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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What is terrorism in Austin, Texas?

Overview of Terror Threats For Austin, Texas

Austin, although recently the site of a shooting spree portrayed as hate-crime terrorism and the site of an attack by airplane on the IRS in 2010, shares the same risk of terror attack as other Texas cities. The major threat to Austin is narco-terror activities.
A 2013 Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) report identifies the “Mexican cartels are the most significant organized crime threat” to Texas (DPS, 2013, p.2). This directly ties into terror activities; “The ambiguous definition of narco-terrorism does not actually imply a partnership between the drug trade organizations and terrorist organizations. It could simply mean the merger of the two phenomena”
(Björnehed, 2004, p. 308). The drug cartels have widely displayed their use of terror attacks in Mexico. This is borne out in the DPS assessment; “Another risk of international and domestic extremist activity in Texas occurs in the context of a growing convergence of terrorist networks and criminal networks” (DPS, 2013, p.40). One way this can be seen is in the affiliation of gangs with the cartels; “One of the most serious issues facing Texas is the fact that many gangs have developed
relationships with Mexican cartels. Gangs working with the Mexican cartels are involved in a
level of crime that affects the entire state”(DPS, 2013, p.20).
The DPS report further identifies the nature of the cartel threat:
Of particular concern from a public safety perspective is the evolution of cartel tactics in
Mexico, which now include the use of torture, beheading, intimidation, and terrorist tactics.
Cartel weapons now also include improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and conventional military
ordnance and weapons. Most recently, several cartels in Mexico have begun using vehicle-borne
improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) (DPS, 2013, p.15).

Potential targets for narco-terrorist activity differ from the norm of Leftist and Islamic terror of seeking property damage or mass casualties. The political nature of cartel crimes lies in destroying law enforcement capability through corruption and violent intimidation; “Mexican cartels are adept at corrupting law enforcement officers in Mexico, and they also seek to corrupt public officials in the
US” (DPS, 2013, p.34). In addition, the political nature of cartel attacks are also focused on destroying any public opposition to their activities, such as their assassination of journalists. Finally, the majority of targets chosen for cartel violence are involved with cartel business. Narco-terrorism is not comprised of a single attack intended to sway public opinion, but a constant series of crimes used to intimidate those that would interfere with their business. These attacks are brutal and beheading is a norm, as in the case of four men decapitated recently in Mexico (Borderland Beat, 2015).
Because these activities cover a wide range of crimes, many of which go unreported, any evaluation of impact must be done in general terms. Certainly the range of effects include a public in fear, the corruption of law enforcement and judicial officials, the sabotage of public expression, and the potential of cartel alliance with other terrorist organizations. The targets of these activities end up dead, or living under the yoke of intimidation.
Due to the economic motive of the cartels, it can be argued that the cartels do not meet the criterion of a terrorist organization. However, the use of violence as a tool is a major component of the terrorist definition. Attacks on the justice capability of the state, and attacks on symbols of free speech, do constitute a political factor. Martin contends that there is an “instinctive understanding” of the definition of terrorism which includes three factors; a political component, the targeting of easy to hit(or “soft”) targets, and the intent to terrify (2012, p.11). The cartels meet this criterion. In fact, any organization or individual can meet this criterion, including States. For example, Nicaragua, under the leadership of the Sandinistas, waged a war against the Miskito Indians; some specific charges against the Sandinistas include “49 Miskito villages along the Coco River were burned down by Sandinista soldiers; 65 bombs were dropped on six villages in 11 days” (Corry, 1986, para. 4).
In both the case of the Sandinista and the drug lords, violence is used as a tool of coercion. Is politic coercion always related to terrorism? Not necessarily. Martin ties the concept of terrorism to violent action (2012, p. 32). States often use nonviolent methods of political coercion. The use of taxes as a tool to discourage activity of a specific nature; cigarette and alcohol taxes are a prime example of this sort of activity. A specific example would be Operation Choke Point:
Operation Choke Point was created by the Justice Department to “choke out”companies the Administration considers a 'high risk' or otherwise objectionable, despite the fact that they are legal businesses. The goal of the initiative is to deny these merchants access to the banking and payments networks that every business needs to survive. (Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 2014, p.1)

Indeed, the concept of terrorism started as a study of State violence; “In its original definition in the eighteenth century, it described violent actions by those in control of a state” (Nacos, 2011,p. 19). As anti-State actors began to take action against States, the concept of terror began to be applied to their actions; Berman notes that a “fad for political assassination” starts in Russia in 1878 (2004, p.31).
Along the same lines of the question as to whether political coercion is tied to terrorism is the question of whether criminal acts of violence, including those committed for personal gain, can be considered to be terrorist acts. We return to Martin's discussion of an “instinctive understanding” of what terrorism consists of and find that there must be a political element, such as we find in the case of the cartels.
There can be no justification for terrorism based on this “instinctive understanding”. This ties into “just war” theory. Clausewitz states that “War is the continuation of politics by other means”; terrorism is partly defined by a political characteristic. “Just war” is based on the behavior of the combatants and just conduct in war is based on the protection of noncombatants. Terrorism by definition targets non-combatants. Terrorism cannot be morally justified.


Berman, P. (2004). Terror and liberalism. New York, London. W.W. Norton & Company

Björnehed, E. (2004). Narco-Terrorism: The Merger of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Global Crime, 6(3-4), 305–324. doi:10.1080/17440570500273440

Borderlandbeat.com (2015, January 14). 4 Decapitated in Atizapán, México State. Borderland Beat. Retrieved January 15, 2015 from http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2015/01/4-decapitated-in-atizapan-mexico-state.html

Corry, J. (1986, July 29). On 13, Sandinistas vs. Miskitos. The New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2015 from http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/29/movies/on-13-sandinistas-vs-miskitos.html

Martin, G. (2012). Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues, 4th Edition. [VitalSource Bookshelf version]. Retrieved January 15, 2015 from http://digitalbookshelf.southuniversity.edu/books/9781452255699/id/ch2

Nacos, B. L. (2011). Terrorism and Counterterrorism, 4th Edition. [VitalSource Bookshelf version]. Retrieved January 12, 2015 from http://digitalbookshelf.southuniversity.edu/books/9781256378334/id/ch02

Texas Public Safety Threat Overview 2013. (2013). Texas Departmrnt of Public Saftey. Retrieved January 15, 2015 from http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/director_staff/media_and_communications/threatOverview.pdf

The Department of Justice’s "Operation Choke Point": Illegally choking off legitimate businesses? (2014). Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved January 15, 2015 from http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Staff-Report-Operation-Choke-Point1.pdf

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