(Yes, I've been away from here for a while. Whether I come back beyond this diary remains to be seen but isn't important.)
This diary is in response to recent diaries by Lilith Gardener and Hugh Jim Bissell about "stochastic terrorism," an idea I originated in 2011.
Yes it does have a specific definition.
No it's not a generic slur. Nor is it embodied in law, though I wish it was.
Yes there is follow-up about one of the more egregious cases.
More about all of which below.
I was very specific about this in the original article, as was quoted by others subsequently:
"Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable."
Let's parse this out:
Stochastic: A dictionary definition will do; the following is pulled from my desktop dictionary: "randomly determined; having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely."
In essence, a phenomenon is "stochastic" when it can be predicted in only an approximate manner, for example the likelihood of tornados occurring during certain types of storm conditions. Forecasters can be pretty sure a tornado will hit, but they don't know exactly where, until it begins to form.
Terrorism: The FBI definition is the current standard for US law enforcement. It boils down to "the use of criminal threats or acts of violence as the means to ideological ends."
Mass communications: Media that are intended for broadcast to the general public or a definable large audience.
Lone wolf: An individual who has no obvious connections to an organized group, and carries out an ideologically-motivated violent act against one or more victims.
The words "terrorism" and "terrorist" as I use them, are not intended as the kind of generic slur or insult that Hugh Jim Bissell finds objectionable. I agree with Hugh that these words should not be used in that manner, because doing so muddies the waters, and also renders the words meaningless in the manner of swearwords that are over-used. When I use these words, I'm using them per the law enforcement definition, to refer to specific types of unlawful acts.
There's one thing I'd add to the definition today: the words "deliberate or reckless." Thus it would change to:
"Stochastic terrorism is the deliberate or reckless use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable."
When "not-terrorism" is terrorism.
Ordinarily an unlawful killing of one victim is a murder. When the murder is motivated by animus toward an identifiable group (e.g. race, religion, etc.), it's a hate crime. When there is a small number of victims, it's a multiple murder (multiple counts of murder are charged). Ordinarily a terrorist act involves the potential for, or actuality of, a larger number of casualties, such as detonating a bomb in a place where people are likely to be present.
Now let's see how this plays out in light of the definition. The case described below is fictitious.
An Al Qaeda (AQ) spokesperson sends out email to everyone on a secret mailing list, encouraging them to go to a specific URL to watch a video. The video encourages AQ followers to each go out and kill one person, and do their best to avoid getting caught. What do we call that?
Over the course of a month there are 30 suspicious killings. Each of the individual acts is a murder. If a murder is accompanied by a communique from the killer that refers to the victim as a member of a group (e.g. race, religion, etc.), it's a hate crime.
At the beginning all we have are 30 murders, and 30 local law enforcement agencies across the US each seeking a suspect. At this point, law enforcement is still unaware of the AQ video.
Since each murder has one victim, each of these is not yet considered a terrorist act. So far it's not a conspiracy either, because there is no sign of coordination between the actors. The elements of collaboration upon which the definition of conspiracy depends, are not present.
Next, NSA routinely intercepts the video during a sweep of AQ-associated sites and addresses. They routinely back-track the IP addresses of the people who went to the AQ site and clicked on the video. For example 300 people went to the particular URL and watched the video. Further investigation finds that each of those people received an email telling them to go to that URL, and that the email was sent to a total of 1,000 recipients.
Meanwhile, fifteen suspects have been arrested over the course of the month, via normal police detective work such as tracing weapons to their owners, matching license plates seen on security camera videos, etc. Each suspect is charged with one count of murder.
In each case, local police routinely search their homes and come across evidence linking each suspect to Al Qaeda. The moment any such evidence is found, the FBI is called in: this is standard procedure even before a pattern emerges to link the crimes.
At this point each local agency is looking at one murder with a suspect who appears to have AQ sympathies. The FBI is looking at fifteen murders with suspects who all appear to have Al Qaeda sympathies, but nothing linking them to each other. Further investigation confirms that these fifteen suspects indeed had no communication with each other and did not know each other. There are also still fifteen unsolved murders that are suspicious in a way that makes them appear to be connected to this pattern.
Pretty quickly the various threads of evidence get assembled, including the NSA data, and the complete picture emerges as to what has happened: the AQ spokesperson emailed 1,000 people, 300 of them went to the URL mentioned in the email and presumably watched all or part of the video, and each of the 15 people who are presently in custody is one of the 300 who went to the URL. At this stage there are still 15 unidentified suspects on the loose.
By now, the President is probably being briefed, the FBI is coordinating with the local police departments, various intel agencies are involved, and all of this is being done in utmost secrecy. Investigation of every person who received the email identifies the remaining 15 suspects, and additional evidence links them to the remaining 15 murders. Warrants are issued and the remaining 15 suspects are arrested.
Now what do we have? In all likelihood each of the 30 suspects is now going to be charged with a terrorist act due to their AQ links. The AQ spokesperson is also going to be charged as well, though he's hiding out in another country, so good luck dragging him back here to face charges. But in each case the defense attorneys are going to argue for dismissal of the terrorism charges, because each suspect is only charged with a single murder, and "merely watching a video" is arguably "an innocent activity in and of itself."
That's how stochastic terrorism works.
Now let's go back and change a few things. Remove the elements of secret email and secret URL, and have AQ post their video on YouTube and 300,000 people watch it. Nothing substantial has changed except that the investigation would have become two decimal places more difficult. All 15 initial suspects watched the video, so now the rest of the 300,000 viewers have to be checked out to see if any of them might be one of the remaining 15 suspects. In the end, the 15 remaining suspects are found among the 300,000 who watched the video.
Now let's change one more thing. The AQ spokesperson has good legal advice, so the video does not say "each person watching this should go out and kill one infidel, and don't get caught." Instead it says something like, "it's your duty to destroy the infidels, one at a time." This gives AQ plausible deniability: they can claim that they are "merely" engaging in free speech, they did not intend "destroy" to mean "murder," and that they are "shocked and surprised" that "a few disturbed individuals" went out and committed murders.
Last, let's change one more thing. Instead of an Al Qaeda spokesperson, it's a domestic demagogue with a program on major network radio or television. And instead of thirty separate murders, it's more like a dozen including three dead cops, and an additional four wounded cops.
That is exactly how stochastic terrorism works, plausible deniability and "free speech" claims included.
Following up a case:
In 2010, Byron Williams shot and wounded two California Highway Patrol officers, after being stopped for erratic driving. The evidence, including his own notebook, showed that he was on his way to shoot and kill as many people as he could at the Tides Foundation in San Francisco, and at the Bay Area ACLU office.
Williams was a self-described disciple of Glenn Beck. Beck had ranted about the Tides Foundation 29 times on his TV program, calling Tides the funding source behind much of "the liberal conspiracy." Beck ranted about Tides twice in the week immediately preceeding Williams' attempt at mass murder. Williams told the arresting officers that Beck was his "schoolteacher," who gave him "every ounce of evidence that [he] could possibly need."
In April 2014, an Alameda County jury convicted Williams on all counts. He was sentenced to 401 years and four months in prison.
Glenn Beck is still on the loose, and has an estimated net worth of more than $100 million.
This was not the first case with a connection to Beck. In April 2009, another of his fans, Richard Poplawski, shot five Pittsburgh PA police officers, killing three, wounding two.
You would think that a media personality, upon learning that one of his fans had shot five cops (no doubt the Pittsburgh PD would have asked Beck if he knew Poplawski), would be deeply troubled by it and might seek to avoid a repeat performance. You would think so, but in the case of Glenn Beck you'd be mistaken. He went right out and did it again, with the statistically predictable but individually unpredictable result named Byron Williams.
"Once is a tragedy, twice is enemy action."
Here's to the day when "once" gets a warning, and "twice" gets prosecuted.
Here's to the day when the next Glen Beck ends up in the next cellblock from the next Byron Williams.
(Note: my original diary attracted a bit of media attention including a mention by Thom Hartmann. If anyone from the media is still interested in this topic, feel free to get in touch via email or post your contact info in the comments.)