Lessons from the Orlando Attack for Defining Terrorism

July 12, 2016
Lessons from the Orlando Attack for Defining Terrorism
Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks Non-Resident Fellow in Security Studies

In the aftermath of the mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida nightclub this past June, analysts and politicians alike were quick to deem the attack “terrorism.” Indeed, the perpetrator, Omar Mateen, claimed he was acting for Daesh/Islamic State in phone calls to an emergency number (911), a television station and on Facebook during the attack. By some indications, the attack seemed clearly to qualify as terrorism. For example, it targeted civilians, which is a common, although not universal, basis for defining a terrorist attack. Mateen opened fire with a military-grade assault rifle shooting to death 49 people at the popular Orlando nightclub. All those murdered were civilians. Mateen sought publicity and seemed to be following Daesh’s playbook, which has openly encouraged its sympathizers to engage in lone wolf attacks along the lines of the Orlando shooting. The act also was planned and premeditated. On these grounds, many observers concluded the act was terrorism.

Yet, when analysts sought to understand Mateen’s actual reasons for the horrific murder spree, his motives seemed to be more complex and less clear-cut than a classical terrorist attack would suggest. What, after all, drove Mateen to carry out the shooting at the nightclub, which was a known place for gay people to socialize? Was the attack truly intended to advance Daesh’s international goals, or was that group’s hateful ideology a convenient cloak for something darkly psychological driving Mateen’s murderous rampage?  In short, was Mateen’s attack an act of “political violence,” or something else?

These ambiguities in the Mateen case, in fact, speak to important questions about how we define terrorism as a form of political violence.  The case raises questions, in particular, about the role played by a perpetrator’s motivations for undertaking an attack when evaluating whether or not it qualifies as terrorism.  Among scholars and analysts, terrorism is commonly discriminated by its “political” nature. In the United States, for example, both the FBI and State Department include a provision that an act of terrorism must serve “political or social” objectives. Some analysts certainly allow for a broader range of pecuniary or personal motivations. Others forgo the minefield of discussing a perpetrator’s motivations, and focus instead on the tactical character or effects of the violence in defining terrorism. Yet, on both an intuitive and a conceptual level, terrorism is often understood as a distinctively political act—and it is that political basis that in part distinguishes it from other forms of violence.

This begs the question, however, of what constitutes a “political” act? Theoretically, we can define it as one that is motivated by a set of normative beliefs or doctrine about how power, resources and rights in society should be allocated. Discerning in practice, however, what counts as a politically motivated act—and therefore one of a terrorist nature–is more complicated. Indeed, Mateen’s case highlights three questions central to how we define terrorism.

First, how well developed and clearly articulated does the political justification or rationale for the violence have to be to qualify as an act of terrorism?  One might plausibly argue that to constitute political violence the perpetrator must be driven by some known ideology, or worldview, or at least consistent and discernable set of beliefs. But that raises the question about how coherent and knowledgeable the perpetrator has to be about the ideology or doctrine. Do singular statements of resentment of government policies qualify, such as a broad claim of opposition to a particular country or its foreign policy?  Is a murky or confused invocation of a political doctrine, or spontaneous statement of affinity for an extremist group, sufficient to conclude definitively that the act was politically motivated?

Mateen’s attack illustrates the difficulty of determining the threshold at which an act truly seems politically inspired, at least in any sustained or meaningful sense. His pledge of allegiance to Daesh might at first seem to qualify his shooting spree as terrorism. But there is evidence that prior to the fateful night of his attack, he also professed support for Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda off-shoot operating in Syria. As those with any rudimentary knowledge of extremist groups are aware, these groups are plagued by sectarian and political rivalries. With so much confusion in his allegiances, it becomes difficult to identify much more than a reflexive jihadist impulse driving Mateen. His attraction to militant jihadist causes seems to have been haphazard and ill-informed, at best.

Second, defining terrorism as political violence suggests that it is instrumental violence, undertaken in service of a larger goal, not an end in itself. But, does an act of violence have to be instrumental to qualify as terrorism, or does one taken for expressive purposes count as well?  Scholars and analysts usually associate terrorism with instrumental violence. As Neumann and Smith outline, the classic strategy of terrorism aims to generate fear and disorientation, provoke a government reaction (which could be an overreaction or an incompetent response), and inspire mobilization to the militants’ political cause. The meaning of the act originates in how it promotes a political goal, not primarily in the personal satisfaction it inspires in the perpetrator.

An expressive act of violence, in contrast, is one in which the significance and meaning of the event resides within the actual act. Expressive violence serves personal needs and impulses: it sates feelings of anger, emotions of revenge, and internal confusion and mania. This is one reason why, for example, analysts discount an act as terrorism when there is clear evidence of mental illness on the part of the perpetrator. It is also why hate crimes—expressive acts of anger and prejudice—against some outside group are not counted as terrorism, unless they are attached to a larger political project (as in the case of white supremacist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan).

Once again, Mateen’s case highlights these complexities. The fact that he targeted a nightclub whose clientele was largely homosexual, and he himself was rumored to perhaps have been gay, suggests that his attack might have been largely an internally driven, expressive act of hated taken under cover of professed allegiance to an extremist group. His central motivation may have been personal and psychological, with only an ancillary political agenda driving him forward.

Finally, is there any way to discern whether an act is “political” without falling prey to the subjectivities that beset the larger endeavor to define terrorism? As one analyst describes it, the very act of deeming something “political” is in itself a political act. Labeling something as something “politically” motivated sets it apart from something personally driven and evokes something systematic and threatening to the status quo. In the United States, for example, violence perpetrated by young white men is often attributed to their personalities, or individual characteristics, whereas acts by other groups—Black or Muslim Americans—is often seen as intrinsically political, regardless of  the mental state and private motivations of the offenders. Acts by “angry young white men” in the United States are dismissed as unfortunate one-offs, while acts by other racial and religious minorities are more likely to be seen as representative of a larger threat to society.

These issues once again emerge in the Omar Mateen case. Many terrorists, especially of the lone actor type, exhibit a complex blend of motives: they may be mentally ill, disturbed and pathological, alienated, as well as consumers of a violent ideology and adherents of extremist views. In other words, they may be driven by a mixture of mutually-reinforcing expressive and instrumental motivations. This was, for example, true in the case of Dylann Roof, the young white man who shot congregants at a predominantly African American church in Charleston in June 2015. It also appeared to be true of Omar Mateen. Interviews reveal to him to have been an unbalanced, aggrieved person prone to fits of anger.

The difference is in how we weight these divergent motivations when determining whether the case qualifies as terrorism. In the case of someone like Dylann Roof, analysts tended to focus on his disturbed character or racial prejudices first, with only some seeing his act as centrally instrumental and political—as furthering the larger project of the white supremacy movement. In the case of Omar Mateen, his political views and allegiance to Daesh crowded out almost all doubts that his was a political act synonymous with terrorism (although some allowed that the reasons for his attack might have been more diverse, or primarily expressive in nature). The impulse among many Americans—albeit one that may be largely unconscious—has been to privilege in the definition of the attack the political aspects of Mateen’s motivations over any personal pathology. That impulse shows that the act of distinguishing politically motivated terrorism from other acts of violence remains inherently subjective.