Calling a Crime “Inspired By” Terrorism Is a Useless Distinction

By David A. Siegel.


A scene from near the Pulse Night Club in Orlando. Photo by Adam Y. Zhang.

Over at HuffPost Joe Young recently argued that it is important to distinguish between “directed by” and “inspired by” when doing our post-mortem after an attack like that on the Pulse Night Club in Orlando. I agree that the distinction is important, but would go further. Knowing that terrorism was directed by a group is important. Believing it to be inspired by a group is not. We’d be better off dispensing with the distinction of “inspired by” terrorism entirely.

In the aftermath of a horror like the Orlando mass shooting, we often turn to religious or political ideologies as explanation. For example, we wonder whether the shooter’s last-minute pledge to ISIS must have signified the real reason he committed such a heinous act. Doing so makes some sense – certainly your beliefs influence how you treat others. They also help determine whom you would target should you desire to treat others with hatred and violence.

But a focus on ideology ignores two things. First, ideology alone does not kill. Nearly all people hewing to the major world ideologies will never cause physical harm to anyone. Ideologies that do actively preach violence tend to be so warped from the mainstream as to be unrecognizable. Comparing these warped “radical” offshoots to mainstream religious or political ideologies serves only to alienate those in the mainstream, with little benefit in terms of trying to stop violence.

For example, Islamist terrorist groups associate themselves with Islam, despite hewing to beliefs so radically divergent from those in the mainstream as to be seen as a perversion of the faith. They do so because eliding major religious differences in order to claim a shared religious identity gains them recruits. It also spurs the repression of Muslims. Provoking state repression has been a common strategy of terrorist groups of all ideologies – its goal is to alienate from the state those who might otherwise oppose the groups and draw support from those who might otherwise be indifferent (e.g., IS’s grey zone strategy). The reason to avoid using phrases like “radical Islam” is not political correctness; it’s to avoid aiding terrorist groups’ recruitment.

Second, focusing on ideology is not practically helpful. We do not and cannot legislate against ideologies. We won’t shut down the Internet or prohibit conversations or destroy all our books. More to the point, we can’t stop people from thinking horrible thoughts. The fact is, the ideologies of those who commit violence are not really of interest. Ideologies supporting violence have changed over time. The historical record does not provide a singular ideology of violence, any more than it does a singular set of personality traits leading to violence. And that’s despite a great deal of effort put into finding one. We’d do better just ignoring the ideologies claimed by those who would do violence. Doing so would give adherents of such ideologies less incentive to commit violence to earn notoriety and make recruitment more difficult for the groups. Most importantly, though, this would allow us to focus on practicable ways to thwart violence.

This is where enters the difference between terrorism that is coordinated by a group and that inspired by a group or groups. Coordinated terrorism involves communication, the transfer of resources, and coordination among members of a group of some size. All of these are security risks to the group. Established methods of law enforcement and intelligence can be used to take advantage of these risks to degrade and destroy the group in order to minimize the damage it can do. Knowing that an attack was coordinated by a terrorist group is therefore important. It dictates concrete, lawful ways to combat the threat that often have little to do with the ideology of the sponsoring group.

Now consider terrorism merely inspired by a group. Here, people radicalize based on someone else’s words or deeds and then commit an attack; however, they receive no material help from an outside group. What do we gain from knowing that the attack was inspired by some ideology? Even if we could determine, somehow, that the attacker was motivated by this ideology and is not merely using it to justify his actions after the fact, it’s unclear what we could do about it. As noted, we’re not going to prohibit speech. Even if we tried, technology would eventually cause us to fail. We might be able to observe when people view or read or listen to radical speech. But, short of a future with Big Brother over our shoulders, this is not going to be effective in identifying potential terrorists before they’re on government’s radar.

So, short of direct contact between a potential terrorist and a known inciter of violence, there’s little practical benefit to understanding the attacker’s ideology – and no reason to bother distinguishing “inspired by” terrorism from any other crime. It makes for a good story, sure, but offers little else. Instead, let’s save our concern about the looming threat of terrorist groups for political violence actually coordinated by these groups. And rely on law enforcement, community goodwill, and reasonable restrictions on weapons availability to minimize the consequences of being “inspired” to commit the crime of murder.

A previous version of this post can be found at the News and Observer.


  • Quite reasonable, but remember that there is a class of people whose power, income, and social status depend on there being evils to suppress. Expanding the repute of the evils is advertising for this class. So they vigorously encourage language which expands the repute of the evils. ‘Inspired by terrorism’ is an element of that sort of language. Its function is not to deal with a problem through identification and analysis, but to enhance the business prospects of a particular class.

  • Hm, my impression is that the debate is too focused on the Orlando or “inspired by Islamism” case. I think it is very important to acknowledge that for example the murder of Joe Cox took place in an atmosphere of hate. For whatever concrete reasons, dispositions or triggers led to the murder. It would not have taken place in another societal situation.

    There is a very lengthy debate on the necessity to identify (and fight) hate crimes as such. Hate murder must clearly be understood as the extreme end of a lengthy development. No one wakes up one morning and decides to kill. And no society decides one morning that is is okay to kill (jews, migrants, LGBTs, liberals etc..)

    So obviously to fight hate ideology and hate speech is necessary. It is at the core of any political concept to fight violence.

    Two examples from Germany:

    In the last decades Germany experienced three waves of rightwing crimes and terror including murder: The wave of terror attacks against asylum seekers and their homes (mainly arson) in the beginning of the nineties, The establishing of strong Neonazi communities and so called migrant free zones in many party of Eastgermany until 2000 and the last year wave of arsoning and pogroms against asylum seekers. All were stopped mainly politically, by reinstating morale hegemony. In 1993 civil society organised “candle-chains” with ten thousands gathering on the streets. In 2000 Chancellor Schröder called for a “Rebellion of the Decent” and in 2015 Angela Merkel gave a strong signal by opening the German borders (and hundred thousands of Germans rushed to help the incoming refugees).

    Between 2000 and 2006 nine migrants were killed with the same weapon, but the police failed to identify this series (and two bombings and another killing) as “inspired by hate ideology”. They were looking in the wrong direction (and most likely the secret service was even covering the NSU underground cell). By failing to realise that the murders were indeed inspired by hate ideology the police was unable to fight the crime (until it was disclosed by chance in 2011).

    So in my humble opinion: To fight crime “inspired by ideology” we must fight ideology. It is at least from a German perspective the most practical way.

    (and to resist the beginnings (Wehret den Anfängen) is the most important lesson from our dark past.)

  • Dave,

    Thanks for the post! Good stuff. I mostly agree. Knowing whether an attack is directed or not is the key. Inspiration is tricky for all the reasons you note. One that should be mentioned is that when I think about inspiration I mean more of a demonstration/learning effect.

    In other words, we saw lots of skyjackings post PLO not necessarily because folks cared about the ideology but because they saw it worked and were “inspired”. Same goes for suicide attacks. As you might guess, I place less emphasis on ideology that most pundits, but I do believe the distinction matters for CT as one can be disrupted, and the other is quite difficult.

    • Hi Joe,

      Ah, I see. I agree with the main point, though I tend to call that sort of “inspiration” tactical diffusion instead, and was referring merely to ideological bent.

  • I agree, there is little practical difference between, say, Orlando and the shooting of theater patrons in Aurora, Colorado. Some say that Orlando proves that ISIS’s capacity to do harm remains undiminished despite its battlefield losses. I imagine if the gunman had declared himself inspired by the struggle of the 19th-century abolitionist John Brown, then one could conclude that being dead for over a century and a half had not diminished Brown’s capacity. In any case, we will have to deal with events like Orlando using normal domestic police methods, something entirely separate from any strategy directed against ISIS in the Middle East.

    • Exaggeration & fueling…the simple criminal act which could be rejected by any human being on eatth is a common feelings..n a common sense.
      But using any single incident by those who already have a preimptive agenda waiting at each corner of yhe globe to fuel it via their huge Oligarch media.
      I think should be debunked. .and rejectrd by all wise people seeking wisdom & peace.

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