Is the Oregon armed standoff terrorism?

Despite all the legal opinions, academic papers and government policies, we still have a hard time deciding what is terrorism and what isn’t.  Was the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks a terrorist act? Was the 2015 attack on an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina?  Justin Bourque’s armed rampage in Moncton in 2014? Not always easy to tell, is it?

So, what do we make of the armed standoff in Oregon by a bunch of (pick one):

a) US patriots

b) self-styled patriots

c) anti-government activists

d) criminals

e) terrorists?

Again, it is not obvious what to call these people.  It does not help that they are a mixture of local residents with – perhaps – legitimate grievances against the government, those that stood with Cliven Bundy in a land dispute back in 2014 and at least one unhinged Islamophobic former soldier who shoots the Quran with his gun for fun (see story here).  To date, no violence has been committed and the only show of force has been the militants’ occupation of a federal wildlife centre.  Federal and local law enforcement are on scene but holding back for now.  Not much to go on is it?

Remember that acts of violence need three elements to be defined as terrorism.  Those three are: the use (or threatened use) of serious acts of violence; targeting non-combatants, and; violence committed for ideological reasons to force some kind of change of stance by the government.  With that in mind, does the incident in Harney County constitute terrorism?

I think it does and will try to explain using my three criteria.

First, there is no question that there is a real threat of serious violence.  The occupiers are heavily armed (then again, unfortunately, lots of groups are heavily armed in the US) and it is reasonable to assume that they will resort to using their weapons if and when they determine that violence is their only option.  Some have reportedly stated that they are willing to die at that centre (shades of martyrdom obsession?).

Second, we can justifiably say that their targets would be non-combatants.  The US is not in a state of war with these militants (no matter what the latter say) and I don’t think law enforcement and wildlife officials qualify as “combatants”.  Besides, given the ideology underlying these extremists (see next paragraph), it is likely that civilians could get killed as well.

Third, and most important, there is an extremist ideology driving the standoff.  People like Ammon Bundy (Cliven’s son) belong to an amorphous movement that believe the US government is the enemy because it has abandoned the principles of the Constitution, illegally interferes in the freedom of its people, and even intends to incarcerate large sections of the population in camps with the help of the UN/Zionists/Illuminati/black helicopters….  Yes, I agree that this sounds strange but the number of Americans who subscribe to this mishmash of conspiracy theories is not insignificant.  They go by a variety of names – Freemen on the Land, sovereign citizens, Oathkeepers, etc.  But they all hold tenaciously to their conviction that they are at war with their own government and that US history and mythology is on their side as they protect their God-given inalienable rights.  Non-government citizens who don’t support them as seen as cowards who do not deserve US citizenship.  The occupiers  in Oregon are trying to get the government to change its land-use policies.  By the way, we have a smaller set of like-minded individuals here in Canada.

It is thus pretty clear, at least to me, that these people are terrorists.  Nevertheless, the US government appears to have adopted the wise decision to sit back and wait on this one, as serious violence is only possible at this juncture. We don’t need another Waco or Ruby Ridge where the state’s heavy-handed use of force creates martyrs and confirms for the extremists that their wacko fantasies of government brutality are true.

Let the extremists have their time in the snows of Oregon.  I sincerely hope this incident ends without violence.  But regardless we will see more such events in the future since the warped ideology underpinning these people will continue to thrive.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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