Are the Charleston and Chattanooga Shootings Acts of Terrorism, or Not?  

August 30, 2015
Are the Charleston and Chattanooga Shootings Acts of Terrorism, or Not?   
Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks Non-Resident Fellow in Security Studies

In the space of a month this summer, the United States witnessed two horrific mass shootings in its southern cities of Charleston, South Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee.  On June 17, Dylann Roof, a young white male, murdered nine black citizens during a religious study meeting at a famous African American church in Charleston, Emanuel AME Church.

Then, on July 16, Mohammod Abdulazeez, a naturalized American citizen born in Kuwait of Palestinian descent, opened fire outside a military recruiting center located in a strip-mall in Chattanooga. He then traveled across town to a U.S. Navy Reserve facility, where he fatally wounded five navy service members and was himself killed in a gun battle with police.

Both shootings were shocking acts of violence perpetrated by disaffected young men against their fellow citizens. Both acts also reflect the perpetrators’ respective political views. Roof’s decision to target African-Americans was certainly inspired by his virulently racist and segregationist ideology.  Abdulazeez targeted U.S. military personnel, which is consistent with what his family and friends say was his disillusionment and anger at U.S. foreign policy.

But were these shootings both acts of terrorism? According to the initial reporting, the acts diverged in this crucial respect. Reporting in the days following Abdulazeez’s shooting suggested it would likely prove an act of terrorism. Authorities began their investigation with the presumption it was domestic terrorism. In contrast, with some notable exceptions,Roof’s shooting was framed as the act of a disturbed “loner”—not as the act of a terrorist. Authorities also prevaricated in labeling his actions domestic terrorism. Relying on how the attacks were characterized by analysts and the media, however, is not a reliable means for judging whether they are terrorism. Rather, those patterns in reporting reflect the politics of labeling acts of domestic terrorism in the United States.

In fact, closer scrutiny suggests that, contrary to the pattern observed in the reporting on the two shootings, a somewhat better case can be made that Roof’s acts were consistent with terrorism, than was Abdulazeez’s shooting.

Before assessing the merits of the cases, it is worth considering what we mean by the term, “terrorism.” The problems scholars and policy analysts have faced when defining terrorism are well-documented. Yet, as the short, but clearly argued monograph by Neumann and Smith explains, terrorism is best understood as a strategy of armed conflict, classically termed a “provocation” strategy.  That strategy exhibits a distinct logic in which militants use attacks to create conditions, such as inciting fear and a popular backlash against government overreach, that will ultimately translate into enhanced support and action consistent with a terrorist’s goals. Terrorism, in short, is violence committed in order to mobilize a population or coerce a government. At the heart of the concept, and distinctive of this form of violence, is that it is undertaken in pursuit of political objectives.

This description distinguishes terrorist violence from other violent acts, such as many mass shootings, in which the motivation is not to advance a political goal. Rather the motivation in what we might call “expressive” acts of violence derives from the murder itself.  The actual act of killing, and harming the victim renders the violence “meaningful” to the perpetrator. The violence addresses an internal need: it vents anger, feeds a psychological impulse for revenge, relieves desperation, or satiates mania.

Terrorist violence, in contrast, is instrumental. It is a tactic employed in service of a larger goal—a means to an end, not an end in itself. Accordingly, the specific individuals harmed are often incidental to that objective: the actual victim of an attack is not the actual target of the violence. Rather, the target is a larger audience that the terrorist aims to mobilize in support of his or her aims. This distinction is admittedly subtle and finding metrics with which to parse acts of violence along these lines is difficult. Still, the instrumental quality of terrorism is essential to its logic as a strategy of armed conflict.

Applying this definition to the known facts from Dylann Roof’s shooting suggests it meets many of the characteristics of an act of terrorism.  His motivation appears to have been to mobilize the population, in furtherance of his political objectives. For example, Roof sat in the church’s study group for nearly an hour before he acted. When he finally rose to shoot, he claimed that he had no choice but to do so. He stated, “I have to do this. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” This suggests that far from a spontaneous outburst, Roof made a calculated decision to act. Moreover, he deliberately allowed one woman to live, ordering her to tell the world about his rationale for the attack.

Second, he undertook the actions in support of a manifesto, which lays out in stark terms his political aims. That manifesto appears on a website in which he also posted racist propaganda. He confessed that he aimed to start a race war, suggesting he saw the murders as instrumental to catalyzing a larger mobilization of blacks against whites. Finally, his carefully considered decision to target the highly symbolic and historically important Emanuel AME Church suggests that he conceived of his attack as a political plan, not primarily as racist revenge against the African-American congregants.

Now consider the facts known about Abdulazeez’s shootings. The fact that he shot at U.S. military recruiting and Navy Reserve facilities might suggest he was engaging in terrorism. While the actions may have reflected his political views, however, there is little evidence of a coherent plan or conceptualization of how the shootings might advance a political objective.

Authorities did not recover a manifesto or statement about the rationale for Abdulazeez’s shootings. They did not find materials indicating he had any allegiance to an overseas militant group, such as Al Qaeda or ISIS. There was evidence he had viewed video by Anwar al-Awlaki, whose extremist lectures have inspired past violent attacks. But, unlike other aspiring militants, Abdulazeez does not appear to have frequented extremist websites; nor was he a regular consumer of such material.

Abdulazeez apparently used his phone to search for guidance on how to overcome the failings of his life through “martyrdom.”  These failings included a recent arrest for drunken driving and a potential bankruptcy proceeding. He also recently authored two blog posts about Islam. Among his comments, he warned, “Don’t be fooled by your desires. This life is short and bitter and the opportunity to submit to Allah may pass you by.” But upon inspection these reflections seem far from radical exhortations to engage in violence and may be the product of his own introspection.

Also provocative was a recent trip to Jordan, where Abdulazeez has family. The trip initially attracted attention by law enforcement and seemed to indicate potential overseas terrorist ties. But far from efforts to make contact with militants, according to investigators, his travels were intended to provide an opportunity for him to clean-up his life. While overseas he kept to himself, seeming indifferent to the overtures of a local imam. In short, there is little evidence of a clear political plan undergirding Abdulazeez’s attack, especially in comparison with the degree evinced by Dylann Roof’s shootings.

In fact, the circumstances surrounding Abdulazeez suggest that, while the attack reflected his political views, it may have been driven by a psychological motivation. Evidence provided by his family suggests that Abdulazeez had suffered from depression  since his teens, and he had been treated with medication. Beginning in 2013 he had expressed suicidal thoughts and written about “becoming a martyr” in a diary.  Despite obtaining an engineering degree, he also repeatedly lost jobs and had serious problems with drug and alcohol abuse. These facts of his life alone do not signify mental illness, but together with evidence of his psychiatric problems paint a fuller picture of the challenges to his recovery from mental illness.  Combined, these details suggest that Abdulazeez’s motives appear more consistent with an act of expressive violence than with an instrumental attack  aimed at advancing a political goal.

It should be noted that, according to some, Dylann Roof might also be exempted from being labeled a terrorist because of his troubled family life, and drug abuse, evident in his having narcotics in his possession when he was arrested. There were some who also sought to characterize Roof as a mentally unstable youth, implying his killings might be the result of a psychological outburst.  One analyst, for example, attributed Roof’s decision to leave a witness to his desire “to be caught” and attributed his ruthlessness to “anger and mental illness.”

Perhaps one indication of the clarity and undeniable quality of Roof’s political intent, however, is that this remains a fringe view. Others, including some from the conservative right in American politics, have been unwilling to excuse his actions on grounds that he was mentally unstable. Moreover, the admittedly limited information available suggests no basis for concluding that Roof suffered from psychiatric problems. A difficult upbringing, marginal existence and drug problem are not the equivalent of a clinical diagnosis of mental illness.

In the end, evaluating the two cases come down to a judgement about the motivation fueling them: did an ideology provide a justification, or a direction for pre-existing destructive impulses, or did an ideology inspire an act of violence in an effort to advance a political goal? Abdulazeez and Roof’s stories appear to diverge in this area. Abdulazeez researched martyrdom when he was already in a “downward spiral” when he perhaps was trying to find redemption for a life that he thought had been squandered. Roof seems to have had a carefully considered, premediated—and fortunately flawed—plan to promote racial conflict in the United States.