Why isn't suspected Charleston shooter Dylann Roof called a terrorist?

Michael Walsh

Is Dylann Roof a terrorist?

The white man who was charged with nine counts of murder Friday after opening fire on a Bible study group held in a historically African-American church has been tied to racist ideologies and has reportedly confessed to the shooting, telling investigators that he "wanted to start a race war."

U.S. authorities are investigating the Wednesday night massacre in Charleston, South Carolina's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine people dead as a hate crime. The church's pastor, South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, was among the victims.

This photo provided by Charleston County Sheriff's Office shows Dylann Roof, Thursday, June 18, 2015. (Photo: Charleston County Sheriff's Office via AP)

After news of the tragedy broke, a Facebook image circulated showing the high-school dropout Roof wearing a jacket adorned with the flags associated with apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia. Both have been adopted by white supremacist groups in the United States.

Since the attack, civil liberties groups across the country have questioned why Roof, 21, is not being described as a suspected terrorist.

Critics have charged that in cases where the suspects are Islamic extremists — like the Boston Marathon bombing or the recent attack on a Texas cartoon contest — they are labeled acts of terror. But when the suspects are white, the acts are instead treated as the result of mental illness.

The targeted church in South Carolina holds a cherished place in African-American history as a beacon for civil rights — so was likely chosen for its symbolic significance.

Elected officials have talked around the issue. Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush described the shooting as "an evil act of aggression" and was criticized for saying he didn't know "what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes."

South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford struggled with the question when asked in an interview with Yahoo News’ Bianna Golodryga if he would label Roof a terrorist.

“No, I think terror goes to the larger notion of a political agen[da]," he said. "I don’t know what the difference is. I know what he was. He’s a bad guy and he needs to be brought to justice. That’s all I know.”

Defining 'terrorist'

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "terrorist" as a "person who uses violent and intimidating methods in the pursuit of political aims." 

Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO of NAACP, said at a press conference Friday that authorities should investigate what influenced Roof to allegedly murder unarmed civilians. 

In his view, "This was an act of racial terrorism and must be treated as such."

Intentions

Roof's childhood friend Joey Meek, who saw him a day before the shooting, told ABC News that Roof thought “blacks in general as a race was bringing down the white race.”

The suspected gunman wanted his actions to incite something "big like Trayvon Martin. He wanted to make something spark up the race war again," Meek said. 

Not Muslim 

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, argues that Roof would have been branded a terrorist immediately if he were Muslim or Arab.

After every mass shooting, Hooper said, the public waits to see if the suspect has any association with Islam.

“If there’s not any association, it is never called terrorism. That’s basically the dividing line,” he said to Yahoo News. “We see it time and time again.”

According to Hooper, the moment it is clear that the suspected murderer is not a Muslim, the national conversation shifts to the suspect's mental state and personal biography.

“Down in Charleston, that was a textbook definition of terrorism. He did it for the political goal of creating a race war in America,” Hooper said.

He pointed to a study from the University of Illinois, published in the Journal of Communication, which found that 81 percent of suspected domestic terrorists were identified as Muslims in a sample of breaking news reports between 2008 and 2012.

Whereas, according to FBI reports from those same years, Muslims only accounted for 6 percent of domestic terrorism suspects.

Rhodesia and South Africa

News media has widely circulated the picture taken from Roof’s Facebook page as confirmation of his white supremacist politics: He is seen glaring at the camera in a jacket with patches used to signify a belief in white supremacy.

Dylann Roof is pictured in this undated photo taken from his Facebook account. (Photo: Facebook)

The green and white Rhodesian flag flew over what is now Zimbabwe when a white minority ran the country. That government was overturned in 1979.

The orange, white and blue former South African flag, which is listed in the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbols database, similarly represents a time — before 1994 — when a white minority oversaw a brutal segregation system.

Civil rights experts say that racist whites have romanticized these eras. 

NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks addresses Wednesday’s shooting on Friday in South Carolina.

Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which considers the Charleston murders both a hate crime and domestic terrorism, says both emblems have been used for years by white supremacists who mistakenly believe that whites are facing some sort of genocide there today.

“They have this idea that white South Africans are slaughtered in the streets by their ‘new black overlords.’ [U.S. white supremacists] view themselves as heading down the same path as the U.S. becomes more diverse,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Survivors of the shooting have said that Roof told his victims, “You rape our women and are taking over the country. And you have to go," before opening fire.

Hate groups

The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are about 1 million white supremacists in the United States and that the largest hate website has roughly 200,000 users, Beirich said.

But, she notes, it is exceptionally difficult — nearly impossible — to know for sure how many people embrace extremist ideologies.

Mark Pitcavage, director of ADL extremism, says the odds are that Roof does not have any official membership with any hate groups and likely became radicalized online.

“The number of members in hate groups is far smaller than the number of white supremacists in the United States,” he told Yahoo News.

The difference, he said, is analogous to the number of registered Democrats compared with the number of Americans who hold liberal values and that the same is true for Republicans and conservatives.

Pitcavage, who focuses on far-right extremist groups, said the majority of “lone-wolf” terrorists are on the periphery of whatever extreme movement to which they adhere.

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