August 15, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Labeling Attacks ‘Terrorism’

• On August 14, two terminals at JFK airport were shut down after reports of gunshots, paralyzing parts of the busy airport for a false alarm.

• On August 13, two men wearing traditional Bangladeshi attire walking from a mosque in Queens, New York, were shot and killed in an ambush-style attack.

• Also on August 13, two people were killed in an attack on a train in Switzerland, in which the attacker used a knife and a flammable liquid.

• Neither of these unrelated attacks has been classified as terrorism, yet each resembles recent terror attacks seen around the world.


The increased incidence of terrorism around the world has had many consequences, two of which were on display this weekend. On August 14, a false report of a possible active shooter situation paralyzed a portion of a major U.S. airport. On August 13, two attacks occurred—one in the U.S. and one in Switzerland—that resembled recent terror attacks, but each lacked the initial evidence of overt terrorist motivation to classfiy them as such. Police are investigating the August 13 murders of two men leaving a mosque in Queens, New York, and an August 13 attack on a Swiss train that left the attacker and a passenger dead. In both cases, officials are waiting to review all of the evidence before labeling either incident terrorism or a hate crime.

In the wake of any attack, security officials repeat calls for heightened levels of vigilance from the public in order to help prevent subsequent attacks. While there are benefits to having a more observant population, a population on edge is more likely to flood security officials with false leads and false alarms. On August 14, two terminals at New York’s JFK airport were closed after reports of gunfire led to panic and a police lockdown. Numerous flights were delayed while authorities thoroughly searched the affected areas prior to deeming them safe.

Befitting current levels of public anxiety, officials at JFK speculate that cheers from spectators watching the Rio Olympics on an airport television were mistaken for gunshots, prompting the false reports of an active shooter. It is probable that global concerns over terrorism—particularly at venues such as airports—allowed celebratory cheers to be mistakenly perceived as gunshots. Such an incident demonstrates how attacks like those seen in NiceParisOrlandoSan Bernardino, and elsewhere have resulted in the weaponization of everyday life.

The two unrelated attacks on August 13 have yet to be classified as terrorism—or in the case of the murders in Queens, a hate crime. At least superficially, however, both attacks fit the pattern of recent attacks and threats. Often, the initial impressions of an attack harden into lasting ones, regardless of what subsequent facts come to light. Admittedly, first impressions of attacks tend to be understandable, even if they are ultimately proven wrong. The Swiss train attack bears frightening similarities to recent attacks on trains in Germany and other places. Likewise, a rising sense of Islamophobia in the U.S. understandably frames the murder of an imam and his associate as they left a mosque as a hate crime.

Many attacks are easy to classify as terrorism, either based on the style of the attack, such as Paris or Brussels, or the stated motivation of the attacker, such as Dylann Roof in Charleston or Omar Mateen in Orlando. In a way, the classification of an attack provides clarity that is somewhat reassuring even in the most horrific attacks. Attacks such as the murder of two Bangladeshi-American men leaving a mosque, in which a lone gunman walked up and shot both men and then fled, leaves investigators with few initial clues, and a grieving community that believes the men were targeted in a hate crime. In such cases where the crime is highly suggestive of a hate crime or terrorism, yet the facts are few and slow, communities often think officials are dismissing the severity of the attack or threat. Labeling an incident terrorism or hate crime brings with it a sense that the government and general population stand with the targeted group in outrage and determination to find the perpetrators and prevent more attacks. In the age of Islamic State inspired and directed attacks, the label of ‘terror attack’ brings with it an automatic assumption an incident will be taken seriously.


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