FBI director says Charleston shootings not an act of terrorism

Is Dylann Roof a terrorist? The killing of 9 black Americans at an historic black church in Charleston has some elements of terrorism, but, according to FBI director James Comey, does not rise to the level of "terrorism" as the bureau defines it.


In the wake of the Charleston church shooting in South Carolina, two particular phrases have been used in the media to describe the attack — “hate crime” and “terrorist act.” Soon after the initial reportsof the tragedy, the authorities threw both around when discussing the matter with reporters, sometimes letting their emotions get the better of them. That is, what Dylann Roof did was terrible, but until the official investigation is complete, the use of either descriptor won’t be completely accurate.

But that hasn’t stopped FBI Director James Comey from discounting the use of “terrorism” and “terrorist act” to describe Roof’s crimes. At a press conference in Baltimore on Saturday, Comey said that the agency was currently investigating whether or not Roof committed a hate crime, but not terrorism:

“Terrorism is act of violence done or threatens to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry so it’s more of a political act and again based on what I know so more I don’t see it as a political act.”

The Bureau has a rather large and ever-evolving code of definitions for the various kinds of terrorism and terrorist acts. However, the basic definition is quite simple.

The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Intimidating "any segment thereof" could be applied to the Charleston shootings. But was it a political act or an act of hate?

Professor Pete Simi, author of "American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement's Hidden Spaces of Hate," told 48 Hours' Crimesider that he thinks it was the latter.

"When we talk about terrorism the important things are ideological motivations - politics, religion - but equally as important is target selection," says Simi, who teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

On 9/11, Simi points out, terrorists targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, symbols of American capitalism and military might. In Charleston, the target was an historic African-American church, an institution that had a central role in fighting slavery.

And yet, when the FBI initially announced Thursday that they were entering the investigation of the massacre, they said that they were probing the case as a possible hate crime. That is, according to Professor Brent Smith of the University of Arkansas, their prerogative.

"The FBI has exclusive jurisdiction to investigate acts of terror in the U.S.," said Smith, who is the director of the Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas. "If the FBI labels it as terrorism, it is terrorism. If they don't, it isn't."

This is not a cut and dried issue. There is a political dimension to the crime but it is questionable whether it was an overt political act. One of the consequences of the crime may be to strike fear into black Americans, but was that Roof's intent? Or was he just acting out of his extreme hate for black Americans?

On balance, Comey made the right call - at least, based on what we know so far. In the end, it hardly matters. The important thing is that 9 innocent people are dead who would be alive if Dylann Roof wasn't consumed by race hatred.