals, or to actions carried out by the state and its agents.
In addition, there are also at least two ways of defining “domestic.” It could mean a violent political act that takes place within the national borders of the United States, the most famous example being the 11 September 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center.
Even though the alleged terrorist network responsible for the act was international in nature, the fact that it happened on U.S. soil makes it an act of domestic terrorism. The other definition of “domestic” requires that the perpetrators themselves be citizens of the nation under attack.
The most famous case here is the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building, carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. citizen. With all of these differences it is no wonder that Richard E. Rubinstein, director of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, once argued that a “definition of terrorism is hopeless ... terrorism is just violence that you don’t like.”
The United States Department of Justice defines domestic terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence, committed by a group(s) of two or more individuals, against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” This definition has been modified to accent the target of domestic terrorism, namely, civilians or noncombatants.
While domestic terrorism may seem to be a twentieth-century (if not 1990s) phenomenon, history provides numerous acts that could fit the definition. The word “terror” can at least be traced back to the Reign of Terror conducted after the French Revolution in 1789, in which thousands were executed in order to prevent and intimidate counterrevolutionary forces.
In U.S. history, the Boston Tea Party has been viewed as a terrorist act, insofar as it was a public display of violence and destruction to achieve political and social ends (antiBritish taxation). The American Revolution itself, in this view, depended on domestic terrorism against British colonizers to accomplish its goals.
A variety of rebellions arose in the first 100 years of the United States that could be characterized as terrorist. The Whiskey Rebellion tax revolt, suppressed by federal troops in 1794, was a case where military forces brutally responded to a violent uprising. During the mid-1800s, religious fundamentalism became violent, especially in the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons).
Mormon insurrections were frequent in the Midwest and in Utah, as the beliefs and practices of the church (especially polygamy) clashed with dominant Christian beliefs and local laws. Rebellious Mormons ambushed and slaughtered over 100 California-bound migrants, which provoked a military response by President James Buchanan. Mormon protestors employed guerrilla tactics against the federal troops.
During the Civil War, wartime tactics that easily fall under the category of “domestic terrorism” were employed by both sides. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan was formed in order to enact vigilante justice and protect white southerners. Their tactics, including the burning of crosses, property destruction, obstructing blacks from voting, beatings, and lynchings were all designed to intimidate citizens (as well as government officials) through terror.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, labor struggles often included elements of terror. From anarchist assassinations and bombings to the company-hired strikebreaking Pinkertons, violence and intimidation were tactics employed to further political and social ends.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, extreme protest took on a new character. The wave of demonstrations and riots sometimes turned violent, often with provocation by police forces (as, for example, during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention). At Kent State University in 1970, four demonstrators were shot dead by National Guard troops.
The Vietnam War period also saw the rise of antiestablishment and antiracist organizations that at times resorted to violence to further their goals. Premier among them was the Weather Underground Organization (formerly the Weathermen), who were blamed for a series of bombings (including the U.S. Capitol building), bank robberies, and shootings during this era.
Their attempt to instigate a socialist revolution through violent provocation also included the jailbreak of Timothy Leary. Also active during this time was the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose claim to fame was the kidnapping and recruitment (or brainwashing, depending on your perspective) of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Contemporary Domestic Terrorism
The last twenty years of the twentieth century saw an explosion in the number of domestic terrorist groups, as well as the interests that motivate them. The U.S. Department of Justice classifies domestic terrorist groups into six categories:
- violent Puerto Rican independence groups,
- anti-Castro Cubans,
- left wing,
- right wing,
- Jewish extremist, and
- special interest.
Among the last category’s members are antiabortion extremists, responsible for physical and psychological intimidation of abortion providers and patients, including the bombing of clinics and the murders of abortion providers. Groups like Operation Rescue, the Army of God, and the American Coalition for Life Activists have been implicated in, or accused of endorsing, a number of these crimes.
Ecoterrorism, done in the name of environmental preservation, has also come under recent scrutiny. Animal rights organizations that use harassment and intimidation fall under this category (e.g., the Animal Liberation Front, which targets institutions that conduct unethical research on animals, as well as those that profit from this mistreatment). In addition, more general environmental activists like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front have been dubbed domestic terrorists (the latter by the FBI in 2001).
In the 1990s, domestic terrorism achieved a prominence that it never had before. On 26 February 1993, the World Trade Center was rocked by a bomb in its underground garage. The explosion, caused by a homemade fertilizer bomb, killed six people and injured more than a thousand. On 4 March 1994, the jury found Mohammad Salameh, Ahmad M. Ajaj, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Nidel Ayyad guilty on thirty-eight counts related to the bombing.
This event was an act of domestic terrorism only according to the definition that emphasizes the place of the event (on U.S. soil). The Arab identities and foreign citizenship of the convicted perpetrators would make this an act of international terrorism under other definitions.
Similarly, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the downing of the airplane over Pennsylvania, can be seen in this light. The ongoing investigation into 9/11 is primarily focused on an international terrorist network, especially Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.
Conspiracy theories have abounded with these WTC attacks. One proposed motivation for the attacks is the alleged conspiratorial tendencies of the Arab mentality. Daniel Pipes’s work on Arab paranoia stresses how conspiracy theories are a part of daily life in the Middle East. The antisemitic and anti-Western nature of these theories, according to some analysts, leads to extremist behavior.
A number of other conspiracy theories point to other sources. In the 1993 attack, the fact that an FBI informant had provided much of the damning evidence against the accused has led to the belief that the FBI agent was a provocateur; that is, someone who incited and provided the materials for the bombing.
In the 2001 attack, numerous theories abounded that the terror was a result of
- an inside job in the U.S. government designed to provoke a global war and domestic martial law; or
- a Mossad (the Israeli secret service) conspiracy to incite anti-Arab sentiment around the world and evoke support for Israel’s policies.
Some theories combined the two narratives, arguing that the purpose of the terrorist acts was to usher in a New World Order and perhaps the final Armageddon.
Oklahoma City and the Militias
A number of domestic terrorist acts occurred in the 1990s, including the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing and the continued bombings of the Unabomber (which led to the arrest of Ted Kaczinski). Along with these came the increasing threat of chemical and biological terrorism, which erupted in Japan with the 1996 Sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, and spilled over into the twenty-first century with the post-9/11 anthrax mailings.
But the event that dramatically propelled domestic terrorism and conspiracy theories into the public arena was the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In addition to the scale of the destruction (169 dead, including 19 children), what was significant about this event was the fact that it was done by U.S. citizens against other U.S. citizens.
Timothy J. McVeigh, a white Desert Storm veteran, was arrested and subsequently executed for the crime. During his trial, the prosecution stressed that a major motivation for the bombing was McVeigh’s conspiracy beliefs. Most significantly, McVeigh believed in a government conspiracy and cover-up in the 1993 destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
The David Koresh–led religious organization had lost eighty-seven members in a fiery end to a monthslong siege, when federal law-enforcement agents stormed the residence with tanks and CS gas. The date of the assault, 19 April 1993, was two years to the day before the Oklahoma City bombing.
Timothy McVeigh, an avid consumer of Waco conspiracy theories, became the exemplar for the dangerous results these beliefs could produce. His alleged brief experience with the militia movement propelled these armed groups into national prominence. While militias were never legally linked to the Oklahoma City bombing, much media scrutiny was placed on them, and the Patriot network in general.
This loose collection of disgruntled citizens included tax resisters, constitutionalists, white supremacists, Christian Identity members, rightto-bear-arms activists, and general antigovernment protestors. Conspiracy theories were often associated with the Patriot movement, especially theories that proposed that a New World Order was imminent.
The image of the conspiracy-obsessed militia member anchored the link between conspiracy beliefs and violent domestic terrorism. This association was spread by official government spokespeople, private watchdog organizations (such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Center on Hate and Extremism), think-tank experts, scholars, and even Hollywood films (like the 1999 film Arlington Road).
At the same time, there were plenty of conspiracy theories about the Oklahoma City bombing itself. Steven Jones, McVeigh’s lawyer, published a book-length account that claimed McVeigh was a foot soldier in a larger network of domestic and international terrorists. David Hoffman, in his book The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror (1998), provides the most thorough example of these theories.
Hoffman meticulously arranges the loose ends developed by other conspiracy theorists (including the two-blast theory, that there was more than one explosion recorded); the lack of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents in the building during the bombing; the ATF informant Carol Howe’s testimony; the eyewitness accounts of McVeigh accomplices; and numerous other details) into a broad account of why the bombing occurred.
Along with Adam Parfrey, Hoffman makes the argument that terrorism, to be effective, requires a claim of responsibility. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, and many militia groups condemned the act.
Like many Patriot members, Hoffman charges that the Murrah Building bombing was planned and executed by government insiders, in coordination with foreign agents, in order to turn popular support away from antigovernment groups and towards government institutions. According to this theory McVeigh was a patsy, similar to Lee Harvey Oswald in the Kennedy assassination. The bombing was pseudoterrorism, a pretext for the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act and the widespread curtailing of civil liberties.
This theory about the Oklahoma City bombing draws on longer standing theories about terrorism in general—namely the “strategy of tension.” The “strategy of tension,” it is argued, is a counterinsurgency tactic that involves staging violence in order to blame it on one’s enemy. The 1933 Reichstag fire, allegedly started by Nazi forces, was blamed on Communist groups to turn popular German support to the Nazi regime.
Operation Gladio, which took place primarily in Italy in the 1970s, involved government infiltration and provocation of leftist groups to commit acts of terror. Some conspiracy theories argue that many of the pretexts for the twentieth century’s wars (the sinking of the Lusitania and the USS Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Pearl Harbor) were deliberately engineered to garner popular support for going to war.