Was the Charleston Massacre an Act of Terrorism?

Spoiler alert: yes.


An act of violence carried out by a non-state actor against a civilian target with some political aim: That’s the most widely accepted definition of “terrorism” among social scientists. It also describes Wednesday night’s shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine people dead.

Authorities have identified Dylann Storm Roof, 21, as the man responsible for the massacre, and judging by initial reports, Roof’s alleged actions meet the criteria for the textbook definition of an act of terrorism. Terrorist experts agree: “Based on this criteria, I feel comfortable calling this church massacre an act of terrorism,” said Max Abrahms, a terrorism scholar and professor at Northeastern University. “The more we dig into his background, the clearer it becomes that it was premeditated and politically motivated.”

The church in question was clearly a civilian target, Roof had no connection or affiliation to indicate he was acting on behalf of a state. Moreover, Roof appears to have expressed a political motive in carrying out the attack: the advancement of a white supremacist agenda. “He was big into segregation and other stuff,” a friend of Roof’s told ABC. “He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”

After sitting among his victims for about an hour, Roof reportedly got up and said: “I have to do it. You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.” He then opened fire on a group of people gathered for Bible study. Roof appears to have acted with publicity in mind: He reportedly let one woman live so that she could inform others what happened. In a photograph posted to his Facebook page, Roof is pictured wearing a jacket emblazoned with patches of the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia.

If that somehow isn’t enough to establish the political context of Roof’s actions, consider that the church he targeted, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was a landmark of the black civil rights movement in the United States. One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to incite a slave revolt in 1822. For that, Vesey and 34 others were hanged, the church burned to the ground by white South Carolinians. The church is as much a symbol of black resistance to white oppression as it is a place of worship.

But in the aftermath of 9/11, the subsequent war on terror, and two protracted ground wars carried out in the name of fighting terrorism, what exactly constitutes an act of terrorism has become a deeply contested notion in the United States, one that has become inflected by the country’s racial prejudices and the perceived connection between Islam and terrorism.

Contrast the immediate aftermath of the massacre at the offices of satirical newsweekly Charlie Hebdo with the attack in Charleston. Because the gunmen left the offices proclaiming “Allahu Akbar” and relishing in having killed “Charlie” in the name of Allah, that attack fell into our preconceived notions of what constitutes an act of terrorism, particularly in the context of the U.S. war on terror.

Terrorism in the United States and around the world, however, has a much longer history than the period after 9/11 and hasn’t been limited to radical Islamists. Consider the IRA, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Carlos the Jackal, the Red Brigades, the KKK, and Timothy McVeigh. The use of violence as a political tool against civilian targets is a tool that adheres neither to religion nor race.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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