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What is terrorism?

By Henry Schuster

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.


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Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Acts of terror
Warren Jeffs

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (CNN) -- I am out west in Utah, Nevada and Arizona looking for the other fundamentalist polygamist on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. The one whose name isn't Osama bin Laden. It's Warren Jeffs.

When I talk to folks -- be they former members of Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) or investigators -- and tell them my normal beat is terrorism, they invariably reply by saying that what Jeffs is accused of doing is itself terrorism.

Sam Brower is a private investigator who has been looking into Jeffs and his organization for the past three years. He has helped plaintiffs in civil suits against Jeffs (at least two civil suits remain unresolved) and has spent time and effort trying to understand the man.

Brower compares Jeffs and his church to Afghanistan's former rulers, the Taliban.

The followers dress and act in a certain way, Brower says, and Jeffs controls the women and makes them subservient. This is all wrapped around Jeffs' version of a fundamentalist Mormonism. Jeffs was never a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the church has no association with Jeffs' movement. Moreover, the Mormon church discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890.

Brower says he believes that Jeffs is a terrorist, but that his brand of terrorism "is directed at his own people."

Girls are taken out of school and instructed to obey and serve their husbands. It's said that some are forced into marriages at the age of 13.

Carolyn Jessop says she grew up in the church and was married off into a polygamous family at the age of 18. She left FLDS three years ago after 35 years in the sect, which she said was all about Jeffs' mind control.

She's not alone in her complaints and listening to the stories, you can't help but be sickened.

Define your terms

But what got Warren Jeffs on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list was not terrorism; it was unlawful flight from prosecution.

An FBI spokesman explained that the Bureau's involvement was in aid of state charges against Jeffs and are connected to the marriages he allegedly conducted for underage girls. He is accused of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. Jeffs is also charged as an accomplice to rape.

All this makes his alleged acts horrible -- and means people were and undoubtedly still are terrorized -- but in the eyes of the law, it's not terrorism.

Defining just what terrorism is can get an argument started pretty quickly. For example, the Israelis will define it one way, Arab countries another. Bin Laden clearly has a different definition of terrorism than the U.S. government.

There are legal definitions, including what the U.S. Criminal Code says about using violence for political ends. And then there are statistical definitions, such as the one the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) uses to count terrorist acts around the world, which we looked at recently (Terror by the Numbers).

The center's definition of terrorism includes "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

By that standard, so far what Warren Jeffs has done isn't terrorism.

So, what is terrorism?

Terror in the 'Pit'

Is it terrorism when a young man -- police say by his own admission -- deliberately drives his vehicle into a crowd of students with the alleged intent of killing them? Police say the young man said he wanted to "avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world."

start quotePeople who fight in the cause of Allah are not guilty if and when they have no intention of killing more persons among their enemies than their enemies have killed among the believers.end quote
-- Mohammad Reza Taheri-azar, accused of attempted murder

That's what Mohammad Reza Taheri-azar was accused of doing on March 3, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Nine students were injured.

Taheri-azar, a native of Iran, outlined his thinking in a series of letters sent from jail to the University of North Carolina's student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.

The paper says, in one letter, Taheri-azar wrote, "I was aiming to follow in the footsteps of one of my role models, Mohammad Atta, one of the 9/11/01 hijackers, who obtained a doctorate degree." This was an apparent reference to Taheri-azar's intention to pursue a psychology degree.

That was before he allegedly drove a Jeep into the crowd of students the afternoon of March 3, plowing through a pedestrian area on the Chapel Hill campus known as the Pit.

Police say Taheri-azar admits the attack but, according to one letter, he said he is not guilty of a crime because "people who fight in the cause of Allah are not guilty if and when they have no intention of killing more persons among their enemies than their enemies have killed among the believers."

This column isn't about his guilt or innocence, but whether what he might have done can be considered terrorism (Taheri-azar is facing attempted murder charges in North Carolina state court).

According to the NCTC definition, it would seem so (again, if he is convicted). His alleged reason and planning goes to the notion of "premeditated politically motivated violence."

But I got a different take from Dr. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and the author of "Understanding Terror Networks," a groundbreaking book that examined why young men joined al Qaeda and associated terror networks.

Sageman studied Taheri-azar's letters at my request. He's done this sort of thing as an expert witness hundreds of times, except he usually has access to the patient.

Sageman believes, from what he's read, the young man was convinced of what he was doing and why he did it. The real issue, in Sageman's professional opinion, is Taheri-azar's mental condition. To Sageman, the detached tone of the letters makes Taheri-azar seem "decontextualized."

He says those who act alone tend to have more mental disorders than those who act in groups, where there is some premium on being able to have social interaction.

Sageman stops short of calling the Chapel Hill attack an act of terrorism, but then offers his own definition of the term: "terrorism is propagated by the deed and is designed to inspire young people to join the movement."

Which leaves another vexing question when defining terrorism -- if a person carries out what he believes to be an act of terrorism/political violence and he is found mentally unstable, does that make it terrorism?

A final, worrying, note

Back to Warren Jeffs for a moment. Terrorist or not, the threat of violence is something very much on the minds of those who are looking for him.

They keep saying they don't want another Waco, when a federal standoff with members of the Branch Davidians in 1993 ended in violence.

But one young man, Travis, who also fled the FLDS, gave me sobering and scary insight, talking about members of his own family who were still in the sect.

"I know two of my brothers would kill themselves if Warren told them to."

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