Why some attacks are labeled ‘terrorism’ while others are not

Chase Stevens/ Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

WASHINGTON — A man in a rented pickup truck mowed down people on a busy bicycle path near the World Trade Center. Eight people were killed, and the attack was almost immediately called an act of terror.

Several days later, a man armed with a rifle stormed into a Texas church during Sunday morning service and started firing. More than two dozen people were killed, but investigators didn’t call it terrorism.

Why are some violent acts labeled terrorism and others not?

The New York truck attack — the deadliest terror attack in New York since 9/11 — was called terrorism after the suspect, Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, stated he was inspired by ISIS. Other ISIS sympathizers have used vehicle-ramming attacks overseas to kill scores of people in recent years.

But armed terrorists around the world have also charged into public spaces, firing indiscriminately at innocent people, just like Devin Kelley did when he killed more than 26 people Sunday at the First Baptist Church in tiny Sutherland Springs, Texas. The massacre — the worst in Texas’ history and the fifth-worst in modern American history — killed about four percent of the town’s population.

At a news conference Monday, Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the San Antonio division of the FBI, said “at this time we don’t have a terrorism investigation open.”

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the world has never really settled on a standard definition of “terrorism.” The US Code of Federal Regulations defines it as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

But it is not a standalone criminal charge.

“There is not a domestic terrorism crime as such,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a Senate hearing in September. “We in the FBI refer to domestic terrorism as a category but it’s more of a way in which we allocate which agents, which squad is going to work on it.”

So once again, it all comes down to motive. Was there a political or ideological agenda behind the attack?

In another example, from March of this year, James Harris Jackson stabbed a man in New York and said he did so as a “practice” run for more killings of black people. Jackson was charged with murder in the second degree as a hate crime.

But Jackson also faces a terrorism charge in the case — murder as an act of terrorism in the first and second degrees.

According to police, Jackson, a Baltimore resident, said he traveled to New York because it is the media capital of the world and he wanted to make a statement. That was enough to convince the Manhattan District Attorney that Jackson should be charged with terrorism.

“James Jackson prowled the streets of New York for three days in search of a black person to assassinate in order to launch a campaign of terrorism against our Manhattan community and the values we celebrate,” he said.

What’s not terrorism?

Some attacks, at first glance, seem like they should be labeled terrorism. But they’re not.

Just a month ago Stephen Paddock smashed two windows on an upper floor at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas and fired on thousands of people at a country music festival below. He killed 58 people in the worst mass shooting in modern American history, but investigators never called that an act of terror.

“We have to establish what his motivation was first,” Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said at the time. The investigation, which is ongoing, has so far not discovered a motive for Paddock’s violent rampage.

Think back to Dylann Roof and the killing of nine people at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015. Roof, a white supremacist, said he killed the nine attendees of a Bible study at the Charleston, South Carolina, church because he wanted to start a race war. He was convicted of hate crimes and sentenced to death, but never charged with terrorism despite an outcry from many who said what Roof did was, in their eyes, the textbook definition of terrorism.

Does it matter what you call it?

There are legal distinctions to calling an act of violence a hate crime or terrorism, and because labeling something as terrorism has legal ramifications, it is not applied lightly.

Federal officials work with a very specific definition of when something is an act of domestic terrorism.

It has to have three characteristics: an act that takes place in the United States, that’s dangerous to human life, and is intended to intimidate civilians or affect government policy by “mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”

Consider the Fort Hood shooting in 2009. To the victims at the Texas base and their families, it was an act of terror, when Maj. Nidal Hassan opened fire on his fellow service members, killing 13 people.

But again, even though the attack met some of the criteria, federal authorities never used the terrorism label. Avoiding the label made it easier for them to pursue the death penalty.