Skip to main content

What Would Make the Los Angeles Airport Bombs 'Terrorism'?

Opinionated bombers.
  • Author:
  • Updated:


Four bombs found smuggled into a restricted area of Los Angeles International Airport had no links to terrorism, a detective told the L.A. Times. How can bombs at an airport, two of which exploded, not be classified as "terrorism?"

Because we still can't define terrorism, apparently.

"The search for a universal, precise definition of terrorism has been challenging for researchers and practitioners alike," the National Institute of Justice, which is the federal Department of Justice's research body, argues on its website. "Practitioners" presumably means law enforcement agents, and not terrorists confused about whether they are, in fact, terrorists after all. The office's website, and much of that office, is closed for the moment because of the government shutdown; you can check here whenever they open for business again.

The DOJ textual skittishness contrasts with the Central Intelligence Agency, which cites the government's law book, the Federal Code of Regulations:

The Intelligence Community is guided by the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d): The term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents. The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country. The term “terrorist group” means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

That first section, the part about "politically motivated violence perpetrated ... by subnational groups or clandestine agents," would seem to be the reason the Los Angeles detective told the local journalists he had found no "nexus to terrorism." The unusual phrase implies a need to find connections to known political organizations.

This is where the discussion gets odd. Was the Boston Marathon bombing "terrorism" under the C.I.A. definition? Two brothers, apparently part of no larger command structure, acting on vague inspiration, feels like a stretch using that language.

It certainly passes the old test for pornography, though: You know it when you see it. Take that way and the outcome seems to play into the definition, more than the intent. If the L.A. bombs have "no nexus to terrorism," but the devices had managed to get loaded onto a plane, blow a hole in it at altitude, and take the aircraft down, then would it become terrorism? Again, not by the CIA definition. Thankfully, that didn't happen today in L.A.

What's the Federal Bureau of Investigations have to say about this? The LAX case was a domestic event, so would be their bailiwick. Citing a different U.S. code than the CIA, the FBI argues that for an act to be "terrorism" usually requires an intent to influence government policy. ("Pull your troops out of Country X or we'll blow up a commercial jet.")

A bit of language in the FBI definition skirts a political motivation, arguing that terrorism can be any violent acts which "appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." In that case the act has to meet two other thresholds, however, which are to be dangerous to human life while violating state or federal law, and occurring inside U.S. territory. The LAX bombs would seem to meet that threshold. But it would be necessary to describe some details of the attempted intimidation or coercion. We don't know any of those details yet.

MI5, the British security service, also cites a political motivation as key, but notes "there is no generally agreed definition of terrorism internationally."

So the L.A. detective appears to have made the key point, legally speaking. If there is no "nexus" to terrorism, then it means the bombs in LAX were not politically motivated. They were just normal bombs at an airport, not terrorist bombs.