Charleston: hate crime or domestic terrorism? This is the question being asked after the slaughter of nine church goers in one of Americas oldest cities. But the massacre has been overshadowed by another gruesome shooting in Sousse, Tunisia, with a second lone gunman taking 38 lives, the similarities between the two attacks striking. The latter was reported immediately by the world press as terrorism, but there seems to be confusion in the US about labelling the South Carolina shooting.
Both perpertrators were men in their early twenties. There is emerging evidence that Seifeddine Rezgui trained in Libya at an extremist camp in preparation for the attack, and that Dylann Roof had taken inspiration from South African white supremacists. Both acted alone during the shootings, their individual actions being designated with the now common label of ‘lone wolf.’
Terrorism is not a straightforward subject to study. The ambiguity of the term itself adding to the confusion, with the phrase, ‘one mans freedom fighter is another mans terrorist’ (first coined by Gerald Seymour book Harrys Game, a thriller set against the Troubles in Northern Ireland) adding to the hesitancy of a the global community to decide on a single description. This overcomplication was simplified by one leading expert however, who theorised that ‘terrorism was like pornography, you recognise it when you see it’.
The UKs definition of terrorism has three elements, the third section stating that the motive that must be present for an attack to be categorised as terroristic; ‘is that it must be advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.’ With this evidence, I’ll think you’ll agree that there is no doubt that the shooting of nine black men and women at the Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was an act of terrorism. The tourists in Tunisia were killed for the simple reason that they were tourists. Roof reportedly told one survivor that he targeted the victims because they were black.
The victims were used as a drum so that the horrific message intended for a wider audience could be spread in a sickening beat of bloodshed and mayhem. IS’s message is clear for all to see; the spread of their corrupted version of Islam at the point of a bloody dagger held to the throat of their defeated captives. Roof reportedly hoped to inspire a civil war pitting whites against blacks. But why would young men want to throw away their lives and commit such hideous acts?
Radicalisation is the process that terror experts have identified as being responsible for the graphic violence shown daily on our news bulletins. Studies of the phenomenon have linked it directly to the internet, and have identified it as the main reason for the migration of Muslims to the area in Iraq and Syria designated the Calipahe by IS. But we must not forget that there are other vulnerable individuals out there who also spend their time locked away from friends and family, surfing the net, looking for ‘meaning’ in their lives.
The current strategy to fight Islamic extremism is to produce a counter-narrative that highlights through education, the peaceful message within Islam. But how do you respond to someone like Roof?
In Helmand, Afghanistan as part of a counter-insurgency program, I was tasked with turning the crumbling tracks into roads. The new thoroughfares were a great success. They gave the local populace far easier access to the new markets, schools and clinics that we also provided, but there was a downside. They also allowed the Taliban fighters to move around far more easliy, giving them the ability to arrange more potent attacks.
The same analogy can be used to the internet, social media, forums and smart phones etc. A force for good; absolutely. But with a dark side that can easily be utilised for more sinister purposes. I’m not calling for censorship, far from it. There is a far stronger weapon, its called good parenting. The ability to talk to children and understand their troubles. Young and impressionable go hand in hand. Lets start bringing some old values back into the cyber age before it all gets out of hand.