What makes a mass shooting count as terrorism?

Veronica Hartfield (L), widow of slain Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Officer Charleston Hartfield, and their son Ayzayah Hartfield, 15, attend a vigil for Charleston Hartfield at Police Memorial Park on October 5, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Las Vegas mass shooting is the deadliest in modern American history—but was it terrorism?

It’s important to distinguish mass shootings and acts of terrorism, says Martha Crenshaw, an expert on terrorism and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies’ Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political science at Stanford University. Here, she explains how to tell the difference.

In addition, this podcast episode features Crenshaw’s views on terrorism and radicalization:


Are mass shootings acts of terrorism?


In 1971, political scientist David Rapoport published a series of lectures called “Assassination and Terrorism.” What he explained is still relevant today: what’s the difference between a simple assassination and terrorism? He pointed out that an act simply meant to remove a single person — with no wider purpose — is an assassination.

But if an assassination has a broader purpose — if it is intended to frighten a large number or people or to put a political cause on the map, if it makes other leaders fear they might be next or that there might be a pattern — it is an act of terrorism. The same criteria can be applied to mass shootings.


Was the Las Vegas shooting an act of terrorism?


When we talk about terrorism, we’re talking about something that is an inherently political form of violence. With this most recent shooting, we do not know the shooter’s motive.

Regardless of that, we typically think of an act of terrorism as being part of a systematic campaign. Each act in itself sends a message and communicates the threat of another attack. We understand something about the meaning of the attack from the act itself — from the target, from the perpetrator, from the method used, from the place where the attack occurred. We infer the meaning of the action from those attributes.

“Terrorism is simply a method that’s used in the service of a cause.”

In most cases, there is an explicit claim by some organized entity that has substance — a leader, a name, a manifesto — with a wider sphere of recognition. For instance, if an attack can be linked to a group like Al Qaeda, we would try to see how it fit into their larger purpose of defeating the United States or destroying their local enemies. We understand the act in those terms, which does not mean that we would condone it.

With a mass shooting that is not connected to a group or cause, in which the perpetrator does not leave some sort of explicit explanation, we cannot interpret it as an act of terrorism. In this case, we appear to be dealing with a one-time act committed by one person who made no effort to tell us why he caused such enormous loss of life. So no, I don’t think it could be considered an act of terrorism.


When is a mass shooting an act of terrorism?


Typically, the terrorist wants advertisement and publicity. Terrorists want you to know why they did it. It becomes harder to draw a distinction between violence and political violence in a case like the Orlando shooting by Omar Mateen.

Mateen had been known to express sympathy with jihadist-type causes but was not apparently a member of an established or recognized group. He announced a motivation for his actions: sympathy for an existing armed group with a political purpose. And that group claimed responsibility for the attack.

That sort of indirect link, when the shooter is someone acting in the name of a cause but not directed by anybody or part of the organization, might be on the edges of what we would call terrorism. However, we should remember that groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have deliberately called for such inspirational attacks and provided practical guidance for carrying them out.


How do we define domestic terrorism in the United States?


International or transnational terrorism involves the crossing of international borders. The 9/11 attack was international terrorism because the attackers were foreigners who represented a group outside the United States.

A domestic act of terrorism would involve Americans attacking fellow Americans within the United States. Typically, in the US most terrorism that we link to jihadism (which is becoming a controversial term in and of itself) would be regarded as international terrorism because even though the perpetrators may be American citizens or permanent residents (and they most often are), they’re acting in the name of a cause outside the country and are sometimes directly instructed or encouraged by the external group.


Why is it important to distinguish between terrorism and other forms of violence?


The term “terrorism” like the term “jihadist” carries enormous emotional weight. As a scholar I try to use it objectively and to be careful about what I mean. In my view, terrorism is a method, a tactic, a strategy, a means to an end. It’s not restricted to any particular ideology. The cliché, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” is banal to the point of silliness. Of course nobody wants to think that anybody on their side could do terrible things. But they can. And they do.

For example, you could be a devoted supporter of the reunification of Ireland and getting the British out of Ireland. People who share your goals might use methods you don’t agree with, but it’s difficult to disavow someone on your own side.

But terrorism is simply a method that’s used in the service of a cause. It is not inevitable, of course, it is a choice, and some leaders of militant groups resist the use of terrorism. Others may try to justify it by comparing their actions to the even worse actions of the opponent, along the lines of “You think we’re bad? Well they are much worse.”

Not defining an action as terrorism doesn’t mean that it is morally justified or acceptable. We should resist slipping into a kind of rhetoric in which terrorism is simply a term of opprobrium rather than a definition of a particular form of violence. There can be atrocious cruelty without terrorism.