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What Is A Terrorist?

Image of terrorism definition
Jagz Mario
Flickr Creative Commons

Since the shooting of nine African-Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, public discourse has focused in part on how the alleged shooter should be labeled.

In particular, is it appropriate to use the term, “terrorist” given that state and local law enforcement agencies rank American anti-government extremists as a higher threat than foreign terrorist groups. 

Host Frank Stasio talks with UNC sociology professor Charles Kurzman about his recent report, “Law Enforcement Assessment of the Violent Extremism Threat.” Stasio also speaks with Mark Potok, senior fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center, about “Lone Wolf” terrorism; and Kenny Irby, senior faculty at the Poynter Institute, about the etymology of the word terrorism.

Anti-government conspiracies

In that report that Kurzman co-authored, he surveyed 382 law enforcement agencies around the country about acts of violence and extremism they face. Kurzman found that anti-government beliefs were the biggest threat to those agencies. Islamic revolutionist plots, which often receive the most media attention, ranked second. Environmental extremism came in third.  

Kurzman followed up with 19 of the agencies to see how they’re combating these conspiracies.

“It includes following social media. It includes everyday conversations law enforcement agents have,” Kurzman says. “It includes the acts of violence they witness in their own jurisdictions. There’s no single way they come up with these assessments.”

“Lone Wolf” Terrorism

Potok defines the “lone wolf” as “someone who acts in a political attack on their own. They’re not taking their orders from someone else, they’re not being financed by other people and they’re generally not telling others around them what they’re going to do.”

Many of these crimes appear to be carried out by individuals as opposed to being part of a larger organization. With the advancement of law enforcement, it’s become increasingly harder to be involved in a conspiracy while continuously committing violent acts.

Potok looked at 63 incidences mostly during the Obama administration to see how prevalent “lone wolf” terrorism is.

He found that 74 percent were supposedly carried out by lone wolves. Once you add a partner, like a father, brother or friend, that number bumped up to 90 percent. Only one of the 63 was connected to a larger organization.

“The reality is you are extremely likely to be caught if you’re involved in a large conspiracy,” Potok says.

Talking specifically about the Charleston killings, Potok says it’s obviously terrorism to him, and though the alleged killer Dylann Roof supposedly acted as a lone wolf, there’s still a larger issue of white supremacy.

“That is diminishing the very real fact that there’s a real ideology out there,” Potok says.

Reporting On Terrorism

Irby provides good advice for media organizations trying to define terrorism and responsibly report on situations.

“We advise that media organizations minimize the harm of sensationalism and offer practical insights about how the term is being used: a number of people that have been injured and as much as we know of the perpetrator and the incidents as they evolve,” Irby says.

Hady Mawajdeh is a native Texan, born and raised in San Antonio. He listened to Fresh Air growing up and fell in love with public radio. He earned his B.A. in Mass Communication at Texas State University and specialized in electronic media. He worked at NPR affiliate stations KUT and KUTX in Austin, Texas as an intern, producer, social media coordinator, and a late-night deejay.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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