The Uncomfortable Truth About Domestic Terrorism In America

The word terrorism draws one-dimensional images in the public mind — ones that reflect a terrifying “other,” plotting overseas to do our families and countries harm in the form of weaponized planes, toxic powder or ticking bombs.

Naturally, the term is much more nuanced than this. Most terrorist attacks in the United States are not connected to large organizations, a la ISIS or Al Qaeda: they are isolated  attacks, committed by men (or very rarely women) not directly affiliated with the groups with which they sympathize.

More importantly, the face of the terrorist is quite rarely the one many westerners have come to expect. It’s much less the aged, bearded holy man, and more likely the boy next store: like blonde haired, blue eyed Dylann Roof or baby-faced Boston Bomber.

Terrorism: a definition

By the US federal definition, terrorism is defined as “the unlawful use of force and 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.”

[contextly_sidebar id=”GMEeXTLdLvtB2Sy0gtNR86vyMbNMN5Tm”]But many are quick to point out that, as far as labeling goes, the word terrorist is far more applied to minorities than it is to caucasians, the latter of which are frequently filed under “mentally ill” or “troubled” (a perceived insult to the many non-violent mentally ill individuals worldwide.)

This criticism surfaces at the front of conversations in the wake of violent events such as the shooting of nine African Americans — including a Democratic state senator — in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The shooting has been labeled a hate crime and is being investigated as such on a state and federal level. The DOJ is investigating the massacre as terrorism also, however FBI director James Comey is of the opinion that the alleged perpetrator, Dylann Roof, though a heinous criminal, is not a domestic terrorist.

What appears to be Roof’s racist manifesto has surfaced, which if authentic, is abundantly clear in terms of sociopolitical intent: Black Americans, in his opinion, are a threat to white justice and wellbeing, that in lieu of an active KKK something needed to be done to incite a race war.

Considering white supremacists, historically, are text-book definition terrorists — having inspired the first federal anti-terrorism law in the US — people of all political spectrums are puzzled by the omission of the term.

The lone wolf and domestic terror

Not all shootings are terrorism, but domestic American massacres in recent years have other commonalities: young men driven by ideology, working alone or with one other person a majority of the time.

According to a study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), when it comes to attacks on American soil by “lone wolves,” those carried out by far-right extremists (anti-government radicals, white supremacists, anti-abortion activists, etc) exceed radical Islamists in number in recent years.

According to the FBI, between 1980 and 2005, 94 percent of terror attacks were committed by non-Muslims. And by the SPLC’s calculations, the domestic radical right has killed more people than radical Islam since 9/11:

("Hate" includes Islamic terrorism)
SPLC on domestic terrorism  (“Hate” encompasses attacks driven by racism, misogyny, radical Islam, etc).

In 2009, a leaked report on the radical right, which detailed the rise of domestic terror in the wake of President Obama’s election, was renounced after political backlash by conservatives — despite the head author being self-described Republican originally commissioned under President Bush. Department dealings with non-Islamic domestic terrorism were subsequently disbanded until the task force’s revival in 2014.

To be clear, it’s not just the radical right and Islamic extremists capable of terror. It’s anyone with a belief to kill for. Domestic terror has also manifested on the other side of the political spectrum, notably when crimes are committed in the name of environmental and animal rights.

Radical leftist attacks accounted for an entire 25 percent of domestic terrorist attacks in America between 1980 and 2005. Such attacks tend to target property over people, and though highly destructive, have not been linked to any lethal attacks since before 2001.

The frequency of left or right extremist attacks tends to correspond inversely with America’s political leadership:


These occurrences by no means lessen the threat of Islamist attacks (especially given the terrifying scope of 9/11), nor does it vilify all ideologues.

What it does suggest is that, where almost sole focus has been placed on countering Islamic terror, we should broaden our scope and understanding on just what terrorism is. We must come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that many people attacking American soil think they are doing so for the good of America.

The takeaway

Whatever label you choose for ideologically-driven criminals, be it mentally ill, terroristic, disturbed, or hateful (none of which are mutually exclusive), it is but a small consolation that such attacks and their motivations are widely condemned.

Unfortunately, domestic terrorists (and lone wolves in particular) are notoriously difficult to pin down by virtue of their isolation. Though law enforcement has difficulty infiltrating individual plots, it’s also true that lone wolves are known to voice their opinions, and at time their intentions, to acquaintances, family, and friends — even social media.

It’s just another reason to take off our blinders, and pay attention to all red flags — and not just those with ISIS branding on them.

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Jennifer Markert