What's terrifying, but not a terrorist?

What's terrifying, but not a terrorist?
Comment: US anti-terrorism rhetoric is based on a blurry framing of terms that reduces terrorism to Islamic extremism - despite the rise of white supremacist terror attacks, argues James Denselow.
4 min read
20 Jul, 2015
The US has geared up to fight terrorism, but defining it is a problem [Getty]
Imagine the scenario: a young American Muslim man enters a place of Christian worship and shoots dead nine of his fellow citizens. What would follow?

I suspect the headline "terrorist attack on US church", after which investigations would look for links to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group. Every act or rumoured statement by the attackers is intuitively seen through the prism of international terrorism.

Indeed, this week a not-so-different incident occurred when Mohammed Youssef Abdulaziz killed four US Marines after opening fire at military facilities in Chattanooga in the US state of Tennessee. Immediately afterwards, the search was on for potential links to terrorist organisations.

Yet, when it came to the Charleston attack in June, in which Dylann Roof shot nine people dead, what would seem to be an "act of terror" was framed as an "act of hate". FBI director James Comey refused to label the Charleston massacre as "an act of terrorism" - and ergo the shooter Dylann Roof as "a terrorist".

"I wouldn't, because of the way we define terrorism under the law," Comey said. "Terrorism is an act of violence done or threatened to - in order to try to influence a public body or the citizenry, so it's more of a political act. And again, based on what I know so far, I don't see it as a political act."

State interests

Roof's actions had a definite and blunt political context.

After all, he had produced a 2,500 word political manifesto, made explicit reference to the flags of a variety of causes -including Apartheid-era South Africa and more contentiously the Confederate flag - and described himself as "a solider fighting a war".
     Dylann Roof shot nine people dead, but what would seem to be an 'act of terror' was framed as an 'act of hate'

Why were US authorities so reluctant to describe Roof's act of terror as such?

According to a recent report, since September 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.

However, the words "terror" and "terrorism" seem to have become ciphers for justifying US foreign policy and military strategy - in particular regard to the evolving fight against "Islamic extremists" - and therefore have become divorced from non-Islamic political extremists in the US.

Arun Kundnani argues in his book The Muslims are Coming that the "international" and the "domestic" are blurring and there is now the very real prospect of US running counterinsurgency operations in their own country.

Following the Chattanooga shootings, this scenario edged ever closer, with US Attorney Bill Killian saying that "we are treating this as an act of domestic terrorism".

The threat of terrorism at home could lead to a significant increase in the scale of response from the state.

That "lone wolf" attackers can cause so much devastation in a country with easy access to firearms (which have claimed 82 of the 86 lives lost as a result of "domestic terrorism" since 2002) poses a real dilemma, especially to a government in Washington that seems unable or unwilling to tackle gun legislation.

US police forces have already been accused of becoming increasingly militarised, and considering that the Obama administration was willing to allow drone killings of US citizens abroad, could this eventually be a tactic deployed domestically?

The blurry lines

While the US legal system is robust and clear as to what it considers to be criminal action, the absence of a clear definition of what "terrorism" actually constitutes - as seen in the difference between the Roof and Abdulaziz cases - means that you have the very dangerous combination of an increasingly deadly enforcement toolkit trying to control an undefined threat.
     The politics and propaganda surrounding 'terrorism' make it difficult to understand the scale of the danger.

The politics and propaganda surrounding "terrorism" make it difficult to understand the scale of the danger.

Consequently, with the scale of the danger left ambiguous, the proportionality of the response is left to subjective speculations and prejudices.

Warnings of terrorism are ubiquitous - from the various colour coding alert statuses to a media obsessed with profiling the stories of individuals such as "Jihadi John".

Interestingly, these threats being everywhere are aggregated by false propaganda from organisations such as IS in a reinforcing circle that again makes it hard to quantify the threat.

Despite the Obama administration being a break from the more bombastic rhetoric of the Bush-era, there are significant challenges ahead for US policymakers grappling with the blurring of international and domestic boundaries when it comes to politicised violence.

In particular, there is an immediate need for US law enforcement to push back against the growing perception of seeing terrorism as equating to acts of violence committed only in the name of Islam.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues.
He is a contributing author to An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? and America and Iraq: Policy-making, Intervention and Regional Politics Since 1958. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a Director of the 'New Diplomacy Platform'. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.