Who's a terrorist? Depends on what the definition of terrorist is


Mohommad Youssuf Abdulazeez, a Muslim born in Kuwait, shot and killed five members of the U.S. military in Chattanooga last week.

Dylann Storm Roof, a troubled white kid from South Carolina, shot nine people to death in a historic black church in Charleston last month.

Which one is a terrorist?

Is either?

Or are both?

There was little hesitation in applying the label to Abdulazeez, who died in a shootout with police at a military facility in Chattanooga.


Credit: Alan Judd

Credit: Alan Judd

The reaction to Roof, who was arrested in North Carolina after fleeing the shooting scene in Charleston, was a bit more nuanced – despite the fact that he had told friends he hoped to start a race war .

We consulted terrorism experts last week to get a better idea how to describe the latest two episodes of mass killing in America, both of which occurred here in the gun-loving South.

“Terrorism is politically motivated violence, usually against civilians, to create fear,” said David Schanzer, a Duke University professor and the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Abdulazeez’s motives are still unclear, although his shooting spree was the type of attack – on military personnel and police officers – that has been promoted by the so-called Islamic State.

Attacking military targets, Schanzer said, is “a hallmark of terrorism.”

“You are making a statement,” Schanzer said. “It doesn’t seem like you’re killing for the sake of killing.”

Seth Jones, director of the RAND Corp.’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, said that the Charleston shooting also “meets any basic definition of terrorism.”

“There was the intent and the use of violence for political purposes,” Jones said. “It was just a different ideology.”

Here’s something else to consider:

The New America Foundation, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, keeps a running tally of deaths in the United States from terrorism: those in "jihadist" attacks and those in anti-government assaults (for which the foundation uses the pejorative term "right-wing").

Since 2002, 26 people have died as a result of jihad-related violence, the foundation says.

Since 2004, 48 have died at the hands of so-called right-wing extremists.

As of Tuesday, the foundation hadn’t yet classified last week’s five deaths in Chattanooga. "Terrorism is politically motivated violence, usually against citizens, to create fear."