June 10, 2011 | Daily Standard

Inverse False Alarms

THE FBI'S NATIONAL SPOKESMAN was already prepared to dismiss a connection to terrorism the day after ricin was found in a Las Vegas hotel room. Special Agent Richard Kolko told the press on Feb. 29 that the presence of ricin appeared unrelated to terrorism “based on the information gathered so far.” He made this announcement before any details about the incident hit the press–and when they did, it made the announcement seem premature, to say the least.

The following day, Las Vegas police revealed that they had discovered “general firearms” and an “anarchist-type textbook” with an entry on ricin marked two days before they found the ricin itself. Ricin has two basic uses: poisoning people and cancer research. Anarchist texts such as the infamous The Anarchist Cookbook couple instructions on building a variety of weapons with the advocacy of violence to bring about political change–which fits the classic definition of terrorism. No anarchist texts are known to contain instructions on how to conduct cancer research.

There is no question that a competent investigator presented with this set of facts would entertain the hypothesis that the ricin had been developed with an eye toward political violence. Yet according to CNN, even after those background facts became public, an internal law enforcement report stated that the FBI considered the ricin discovery “criminal in nature with no nexus to terrorism.” There is little reason to think that the FBI knows something we do not on this issue. Even as the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's conclusion about the lack of a terrorist link was being circulated by the media, deputy chief Kathy Suey admitted that law enforcement didn't “know an awful lot” about the 57-year-old man who wound up in critical condition after staying in the room where the ricin was found. “For the last 12 hours,” she said, “our efforts have been on the containment and cleanup of the area and areas where there could have been exposure. We are now going forward with an investigation.”

IT IS, OF COURSE, too early to declare that the Las Vegas incident was connected to terrorism. But law enforcement's announcement to the contrary was almost certainly premature–and is part of a larger pattern of officials dismissing acts of violence as unrelated to terrorism long before they are in a position to know.

The U.S. Code defines domestic terrorism as acts that endanger human life in violation of American criminal law, and that appear to be intended “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” So the defining factor that would classify an instance of violence as terrorism is the motivation behind it: A violent act is terrorism if its perpetrator intends it to intimidate American citizens or alter U.S. policies.

With that definition in mind, the pattern of law enforcement declaring violent incidents to be unrelated to terrorism before they have any way of knowing becomes clear.

THE PREEMINENT EXAMPLE of a premature announcement that a violent incident was unrelated to terrorism is also one of the few times that the FBI changed its tune. On July 4, 2002, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet opened fire at the Los Angeles International Airport's El Al ticket counter, killing two Israelis and wounding four other people before a security guard shot him dead. Two days later, FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin told the press that “there's nothing to indicate terrorism at this point,” and added that “we'd have to find some connections to a terrorist group” before doing so.

McLaughlin's reasoning was dead wrong: Connections to international terrorist groups are not a prerequisite for an act to be defined as terrorism. A report by federal investigators who thoroughly explored the Hadayet case revealed no links to international terrorist groups–but characterized the shooting as a terrorist act because Hadayet had virulent anti-Israel views and apparently hoped to influence U.S. policy toward the country. Though it took almost a year for the FBI's stance on the case to change, in April 2003 a Bureau spokesman said they agreed with the report's conclusion that the shooting fit “the definition of terrorism.”

SIMILAR EXAMPLES ABOUND. We outline them here not to argue that all of these incidents should be characterized as terrorism. Rather, our point is that in these cases, officials quickly declared that the violent incidents were not terrorism–at a time when no significant investigation had been performed, and when these announcements could not possibly be regarded as credible.

Tahmeed Ahmad, a Florida math teacher who had been on the federal terrorist watch list, was arrested in October 2007 after attacking the Homestead Air Reserve Base with vodka bottles that he intended to use as explosives and butcher knives. Despite the fact that he had screamed “Death to America” during the attack, and despite the fact that he told guards he wanted to kill soldiers, authorities immediately announced that this was not an act of terrorism. An FBI official told the press within two days of the attack that Ahmad simply wanted to “commit suicide by cop” (although a base spokesman did allow that “this was quite an unusual event”).

On July 26, 2006, Pakistani-American Naveed Afzal Haq opened fire at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one and wounding five. Before opening fire, he exclaimed, “I am a Muslim American, angry at Israel.” Almost immediately the FBI labeled the shootings a hate crime rather than a terrorist act, with Seattle's assistant special agent in charge of counterterrorism telling the press: “We believe it's a lone individual acting out his antagonism.”

On August 31, 2006, Omeed Aziz Popal hit about fourteen pedestrians in San Francisco with his black Honda SUV–ending his spree in front of a Jewish Community Center where he struck two people. Within hours of Popal's arrest, police officials said there was no evidence that he had intended to commit a terrorist act, even though an eyewitness heard Popal refer to himself as a “terrorist.” His self-description is of course not determinative–but it at least raises the question.

THESE EXAMPLES–AND there are others beyond them–demonstrate a pattern in which authorities announce that a violent act was not terrorism before they have had a chance to investigate. In all the cases cited above, there was reason to suspect that there may have been a terrorist motivation.

One mistake that authorities frequently make is assuming that an act only constitutes terrorism if it is connected to established networks. This assumption is echoed, for example, in Matt McLaughlin's comment following the Hadayet shooting that “we'd have to find some connections to a terrorist group.” Though terrorists connected to broader networks tend to be more competent and thus deadlier, the U.S. Code defines terrorism based on the intent rather than the perpetrator's connections. Moreover, experts have recognized the phenomenon of the “lone-wolf terrorist” who, by definition, is not part of a network.

But the FBI was eventually forced to correct its assessment in the Hadayet case, conceding that the incident was terrorism even though Hadayet was not part of a network. Clearly our law enforcement institutions are not ignorant on this point. So what else is going on?

We spoke with Jeff Breinholt, who served as the deputy chief of the Department of Justice's counterterrorism section and is currently the director of national security law at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. He said that he has noticed the tendency for authorities to reflexively proclaim violent acts unrelated to terrorism before they have a solid basis for doing so, and suggested that this may be a reaction to the charge that the government has been too overzealous with terror alerts. This may be part of the picture, but this pattern was seen even before 9/11 and the accompanying wave of terror alerts. Daniel Pipes has noted, for example, that “[t]he 1990 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane by the Islamist El Sayyid Nosair was initially ascribed by the police to 'a prescription drug for or consistent with depression.'”

Part of the reason may be that there is a particular stigma attached to terrorism that does not attach to other acts. Officials may be concerned that the idea that a terrorist act has occurred on U.S. soil–even one carried out by a lone wolf–would invoke feelings of uneasiness and fear. This stigma may also create concerns about commercial interests. In the most recent incident involving ricin, Las Vegas is a popular vacation destination–one that people may be less eager to visit if there are whispers of a terror plot involving the city.

WHATEVER THE REASON, the net effect is that this phenomenon erodes the credibility of official announcements. One of us has previously written about how the profusion of false alarms we experienced in late 2005 had a desensitizing effect on the public. There is likewise a perceptual cost to the opposite trend of “inverse false alarms.” It is in officials' best interest to maintain their credibility on pronouncements related to terrorism.