June 2, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: A Deadly and Confusing Attack in Manila
A traditional difference between terrorism and other violent crime rests in the motivation and intention of the attacker. Most criminals are not motivated by the desire to make a political, religious, or ideological statement, but rather by the desire for financial gain or some other criminal intention. Many criminal acts are impulsive, while many terrorist attacks—even failed ones—tend to have some level of planning and forethought. For the victims of violent attacks, these differences are just semantics. Yet the public and government reactions to an act of violence hinges on whether the attack was perceived as terrorism or not at the time of the incident.
An early morning attack at a Manila casino on June 2 provided a stark reminder of how much the label ‘terrorism’ matters in terms of the fallout from an attack. Philippine authorities say a lone gunman entered the Resorts World Manila casino and began firing a semi-automatic rifle into the air. At that moment, the act was either the beginning of a robbery or a mass-murder terrorist attack, though shooting into the air and not the crowds of people suggested the latter.
The gunman reportedly stole over two million dollars in casino chips, adding more credence to the robbery hypothesis. Yet then, using gasoline, the attacker set fire to several casino tables. There was already a stampede of people trying to flee; the resulting fire and thick smoke reportedly killed at least 35 people. While the use of arson as a diversion is not unheard of in some property or insurance crimes, outside of Hollywood movies, it is not often used in aiding an escape after a brazen robbery with so many security cameras.
According to police, the gunman engaged in some gunfire with security guards before fleeing to a room in the hotel adjacent to the casino. There, the gunman reportedly set himself on fire and then shot himself. The aftermath of the attack has been as confusing as the crime itself.
During a Rose Garden appearance, U.S. President Donald Trump called the attack—which was just unfolding in media reports—‘a terror attack’. Philippine officials soon after labeled the attack a possible robbery by a lone gunman with no indications of terrorism at that time. The Associated Press reported that a Filipino social media account with some unspecified link to the Islamic State claimed the group was responsible for the attack, but officials immediately cast doubt on the veracity of the claim. Philippines National Capital Region Police Office Director Oscar Albayalde speculated that the gunman might have either gotten angry at losing money or had gone ‘totally nuts’.
The confusion surrounding the Manila attack is not unique; many initial reports from attacks in such public places tend to be erroneous or misleading. The problem, however, is that the initial perceptions of an incident tend to be lasting perceptions, and tend to lead to policy responses based on false impressions. In the United States specifically, the label of ‘terror’ or ‘crime’ matters greatly; the former—however infrequently it actually occurs—is an ever-present threat that is countered with immense resources; the latter is an almost accepted facet of life that cannot be ‘countered’ so much as it can be ‘addressed’. There is no global war on crime, even though crime leaves far more victims than terrorism.
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