Paul Anthony Ciancia, the 23-year-old who shot TSA agents at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), made his first court appearance this month. Ciancia is charged with murder and commission of violence at an airport. Since the shooting on November 1, news outlets have reported on the attack itself, on Ciancia’s mental state and on methods for improving security. Yet, in the extensive coverage of the shooter’s actions, there is one word that is conspicuously and erroneously absent: terrorist.

In the 1964 Supreme Court case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart was challenged to define pornography, uttering the now famous statement: “I know it when I see it.” This seems an apt approach to determining whether a violent act can be described as terrorism. We know it when we see it, don’t we? Evidently not, as despite clear evidence, Ciancia has largely escaped characterization as a homegrown terrorist.

The indictment against Ciancia indicates that he “committed the offense after substantial planning and premeditation to cause the death of a person and to commit an act of terrorism” (emphasis added). Yet, this specific reference has not captured much attention, which is unfortunate. Terrorism is a tactic, not a philosophy. It is not restricted to any one extremist group (such as al Qaeda). It is employed by a diverse collection of violent actors who seek to leverage public fear, as well as infrastructure and economic disruption, to draw attention to their message and harm the target of their ideological ire. Defining terrorism and identifying instances of it remains a difficult, if not somewhat subjective, task. It is often the topic of discussions I have with colleagues around the world. Nevertheless, there are hallmarks of a terrorist act, and Ciancia’s attack checks every box.

The Elements of Terror

What constitutes a terror attack? In my new book, Homegrown Violent Extremism, I set forth three primary elements common to terrorism:

  1. The essence of the activity is the use or threatened use of violence, largely to instill fear.
  2. The targets – either individuals or facilities – are civilian, not military.
  3. The attack is ideologically motivated and includes a political objective.

The attack at LAX fits these criteria to a T:

Violence and Fear: After his arrest, investigators discovered a hand-written, signed note among Ciancia’s possessions. According to media reports, the note reads that Ciancia “made the conscious decision to try to kill” TSA employees, seeking to instill fear. This reveals that Ciancia was not driven by momentary rage. His targets were the individuals representing what he perceives to be his ideological enemy (i.e., the U.S. government), and his goal was not simply to kill but to terrorize.

Civilian Targets: While TSA screeners are federal employees, they do not constitute a portion of the U.S. armed forces. TSA employees could be deemed part of the U.S. national defense, but unlike a fighting military force, airport screeners are unarmed. Further, Ciancia sought his targets in a public location, sowing fear and panic among the thousands of passengers at the airport. Violence may have been directed specifically at TSA (as numerous accounts have established), but the shooting generated fear amongst the civilians present, making them tangential victims of the attack.

Ideologically Motivated: In Ciancia’s note, there is a clear distain for law enforcement. He wrote that his intention was to kill “TSA and pigs.” Specifically targeting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), he wrote, “FU Napolitano.” This hatred is not arbitrary; it sits within a larger extremist ideology, which Ciancia seems to embrace. References to “fiat currency” and “NWO” (which likely stands for New World Order) are hallmarks of the Patriot movement, an extremist and sometimes violent group of anti-government ideologues.

An Anti-Government Agenda

In police work, we would call Ciancia’s reference to the New World Order (NWO) a “clue.” His motivation is aligned with the NWO conspiracy theory, which asserts that elite leaders are striving to create a global “one-world government,” yielding a socialist society and shrinking civil liberties. In the United States, the conspiracy’s narrative posits that federal agencies (such as TSA) are (wittingly or unwittingly) helping to establish the feared global government. A part of this conspiracy, so adherents believe, was the creation of the Federal Reserve and use of money not backed by gold (i.e., fiat currency).

The NWO conspiracy and related beliefs are largely associated with the numerous extremist individuals and groups that fall under the umbrella of the Patriot movement. Sovereign Citizens, militia members, and Christian Identity adherents are just a few examples of the kinds of extremists that endorse this anti-government ideology. Ciancia’s attack comes at a time when Patriot groups are growing rapidly in number and ambition. Today, they are active in all 50 states, and fueled by the election of the first African-American President, the number of Patriot and militia organizations in the United States has grown to more than 1,200 (nearly 10 times the number during the George W. Bush Administration).

For years, these groups have used terrorist tactics in furtherance of their agenda. For example, since 2000, members of the Sovereign Citizens movement have murdered six uniformed police officers. Few attacks are more demonstrative than those targeting local law enforcement. Excluding the 9/11 attacks, this lethal level of violence in the United States is unmatched by nearly every other extremist movement, including Muslim Identity groups.

Investigators are looking for direct connections between Ciancia and known extremist organizations, but even if links are not ultimately found, this would not be surprising. “Leaderless resistance” is a trademark strategy of Patriot organizations, which are not generally disposed towards large gatherings or group coordination. What is more, the significant amount of literature online means that Ciancia could have embraced the Patriot ideology clandestinely and without influence from other extremists. The Tsarnaev brothers, who planted bombs at the Boston Marathon, conducted their extremist education in a similar way, which has been termed “self-radicalization.” This virtual approach may have been Ciancia’s experience as well.

Grasping the Growing Threat

Whether Ciancia is pronounced a terrorist will not hinder severe punishment for his crimes. He faces a first degree murder charge, which could bring the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Punishment aside, the reason it is important to view Ciancia as a terrorist is because it gives important insight into (and warning about) the growing threat from homegrown extremist groups, many of which mobilize behind an anti-government ideology. Ciancia’s attack also underscores the futility of “profiling” potential attackers. As I wrote in Homegrown Violent Extremism, there is no terrorist profile. It is not possible to consistently anticipate who will emerge from the radicalization pathway as a violent actor and who will be content to simply hold extremist views.

Our national denial of homegrown threats, as well as the notion of “otherism” as it relates to the origin and motivation of extremist attacks, suggests that had Ciancia’s note mentioned a Muslim Identity ideology (such as the Narrative, espoused by al Qaeda and its affiliates), his branding as a terrorist would have been instantaneous. Changing the ideological motivation does not change the nature of the activity. Driven by an extremist ideology, he created fear through the use of violence against civilian targets. That is terrorism.

If the term terrorism continues to be relegated to describing foreign or Muslim Identity actors, the United States will be challenged to grasp and address the complexity and multifaceted nature of the violent extremist threat. Detecting and deterring homegrown violent extremists demands that we take a more inclusive view of what constitutes terrorism. Amending how we talk about Ciancia is an appropriate place to start.

Dr. Erroll G. Southers writes about homegrown violent extremism, radicalization, and aviation and transportation security. He is the Director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California (USC) Safe Communities Institute. He is also a Professor of the Practice of Governance at USC's Sol Price School of Public Policy, and he is the Managing Director of the Counter-Terrorism and Infrastructure Protection Division of the international security consulting firm TAL Global Corporation. Read More