What is Terrorism?

Terrorism is the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion, or ransom. Terrorists often use threats to:

  • Create fear among the public.
  • Try to convince citizens that their government is powerless to prevent terrorism.
  • Get immediate publicity for their causes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) categorizes terrorism in the United States as one of two types - domestic terrorism or international terrorism.

Domestic terrorism involves groups or individuals whose terrorist activities are directed at elements of our government or population without foreign direction.

International terrorism involves groups or individuals whose terrorist activities are foreign-based and/or directed by countries or groups outside the United States or whose activities transcend national boundaries.

Acts of terrorism include threats of terrorism, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, bomb scares and bombings, cyber attacks (computer-based), and the use of chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological weapons.

High-risk targets for acts of terrorism include military and civilian government facilities, international airports, large cities, and high-profile landmarks. Terrorists might also target large public gatherings, water and food supplies, utilities, and corporate centers. Further, terrorists are capable of spreading fear by sending explosives or chemical and biological agents through the mail.

You can prepare for a potential terrorism incident in much the same way you would prepare for other crisis events.

The following are general guidelines for preparedness for - and response to - a potential or actual terrorist event:

To Prepare for a Potential Event

  • Develop, review and practice your family and work disaster and communications plans; ensure telephone numbers and e-mail addresses in the family emergency communication plan are current.
  • Ensure disaster supplies kit is stocked and ready, and replace items that are outdated.
  • Be alert to suspicious activity, packages and devices, and report to the proper authorities.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Move or leave if you feel uncomfortable or if something does not seem right.
  • Exercise caution when traveling, and adhere to any travel restrictions announced by local governmental authorities; Do not accept packages from strangers and do not leave luggage unattended.
  • Take additional precautions at public events.
  • Develop alternate routes to and from work or school. and practice them.
  • Learn where emergency exits are located in buildings you frequent. Plan how to get out in the event of an emergency.
  • Establish an alternate meeting place away from home with family/​friends.
  • Have shelter in place materials on hand and understand procedures.
  • Discuss children’s fears concerning possible terrorist attacks.

In the Event of a Potential or Actual Event

  • Listen to radio or television for current information and instructions.
  • Contact work and/or school to determine expectations for attendance; Be aware of the emergency notification and evacuation plans for children in school.
  • Adhere to any travel restrictions announced by local governmental authorities.
  • Be prepared to shelter in place or evacuate if instructed to do so by local governmental authorities.
  • If a need is announced, donate blood and/or volunteer.
  • Be prepared to do without services you normally depend on - electricity,telephone, natural gas, gasoline pumps, cash registers, automatic teller machines (ATMs), and Internet transactions.

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) document on Terrorism

National Terrorism Advisory System Alert (NTAS) Types

National Terrorism Advisory System logo


Describes current developments or general trends regarding threats of terrorism

National Terrorism Advisory System logo

Elevated Alert

Warns of a credible terrorism threat against the United States

National Terrorism Advisory System logo

Imminent Alert

Warns of a credible, specific and impending terrorism threat against the United States

Report suspicious activity to local law enforcement or call 9-1-1 in case of emergency.

You can find current NTAS advisories on the Department of Homeland Security's NTAS advisory page.

Eight Signs of Terrorism

Many of these activities, in and of themselves, may not indicate criminal activity. Taken together, however, they may be a cause for concern. If you observe people acting suspiciously, don't hesitate to contact local law enforcement. Remember - better safe than sorry.

1. Surveillance

If terrorists are targeting a specific area they will most likely be watching activities in that area during the planning phase of the operation. They will attempt to determine the target's strengths and weaknesses and the number of personnel that may respond to an incident. Routes to and from the target are usually establishing during this phase.

Examples are someone recording or monitoring activities. This may include the use of cameras, note taking, drawing diagrams, annotating on maps, or using binoculars or other vision-enhancing devices.

2. Elicitation

Terrorists often attempt to gain information about a target - a place, person or operation - through inquiries. These elicitation attempts can be made by mail, fax, phone, or in person.

Examples would be someone inquiring about critical infrastructure like a power plant or water treatment plant. Terrorists may attempt to research bridge and tunnel usage, make unusual inquiries concerning shipments or look into how a facility such as a hospital operates. They may also attempt to place "key" people in sensitive work locations to gain intelligence.

3. Tests of Security

Any attempts to measure reaction times to security breaches, attempts to penetrate physical security barriers, or monitor procedures in order to assess strengths and weaknesses.

Specific areas of interest to terrorists would include how long it takes security or law enforcement to respond to an incident, the number of responding personnel, or the routes taken to a specific location. Terrorists may also try to penetrate physical security barriers or test the response procedures in order to assess strengths and weaknesses. Vehicles may be parked for unusually long periods of time, sometimes in no-parking areas.

4. Funding

Suspicious transactions involving large cash payments, deposits, or withdrawals are common signs of terrorist funding. Collections for donations, the solicitation for money and criminal activity are also warning signs.

5. Supplies

Purchasing or stealing explosives, weapons, or ammunition, and also includes acquiring military uniforms, decals, flight manuals, passes or badges (or the equipment to manufacture such items). It could be the unusual purchase or storage of fertilizer or harmful chemicals.

Terrorists would also find it useful to acquire law enforcement equipment and identification, flight passes, badges, or passports and driver's licenses.

6. Impersonation

Another pre-incident indicator is the presence of suspicious people who just don't belong. This could include individuals in a workplace, building, neighborhood, or business establishment who do not fit in because of their demeanor or unusual questions they ask or statements they make.

Being alert for people who "don't belong" doesn't mean we should profile individuals, but it does mean we should profile behaviors.

7. Rehearsal

Before an attack, terrorists will usually practice with a rehearsal to work out flaws in their plan and unanticipated problems. This is especially true when planning a kidnapping, but it can also pertain to bombings. A rehearsal or dry run may be the heart of the planning stage of a terrorist act. If you find someone monitoring a police radio frequency and recording emergency response times, you may be observing a rehearsal. Multiple rehearsals may be conducted at or near the target to gain intelligence.

8. Deployment

The final sign to look for is someone deploying assets or getting into position. This is your last chance to alert authorities before the terrorist act occurs.

Pre-incident indicators may come months or even years apart, so it is extremely important to document every fragment of information, no matter how insignificant it may appear, and forward this information to the proper authorities.

Source: Kansas City Regional Terrorism Early Warning (TEW) Interagency Analysis Center flyer

Additional Resources