The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The 2017 vehicle-ramming attack on Halloween eve along Manhattan’s West Side Highway.
Some incidents are instantly categorized as terrorist acts. Others, like many of the mass shootings that have taken place in recent years, have left us searching for a suitable lexicon, framework, and countermeasures to tackle what is undoubtedly a true national crisis.
FROM BROOKLYN TO UVALDE
On Saturday, May 14, an 18-year-old from Conklin, NY, fired 50 rounds outside and inside a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, shooting and killing ten people and injuring three others, almost all of them Black. The shooting in Buffalo was one of several that took place over the weekend and brought up the number of mass shootings in the United States in these first 19 weeks of 2022 to 198, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks firearm homicides and non-fatal shootings across the country.
Shouldn’t killing innocent civilians in a supermarket be labeled as terrorism? Should entering a church with a gun and the intent to kill be considered terrorism? Shouldn’t killing innocent elementary school children and teachers be considered terrorism? Unfortunately, the answer is far from simple.
The shooting in Buffalo came just a month after a former NYC resident set off smoke grenades and fired 33 rounds in a crowded N train as it approached the 36th Street station in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. This happened during the morning commute, in one of the worst attacks ever seen on the NYC subway system. The day after the Buffalo attack, a shooting at a church in Southern California killed one person and injured five others, all of Asian ethnicity. Four of the five victims reportedly held Taiwanese citizenship, and authorities have stated that they are investigating the shooting as a “politically motivated hate crime.”
On Tuesday, May 24, 2022, an 18-year-old shot and killed 19 students — a class of fourth-graders — and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Before driving to Robb Elementary School, the perpetrator first shot and wounded his grandmother, less than half a mile from his grandmother’s home. He crashed his vehicle near the school and exchanged fire with law enforcement at the scene, who could not prevent him from entering the school and the fourth-grade classroom.
These devastating attacks and the many others that have become far too frequent demonstrate the horrific uptick in mass shootings across the country and shed light on the difficulties we face in officially determining when a mass shooting is also an act of domestic terrorism. After all, shouldn’t killing innocent civilians in a supermarket be labeled as terrorism? Should entering a church with a gun and the intent to kill be considered terrorism? Shouldn’t killing innocent elementary school children and teachers be considered terrorism? Unfortunately, the answer is far from simple.
THE CURRENT THREAT ENVIRONMENT
The shootings in Brooklyn, Buffalo, Laguna Hills, and Uvalde have shed light on two important themes related to our current threat environment and also on the challenges we face in using the term “terrorism” to describe these horrific shootings: the uptick in racially and ethnically-motivated attacks, as well as the ready access to firearms in the United States.
Since 2019, the US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have addressed the growing threat stemming from racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists, particularly white supremacists and anti-government groups. In the last four years, violence linked to white supremacy has eclipsed jihadi violence as the predominant form of terrorism in the United States. The US Department of Homeland Security recently assessed that domestic violent extremists, “including racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists, will continue to pose a significant threat to our homeland” throughout 2022. FBI Director Christopher Wray has testified in front of Congress that racially motivated attackers represented the most deadly and “biggest chunk” of an estimated 2,000 open domestic terror investigations.
Last year, the FBI also noted a 12-year-high in reported hate crimes as submitted voluntarily to the agency’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. The FBI noted 7,759 criminal incidents and 10,532 related offenses as being motivated by bias toward race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity. The actual number of hate crimes is likely even higher, given that reporting to the program is voluntary for law enforcement agencies.
This uptick in racially-motivated attacks also comes when gun violence — both mass shootings and daily gun violence concentrated in cities across the country — has also reached unprecedented highs. Just ten days after the Buffalo shootings, our nation’s mass shootings number for the year is up to 213 shootings. We are currently experiencing an average of 10 mass shootings per week this year. Comparatively, 2021 ended with 693 mass shootings. There were 611 shootings in 2022 and 417 in 2019. In addition to mass shootings, murders and firearm homicides have also increased significantly in the past few years. In 2020, murders and firearm homicides experienced unprecedented increases, with the gun homicide rate rising by 37% from 2019 to 2020.
In addition to the current threat environment, factors like difficulties in assessing motives, existing legal frameworks to prosecute terrorism, and inadequate and permissive gun laws contribute to the challenges we face in calling mass shootings acts of domestic terrorism.
The “why” is often one of the first questions we ask when reports of a mass shooting come in — what drove the perpetrator to carry out their attack — and also usually the most difficult to ascertain. Against the backdrop of nationwide increases in shootings and hate-driven attacks, the questions around motive are critical in determining intent and how an attack is defined, categorized, and charged.
In the case of Buffalo, the shooter made his motive quite apparent. He live-streamed his attack on Twitch, Amazon’s live-streaming video platform, evoking a trend started by ISIS-inspired terrorists in 2015 and emulated in March 2019 by Brenton Tarrant when he taped and streamed his attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In April 2019, John Earnest also live-streamed his attack on a synagogue in Poway, California. The Buffalo shooter also published a manifesto, again emulating previous white supremacist shooter. His manifesto referenced previous mass shooters and evoked white supremacist ideology, including the “great replacement theory.” He had also etched racial epithets on the assault rifle used in the shooting. He reportedly selected the grocery because it “held the largest percentage of Black residents near his home” and reportedly performed surveillance of the area the day prior.
In the case of the Brooklyn subway shooting, the motive was less readily apparent. Before the shooting, the subject had posted angry videos on YouTube — though no clear ideology or motivation was apparent from them as the subjects of his vitriol ranged from the mayor of New York’s public safety policies to Black women (blaming them for violence among the black community), among others. In Laguna Hills, local authorities have stated that political tensions between China and Taiwan seemed to have motivated the shooting.
In Uvalde, the motive remains unknown. We know the perpetrator had posted on Facebook prior to shooting his grandmother and the students and teachers at Robb Elementary School. Still, we do not yet understand what perceived grievances or other motivations drove him to murder 21 people.
Prosecuting Domestic Terrorism
The difficulty in asserting motive is one key determining factor in assessing attacks. The second is the current gaps in evaluating and prosecuting hate crimes and domestic terrorism vis-a-vis “international” terrorism.
In last month’s Brooklyn subway shooting, the subject has been charged with one count of violating 18 U.S.C. 1992(a)(7), which prohibits terrorist and other violent attacks against mass transportation systems. The sentence carries up to life imprisonment. Had he not attacked the subway station, charging him with a federal terrorist charge would have been much more difficult. In Buffalo, authorities have stated that they are investigating the shooting as a “racially motivated hate crime.” Thus far, terrorism charges have not been announced. In the case of the Laguna Hills shooting, the suspect was charged with one count of murder and four counts of attempted murder. The FBI has also announced opening a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting. Neither the Buffalo nor Laguna Hills shootings have officially been called acts of domestic terrorism. In the case of Uvalde, there will be no charges filed — the attack only ended when the perpetrator was shot and killed by responding law enforcement.
US law makes it a federal crime to provide “material support” to a foreign terrorist organization. While current federal law does have a definition for domestic terrorism — defined as criminal acts “dangerous to human life” that appear intended “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” to influence government policy “by intimidation or coercion,” or to “affect the conduct of a government” — there is no similar “material support” federal charge for domestic terrorist groups or movements, nor are there criminal penalties associated with the current domestic terrorism definition.
While critics of new federal domestic terrorism legislation argue that there is already plenty of existing legislation, including federal and state-level hate crime legislation and state-level terrorism laws that can be leveraged and used to enhance sentencing, the fact remains that we currently have an inadequate framework for assessing acts of terror on domestic soil that are not driven by connectivity to foreign terrorist actors. When Americans are targeted — because of their race, ethnicity, or domestic or international tensions — while going to church, the grocery store, or during their daily commute, we need a lexicon and framework that captures the reality of our current domestic threat environment. We should be able to define and prosecute these types of attacks the same way we do bombings inspired by al Qaida.
Failure to enact and enforce common-sense gun laws
Essential to this framework is addressing the sheer number and types of firearms that are readily available and have been repeatedly used in mass shootings and the enactment of sensible gun safety legislation at the federal, state, and local levels. Some reforms that gun safety advocates are calling for include universal background checks, bans on assault weapons, and a rise in the minimum age of owning a gun. In addition, red flag or extreme risk laws, which can be used to temporarily prevent an individual who poses a risk to themselves or others from obtaining a firearm, can be life-saving when passed and enforced.
New York State has some of the strongest gun laws in our country, including legislation related to extreme risk and background checks to assault weapons, high capacity magazines, and ghost guns. While New York has the fifth-lowest rate of gun violence, the enforcement and effective implementation of these laws are critical to preventing mass shootings like the ones in Buffalo and Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Texas has some of the weakest gun laws in the country, including a 2021 law that essentially removes nearly all restrictions on who can carry a firearm.
THE TIME IS NOW
We need policy and lawmakers to define, prevent and prosecute mass shootings with the same urgency we addressed Jihadi terrorism in the post-9/11 era. We need to ensure that hate-driven and racially motivated mass shootings are called what they are: acts of domestic terrorism. We need to enact critical gun safety legislation and make it more difficult for firearms to be used readily and frequently to perpetrate acts of terror. And we need to ensure that we have a legal framework to prosecute perpetrators of mass shootings with the same severity we would an attack by Jihadi terrorists.
And we need to be able to call these horrific shootings what they are: truly heinous acts of domestic terrorism.
Naureen Kabir leads the Risk Intelligence program at Teneo, a global advisory firm. Prior to her current role, she served as a Senior Policy Advisor at Everytown for Gun Safety, the nation’s largest gun violence prevention organization. Between 2010 and 2020, she served with the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism and intelligence bureaus, most recently in the role of Deputy Director of Counterterrorism Intelligence Analysis.