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This is what a terrorist looks like

Not all terrorists attacking the U.S. are Muslim. In fact, most of them aren't.


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Jun 18, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 1:14 pm CDT

On Wednesday, a white man walked into the historically African-American Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He allegedly sat in on a bible study group for about an hour before pulling out a gun and opening fire, killing nine people.

The alleged suspect was identified by law enforcement officials as 21-year old Dylann Roof, who was taken into custody the following day. As he started shooting, Roof reportedly shouted, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”

Reaction to the incident was immediate. Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen labeled the attack as a hate crime and the U.S. Department of Justice has opened its own hate crime investigation. However, many on social media urged people to call it what happened by another name: terrorism.

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Since 9/11, arguably earlier, the word terrorism has come to connote something very specific in the United States—violent acts carried out by radical Muslim fundamentalists. However, according to a report released earlier this year by the Southern Poverty Law Center, terrorist attacks carried out in the U.S. are far more likely to be committed by people who look and think a lot like Roof than the men who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

The report, entitled “Age of the Wolf: A Study of the Rise of Lone Wolf and Leaderless Resistance Terrorism,” looked at every incident of domestic terrorism in the United States between April 2009 and February 2015. Using data collected by Indiana State University, the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s own records, the report’s authors identified 63 domestic terror attacks during the period being studied—an average of one every 34 days.

Instead of terror networks like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, the vast majority of terror attacks were carried out either by people acting alone or in pairs. Seventy-four percent of the incidents were the work of a lone wolf and 90 percent involved two people or fewer. In only one of the remaining cases was the plot the work of a formally named organization.

“In an age of instant communications and ever more tightly knit societies, the lone wolf style of attack is vastly more likely to be successful than the kind that was once literally planned in rooms full of men, sometimes by major group leaders,” the report’s authors write. “People who join criminal conspiracies today are more likely than ever to be caught. As a result, there has been a long-running trend toward the lone wolf and away from group action.”

Authorities believe Roof was acting alone. But that wasn’t the only way this tragedy falls in line with what the report presents as the prototypical example of domestic terrorism.

In an interview with NPR’s On the Media, the report’s editor, Mark Potok, noted that only five of the 63 incidents his team looked at involved Islamic fundamentalists.

He noted that the report was looking exclusively at terror attacks on U.S. shores and not those committed by Americans who go overseas, nor was it looking at Islamic extremists coming from abroad and plotting against the United States. Even so, as law enforcement officials around the country have expended a great deal of energy monitoring the activities of American Muslim communities for signs of terrorist activity, Potok’s findings call into question the efficacy of that approach.

“It seems more and more apparent that the government has been paying very close attention to the so-called Islamist threat and paying really far less attention to the other half of the terror spectrum—our own home-groan radical racists,” Potok told OTM host Brooke Gladstone. “We think that the government really must remain aware and cautious about the threat of domestic terrorists.”

Potok added that there have been more people in the U.S. killed by the “American radical right” than jihadists, domestic or foreign, since 9/11.

To be fair, starting the count on Sept. 12, 2001, is problematic. The nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers, Pentagon, and United Airlines flight 93 far exceed the number of fatalities relating to attacks by far-right domestic groups—even including the 168 people killed in the bombing of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 by anti-government militant Timothy McVeigh. Right-wing domestic terrorism may be a more common occurrence, but the death toll of 9/11 is difficult to push aside.

That doesn’t mean terrorists of the non-Islamic variety haven’t planned large-scale attacks like those of 9/11. In 1997, a group of KKK members planned to blow up a natural gas refinery in Texas. The plot was eventually foiled when one member of the group had misgivings and reported the others’ efforts to the police, but authorities said that, had they gone through the plan, the death toll could have been massive.

In another incident, this one in 2004, a Federal Bureau of Investigation search of a trio of garages rented to a Texas couple turned up an arsenal that included a homemade cyanide bomb with the potential to kill thousands if it were detonated in a crowded public space.

The threat posed by right-wing terrorists is also one appreciated by law enforcement agencies around the country. In coordination with the Police Executive Research Forum, a University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill sociology professor and the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University surveyed 382 law enforcement agencies across the country. They found 74 percent reported anti-government extremism as one of the main terrorist threats faced in their jurisdictions. In contrast, only 39 percent said that same about the danger posed by extremists linked to terrorist groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda.

In that regard, viewing the crime Roof is accused of committing as terrorism fits an archetype established over the past decade. The question of whether or not to label it as an act of terror will undoubtedly be debated over the coming days. But at least one high-profile political isn’t mincing words.

In an statement to his supporters on Thursday, independent senator and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders couldn’t have been more clear: “What transpired in Charleston South Carolina last night was not just a tragedy, it was an act of terror.”

Photo via | Remix by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Jun 18, 2015, 8:52 pm CDT