July 5, 2020

What Is Stochastic Terrorism?

What Is Stochastic Terrorism?

As defined in a recent dictionary.com article here, stochastic terrorism is “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.”

The word stochastic, in everyday language, means “random.” Terrorism, here, refers to “violence motivated by ideology.”

Here’s the idea behind stochastic terrorism:

  1. A leader or organization uses rhetoric in the mass media against a group of people.
  2. This rhetoric, while hostile or hateful, doesn’t explicitly tell someone to carry out an act of violence against that group, but a person, feeling threatened, is motivated to do so as a result.
  3. That individual act of political violence can’t be predicted as such, but that violence will happen is much more probable thanks to the rhetoric.
  4. This rhetoric is thus called stochastic terrorism because of the way it incites random violence.

Terrorism experts, security analysts, and political observers have been increasingly using the term stochastic terrorism in the late 2010s, especially in terms of how rhetoric from political and religious leaders inspires random extremists

Two of many possible examples include the Saturday, August 3, 2019 shooting in which a gunman in El Paso, Texas took the lives of 22 people and injured many more, and the shooting the following morning, in which another shooter claimed 9 victims in Dayton, Ohio.

To provide further expert testimony and a cogent discussion of stochastic terrorism and how it works, the following paragraphs are excerpted from a Quartz.com article entitled Stochastic Terror and the Cycle of Hate That Pushes Unstable Americans to Violence, which uses data on stochastic terrorism from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD).

Excerpts From the Quartz Article on Stochastic Terrorism

A 50-year-old man has been arrested in Florida in connection with the explosive devices to this week to George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, CNN’s New York offices, representative Maxine Waters, and most recently Robert De Niro,  Joe Biden, and senator Cory Booker. Law enforcement and counterterrorism experts say that the selection of targets suggests a politically motivated terror attempt.

“This is beginning to look like some individual who is acting out on behalf of what he is hearing from people who are running for office or elected officials,” John D. Cohen, a counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, who is now a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, said on Oct. 24, before the Biden and De Niro incidents. Information about the suspect is limited, but Florida law enforcement were spotted towing a van covered with pro-Trump stickers.

In the past year, law enforcement officials have been “extraordinarily concerned that—based on the polarization and hostile nature of our political discourse—we would see an increase in people carrying out acts of violence,” Cohen said. In other words, they worry that hateful speech could provoke hateful action.

To illustrate, the following graphic from the Global Terrorism Database shows that terrorism is rising in the US, and falling around the world:

Homegrown violent extremists “clearly represent the most immediate and most ubiquitous threat to us here inside the United States on a daily basis,” Nick Rasmussen, the outgoing head of the US’s National Counterterrorism Center, said last November

In recent years, America has experienced a “dramatic increase in attacks by disaffected people, and people searching for some sense of accomplishment,” Cohen said. They connect with a “cause” whether it is white supremacy or Al Qaeda, and then “use for a motive of committing a violent attack,” spurred on by what they’re seeing on social media and the internet. The people most easily swayed by hateful rhetoric are often “looking for legitimacy and a sense of validation for their violent tendencies,” Cohen said.

The National Institute of Justice, the US DOJ’s research arm, published a report this June synthesizing different research that it had funded in recent years on the US’s homegrown terrorism problem. So called ”lone-wolf” terrorists “frequently combined personal grievances (i.e., perceptions that they had been personally wronged) with political grievances (i.e., perceptions that a government entity or other political actor had committed an injustice),” the report found.

In particular, “feeling that one (or one’s group) has been treated unfairly, discriminated against, or targeted by others may lead individuals to seek justice or revenge against those they blame for this situation,” the report notes.

The report found that those grievances feed into a cycle of reinforcement and radicalization that culminates in a violent act, as illustrated in the following graphic:


Here’s A Recent Scholarly Monograph on the Topic of Stochastic Terrorism