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Austin police chief changes mind, labels bombing suspect a ‘domestic terrorist’

Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley briefs the media last week in Round Rock, Tex. (Eric Gay/AP)

In the days since police cornered the suspected Austin bomber last week, authorities faced intense criticism from some quarters for the way they described the man who paralyzed their city with fear.

Interim Austin Police Chief ­Brian Manley called the 23-year-old suspect, Mark Anthony Conditt, a “challenged young man” frustrated about troubles in his personal life. To the dismay of some critics, Manley refrained from labeling the suspect — a white man — as a terrorist. Authorities found no indication that he was inspired by any foreign terrorist groups or that he was motivated by hate for a particular group.

But Manley has since changed his mind.

“When I look at what he did to our community,” the police chief said Thursday, “I actually agree now that he was a domestic terrorist.”

Speaking at a panel discussion about the bombings’ impact on people of color, Manley said that he felt an obligation last week to remain “laser-focused on the investigation, on finding the suspect who was responsible for this.” He said he had to choose his language carefully.

“Knowing that it might end up in a legal system at some point, I was being very specific on legal definitions that exist under federal law,” Manley said, according to a recording of the discussion by KUT. “I was so focused on putting a stop to it and making sure we did it in a way that allowed us to handle the suspect or suspects in a court system in the future.”

But seeing the way the string of bombs shook the community, Manley said, cemented his thinking — “he was a domestic terrorist.”

For three weeks in March, bombs in the city killed two people and injured several others. The incidents began with explosive packages left at people’s homes, moved to an explosive rigged with a tripwire and then included two shipped through FedEx, as The Washington Post reported.

As officers closed in on Conditt last week, he detonated a homemade bomb and was killed, police said. Authorities ruled his death a suicide caused by “multiple penetrating shrapnel injuries.”

Other officials last week, including White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, also avoided describing the Austin bombings as acts of terrorism.

When to use the word “terrorism” has, to some extent, become a political rather than a legal question. The FBI’s website, for example, associates “domestic terrorism” with groups or people that “espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature,” a usage that does not fit Conditt.

Austin bomber: ‘Challenged young man’ or ‘terrorist’?

“Some people will say it’s terrorism, because it caused terror in that community. I don’t look at it as terrorism, because there’s no organization behind it,’’ Malcolm Brady, a former assistant director for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told The Washington Post last week. “This is a single individual that was more than likely mentally unstable about something, so he blew things up. … He’s not a terrorist.”

However, many people argued that if Conditt had been a person of color, he may have been characterized differently.

“This troubled young man? No, if that was me or any other person in this room that has ample amounts of melanin in their skin, that story would’ve been a lot different,” Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition said in Thursday’s panel discussion in Austin. “Was the young man troubled? Absolutely. But he was a troubled young man that turned out to be a domestic terrorist.

“Because he was white, we gave him the benefit of being a human first,” Moore added.

Gilbert Rivera, a panelist and longtime East Austin activist, agreed that because the suspect terrorized a whole community, his actions should be defined as terrorism.

“He is and will always be in my book a domestic terrorist,” Rivera said. “And when he did that, it brought up everything that is part of our DNA.”

While audience members applauded when Manley used the phrase “domestic terrorist,” at least one attendee said that the chief’s admission was “too little, too late.”

“We don’t know, we will not know what that qualification more early in the investigation would have done, what resources would have been provided to make sure that more lives were not lost,” Kristina Brown told the Austin American-Statesman.

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