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What are the most common misconceptions people have about terrorism?

Truth About Terrorism

Erroll Southers (Former Deputy Director of the California Department of Homeland Security) gives expert video advice on: What are the most common misconceptions people have about terrorism?; What do people try to gain through terrorism?; Who is most likely to commit an act of terrorism? and more...

What are the most common misconceptions people have about terrorism?

The most common misconception I think that people have about terrorism is, first of all, to speak ethnically, they think all terrorism is perpetrated or committed by people who are Muslim radicals, Islamic extremists. The other misconception is the whole nuclear bomb, radiological dispersal device at the port scenario. I know it plays real well on television, and people get excited about it. But they're all worried about nuclear terrorism and quite frankly, that risk is quite low, I would think.

What do people try to gain through terrorism?

Terrorism is perpetrated or carried out because you have an asymmetrical situation. You have a group, an entity, that can't match against the power that they're trying to go up against. In all cases, they're trying to make some kind of political statement, sometimes religious, sometimes truly political, sometimes other, but it's asymmetrical. So you've got a small power, if you will, against a much larger, immense power. They're trying to achieve a balance. The balance is constant fear, constant threats, and the occasional attack, which is successful against a power that is much, much larger than they are.

Who are the most likely victims of terrorism?

By my definition, the unlikely victims are going to be civilians. They may not actually be the civilians that they would hope would be there by the targeted group. For example, Palestinians carrying out an act of terrorism against the Israelis. You might have Israelis in the restaurant, Americans, French, Spaniards. It could be anybody. So that's what makes terrorism what it is. It's against civilians who, in some cases, most cases, have nothing to do with why the act was carried out in the first place.

Can military groups be terrorists?

I like to say that it's the act. So if you have a military group that carries out violence in furtherance of a political cause against civilians, they are actually committing an act of terror. However, you could go further and say what you have at that point is perhaps a war crime, a gross crime against humanity. Them carrying out the group could make them terrorists, but if the act is carried out against them, then it's sort of a state of war. When you have military personnel that are victimized by an act of terrorism, you really have a state of war. Which is why it is so interesting that, for example, in Iraq we talk about a terrorist act in Iraq. When it is committed against our troops, that to me is not an act of terrorism. That is an act of war. When they go after civilians specifically in Iraq, that to me is an act of terrorism. So to answer your question, military groups can engage in terrorism, yes. Years ago when Nelson Mandela was part of the African National Congress, what he did then would by all definition today, although we all admire Mandela for what happened in the end, they carried out acts of terrorism to achieve their balance and their goal.

What do terrorists look for when choosing a target?

If I were a terrorist, I am going to commit an act of terrorism, possibly and preferably, against a site that is going to be able to gain me some kind of attention. Because we are so globally connected today, that could be anywhere, any place, any time because you got networks that are going to carry it. I want what is called the greatest utility that I can get. In other words, I want a high fatality rate; I want something that if I am really good is going to disrupt their infrastructure whether it be transportation or water or something else. And most importantly, if I can affect their economy for an extended period, that would be high utility. So, for example, the reason that airports gain so much attention it is because if you shut down aviation, you shut down airspace to - like we did on September 12th, 2001. USC's done a study where if that ever happens again and the FAA closes the airspace, you are looking at an economic loss of 1.3 to 1.7 billion dollars per day.

When are terrorist acts most likely to occur?

If I'm looking at an attack that's more localized, like a train or a bus or a bank or a restaurant, I want to hit those locations when they've got the most people. You'll see terrorism occur most often in the hours between 9 am and noon because that's when businesses are most frequented, and most often Tuesday or Wednesday instead of the beginning of the week or the end of the week. So again, it's all about utility and when I'm going to have the highest loss of life, the highest economic impact and infrastructure damage.