The Cable

Are the Shootings in Chattanooga Terrorism?

What Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez did in Chattanooga is horrible. But is it terrorism?


The FBI says it is investigating whether the brutal killings of four Marines at the hands of Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez in Tennessee Thursday constitute an act of terrorism. But despite the growing fears that the shooter may have been motivated by his Islamic faith, it’s far from clear that Abdulazeez should actually be considered a terrorist.

That’s according to Gary LaFree, director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. His organization maintains the Global Terrorism Database, which tracks terrorist attacks around the world. For years, he has been trying to bring clarity to a murky and controversial issue: When is an attack terrorism, and when is it some other type of crime?

It’s a question that’s been on the minds of Americans far too often in recent years. Shootings at Fort Hood in Texas; at a military recruiting station in Arkansas; at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; in the halls of an elementary school in Connecticut; at the Navy Yard in Washington; outside of a cartoon contest in suburban Dallas; at a historic black church in Charleston; and now at military sites in Tennessee have forced U.S. citizens to confront gun violence, often involving multiple fatalities, seemingly every few months. The shadow of Islamic extremism has hung over some of these incidents. But the rise of the Islamic State, and the group’s call to attack Americans, makes concerns about jihadi violence within the United States all the more acute.

Other countries are facing the same threat — and the same question. Last month, the Islamic State claimed credit when a gunman in Tunisia opened fired at a hotel popular with tourists, killing 37 people. On the same day, there was a suicide bombing in Kuwait claimed by the Islamic State. With the Pentagon identifying the dead Marines Friday, some lawmakers seem to have already made up their minds about the Tennessee shootings.

“This was an ISIS-inspired attack,” Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said at a Friday afternoon press conference. He didn’t offer any evidence that Abdulazeez was in contact with terrorists overseas or Islamic State sympathizers in the United States.

The FBI’s not willing to go that far just yet. Speaking at a press conference Friday afternoon, FBI Special Agent Ed Reinhold said it would be “premature to speculate on the shooter’s motive” and that there was currently “no indication” that the attack was linked to the Islamic State.

LaFree also said it’s too soon to tell if McCaul’s assertion is true. To determine if violence is an act of terrorism, he uses a simple formula: It has to be politically motivated. Because James Holmes walked into a Colorado movie theater with no motivation other than to kill as many people as possible, he doesn’t fit the bill. Holmes was convicted of first-degree murder on Thursday.

Whether this definition is the right one is a politically and socially charged issue. After Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man charged with killing nine black parishioners at a historic African American church in Charleston, many Americans were angry when FBI Director James Comey refused to call the attack an act of terrorism. A report documenting terrorist plots and attacks against the United States and Western targets in 2015, released by McCaul’s committee a week after the Charleston shooting, also didn’t include the South Carolina massacre.

Under LaFree’s criteria, however, Roof would be considered a terrorist. In a manifesto discovered after the June 17 shootings, Roof — who held a Confederate flag many associate with slavery in one picture and wore a jacket with the flags of two apartheid governments in another — made clear he believed racial violence was necessary to change the American social and political landscape.

In an interview with Foreign Policy Friday, LaFree admitted his definition is an imperfect one. “There is lots of disagreement about what the legal definition of terrorism is,” he said.

And the debate over terrorism isn’t limited to attacks on American soil. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican contender Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of waiting two weeks to call the attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, a terrorist attack. In fact, the president had referred to it as such a day after it occurred, on Sept. 12, 2012.

As law enforcement continues to investigate the Tennessee killings, the unknowns about what happened on the two highways there are starting to outweigh the knowns. Investigators are now looking into the Kuwaiti-born Abdulazeez’s 2014 trip to Jordan, an American ally some jihadis have used as a waystation for crossing into neighboring Syria to join the Islamic State. They’re trying to determine if he had any contact with militants while there, although the trip raised no red flags among American counterterrorism officials at the time.

It’s also not clear where the gunman got the weapons used in the attacks and what those weapons were. Law enforcement officials said he was heavily armed but have not provided precise details on the guns Abdulazeez was firing as he opened fire from a rented car. All they’ve said is that the gun was an AK-47 style weapon, but they did not provide the exact make. It’s also unclear how, when, and where he was killed; police only say Abdulazeez died from gunshots he sustained during Thursday’s melee.

At the Friday press conference, law enforcement officials did little to solve these mysteries. Reinhold said Abdulazeez was not wearing body armor during the attacks and that authorities were “just beginning to process” the crime scenes.

On Friday, the Marines identified the victims as Sgt. Carson Holmquist of Polk, Wisconsin; Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan of Hampden, Massachusetts; Staff Sgt. David Wyatt of Burke, North Carolina; and Lance Cpl. Squire Wells of Cobb County, Georgia.

If Abdulazeez had survived, both LaFree and Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, said it was more than likely federal prosecutors would have pursued murder charges rather than  terrorism ones, even if it turns out Abdulazeez’s actions were politically motivated or inspired by the Islamic State.

Terrorism charges “make it a real pain in the neck to prosecute, especially when deaths results,” Levin told FP Friday. He said the easier path would be to try him for murder.

“When death results, it’s a cleaner prosecution just to show an act was done than to delve into motives and additional factors,” he added.

The FBI is investigating the incident as an act of “domestic terrorism.” Levin said this doesn’t necessarily mean those looking into the attacks, which also injured three, would ultimately find them to be terrorism. The designation simply gives investigators a bigger tool box to get to the root of Abdulazeez’s motivations.

“As a triage, they will label incidents as domestic terror,” Levin said, referring to the FBI. “They want to find out if a particular act was part of some kind of coordinated, orchestrated event. They’re trying to make sure this is not part of a more directed, broad conspiracy.”

The fact that Abdulazeez has a traditionally Muslim name and was a naturalized citizen born in Kuwait also influences how the FBI treats the case, something that opens the door to accusations of racial profiling.

“But the FBI is not trying to get points in a classroom,” Levin added. “What they really try to do is determine whether or not there’s a wider conspiracy.”

He also said it’s impossible to ignore how successful the Islamic State has been at influencing potential jihadis around the world. Even if Abdulazeez didn’t have direct contact with members of the terrorist group, he could have easily been inspired by it like Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, the two men killed after firing on a deliberately provocative cartoon contest in suburban Dallas.

“You’re seeing the most sophisticated social media effort ever made by an extremist group. It’s a fluid situation where we have a catalyst, the conflict in Syria and Iraq,” Levin said.

If history is a predictor, Abdulazeez will eventually meet LaFree’s criteria. He said Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist who killed 13 and injured more than 30, at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who killed one soldier and injured another in Arkansas that same year, are listed in his database as terrorists.

Photo credit: Jason Davis/Getty Images

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