Some officials hesitant to label bombings 'terrorism'

Some officials hesitant to label bombings 'terrorism'
© Getty Images

Officials are divided on whether to call the bombings in New York and New Jersey “terrorism,” resulting in a series of subtly mixed messages.

Govs. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) and Chris Christie (R-N.J.) have both used the term, but investigators have not yet publicly labeled their probe as a terrorism investigation.

President Obama on Monday morning referred to “the investigation” into the bombings and urged the media “to refrain from getting out ahead of the investigation.” While he was explicit that a separate stabbing attack in Minnesota on Saturday night is being investigated as a terrorist attack, he referred only to investigators’ attempts to “get to the bottom of what happened” in New York and New Jersey.

“We’re not going to jump to conclusions; we’re not going to offer you easy answers,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said during a press conference on Sunday morning. “We know there was a bombing … but we have a lot more work to do to say what kind of motivation was behind this. Was it a political motivation? Was it personal motivation? That much we do not know.”

On Monday, de Blasio said the investigation is "definitely leaning" toward terrorism.

Others, however, have been more explicit.

“Prosecutors will be careful because they want to be sure they have all the elements of a crime, but you set off two bombs in NYC — that’s terrorism,” Cuomo said Monday morning. “With an intent to cause damage and danger and intimidate a civilian population. That by definition is terrorism.”

“The United States suffered terrorist attacks in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota yesterday,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

A massive manhunt for a suspect in the bombings, 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami, ended in a shootout Monday morning.

De Blasio declined to detail how Rahami might have been involved in the Saturday evening blast in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, which injured at least 29 people.

For investigators to label the incident an act of terrorism, according to U.S. law, it must be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence government policy through intimidation.

From there, an attack can be defined either as domestic terrorism or international terrorism.

But former FBI officials say the bureau will be cautious about levying a terrorism designation too hastily.

“We can sit here and speculate to a fair degree of certainty that it was probably an act of terrorism, but the bureau is going to be a little more laid-back until they can determine whether it meets that definition,” said Lewis Schiliro, former assistant special agent-in-charge of terrorism in the FBI’s New York office.

“They’re going to look for any communication he may have had with any foreign terrorist group and determine whether he was directly radicalized or whether he was self-radicalized,” Schiliro said. “Once they do that, then they will clearly define it as an act of terrorism.”

Key to making that call will be determining the motivation behind the attacks.

All of the definitions of terrorism in U.S. code “highlight the motivations of the person responsible for the criminal act,” Harold Pohlman, a professor of political science and public policy at Dickinson College, said in an email.

“What they’re doing now is gathering evidence that could be used at trial. What you don’t want to create is a lot of inconsistent statements that could be used later on to impeach the government’s case,” Schiliro said.

The rise of so-called lone-wolf attacks has complicated that determination. Onlookers have watched with concern as attacks inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) carried out by individuals with no known connection to the group have blossomed across the U.S. and Europe. 

In Minnesota, where on Saturday night a man rampaged through a St. Cloud shopping mall and stabbed nine people, the story is much clearer: The FBI on Sunday afternoon told reporters that the incident is being investigated as “a potential act of terrorism.”

Twelve hours after the Minnesota attack, ISIS claimed responsibility, tweeting that the attacker was “a soldier of the Islamic State” who “carried out the operation in response to the citizens of countries belonging to the crusader coalition.”

CNN on Monday reported that authorities suspect there may be a terrorist cell at work in New York and New Jersey, but ISIS — or any other terrorist group — has not yet taken responsibility for the detonations.

“I suspect there might be a foreign connection. That’s what we’re hearing today as the investigation goes on,” Cuomo said Monday morning.