When is a terrorist a terrorist?

The use of language to describe acts of mass violence is again under the microscope.  In the wake of the Orlando massacre, which was immediately called an act of terrorism by just about everyone, we now have a much smaller incident – the murder of British MP Jo Cox in her  West Yorkshire constituency.  Unlike the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme 30 years ago, there is no doubt who the assailant was.  Thomas Mair, a so-called loner and possible neo-Nazi sympathiser, was arrested at the scene and will be tried for murder (if found of sound mind at the time of the crime).  As to why he killed Ms Cox, that will take more time to ascertain.

What rankles some people is why this act, unlike Orlando, has not been labelled one of terrorism.  Some say it is because the alleged killer is white and not Muslim.  Interestingly, Republican clown-in-chief Donald Trump has taken President Obama to task for not using the words “radical Islam” to describe the Orlando tragedy.

Biases aside, when do we call something a terrorist act?  The answer is actually quite simple.  Despite the myriad definitions of terrorism, there are three conditions which must be satisfied for an incident to be labelled an act of terrorism. Those three are:

  • the act must result  in the death or serious injury of a person or many people
  • the target(s) must be  civilian(s)/non-combatant(s)
  • the act must be carried out for ideological purposes and to spread fear and/or try to impose change by force

Note that nowhere is there any reference to mental illness.  In my opinion this is a red herring as the overwhelming majority of terrorist acts are NOT committed by mentally ill people and in the tiny few in which a case of mental illness is established (and not amateur diagnoses that are all too prevalent) it is important to realise that mental illness and terrorism are not mutually exclusive.  A finding of mental disease may have an impact on court proceedings but it should not cloud our analysis.

But back to the use of the term “terrorism”.  My Muslim friends have a point when they say that everyone is quick to frame the “brown guy” as a terrorist before any facts are in.  On the other hand, it often seems that the first response to a white guy who kills is to call him a loner/loser/mentally unstable actor and not a terrorist.   This distinction obviously has a lot to do with the ethos of the post 9/11 world and the Islamophobia propagated by idiots like Mr. Trump.  We should be consistent with our use of language and apply the three criteria listed above.  If an act of violence walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then we have a terrorist duck.  Simple, no?

Except that motivation is really hard to determine in many cases.  We seldom have a 1,500-page manifesto like that left by Anders Breivik (NB here is a very cool article on why Breivik should not be considered insane) to tell us why a terrorist did what he did.  In most cases we have piecemeal information and never acquire a full understanding (as an aside, in a court of law it should not matter whether a murderer is a terrorist or not, should it?  I suppose there may be implications for sentencing, but murder is murder regardless of reason).

So is Thomas Mair a terrorist?  His actions certainly satisfy the first two conditions, but what about the third?  Did he kill Ms. Cox because she was for the Remain side in the upcoming EU referendum?  Was it because she was a woman?  Did he consider her a traitor to Britain?  Was he hoping to alter his fellow citizens’ behaviour?  All good questions with no answers yet although it is ironic that if he was trying to affect the vote his act may actually help boost Bremain to a victory over Brexit.

What about Omar Mateen?  Was he a terrorist?  There is no doubt he was radicalised (which points to terrorism) but his slaughter may have been a heinous act of homophobia, his last minute pledge of allegiance to IS notwithstanding.  Or it may be a hybrid act.

We do need to be consistent in our use of terminology and not for reasons of political correctness.  Terrorism spans multiple ideological spheres and terrorists should be treated as such no matter what warped world view they support.  Our media and talking heads need to get better at this.

And yet the rush to describe Muslim killers as terrorists from the get go is not that hard to fathom is it?  Small exceptions aside, it is difficult to argue against the fact that the vast majority of terrorist acts worldwide in 2016 are carried out by people best described as Islamist extremists who practice a rejectionist and intolerant, hateful version of Islam.  Yes there are Muslims and non-Muslims who kill for reasons that have nothing to do with violent extremism.  And there are Muslims and non-Muslims who are terrorists, but there are many more of the former than the latter (i.e. Muslims who happen to be terrorists).  While the number of Muslims who are terrorists is an infinitesimally small percentage of all Muslims, they do surpass non-Muslim terrorists in terms of sheer numbers.  This is not to justify the imprecise use of the word “terrorist” and the reluctance to label every real terrorist  properly, but it is an uncomfortable truth that we are in the midst of the Islamist “wave” (to use David Rapoport’s model) of terrorism.

So in the end let us do a better job of being accurate but let us not protest unjustifiably over calling Islamist extremists what they really are – terrorists who happen to be Muslim but who act based on their flawed interpretation of their faith.  At the same time let us describe other terrorists precisely.  This is no time for political correctness on either side.


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.

Leave a Reply