Why are authorities slow to call the Ohio State attack 'terrorism'?

Law enforcement officials have been deliberately slow to call the Ohio State attack an act of 'terrorism' – a move met with derision from some and praise from others.

Mason Swires/The Lantern/Reuters
A car police say was used by an attacker to plow into a group of students, before the driver began stabbing passersby with a knife, is seen Monday outside Watts Hall on Ohio State University's campus in Columbus, Ohio.

After an Ohio State University student drove his car onto a crowded sidewalk and stabbed pedestrians with a butcher knife Monday morning, injuring 11 people before he was gunned down by a police officer, authorities are investigating whether the attack was an act of terrorism.

Abdul Razak Ali Artan, the 18-year-old suspect who was born in Somalia but living in the United States as a permanent legal resident, had once criticized the way Muslims have been portrayed in the media. He also posted on Facebook that US officials should make peace with the terrorist group known as the Islamic State if it wants Muslims "to stop carrying lone wolf attacks."

Despite strong suggestions that Mr. Artan might have been inspired by one or more extremist groups, US law enforcement officials have been deliberately slow to use the term "terrorism" as they work to piece together a more complete image of the events and circumstances leading up to Monday's attack. Their approach has been met with derision from some and praise from others who argue there is no benefit to using the term before being certain of its accuracy.

"The term 'act of terror' is not usually misapplied, but in my opinion it’s always applied too quickly," Neil Shortland, program manager of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Until you understand his specific motivation – i.e. the exact reason he’s doing it – you can’t know if it is or isn’t terrorism."

While authorities do not know what Artan's specific motives were or if he had been radicalized, they do know that young Somalis in the US – particularly in Minnesota and Ohio, which have the nation's largest and second-largest Somali communities, respectively – have been targeted by recruiters for the militant group Al Shabaab in east Africa and the Islamic State, aka ISIS. And in recent months, US authorities have raised concerns that propaganda online encourages car-and-knife attacks as an easier alternative to bombings.

Accordingly, US law enforcement has invested in community outreach and sought to engage youths who may otherwise feel disengaged. Somali community leaders in Columbus reportedly met frequently with federal law enforcement as an area mosque provided an outlet for young people.

In the wake of Monday's attack, Muslim leaders lauded local law enforcement for their appropriate response to the violence, and they asked the American public to avoid making assumptions about Artan or anyone else with whom he shares identifying characteristics.

"We as yet know nothing about the motivation of the attacker, but we do know of his Somali heritage, and that will be enough for some people to falsely link this tragic incident to the faith of Islam and to the Somali and Muslim communities," Roula Allouch, national board chairwoman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told The New York Times. "We must not jump to conclusions. It is important to let the investigators do their jobs."

It was immediately apparent following Monday's attack that the tools and tactics Artan used resemble those employed in other recent acts of known terrorism, including a truck attack that left 84 dead last summer in Nice, France, Mr. Shortland says. Even so, there is no benefit in rushing to label it before an investigation has been conducted.

"Terrorism is successful because of overreactions to it," Shortland says, "and I think increasing the proclivity with which we’re willing to call things 'terrorism' without knowing they’re terrorism just makes terrorism more successful and means that terrorist organizations actually have to do less. They live on our reactions. They thrive on it."

James J.F. Forest, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Center, adds that the public should ask what difference the determination makes.

"If you label something as terrorism, does it help? Who does it help? How does it help?" Dr. Forest tells the Monitor. From a law enforcement perspective, the top priorities are to help victims and solve a crime, then eventually take measures to prevent similar crimes in the future.

"They’re going to let the public and the media call it whatever they want," he adds.

This is not to say, however, that terminology is inconsequential. The word can carry weighty policy implications and shape the way the public perceives the threat.

"When you specifically label something an act of 'terrorism,' you see that there is a much larger wave of support towards more oppressive security measures and all those kinds of things that we’ve been talking about for the last two years," Shortland says, naming torture and mass surveillance as among the more polarizing issues the public is more inclined to support in response to "terrorism" than other classifications of violent crime.

"You don’t see the same thing when it’s a 'mass shooting,'" he adds. "It doesn’t move the needle in terms of public consciousness about certain issues and security tactics."

No reasonable person expects the government to reduce the number of murders in the United States to zero next year, but many want to aim for zero terrorist attacks, an unrealistic goal, Shortland says, arguing the public should focus on growing more resilient.

In September, a Somali-born American went on a stabbing rampage at a Minnesota mall, injuring 10 before he was shot dead by an off-duty police officer. Although authorities say the 20-year-old suspect in that case, Dahir Ahmed Adan, might have been radicalized, their investigation is ongoing.

If that attack is deemed to be terrorism, it will be the first on US soil carried out by a Somali, making Artan's at Ohio State a potential second – though authorities have noted struggles with terrorist recruiters for nearly a decade, since 20 young Minnesota men were lured overseas to join Al Shabaab in 2007.

Following the mall stabbing, the local Somali community worried the public would deem them "guilty by association," Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR's Minnesota chapter, said at the time.

"We have faith in our fellow Americans to do the right thing," he added after Monday's attack. "This is a very dangerous time to be Muslim or perceived to be Muslim in the United States, and this week must be an opportunity for all Americans to show that they can stand together against violence of all forms."

For its part, Ohio State officials have signaled that those who were injured are expected to recover and that students will stand united, even if investigators ultimately determine a solid link to terrorism.

"Our campus community is extremely tolerant," Michael V. Drake, the university president, told The New York Times. "The concept of branding a whole community for the act of a few leads to an intolerance that can make the world a more difficult place for all of us."

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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