December 16, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Conviction of an American Terrorist

• On December 15, a federal jury found Dylann Roof guilty of 33 charges stemming from the June 2015 domestic terror attack in a Charleston church.

• The case provided yet another example of the civilian federal court system’s effectiveness at bringing violent extremists to justice.

• When asked where he adopted his violent racist ideology from, Roof stated ‘the Internet’—demonstrating a clear case of homegrown radicalization.

• Though they do not generate the same headlines, domestic hate and extremist groups represent a more widespread and potent threat to the U.S. than Islamic State-inspired or directed threats.

On December 15, eighteen months after the domestic terror attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina that killed 9 worshippers, a federal jury found the defendant guilty on all 33 charges. The defendant, now-convicted racist mass murderer Dylann Roof, will face a sentencing phase in January to determine if he will receive life imprisonment or the death penalty. He also faces state charges stemming from the same crime. The difference between the effective civilian federal trial in what was one of the worst domestic terrorism cases of recent years and the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay related to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks could not be greater. In the fifteen years since the September 11 attacks, U.S. civilian courts have successfully prosecuted hundreds of terror and hate crime cases, while the trials in Guantanamo are nowhere near resolution.

Since the rise of the so-called Islamic State in the summer of 2014, there has been an understandable focus on the online propaganda the group has produced. The Islamic State has utilized a propaganda strategy centered on crowdsourcing its messaging, often spreading false yet compelling narratives created by supporters, which has amplified the group’s attempts at a deadly form of branding. Over the past several years, a similar form of polished and ubiquitous messaging has been generated by domestic hate and extremist groups in the U.S. The parallels between Dylann Roof’s white supremacist terrorism and the terrorism of groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are as troubling as they are ignored by the American media.

Whenever there is an attack by someone of Middle Eastern descent—U.S. citizenship notwithstanding—the national debate immediately becomes one of inspiration versus direct affiliation, as investigators work to determine how the suspect was radicalized and whether he identified or conspired with a known extremist group. Dylann Roof stated he used the Internet to fuel his radicalization towards violent extremism, though instead of visiting Islamic State forums to read about a non-existent ‘clash of civilizations’, he visited white supremacist websites and read white supremacist propaganda about a non-existent ‘race war’. Instead of obsessing and then killing in the name of an ultraconservative Islamist-only caliphate, Roof agitated and then murdered in the name of a white-only national homeland. Instead of waving the black flag of the Islamic State, he photographed himself carrying a gun and the confederate battle flag; investigators also found a white KKK hood in his house.

After the Charleston shootings, investigators worked diligently to determine if there were others involved. Yet the national debate over how Roof was radicalized and by who was nowhere near the level of the debate following the terror attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando. Dylann Roof himself stated clearly and repeatedly his racist motivations for the attack—more so than the killers in the aforementioned Islamic State-inspired attacks. The clear double standard of what acts are labeled terrorism and how the public reacts to them stems from a focus on threats deemed to be foreign, at the expense of similar—and possibly greater—threats far closer to home.


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