Terrorist: An Evolving Term

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As with the definition of "weapons of mass destruction," the definition of terrorism has been challenged in the Boston bombing case and other recent cases.

The White House has described Dzhokar Tsarnaev as a terrorist and yet he has no known official affiliation with a terrorist organization. It is unclear if there was any coherent ideological motive the Tsarnaev brothers were apparently working alone. Does the word "terrorist" help us to understand what happened in Boston, or does the term simply serve the federal prosecutors?

Another young, American man, in a different set of circumstances, faces the same charge in federal court. Abdella Ahmad Tounisi. an 18-year-old man from Illinois, was arrested last week as he attempted to board a plane to the Middle East. Federal officials say he was on his way to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, yet the United States claims to support the Syrian opposition in the bloody war against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Then there is the case of Eric Harroun, a 30-year-old white, Christian man from Phoenix, Arizona, recently returned from fighting the rebel forces in Syria. The federal government believes Harroun conspired to use a weapon of mass destruction while fighting against Bashar al-Assad, and he too is being charged with fighting alongside a designated terrorist group.

Spencer Ackerman is a writer for Wired magazine’s national security blog Danger Room. He argues against using the term "weapon of mass destruction" as the charges against Harroun and Tsarnaev move forward.

Matthew VanDyke is an American documentary filmmaker and foreign fighter on the side of the uprising in the Libyan civil war. He was a prisoner of war in Tripoli for 6 months. He says that while his case may resemble Eric Harroun's, his work in Libya was very different from Harroun's involvement in Syria.