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When To Call Attacks 'Terrorism'


We want to take a step back now for a bit more perspective on this weekend's bombings in New York and New Jersey and that mall attack in Minnesota, so we're joined now by Daniel Byman. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. That's a research institution in Washington, D.C. He also teaches at Georgetown. Professor Byman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DANIEL BYMAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, one question right now in all of these cases is whether or not they were acts of terrorism. For example, in New York City, the city authorities were initially reluctant to call it terrorism but state officials said that it was. So I wanted to ask you - how is this defined? And do you think it matters what we call it?

BYMAN: The question of what we call it does matter tremendously. And we've seen a shift where people were often initially reluctant to call things terrorism until they knew for sure. And now they start out assuming it's terrorism and then work backwards and say it may or may not have been terrorism. And it does matter tremendously because of the resources involved. If it's a crime that's seen as a disturbed individual, then local police will handle it. If it's a crime that's seen as someone who might be linked to an international terrorist group, you get the vast federal U.S. national security bureaucracy as well as tremendous political attention. And that changes the whole picture.

MARTIN: As a person who studies terrorism among your other responsibilities, what strikes you about all this?

BYMAN: Well, all these attacks are different. And the biggest one, of course, in terms of scale potentially is the New York attack. But what's striking is that so far at least, none of them appear to be linked to an international terrorist group in the sense that it was top-down and directed. So what we've seen a lot in the last year are individuals who are inspired by international groups and might want to act in their name. And that's really what I'm looking for right now.

MARTIN: What else do you think authorities will be looking at? And I think no one is willing to say at the moment that these are linked in any way except for the fact that they all took place on the same day.

BYMAN: They took place on the same day, but they are obviously different locations, so what people will look for are groups overseas that might have tried to inspire attacks on a particular day. They'll look at bomb design or they'll look at the actions of the individuals in question and try to find similarities. But at times, of course, you know, things are at chance and the timing is random, so they'll try to factor that in as well.

MARTIN: As a person who researches and analyzes these incidents, what are you going to be looking at and thinking about in the coming days?

BYMAN: I'll be focused very much on the international question. So first, was there any top-down direction from an international group? And then second, was there any contact at all with anyone internationally, someone who might have, say, returned from Iraq or Syria? And then last, I'll be eager to find out the mental state of some of those involved. What we've seen recently are people who have some degree of mental disturbance who grab onto the Islamic State name as a way of grabbing legitimacy for what would otherwise be described as an act of a crazy person.

MARTIN: That's Daniel Byman. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He's also a professor at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for joining us, professor.

BYMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.