News from the Bush School

Domestic Terrorists’ Motives Vary, Says Homeland Security Authority

July 07, 2011

July, 6, 2011

Homegrown terrorists are making headlines — most recently in Bandera County, where the sheriff’s office issued a warning to citizens last month after the shooting death of an officer and in Hempstead, where a man awaits trial after attempting to aid al-Qaeda. These incidents — two of many in the past months — are acts that are individualistic and were spurred by dramatically different beliefs, a common occurrence in domestic terrorist attacks, says a Texas A&M authority on homeland security.

Danny Davis, director of the certificate program in homeland security at the Bush School of Government and Public Service who has more than two decades of national security experience, says having an informed public and understanding what makes these individuals tick are keys to thwarting future attacks.

But perhaps the most important point to remember about terrorism in general is that it is a tactic, says Davis.

“It’s not a cause, not a movement, not an enemy,” he says. “It’s a tactic, something people use. People try to use terrorism, to make things so ugly, to scare people so much that they hope to win their point.”

Advancing an ideology, whether that belief is political, philosophical or religious in nature, is the ultimate goal of a terrorist, whether that individual is acting in a group or alone and carries out those acts domestically or in foreign lands, Davis contends. While foreign terrorism tends to rely more on groups, such as al-Qaeda or Hamas, domestic terrorists commonly act alone — commonly referred to as “lone wolves.”

Since the early 1990s, the concept of leaderless resistance has served as the preferred method of operating for many domestic resistors, Davis adds. Choosing to work alone was partly driven by the increases in technology available to law enforcement officials.

“The strength in leaderless resistance and lone wolf tactics is that the actions of a single person, keeping his or her own council, is less liable to detection than the activities of a small cell or group of people acting outside the law,” he continues. “Domestic terrorism is very individualistic. One person thinks one thing, and he might have something in common with someone else, but they’re not a group. It’s a very loose association that moves along the same routes.”

Davis has penned a book about a few of these domestic movements. The Phinehas Priesthood: Violent Vanguard of the Christian Identity Movement discusses the various offshoots of right-wing leaderless resistance movements. Davis profiles several of these extremists, including Eric Rudoph, the Olympic Park bomber, and Gordon Kahl, an anti-tax protestor. To write the book, Davis interviewed many of these individuals personally and said the majority of these extremists are very intelligent people.

“These people are so opinionated that it’s hard to talk to them sometimes because they are so devout in what they believe,” he adds. “Although there are exceptions, the majority are not crazy. Anybody that thinks these types of people are lunatics is missing the boat.”

Though Davis’ book focuses on right-wing extremists like those individuals key in anti-tax or illegitimate government movements, the spectrum of ideologies embraced by domestic terrorists is broad. For example, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, embraced radical Islam before being charged with killing 13 people and wounding 29 more in 2009’s Fort Hood shooting. Still other domestic terrorists take up more left-wing causes like animal rights and environmental issues; these individuals cause millions of dollars in damages to property and products ever year, Davis says.

While the motivation behind an attack may differ, what many domestic terrorists do have in common, however, is a trigger — also known as a stressor — that causes the individual to forward his or her beliefs with action. Such was the case with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, explains Davis, who was compelled to act on his anti-government opinions after the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.

The public has become more diligent and more aware of terrorist attacks at home and abroad since 9/11, says Davis. Domestically, law enforcement monitors the Internet, watches gatherings of resistance-minded elements and infiltrates harmful groups; overseas, clandestine operations are hunting enemies abroad, he adds.

“We’ve gotten better at foiling them (planned attacks),” he explains. “We’re going after them, taking aggressive action. We’re much more proactive than we were. With the distinct possibilities of weapons of mass destruction getting into terrorists’ hands, it’s just a matter of trying to keep everyone safe.”

The Bush School is doing its part, says Davis. The homeland security program, a 15-credit-hour graduate level certificate program, features classes on terrorism, terrorists and emergency management that are designed for individuals who are employed in the realms of law enforcement, public safety and security management.

For more information about the Bush School’s homeland security certificate program, visit