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Why The FBI Usually Doesn't Label Attacks By Non-Muslims Terrorism

22/06/2017 09:17 SAST | Updated 22/06/2017 09:18 SAST

Just hours after the FBI announced that last week's politically motivated attack on members of Congress at a baseball practice was not an act of terrorism, federal investigators informed the public on Wednesday that the stabbing of a police officer at an airport in Flint, Michigan, potentially was.

Police said Amor Ftouhi, 50, attacked Lt. Jeff Neville of Bishop International Airport's Department of Public Safety on Wednesday morning. Ftouhi, a Quebec resident who entered the U.S. on June 16, yelled "Allahu Akbar" before stabbing Neville, authorities said. He also "exclaimed something similar" to "You have killed people in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and we are all going to die," according to an incident report.

The FBI's announcement in the Flint investigation followed revelations earlier Wednesday that the bureau had found no connection to terrorism in last week's shooting in Northern Virginia, during which James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on GOP lawmakers and staffers practicing for a charity baseball game. Hodgkinson, who was killed in a shootout with police, appeared politically motivated and regularly voiced strong sentiments against President Donald Trump on Facebook.

Both incidents would meet the textbook definition of terrorism: the "unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims."

The FBI's own definition of domestic terrorism says an act must meet three characteristics: It must appear intended 1) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, 2) to influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion, 3) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

But there's no generic federal terrorism law that can be used in all acts that would meet the textbook definition. And when the FBI calls something terrorism, the organization is usually referring to a specific connection with a designated foreign terrorist organization.

Under federal law, it is much easier to deploy terrorism-related charges against individuals inspired by radical Islam, because even elements like retweets can be considered material support for a designated foreign terrorist organization. The U.S. does not label domestic extremist groups as terrorist organizations, as banning Americans from supporting U.S.-based organizations would raise First Amendment issues.

There are certain acts of terrorism that are illegal under federal law regardless of motivation. That includes airplane hijacking, the use of particular explosives and weapons, and assassinating a government official. But stabbings and shootings aren't included.

Take the prosecution of Dylann Roof, who was sentenced to death this year for the shooting deaths of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. Roof was found guilty on 33 counts, including hate crimes, but he was not charged with terrorism.

Shortly after the Charleston attack, in July 2015, HuffPost pressed former FBI Director James Comey on the hesitancy to label the Charleston shooting as terrorism. Comey acknowledged the attack might fit the "colloquial" definition of the word, but said he operated only in the legal framework, because of the nature of his job.

"The only world I live in is when you bring charges against someone, and charge them with something under a particular provision that is a terrorism statute," Comey said. "So that's the framework through which I look at it."

When Roof was indicted, Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch described hate crimes as the "original domestic terrorism." She said the lack of terrorism charges against Roof didn't mean the feds were taking the case any less seriously.

Lynch's predecessor, however, said it's time for the nation of reconsider what it labels as terrorism. Attorney General Eric Holder said Charleston should serve as a "wake-up call″ on domestic terrorism. People like Roof, he explained, can become radicalized on U.S. soil without the aid or influence of a foreign terror network.

"We have a young man who apparently becomes radicalized as the result of an incident and becomes more radicalized as a result of what he sees on the Internet, through the use of his computer, then goes and does something, that by his own words apparently is a political-violent act," Holder told HuffPost. "With a different set of circumstances, and if you had dialed in religion there, Islam, that would be called an act of terror. It seems to me that, again on the basis of the information that has been released, that's what we have here. An act of terror."

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