What's in a name? The absence of terror label after attacks sparks national debate

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / FBI agents prepare in a staging area on Hixson Pike before leaving to investigate the nearby home of gunman Muhammad Abdulazeez on July 16. A debate is underway on whether Abdulazeez should be laballed a terrorist.

When a city goes on lockdown and five servicemen are killed and fear ripples across the country, talking about words and definitions seems like semantics.

Stamping July 16 as "terrorism" doesn't change what happened. It doesn't bring back fathers and sons or return Chattanooga to the small town sense of security it had before Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez armed himself and methodically attacked two local military sites with the purpose of bloodshed.

But to many the label of terrorism is critical.

To the families, it means their loved ones died for something bigger than random violence. It means they were casualties of war, of the same dangerous ideology that has taken so many American soldiers. It means, in the truest sense, that they were heroes, sacrificing their safety for ours.

To those who believe in America's fight in the Middle East, it means Americans must remain vigilant, that the threat remains, that efforts to tamp down government surveillance or limit profiling are foolhardy.

To those who worry about the division that comes with the label of terrorism, calling Abdulazeez a terrorist without calling other ideologically or politically motivated mass killers terrorists indicates a narrow understanding of who America's enemies are. Many have argued that the young man who killed nine church goers at a black church in Charleston should have been called a terrorist.

To the federal government, the label is both politically problematic and a question of fault. If Abdulazeez was a terrorist, then why didn't they know the attack was coming? If he was a terrorist why, in an era of extensive and far reaching intelligence, wasn't he stopped?

And the very public fight over this word has just begun.

In the initial hours of the investigation, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian described the attack as "domestic terrorism." But a day later he backed off, explaining that the FBI was treating the incident as "a terrorism investigation."

"I wouldn't get caught up in monikers," Killian chided reporters, who pressed. "Whether it's domestic, international, this or that."

Then, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called the Chattanooga shootings "ISIS-inspired," referring to the terrorist group also known as ISIL or the Islamic State.

At the last FBI news conference on July 22, the description of the attack was further nuanced.

"[Abdulazeez] is being treated as a homegrown violent extremist," said FBI Special Agent Ed Reinhold.

Then, at the Aspen Security Forum last week both the director of the FBI and the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security added to the confusion.

FBI Director James Comey said that he sees both terrorist-directed attacks, like 9/11, and terrorist-inspired attacks, like the one in Chattanooga, as blended. But Jeh Johnson, the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, said he sees them as distinct from one another. He added that Abdulazeez "was not on our radar. And I would not have considered Chattanooga, Tennessee, to be a high risk area."

Johnson also took issue with terminology used to describe attacks like the one Abdulazeez committed. He prefers "violent extremists" to "Islamic extremists," he said.

"I believe strongly - and I hear this over and over again from Muslim leaders in this country - that to refer to ISIL as 'Islamic extremism' concedes too much. It dignifies them as occupying some part of the Islamic faith, which is about peace," Johnson said.

The comments lit up the conservative blogesphere and the ambiguity is also being challenged by lawmakers and the public, who argue that Abdulazeez's attack on Chattanooga was characteristically terrorism and should go by no other name.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., filed a resolution insisting Abdulazeez actions were an act of terror because he followed a known al-Qaida leader, the late Anwar al-Awlaki, on Twitter and wrote fondly about al-Awlaki's worldview.

"This is clearly an act of terror against our five fallen heroes," said Fleischmann, who has gained bipartisan support for his resolution filed last week. "I do not want there to be any hesitation on the part of the U.S. House of Representatives of calling and defining this horrible, terrible action for what it is."

Many who swarmed to the Lee Highway memorial since the shooting to plant flags and honor the five lost servicemen expressed similar views.

"This was a terrorist act, I don't care what they say," said Linda Kring, a Chattanooga resident who came to take photos of the memorial.


The word terrorism was first used during the French Revolution when tens of thousands were executed publicly for the purpose of political control through fear. Then, terrorism was embodied by government control through violence. In the 19th century, terrorism was redefined to include assassinations of government leaders. Then, in the 1970s, terrorism became defined as the indiscriminate killing of civilians with intent to send a widespread political message to establishment leaders.

In 1972, when Palestinians attacked Israelis at the Munich Olympics, terrorists used the media and momentary worldwide attention of the games to draw an audience to their message. Al-Qaida used the same script in its attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, which ushered in a new era in which terrorism became synonymous with radical Muslim extremists intent on humbling America, experts say.

Yet, now, the rising threat of ISIS and its tactic of influencing individuals through online propaganda rather than direct contact, raise the question of whether a lone actor without direct links to a hostile group should be labeled a terrorist.

For many, the fact that Abdulazeez was Muslim, that he had online activity and personal writings that showed he was sympathetic to al-Qaida ideology and that his target was the military, proves he was a terrorist.

But, in recent years, in the aftermath of the George W. Bush-era "War On Terror," the Obama administration has sent mixed messages about what is and isn't terrorism because the definition has become increasingly political, experts say.

"It becomes more about how scary something is as opposed to what an academic or a lawyer might think about it," said Erin Miller, a researcher with the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or Start Center, at the University of Maryland. "What that means is if you don't call something terrorism you must not think it's the worst thing. You must not be condemning it as much as you would if it was a terrorist attack."

There is fear that labeling Muslims who commit violence as terrorists will stir hate crimes against American Muslims and re-enforce stereotypes that all Muslims hate America and are violent, said Tung Yin, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, who has studied perceptions of terrorism.

"We've seen a steady uptick in the number of incidents targeting Muslims and their institutions nationwide," said Ibriahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, shortly after the July 16 attack.

Since 9/11, 250 Muslim Americans have been associated with violent terrorism, according to a study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. And over the last 13 years, the U.S. government has identified 125 Muslim American terrorists plotting against specific targets in the United States. Two-thirds of those plots were disrupted early, the study stated.

Twenty-five Muslim Americans have carried out their attacks since 9/11 - nine involved firearms, seven included explosives, two used knives or hatchets, one involved a car and another a small aircraft - the study stated. A total of 50 people died from these attacks.

Yet, more right-wing extremists have targeted and killed Americans in the 10 years after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study published by the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center.

In 2014, there were 16 terrorism attacks in the U.S. calculated by the Global Terrorism Database, which is maintained by the Start Center. Nine of those attacks were carried out by groups associated with right-wing ideology, including a couple in Las Vegas who in 2014 shouted about a revolution as they shot and killed two police officers eating lunch at a CiCi's Pizza restaurant. They left behind both a "Don't Tread on Me" flag and a swastika before killing a third person as they fled.


Still, some worry that, in an effort to avoid profiling Muslim Americans, red flags will be missed. The case of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is cited as an example.

Hasan, a military psychiatrist, had been investigated for communicating with the American-born al-Qaida leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, the same imam Abdulazeez admired, but no action was taken against him. He also gave a presentation explaining that suicide bombings and other acts of jihad were justified.

Yet, after he killed 13 people and wounded 30 others at Fort Hood in Texas, his actions were labeled "work place violence." His mental health was cited by officials as well as his concern about being deployed to Afghanistan. But in his trial, Hasan himself said he intended to defend the lives of Taliban leaders. He has also called himself a "soldier of Allah."

For the federal government to have the evidence and then label the attack as "work place violence" seems absurd, said Yin.

Even though Hasan wasn't treated as a terrorist, he was still prosecuted for murder, convicted and given the death penalty. But the term mattered to the families of the victims and to the wounded.

At the time, the Purple Heart was not awarded to victims and family members because officials said it did not meet the strict criteria. Hasan's attack was not considered an attack by a "foreign terrorist organization."

For years, they fought to be awarded Purple Hearts and to receive all the benefits that go with the honor. They told stories of being mistreated, some denied access to post-traumatic stress disorder counseling. It ultimately took a lawsuit and an act of Congress for the Pentagon to change its stance. The victims and their families were awarded the Purple Heart in February, more than five years after the attack.

After the attack in Chattanooga, Republican leaders including, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Fleischmann said this case should be different.

Since Congress expanded the definition of what a foreign terrorist organization includes, Fleischmann said he believes the Chattanooga servicemen meet the new requirements. The new definition states that the honor will be bestowed on victims of an attack where the perpetrator "was in communication with the foreign terrorist organization before the attack" or in a situation in which "the attack was inspired or motivated by the foreign terrorist organization."

The Marine Corps has prepared Purple Heart nomination packages for the servicemen in Chattanooga, but they are waiting for the FBI to complete its investigation.

While Abdulazeez traveled to the Middle East and reports from his family suggest that he wrote about terrorists, searched for information online and followed a terrorist leader online, the FBI hasn't released any information yet that proves Abdulazeez communicated with or was inspired by a terrorist organization.

Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, who has studied mass murders and hate crimes for 35 years, said while terrorism is often a matter of opinion, in the case of Abdulazeez it's clear.

"Terrorism is a tactic. It is an act of violence; its purpose is to change something," he said. "It is intended to intimidate a population. Clearly that was the case here. This is clearly an act of terrorism."

Staff writer Shelly Bradbury contributed to this article.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at jsmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

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