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Was what happened in Charleston terrorism?

People concerned about relatives seek information from police nearby the scene of a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015. A gunman opened fire on Wednesday evening at the historic African-American church in downtown Charleston. REUTERS/Randall Hill

In the wake of last night’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, terrorism expert Brian Phillips asks and answers five questions based on initial reports of the shooter and the massacre.

  1. Is this terrorism?

Yes. There are many definitions of terrorism, but most definitions have four elements in common:

  • Violence;
  • Perpetrated by an individual or non-governmental group
  • Political, social, or religious motivations;
  • Intimidating a wider audience than the immediate victims.

By this definition, the massacre in Charleston, S.C. Wednesday was clearly a terrorist act. The violence is evident in the death toll of nine people. The perpetrator apparently was not soldier or official acting on behalf of a government, which would make it a different category of violence.

A racist political motivation seems likely given the shooter targeted black people in a historic African American church. Additional circumstances make this motivation difficult to dispute: the suspected shooter reportedly told victims that they were “taking over our country.” A photo shows the alleged shooter with white supremacist patches on his jacket.

Finally, regarding intimidation of a wider audience, the shooter reportedly left one person alive to spread the message. This was a textbook terrorist act.

  1. Why does it matter if we call it “terrorism”?

The word “terrorism” matters, and not only for theoretical or academic reasons. Terrorism has causes and effects that are distinct from the causes and effects of, say, common crime. If policymakers want to think about how to address terrorism, in addition to typical crime-fighting tactics, how incidents are understood matter. My research shows how government counterterrorism policies such as leadership targeting or leadership removal have distinct effects when used against organized crime. For example, terrorists are affected by the broader political environment, while this is less likely with traditional criminals.

The terrorism label also matters for legal reasons. There are different legal frameworks for terrorism and hate crimes than there are for crimes without such motivations. Our society has decided that terrorism is especially heinous because of the threat to citizens beyond the immediate victims, and therefore it merits additional punishment.

Finally, it is important to use the term “terrorism” when we see it in order to be consistent. Terrorism is already used without hesitation for many non-white – especially Muslim – actors who carry out violence consistent with the definition outlined above. Few media sources use the term for violent actors motivated by, for example, white supremacy or anti-government rage. To avoid the term becoming simply an insult, or worse a racist insult, it should be used whenever the basic criteria apply, or not at all. 

  1. How common are attacks on U.S. places of worship?

Churches, synagogues, and mosques in the United States have frequently been the targets of attacks throughout U.S. history. White supremacists carry out many of these attacks. Black churches in particular have a long history of being targeted. More generally, in reverse chronological order, notable attacks on U.S. religious institutions include:

  • 2012 attack on Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing seven including perpetrator
  • 2008 attack on Unitarian church in Tennessee, killing two
  • 1999 Jewish Community Center shooting in Los Angeles, wounding five (and one related death)
  • 1980s: Attacks across the country on synagogues and other targets by white supremacist groups such as The Order and the Ku Klux Klan
  • 1973 and 1974: Attacks on mosques during Nation of Islam infighting
  • 1963: Bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four

These are some of the more notable attacks or series of attacks. The Global Terrorism Database reports that there were 83 terrorist attacks on religious institutions or figures in the United States between 1970 and 2013.

  1. How deadly are attacks on U.S. religious institutions?

Given the data above, it appears that this is the most lethal attack on a U.S. place of worship at least since the 1960s. Some readers will note that other religious centers have experienced violence, like the shootings and fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993 that left more than 80 dead. However, analysts generally do not consider Waco a “terrorist attack” or otherwise directly comparable to the Charleston massacre. Another disaster at a religious center was the 1978 Jonestown massacre, killing more than 900 Americans, but this happened in Guyana, not in the United States. Additionally, the Jonestown massacre is generally not considered terrorism since the violence was not intended to intimidate a wider audience.

Of terrorist attacks on U.S. religious institutions, the Charleston massacre appears to be the most deadly in recent memory.

  1. How does this compare to other “lone wolf” attacks?

Assuming the alleged shooter acted alone, the death toll of nine is high for a politically-motivated lone actor. The average “lone wolf” terrorist attack in the United States, based on data from the past several decades, leaves about one person dead. Other terrorists, of course, have killed sizeable numbers of people in single events. Nidal Hasan managed to kill 13 soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009. The highest fatality count for a lone terrorist is that of Anders Breivik’s 2011 killing spree in Norway, which left 77 dead. In France the following year, Mohammad Merah killed eight people. In general, however, lone actors do not manage to kill so many people in a single attack.

The Charleston attack is a tragic example of a phenomenon we see increasingly often in the United States: a lone actor carrying out the degree of carnage traditionally associated with a terrorist organization. In the United States, counterterrorism tools such as wiretaps and monitoring Internet communication make organized terrorism harder than ever to carry out. As a result, would-be terrorists are apparently deciding to go it alone. An article I wrote that is forthcoming in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence examines this trend and finds that in the United States a typical lone wolf attack is actually more deadly than a typical terrorist organization attack. Terrorist group plots – requiring communication – are easier to detect and disrupt than one person’s (likely) secret plan. As a result, preventing solo actor attacks like the Charleston massacre represents one of the gravest challenges to modern counterterrorism.


Brian J. Phillips is assistant professor of international studies at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE). His research on terrorism and violence has been published in the Journal of Politics, the Journal of Conflict Research, and International Studies Quarterly, among other journals.