Roof, Dear and Tashfeen Malik: ‘Self-Radicalized,’ ‘Terrorism,’ ‘Lone Wolf’ and Double Standards

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Federal officials are now investigating the San Bernardino massacre as an “act of terrorism” rather than just workplace violence.

But when Dylann Roof allegedly shot nine persons dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, there was strong resistance on the part of officials to speaking of that as terrorism.

Likewise, Alleged Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Dear was not called a terrorist by politicians on the right despite his clearly political goals.

What is the difference between these three?

Malik, Roof and Dear became radicals through their own reading and research rather than from having obvious organizational links. All three seem to be, in the official parlance, “lone wolves” who “self-radicalized.”

One part of terrorism is apparently conceived of in official US discourse on these things as organizational. It is early days in the investigation of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, but while Malik may have made a hasty Facebook declaration of loyalty to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during her horrid shooting spree, so far it does not appear that there was any element of command and control in either the case of Roof or of Malik/Farook.

Does it matter what the target is? Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal building in Oklahoma City to target the Federal government, given his white supremacist ideology. Dear targeted Planned Parenthood in an obvious attempt to change public policy. Since Malik and her husband just shot up a meal for employees at a center for taking care of challenged folks, rather than choosing some more significant target with actual political implications, can their action be seen at the moment as primarily as terroristic? Back in the 1990s the phrase “going postal” emerged from a rash of incidents of workplace rage and violence. There were 20 instances such violence between 1986 and 1997, in which employees shoot down more than 40 individuals. They look much more like they went postal than that they were trying to bring down the Federal government.

Does organization matter? In counter-terrorism, you always seek to disrupt the enemy’s command and control abilities. The San Bernardino killers, as things now stand, did not partake of any formal structure within Daesh that day. Nor does Roof appear to have a strong organizational context in, e.g., the Ku Klux Klan such that anyone gave him an order to kill African-Americans in their church. Dear was also a loner.

In fact, a major US newspaper called Dear a “gentle loner.” Hmmm.

Where persons do not have a witting relationship with a terrorist group, officials refer to them as ‘self-radicalized.’ All three, Dear, Malik and Roof were obviously self-radicalized (at the least) and developed a vague identification with movements they felt represented their grievances over identity politics.

If Tashfeen Malik, the female shooter, actually swore allegiance via Facebook to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) leader “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” then her motives in the shootings were political. But her target was not political. Roof’s target was more obviously political than a facility for treating challenged people– he killed a sitting state senator, which is almost never mentioned by the US press. Dear’s target was also political– he wanted to overturn the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

So is a vague organizational affiliation more important in determining whether a killing is terrorism, or is the character of the target more important?

When Roof first went before a judge, the judge observed that Roof’s family were also “victims.” Has any US official said that about the families of Malik and Farook?

How useful is the language of ‘lone wolves’ and ‘self-radicalization’? Police work and counter-terrorism has to focus on organizations and you could seldom forestall someone from essential going postal.

I don’t have answers. I do know that Malik, Dear and Roof engaged in murder and violence because of their ideologies, all (as far as we now know) lacked the element of organizational command and control, and only one of them killed a sitting state senator. Yet Roof was not charged with terrorism. One of the reasons was that white supremacist organizations, in material support of which he may have acted, are not typically designated “terrorists” by the US government.

Is there a double standard in our public discourse here?


Related video:

Wochit News: Was The Planned Parenthood Attack Domestic Terrorism?

30 Responses

  1. Of course there is a firm and generally unchalenged double standard, both in official treatment and statements, and in media coverage, which seems to be at the root some especially American late 20th-early 21st Century institutional dysfunction.

  2. If there were no double-standard, some people would not be able to say: “While all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims,” would they?

    As a Sufi Muslim, I adhere to a branch of Islam that is focused on self-development so that it reflects the higher qualities, such as love, forgiveness, generosity, selflessness, humility, not doing unto others what one doesn’t want done unto one, not seeing otherness, peace, etc.

    But Heaven forbid if the many forms of Sufi Islam in existence today are ever mentioned on the mainstream media.

  3. Over at the Politico website they Mr. Gerstein is asking….”Is Obama doing enough to combat home grown terrorism?” Ed Snowden has confirmed that under this administration NSA and a multitude of government agencies are monitoring our phone calls, emails, letters, credit card purchases, membership roles, and yet none of these infringements on our privacy can stop Mr. Dear from calming walking into a PP office and mowing down innocent civilians? Is he suggesting we copy Stalin’s post WWII Soviet Union?

    Maybe the fault lies at Fox news for fomenting hatred toward Muslims and minorities to the point where their golden boy, Mr. Trump, can present his outrageous plan to deal with terrorist, that being, we kill grandparents, children and women family members related to terrorist. How far down the family line he would go, cousins or great grandparents, he does not say.

    So I would pose a question to Mr. Gerstein….”What did you have in mind?”

    Mr. Trump’s tactic, approved by many in the GOP tea party, proves we evolved from animals and territorial species and while we like to think of ourselves, for the most part, as civilized 600 gang related murders in Baltimore and Chicago this year alone proves we still harbor tribe like hatred for those who believe, look or act differently than the tribe we were born into. Roof hated blacks, Dear hates liberals, ISIS hates Christians and Jews, School shooters hated the popular elites, gang members hate opposing gang members.

  4. As you say, the investigation is still underway, and whether or not a network is involved may turn out to hinge on where the killers were during the couple of hours between the attack and their return to their home.

    I wonder if the FBI isn’t talking more about the overall pattern than the specific attack, more about what the couple may have been preparing to do before something set off this particular act than about the act itself.

  5. IMO, terrorism is the use or threat of violence against non-combatants as a substitute for civic participation with people who disagree. I don’t feel compelled to draw distinctions between these acts of domestic terror, and to be honest, I would include more “random” mass shootings under that umbrella (nihilistic terrorism).

  6. Most of the talk is about a clash of ideologies and values between Daesh and the West – radical Islam 24/7. But there is another clash that gets slim attention, the Coalition (mainly US) bombing campaign waged against Daesh.

    Since August 2014 the Coalition has dropped over 28,000 bombs or other weapons on Daesh. And claimed to have destroyed or damaged over 16,000 targets. The bombing missions are virtually without risk to Coalition forces.
    link to
    link to

    Of course Daesh does not have the resources to retaliate in kind, but certainly retaliation should be expected. So maybe that’s what Paris and San Bernardino are about.

    When we kill innocents (in a jurisdiction that offers no threat to the US), it’s collateral damage. When they kill innocents, it’s terrorism.

  7. “In counter-terrorism, you always seek to disrupt the enemy’s command and control abilities.”

    So then, time to disrupt Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the conservative media?

    Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating, promoting, or even suggesting anything unlawful.

    • You actually make a valid point, and it explains the reason why the US refuses to label people like Roof and Dear “terrorists.

      The US targeted Anwar al-Awlaki – a US citizen – solely for his alleged inspirational, or influenctial role in acts of terror. There’s no evidence that he was directly involved in a single act of violence. If the US were to determine that Dear and Roof were “terrorists,” then the law requires that those who influenced them must also be considered “an imminent threat.” According to the al-Awlaki memo, this would involve the US targeted assassinations of the leaders of the pro-life movement, neo-nazi groups, and numerous members of the US Congress who have demonized Planned Parenthood.

      What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

      link to

  8. Was reading the definition of terrorism at the F.B.I.’s website after hearing MSNBC contributor Steve Rattner talk about a particular definition of terrorism on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this past week.

    FBI — Terrorism Definition link to…/terrorism/terroris… Federal Bureau of Investigation “Definitions of Terrorism in the U.S. Code 18 U.S.C. § 2331 defines “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism” for purposes of Chapter 113B of the Code, entitled “Terrorism”: “International terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics: Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.* “Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics: Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. 18 U.S.C. § 2332b defines the term “federal crime of terrorism” as an offense that: Is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct; and Is a violation of one of several listed statutes, including § 930(c) (relating to killing or attempted killing during an attack on a federal facility with a dangerous weapon); and § 1114 (relating to killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the U.S.). * FISA defines “international terrorism” in a nearly identical way, replacing “primarily” outside the U.S. with “totally” outside the U.S. 50 U.S.C. § 1801(c).”

    Only problem for me is that the F.B.I. does not seem to apply these standards to other mass killings. Charleston, Colorado Springs etc. And the U.S. certainly does not apply these standards to our international military actions which many in those parts of the world (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Palestine) consider our invasions, military interventions (supplying arms to rebels in Syria), selling arms to Saudi Arabia used in Yemen, arms in Israel etc) as International terrorism. MSNBC showing Chris Jansing interviewing terrorist murderer in San Bernardino’s sister. Have we seen her do the same with the sibling, family of murderer of the three at the Planned Parenthood domestic terrorist murder? If they are going to apply their standards to the terrorist murder in San Bernardino…apply them to the murderer in Colorado. To the domestic terrorist murderer of 9 in Charleston. –

  9. So sad that the six month old baby girl of the two murderers is in custody of the state instead of being in the custody of her grandmother who has been in her life all of her young life. Ok in custody of the grandmother with oversight by Feds. Why cause more trauma for that infant.

    Such a horrific tragedy for the families of the victims and the family of the killers.

    The domestic terrorist killing in Colorado Springs sure has fallen off the map of the MSM. President Obama did not even mention them when he mentioned those killed in the terrorist act in San Bernardino at the WH Christmas tree lighting. Tragic….all of this

  10. I’ve started wondering if the terrorism label is functional, i.e., if it is defined not by motive and means, but by how authorities are going to respond. Terrorism is considered an act of war, and the gloves come off. Otherwise, it’s regular police work, a trial, and sentence.

  11. Yet Roof was not charged with terrorism. One of the reasons was that white supremacist organizations, in material support of which he may have acted, are not typically designated “terrorists” by the US government.

    Kind of like many past and present US administrations and Congresses.

    • Frankly, I haven’t looked it up, but what, for example, in the State of Michigan could Dear or Roof have been charged with which would carry a death sentence?

  12. “Is there a double standard in our public discourse here?” ….I almost doubled over with laughter ! Where is there not a double standard in US discourse and actions?
    To borrow a saying from my mother the US “couldn’t lie straight in bed” .

    • Our society is built on a definition of freedom that implies it is the power of right-thinking people to oppress lesser beings. Yet it is presented as freedom for everybody – because if the lesser beings want the “wrong” things then it’s license, not freedom. All other double standards might emerge from that.

    • It is completely clear that the US is addicted to lying. The only question is, “Is the US a pathological or a congenital liar?” Probably the latter if we consider the hypocrisy of the Christian refugees who first colonized the eastern seaboard. They were most notably followed by the slave owners who declared in 1776 that all men … had a right to life and liberty.

      Not to be outdone, the Pentagon that lied to get the ball rolling in Vietnam is now engaged in a multi-million charade to put an honorable fig leaf on our war machine’s debacle there. “Whitewashing Militarism, Vietnam-War Edition” by Robert Fantina – link to

  13. There is indeed a double standard, but probably appropriate. Christian or white supremacist terrorists do not (yet) have organizations as fearsome as ISIS or Al-Queda backing them.

      • There’s a similarity, but it’s a bit of a stretch to draw an equivalence.

    • The hell they don’t – it’s called the NRA. Stack up how many American’s have died at the hands of Muslims versus by the direct lobbying efforts of the NRA. There’s no argument who has the more blood on its hands.

    • “Christian or white supremacist terrorists do not (yet) have organizations as fearsome as ISIS or Al-Queda backing them.”

      I see the rationale, but disagree. I think they do have even more powerful and well-financed organizations backing them. They just don’t take brazen open credit for their machinations.
      The public, citizens, can genuinely not know.

  14. All three have something in common, they are deranged and fanatic people. Whatever one wants to call what they did, it is criminal by any name. During the time after Vietnam we had a series of high-jacked airplanes, hostages, the Bader Meinhof gang, Charles Manson, all sorts of violent political groups that did commit crimes. The government and FBI did criminal investigations and no politicians came out undercutting the government, putting fear into the people, egging people on to purchase more guns as the TP aka Republicans do now, people like Trump and Cruz and Jerry Fallwell jr, telling the students to go and buy guns. The response from the right is totally hateful and irrational. They are turning the country into a combat zone, we must be more afraid of our neighbor than any Muslim terrorist. The nation used to have to deal with the Mafia gang too, they could handle them and they were a domestic gang, inside country not thousands of miles away as ISIS is.

  15. From Cincinnati. I’m as frightened of Malik and her kind as anyone else, but I’m also frightened of the wars, bombs, and drones in the ME of the U. S. and our allies — which I feel have brought these attacks upon us. See my post about the tragic bloodshed in Paris: “Even Now, My Friends — Is War the Answer?” at

  16. Dear’s statement “no more baby parts” is no less his ideological declaration of motivation, than the San Bernadino shooter’s “hasty Facebook declaration of loyalty to Daesh commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
    It is what it is.

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