The shootings in Dallas – terrorism or not?

The shootings in Dallas last week are a tragedy no matter what your political stripe.  The murder of five police officers, those we entrust to keep us safe, tends to hit hard.  The apparent unjustified shootings and deaths of several black Americans by police officers in recent months is likewise a very sad series of events.  The two appear to be connected: the gunman in Dallas was black and his targets were white in what is being seen as retribution for the murder of blacks by white cops.

Not surprisingly the media coverage of this story has been pervasive.  It is merely the latest in a long series of stories of deaths between races and is contributing to a worrisome decline in racial relations in the US.  At the time of writing, more #Blacklivesmatter protests are going on in Louisiana and more civil disturbances, and deaths, are likely.

In the flurry of analysis over the last few days there has been a small cohort asking the very relevant question: was the shooting of five Dallas police officers an act of terrorism? US national security analyst David Sterman and CNN domestic terrorism expert Peter Bergen are confident that it was.  They argue that “terrorism is generally understood to be acts of violence conducted against civilians for political purposes…killing white police officers who are guarding a peaceful demonstration certainly qualifies as terrorism, in the same way that Roof’s attack on black churchgoers does (NB a reference to the 2015 attack on black churchgoers in South Carolina).”  The two go on to state that there is a need to refocus the US understanding of terrorism to go beyond the current fixation on Islamist extremism.

There is no doubt that reducing the classification of terrorism to one particular brand of violent extremism is wrong.  Terrorism is terrorism, regardless of the underlying ideological motivation.  But was the Dallas sniper a terrorist?  The answer is far from clear.

There are allegations that the gunman, Micah Johnson, had a FaceBook page on which he supported the New Black Panthers, a US organisation that some see as a hate group (I can find no reference to it as a terrorist organisation).  If these allegations are true, they do add an interesting twist to Mr. Johnson’s former political allegiances.  But they do not necessarily make him a terrorist.

The shootings in Dallas are eerily reminiscent to those in Moncton, New Brunswick in June 2014 when Justin Bourque shot at several RCMP officers, killing three.  The terrorism debate then was as strong as it is now, but the grounds for calling Mr. Bourque’s actions terrorism are weak, as they are for Mr. Johnson.

An act of terrorism requires three fundamental elements: the terrorist has to target non-combatants, the act has to be one that seeks to change a society’s views or policies and the motivation has to be ideological.  The Dallas shootings fail to provide convincing data on any one of these three criteria.

First, police officers are not technically non-combatants since they are armed.  No, they are not soldiers but they are also not unarmed civilians.  Furthermore, we do not consider all police deaths when officers are answering the call of duty to be terrorism and the Dallas police force was clearly acting within their stated responsibilities when they were killed.

Secondly, it is not clear what the act’s purpose was.  If it were to force change on US society – i.e. if I kill white police officers their white colleagues will stop killing innocent black civilians – then a case could be made.  It remains to be seen whether Mr. Johnson left a manifesto or any document stating that this was his goal.

Lastly, we need much more information to determine whether the act was ideologically motivated.  The alleged New Black Panthers FaceBook page is interesting but not conclusive.  A person does not have to be a member of a terrorist organisation or under its instruction to be a terrorist, but we have yet to determine if Mr. Johnson saw his action as part of the Panthers’ goals (the group has apparently called for the killing of Jews, whites and law enforcement officers).  There are also allegations that Mr. Johnson had more material with which to carry out a more protracted campaign of violence.  This too is of note but not definitive proof of terrorism.

As in the case of Justin Bourque, a man with a hatred for law enforcement sought to kill police officers.  In Mr. Johnson’s case there is an obvious desire for revenge; in Mr. Bourque’s the motive is not evident beyond a general dislike of authority.

We do need to be equitable in our use of the term “terrorism” to apply to all cases of ideologically-motivated violence and not limit it to when Muslims kill in the name of Islamic State or as self-styled mujahideen.  But at the same time we should not extend the term carelessly without due cause just to restore the reporting balance.  In time we may learn more about the Dallas incident to label it terrorism.  Until then it remains an act of mass violence by a former army officer angry about what he saw as social injustice in the US.




By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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