What Constitutes Terrorism? – Links, Notes, Bookmarks & Briefs For December 5, 2015

An open thread and (almost) daily notes to myself; feel free to eavesdrop, join in or drop a relevant link in the comments. Updated several times throughout the day.

Or, more specifically, who is a terrorist these days?

That’s a question lots of people are asking, particularly in the US where reactions to all-too-common mass shootings elicit a different response depending, it appears, on little else than the shade of the alleged shooter’s skin or their religious faith.

If the shooter is a Muslim, more often than not the act is considered, or at least investigated or characterized as a terrorist attack. If the perpetrator is a white Christian male on the other hand, he’s “troubled” or a lone wolf”. His religion –even if his act is like that of Robert Dear, the man who opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic last week and who held the right wing extremist “Army of God” group in high regard– isn’t brought into the picture.

Those are over-simplifications, I admit. And I also confess that I don’t have the answer, but can’t help but be bothered by the double standards. So is Juan Cole. In “Roof, Dear and Tashfeen Malik: ‘Self-Radicalized,’ ‘Terrorism,’ ‘Lone Wolf’ and Double Standards” he considers some of the differences in how Dylan Roof, who shot killed nine at a church in Charleston in June, Planned Parenthood shooter Dear, and Tashfeen Malik, one of the two San Bernardino shooters, are treated by politicians and law enforcement:

Malik, Roof and Dear became radicals through their own reading and research rather than from having obvious organizational links. All three seem to be, in the official parlance, “lone wolves” who “self-radicalized.”

One part of terrorism is apparently conceived of in official US discourse on these things as organizational. It is early days in the investigation of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, but while Malik may have made a hasty Facebook declaration of loyalty to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during her horrid shooting spree, so far it does not appear that there was any element of command and control in either the case of Roof or of Malik/Farook.

Does it matter what the target is? Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal building in Oklahoma City to target the Federal government, given his white supremacist ideology. Dear targeted Planned Parenthood in an obvious attempt to change public policy. Since Malik and her husband just shot up a meal for employees at a center for taking care of challenged folks, rather than choosing some more significant target with actual political implications. Can their action be seen at the moment as primarily as terroristic? Back in the 1990s the phrase “going postal” emerged from a rash of incidents of workplace rage and violence (there were 20 instances such violence between 1986 and 1997, in which employees shoot down more than 40 individuals. They look much more like they went postal than that they were trying to bring down the Federal government.

Does organization matter? In counter-terrorism, you always seek to disrupt the enemy’s command and control abilities. The San Bernardino killers, as things now stand, did not partake of any formal structune within Daesh that day. Nor does Roof appear to have a strong organizational context in, e.g., the Ku Klux Klan such that anyone gave him an order to kill African-Americans in their church. Dear was also a loner.

In fact, a major US newspaper called Dear a “gentle loner.” Hmmm.


While you’re on his site, Cole’s Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others is required reading.

Meanwhile in “Domestic Terrorism and America’s Gun Dilemma“, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos takes us back to the 1980s and the rise of the “lone wolf”:

In the early nineteen-eighties, Louis Beam was an active but frustrated leader of the radical American right-wing fringe. He had previously been arrested in Houston, in connection with the bombing of a liberal Pacifica radio station and the machine-gunning of a Communist Party office. (The charges were dropped.) By 1983, Beam had concluded that hierarchical far-right groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, were doomed to be marginalized or shut down by criminal and civil litigation, and he proposed a different strategy: in an essay called “Leaderless Resistance,” he advocated a turn toward “very small or even one man cells of resistance.” He borrowed the idea from Colonel Ulius Louis Amoss, a U.S. intelligence officer who suggested, in the early sixties, that C.I.A.-backed operations in Europe would be less prone to disruption if they were structured as small or individual units, called “phantom cells.” Beam popularized the concept through his writings in the eighties and nineties, and “leaderless resistance” was embraced by a vast range of movements, including animal-liberation activists, tax protesters, radical Islamists, and anti-abortion extremists.


In the period since Islamic State militants attacked Paris, on November 13th, Republican Presidential candidates have raced to declare that America must defend itself, above all, from foreign terrorists. The Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, called for “surveillance of certain mosques.” Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, said, “There is no greater risk to our security than radical Islamic terrorists.”

Law-enforcement statistics, and practitioners, tell a different story. In the years since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has suffered sixty-five assaults associated with right-wing ideologies—“sovereign citizens,” white supremacists, and anti-abortion extremists—and twenty-four by Muslim extremists, according to an analysis based on data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, at the University of Maryland.* You might think that this underrepresents the risk of a spectacular, high-casualty attack, but, as my colleague John Cassidy has written, the security officials who protect the public against both domestic and foreign terrorists say the domestic risk is greater. The terrorism experts Charles Kurzman, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and David Schanzer, of Duke, surveyed nearly four hundred state and local police agencies, and found that the “main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists but from right-wing extremists.”

In any case, for the time being if you want to be considered a terrorist, having non-white/Caucasian features still helps.

More Guns

– Black Friday Gun Sales Soared, F.B.I. Data Shows – NYTimes. Through November, 19,827,376 firearms purchase background checks have been conducted through the FBI’s NICS system.


Multi-billion dollar shipwreck spotted off ColombiaThe City Paper Bogota


The ISIS Oil Trade, from the Ground UpThe New Yorker


President for Life? It Will Be Possible in Ecuador in 2021Vice. Ecuadorian lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment that ends presidential term limits. Current president Rafael Correa will be forced to sit out the 2017 election but will be allowed to run again indefinitely from 2021.


Summer School in Human Rights Litigation: Call for ApplicationsOpen Society Foundation. The Open Society Justice Initiative and Central European University invite applicants for the 2016 Summer School in Human Rights Litigation, to be held in Budapest from July 11 to 15.

The summer school provides a unique opportunity for human rights professionals to build on their experience and to develop their skills to successfully bring cases to the regional human rights systems and the UN treaty bodies, and to use those cases to achieve practical change. The curriculum will combine presentations, case studies, exercises, and discussion groups with preparatory work and further reading to ensure full maximum benefit for those attending the course. Participants will be invited to provide information on cases they are working on and those concrete examples will help shape discussion. Info and application.


And for the record, today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 701st (!!) straight, was snapped in Bogota, Colombia on 17 June 2015. Also fitting for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge, Theme, “Eye Spy”.


  1. Just read your Blog about what constitutes a ‘Terrorist’…full of insight and knowledge about the subject indeed, then I went to a related post about the protest in Cumming (albeit a while ago now). As soon as I saw the photograph of the soldier in a flack jacket looking into the camera, I was transported back to 1972 when, as a young soldier in Her Majesties Army, I was sent to ‘Sort out the troubles’ in Northern Ireland … “” an endless fight in Jesus’ name, the blind against the blind” ( as Harvey Andrews famously sang in ‘The Soldier’) The Irish Republican Army (IRA) were regarded as Terrorists and all republicans were regarded as either Terrorists themselves or Terrorist sympathisers. We were shot at, blown up, stalked captured and murdered and generally HATED….so the word terrorist fits the establishment definition very well. BUT….ask an IRA member or a sympathiser the definition of a terrorist and he/she would say that the real terrorist was the ENGLISH establishment who stole the land in the first place and put the Roman Catholic population under lock down with no civil rights at all and then 600 years later gave it all back except the six Northern counties where the catholic population underwent even more oppression…..The IRA regarded themselves as ‘Freedom Fighters’ and the British Army and the ‘Loyalist Protestants as the terrorists. We’ve seen this scenario world wide time and time again … all I can say is…. “IF THE CAP FITS…….”
    On a lighter note, I do enjoy reading your Blog….all power to your pen/keyboard.

  2. Excellent…one man’s meat is another’s poison, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter!! so difficult, I agonise over these statements a lot..what the hell is truth…is there such a thing. Super Blog you are producing.

  3. I’m spending too much time trying to write a meaningful comment here. Finding myself feeling insulted as an American by your post and unable to press the like button — and annoyed with myself that as a journalist I can’t find a way to express myself better! Maybe I’ll just stop rambling now and wait for mannequin Monday…

    1. Diane, I don’t mean to insult anyone, just asking what are valid questions, and ones many others are asking, especially on social media. That double standard doesn’t only exist in the US, you can see it in varying shades throughout Europe, South America and I suspect in other parts of the world too.

      Dylan Roof walked into a church and decided to kill nine people based solely on the shade of their skin; nobody’s calling his act a terrorist act. It’s arguably the most political of the recent mass shootings since one of the victims was an elected official, a sitting state senator. Can you imagine the response had Roof been a Muslim-American? My guess is the arresting officers wouldn’t have stopped at Burger King to buy him lunch on their way to central booking.

      As referenced in The New Yorker piece above, most law enforcement experts and officials agree that the “main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists but from (domestic) right-wing extremists.” That however isn’t the narrative on the TV news. It’s certainly not the narrative on the current campaign trail.

      1. Bob, thanks for your response. Perhaps I should have used the word frustrated rather than insulted, although I guess I was feeling insulted. I’m feeling frustrated and insulted (and I didn’t really mean that you had insulted me) because it seems that here in the U.S. we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t no matter what happens around the world or in our country and then everyone in other countries doesn’t mind taking potshots at us.

        First off, let me willingly acknowledge that you are far more knowledgeable in political affairs than I. I generally really dislike being drawn into political discussions and avoid them like the plague, but, crap, that’s just what I’ve let happen. I’m kind of wishing I’d just let it go and waited for Mannequin Monday 😉

        Do you not feel there’s any difference between hate crimes, crimes by mentally ill/unstable people and terrorism? I thought the term terrorism was used to imply something done simply for the reason of terrifying the public, like a totally random shooting or bombing that creates fear in the general population, and that also in many cases, terrorists, particularly the Middle Eastern ones, seem not too concerned about putting their own lives on the line. I guess they would come somewhat under the heading of a hate crime, but I thought those were more in terms of crimes committed against persons of a different race or religion.

        Yes, I do believe the media and our wonderful political campaigners espouse many of the opinions you’ve suggested, but I don’t know how many Americans believe everything they hear on the news or read online. Or how many of us will be moving to Canada in response to whatever the number of Syrian immigrants in the U.S.

        I think trying to decide what would have happened in the case of Dylann Roof had he been Muslim-American rather than a bigoted Southerner and shot people in an African American church in the South is kind of like comparing apples to oranges. I just don’t know that that would have happened.

        I think many, many Americans are sick and tired of violence and guns in our country, but we’re also kind of tired of being criticized by the world. Everyone wants our aid and our protection, but then they don’t want our military presence and they talk about our sense of entitlement and American exceptionalism. Is there another country that has our type of history and our mix of races and cultures, though? So aren’t we inherently different than most other country’s populations?

        Thanks for letting me use your pages to express my opinions. I do enjoy reading your blog, even on these rare occasions when you annoy me!

        1. There’s too much here to address at the moment, but I will come back to this, promise. 🙂 And you’re always welcome to express your opinions — that’s most welcome and encouraged.

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