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ANALYSIS: Racializing ‘Terrorism’ Limits DHS Counterterrorism Efforts

From 9/11 to more recent attacks in Manchester, London, Paris, Melbourne and beyond, terrorism is a term that has relentlessly pushed its way to the forefront of media headlines and has become colloquial in political rhetoric.

With official and media portrayals of terrorism, it has become a concept bound to public thoughts on Islam, Muslims, Al Qaeda and ISIS. The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as the “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit ofpolitical aims.” Although terrorist attacks by radical Islam certainly fall under this definition, terrorism is a broad term that the public has come to associate solely with attacks by radical Islamic individuals and groups. Several prominent attacks unassociated with ISIS or other radical-Islamist ideologies have also committed acts of terror, however.

There’s Dylann Roof’s shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015. The Robert Lewis Dear, Jr. attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado in November 2015 … and countless other attacks on civilians with political goals in mind that have avoided being characterized as acts of terror, but are just as devastating and troubling as terrorist incidents committed by individuals of radical Islamic ideologies.

According to the Government Accountability Office’s April 2017 report, Countering Violent Extremism, there were 62 fatal “far-right violent extremist-motivated attacks” leading to 106 deaths between September 12, 2001 and December 31, 2016. In the same time frame, the report also lists 23 instances and 119 fatalities — a majority of which came from the 49 deaths of the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting — that were documented as “Radical Islamist Violent Extremist-Motivated Attacks.”

There have nearly been just as many deaths of terrorism that have occurred from radical Islamist attackers as there have been from other extremists, and a notably lower number of terrorist incidents committed by radical Islamists. Yet, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly referred to terrorism exclusively in terms of radical Islam during his speech in April at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

“For a brief moment after the attacks of 9/11, our nation shook off its complacency, and realized our American values had a mortal enemy called radical Islam,” Kelly said. “As I speak these words the FBI has opened terrorism investigations in all 50 states, and since 2013, there have been 37 ISIS-linked plots to attack our country.”

Kelly introduced valid statistics and points about radical Islamic terrorist attacks, but in disregarding the instances and numbers of other extremist incidents, terrorism becomes racialized and bound to Islamic and Muslim identities.

Media outlets also reinforce the racialization of terrorism. After Roof massacred the 9 African-American worshippers in Charleston on June 17, 2015, none of the headlines on the attack included any terms of extremism or terrorism, even though Roof and Dear both had political aims in mind.

Scarlett A. Wilson, the prosecutor who oversaw Roof’s case in state court, said Roof’s “plan was to kill specifically innocent African Americans, and his hope was to start a race war." Roof said he agreed with Wilson’s testimony. Meanwhile, court documents covering Dear’s case in the aftermath of his attack on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic revealed his motives were inspired by previous attacks on abortion clinics and doctors, citing that he told police he envisioned himself being “met by all the aborted fetuses at the gates of heaven and they would thank him for what he did because his actions saved lives of other unborn fetuses.” Dear’s aim was to ensure “that no more abortions would be conducted at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs,” court documents revealed.

Roof and Dear are terrorists. They used violence and intimidation to progress their political agendas, just as radical Islamist jihadists do, but nowhere in the media were these individuals cited as terrorists. Roof shot the 9 worshippers to start a race war. Dear attacked the Planned Parenthood with radical Christian anti-abortion intentions. But white-supremacist extremism and radical Christian attacks are never categorized as acts of terror.

Meanwhile, media outlets covering radical Islamic attacks constantly use “terror” and “terrorism” to portray the respective incidents. After the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, The Los Angeles Times headlined the news with, “Terror in Boston,” and The Washington Post reported, “An ‘Act of Terror’ In Boston.” Likewise, after the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, headlines like The Los Angeles Times’ “An Act of Terror and Act of Hate: 50 Killed in Florida Gay Nightclub,” and The Wall Street Journal’s, “A Night of Terror in Orlando,” classified the attack by Omar Mateen — who self-identified as influenced by ISIS — as terrorist attacks. While these incidents certainly are acts of terror, the exclusive association of terrorism with people of Islamic and Muslim backgrounds reinforces the popular notion that terrorism is only committed by such individuals and organizations.

Racializing terrorism brings forth consequences not only in contributing to the racial profiling of Muslim Americans, but also in developing effective homeland security policies. President Donald Trump’s administration has pushed an executive order demanding a travel ban outlining a 90-day suspension of entry from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, even though The New York Times reported that Charles Kurzman of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said that since the 9/11 attacks, there have been no killings in the US in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from or whose parents emigrated from any of the countries cited in the travel ban. Therefore, the ban — which was mostly upheld by the Supreme Court this week — will likely do little to prevent further acts of terror and will continue to disregard other non-radical Islamic acts of terror.

DHS certainly has strong counterterrorism policies and programs, from building a strong international network of information on terrorists to protecting cyber networks to maintain and enhance the nation’s cyber infrastructure. But in narrowing counterterror rhetoric and efforts to target people of Islamic and Muslim background leaves blind spots in the protection of American citizens. It disregards attacks by other extremists, thereby neglecting national security measures to prevent similar respective events.

The Trump administration and DHS need to hold individuals who and groups that are not necessarily associated with radical Islam accountable. The president has requested a $44.1 billion budget in the administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal, which is a $2.8 billion increase from FY 2017.

DHS said the proposal includes “$4.5 billion for DHS to implement Executive Orders that strengthen border security, enhance enforcement of immigration laws and ensure public safety in communities across theUnited States.”

With a significant amount of financial and personnel resources dedicated to efforts with debated levels of efficacy, such as the travel ban and the US-Mexico border wall, it would benefit our nation’s security greatly if the increase in the DHS budget would include a wider scope on counterterror efforts beyond targeting people of Muslim and Islamic background, as any misguided, politically-fueled violence or attack committed against the American people must be addressed.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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