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Was Fort Hood Massacre ‘Terrorism’?

Fort Hood Massacre PhotoNidal Malik Hasan is a Muslim who killed 14 people. Does that make him a terrorist? Some think so.

Sen. Joe Lieberman called the Fort Hood massacre an act of “Islamist extremism” – even as top Army brass warned Sunday against guessing at a motive, fearing backlash against Muslim soldiers. “There are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act,” Lieberman (I-Conn) told Fox News on Sunday.  “If the reports that we’re receiving of various statements he made, acts he took are valid, he had turned to Islamist extremism.”

Lieberman, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate, chairs the Senate Homeland Security committee.

Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people and wounding 30 more on Thursday, reportedly expressed moral concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lieberman’s comments were in stark contrast to U.S. Army chief of staff George Casey, who told CNN he’s deeply worried “that the speculation could cause something that we don’t want to see happen.” “It would be a shame – as great a tragedy as this was – it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well,” Casey said.

The fact that outrage over Hasan’s villainy could spark a backlash against innocents has no bearing on this question.  It’s a separate issue entirely.

Whether Hasan is a “terrorist” depends entirely on his motivation.   To qualify as “terrorism,” the act has to be committed to instill fear for the purpose of achieving political goals.   If he’s just an angry Muslim who went nuts and started shooting people, he’s a psychopath and a killer but not a terrorist.  Even if he was trying to send an “I’ll show them” message, he’s no more a terrorist than the Columbine killers, the lunatic who shot up Virginia Tech, or one of those postal workers who go on a rampage.

Now, evidence is still pouring in. Hasan reportedly “once gave a lecture to other doctors in which he said non-believers should be beheaded and have boiling oil poured down their throats” and actually “was attempting to make contact with people associated with al Qaeda.” That, combined with various Internet postings and other rants, at very least makes him a terrorist sympathizer.  And Jim Lindgren sees some matchup of Hasan with the typical psychology of a terrorist.

But even if Hasan was an al Qaeda wannabe who was trying to restore the Caliphate with his evil deeds, I’m not sure that he’s a “terrorist” in any sense that really matters.  If he’s just a lone fanatic rather than part of an organized group, the difference between him and any other mass murderer is academic.  Indeed, Charles Manson was politically motivated and actually had a group of followers but he’s never referred to as a “terrorist.”

UPDATE:  Some commenters are apparently under the impression that, unless we call Hasan a “terrorist,” we’re somehow excusing his crimes.  My argument is not that he’s merely some poor soul who needs help and deserves our compassion.  Or that there’s no such thing as Islamist terrorism.

Rather clearly, Hasan willfully committed criminal acts that were at least partly motivated by radical Islamist ideology.  I simply think “terrorism” is more than that.

UPDATE II:  A commenter points to the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who was almost universally judged a terrorist, a label with which I would concur.  Like Hasan, McVeigh was ideologically motivated.  So, what’s the difference?  Aside from the fact that McVeigh formed a criminal conspiracy with a likeminded group and carefully plotted his attack for months, he was clearly trying to send a political message to his government.   It’s not clear what Hasan’s intent was at this juncture.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    Terrorism is a category that generally has large and substantial overlap with the category of violence against noncombatants. He attacked a military target, and I think without something more substantial than betrayal, it don’t count.

    I also disagree that the motivations appear to be psychotic or crazy. People too easily go to psychological explanations for what appears inexplicable from their own p.o.v. I think the answer so far is that Major Hassan, after anguishing years of trying to figure out who he was and what he stood for, made his decision. He decided to go to the other side. Benedict Arnold wasn’t crazy either.

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  2. just me says:

    Yeah I am not sure I see psychotic or crazy in this guy.

    I am pretty sure he was aware that what he was doing was wrong.

    I also think the evidence seems to point pretty strongly that as an individual he sympathized with and identified with the jihadi movement.

    Whether going solo and killing all those soldiers equals terrorism, is debatable-terrorism doesn’t really seem to have a perfectly black and white definition.

    In the end, I don’t care if it is terrorism or a lone gunman motivated by religious beliefs-13 people died and many more were wounded.

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  3. Neo says:

    U.S. intelligence agencies were aware months ago that Army Major Nidal Hasan was attempting to make contact with people associated with al Qaeda, two American officials briefed on classified material in the case told ABC News.

    Spinning this into the PTSD storyline will be interesting.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    Spinning this into the PTSD storyline will be interesting.

    I don’t think PTSD is the answer here. He’s clearly got serious resentments as a result of being Muslim in an Army that’s at war against people who are Muslim. The question is whether it’s simply rage — “going Postal” — or part of an organized movement.

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  5. Brian J. says:

    I, like PD Shaw, think the target selection removes this from the definition of terrorism into a military attack.

    However, if we start thinking of it in those terms, we have to start thinking in terms of war, not in terms of psychoanalysis or law enforcement.

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  6. [...] such, I agree with James Joyner’s comments: To qualify as “terrorism,” the act has to be committed to instill fear for the [...]

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  7. just me says:

    Oh, I think it is probably more in the “going postal” end of the spectrum rather than outright coordinated or planned effort.

    I think the tendency though has been to explain away what happened as a mental health problem-and I am just not seeing it-at least not seeing it to an extent that it would be mitigating.

    I am curious about the reports of him trying to contact Al Quada, and I am curious what his motivation was. I wonder if maybe they weren’t interested or were worried it was some kind of set up.

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  8. just me says:

    However, if we start thinking of it in those terms, we have to start thinking in terms of war, not in terms of psychoanalysis or law enforcement.

    I think this is a valid point.

    Although it makes me wonder if they may not have a case for treason. In the end they may not go there, since 13 people are dead, and I don’t see any defense along the lines of what has been floated (either the PTSD or even a I didn’t want to be deployed) finding much sympathy at the court martial.

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  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Then I guess the politically correct thing to say about the good Major was he disagreed vehemently with assignment to his new duty station. I do not understand the walking on egg shells here. A radical Muslim armed himself planning to kill as many people as possible before his martyrdom. He picked a place he knew would have unarmed targets in sufficient numbers to be worth his sacrifice. Quit trying to make excuses for people who’s first and last reaction to something they do not like is to kill. I would bet any amount his victims felt terrorized. Therefore the inflicter of terror is a terrorist. And is that a hate crime? What a unique thought. Because the victims are in the military, targeting unarmed soldiers is not terrorism. How nuanced!

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  10. The facts speak for themselves; this was a terrorist act at least as much as the 9/11/2001 attacks were. MAJ Hasan’s (presumed) lack of success in being an organized terrorist isn’t really relevent.

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  11. JVB says:

    Traitor or terrorist…take your pick. Traitor will look better on President Obama’s score card but either way the man is guilty of the highest offense against the Untied States. Stop the haggling. He needs to be executed.

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  12. JVB says:

    We’re so politically correct in this country we’ve enslaved ourselves. Makes it so much easier for any one on the outside to conquer. When do we start putting Americans first..the United States first…and stop letting the ACLU run the show?

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  13. DL says:

    If the PC crowd were around during WWII I suppose the Germany Nazies would have been accused of being in need of help in getting better labels on those “showers” in Auschwitz, so as not to offend anyone? When does this infantile mind control end – when the last American shuts out the lights?

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  14. Eric Florack says:

    I’m not convinced of this either way, but I must say that there is something to the extent that he was involved with the same mosque as a few of the 9/11 terrorists.

    As an aside, if we are willing to make that connection, then we must assume that what was being taught and is possibly/probably still being taught there. If we can make that connection, then how much of a leap is it from there to Obama sitting in a church that taught Marxism for 21 years?

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  15. Polimom says:

    I think his actions fit well within the definition of “terrorism” — specifically, domestic terrorism. And I’ve certainly heard Timothy McVeigh referred to in those terms. Why are we not allowed to use the term here?

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  16. devildog666 says:

    Was Fort Hood Massacre ‘Terrorism’?

    Of course it wasn’t terrorism, it was just a devote Muslim expressing his frustration. Obviously it doesn’t matter that he took that infidel oath when he entered the military. His Imam his certainly proud of him.

    As for me, I say hang the bastard.

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  17. Wayne says:

    IMO there are many who will go out of their way to not call it terrorism because he was Muslim in order to be PC. If Timmy’s act was terrorism than this one most certainly was.

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  18. [...] in the Middle East (even more than they already have done)? As James Joyner writes “If he’s just an angry Muslim who went nuts and started shooting people, he’s a psychopath and a killer but not a [...]

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  19. PD Shaw says:

    James:

    The question is whether it’s simply rage — “going Postal” — or part of an organized movement.

    I’d be willing to support the “going Postal” route if the violence was directed at his command structure. It looks to me like soldiers (combatants) were targeted.

    I still think that terrorism usually implies violence against noncombatants, because it’s that type of violence which is intended to intimidate or coerce the people. I think this type of treachery is certainly shocking, but I don’t think most people believe that this is not part of the unique risks of military service.

    So I still think neither. Hasan decided to take up arms for the other side. He didn’t try to poison the camp or explode buildings. He played the part of an enemy combatant who somehow finds himself behind enemy lines amidst an unprepared foe.

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  20. PD Shaw says:

    By the way, the crime of “domestic terrorism” are activities that:

    (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State

    (B) appear to be intended—
    (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
    (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
    (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

    (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

    It appears that Hasan meets (A) and (C) easily. Whether or not he meets (B) would appear to depend on whether one believes Hasan’s target was outside the camp.

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  21. Hmm…, was this a hate crime?

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  22. [...] 9 November 2009 Rodney Dunning Leave a comment Go to comments At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner asks and answers . . . not really. Whether Hasan is a “terrorist” depends entirely on his motivation.   To qualify as [...]

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  23. G.A.Phillips says:

    Hmm…, was this a hate crime?

    Only if, err, I won’t go there……

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  24. PD Shaw says:

    I think by multiple killings of fellow members of the military, Hasan put himself into the position of a minimum of a life sentence and a maximum of death. One doesn’t need to get fancy with describing his conduct.

    But I thought it was interesting that a death sentence would have to be approved by the POTUS. I don’t think I’ve heard what Obama’s position on the death penalty is.

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  25. [...] Outside the Beltway, James Joyner argues that “whether Hasan is a ‘terrorist’ depends entirely on his motivation.” To qualify as ‘terrorism,’ the act has to be [...]

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  26. Critic says:

    The hood attack was an evil attack against freedom and truth, but it was not terrorism. An attack on an enemy’s military cannot be considered terrorism. The definition of terrorism must include the element of targeting civilians. If the definition of terrorism doesn’t include the element of targeting civilians, then the US military would be terrorists by definition. The US military certainly attempts to strike terror into the hearts of its enemies. The US military certainly makes threats and attacks with the hopes of influencing the political decisions of its enemies. The US military is obviously organized. You can’t differentiate terrorism just based on the scale of the attacks or organizations, because then the US military would be using terrorist tactics just on a much larger scale. You can’t differentiate the terrorists just by claiming their cause is unjust, because again that would mean the US military engages in terrorist style tactics, just on a much larger scale, and for a good cause.

    To call someone a terrorist is a criticism of their tactics. The un-ethical tactic in question is not the tactic of terror, but rather the tactic of terrorizing CIVILIANS.

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  27. Wayne says:

    First yes being a traitor is a matter perspective. One group hero\spy can be another one’s traitor. That said I am from the United States. I look at it as a US patriot.

    Terrorism like porn is hard to define but most know it when they see it. It is not as simple matter of wither one targets civilian or military targets. Up until the Korean War countries including the U.S. targeted civilians. Some has done so since. Now having said it is hard to define, the basic difference between war and terrorism is that terrorism relies almost entirely on terror. Terrorist do not try to meet and destroy the enemy’s military, take military objectives, they do not wear their own uniforms and they try to blend in with the population, and main and almost exclusive purpose is to terrorize the civilian population. Does that describe the U.S. military? No.

    Calling the US military terrorist because they cause terror to some is asinine.

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  28. Franklin says:

    It’s a good question, and we are not alone in disagreeing with the definition. From the first sentence of Wikipedia’s definition of terrorism:

    The word “terrorism” is politically and emotionally charged,[1] and this greatly compounds the difficulty of providing a precise definition. A 2003 study by Jeffrey Record for the US Army quoted a source (Schmid and Jongman 1988) that counted 109 definitions of terrorism that covered a total of 22 different definitional elements.

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  29. An Interested Party says:

    A very credible explanation as to why Hasan’s religion isn’t being overly stressed in certain quarters…

    The reason elite opinion makers are reticent to too strongly overplay the religion card with Nidal Hasan, in a way they maybe weren’t as reticent to do with George Tiller, is because Islam is a minority faith and many of its practitioners might well be subject to retaliatory violence in the wake of Fort Hood. To “apply the same standard of inquiry and criticism to all religions” omits the important fact that there are a great many people in this country who would NOT apply the same standard to Hasan as they applied to George Tiller. They might say that Tiller was a bad apple in an otherwise good faith, while simultaneously saying Hasan is the apple that proves the badness of the whole batch. To pretend otherwise is obvious and repugnant sophistry.

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  30. Critic says:

    Wayne wrote:

    Terrorism like porn is hard to define but most know it when they see it.

    Perhaps most do but many don’t seem to really know what it means.

    It is not as simple matter of wither one targets civilian or military targets. Up until the Korean War countries including the U.S. targeted civilians.

    True, it’s not a simple matter of targeting civilians. But if it’s not targeting civilians it’s not terrorism. The US has nuked cities full of civilians and continues to target cities full of civilians with nukes to this day. I don’t consider that terrorism although it shares a lot of elements with terrorism. So it’s possible for a tactic to target civilians and not be a terrorist tactic, but its not possible for a tactic to be a terrorist tactic and not target civilians.

    the basic difference between war and terrorism is that terrorism relies almost entirely on terror.

    That might be a good distinction to include as one of the elements of a definition of terrorism, but it’s not the basic difference, because it’s not inherently unethical to rely almost entirely on terrorizing your targets, if your targets are truly guilty. The US routinely attempts to maximize the terror to its enemies.

    Terrorist do not try to meet and destroy the enemy’s military [or] take military objectives

    That’s right, they target civilians.

    they do not wear their own uniforms and they try to blend in with the population

    The US military sometimes does that as well.

    Calling the US military terrorist because they cause terror to some is asinine.

    To be clear, I didn’t suggest that the US military was terrorist. I was actually using them as an example of a non-terrorist organization who’s tactics would fit many of the definitions of terrorism which don’t include the element of a civilian target.

    There might be a lot of definitions of terrorism, but even Wikipedia seems to recognize that targeting civilians is usually considered a key element of the definition.

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  31. just me says:

    Does the target only have to be civilian to be considered terrorism? If, then where does the 1983 marine barracks bombing fit into the definition?

    I do think one difference I am seeing, that makes me consider the Hood incident perhaps more terrorism than not is that the military people being targeted were not in a position to reasonably defend themselves. They did not carry weapons, and in fact were prohibited from carrying them. For all intents and purposes, those soldiers on that army post were little more than civilians-at least they weren’t armed with the equipment of soldiers and ready to do any kind of battle.

    I guess, for me at least, the more I learn about this incident, and what we know at this point, I think I lean more towards it being terrorism, with a religious motivation over any other.

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  32. Critic says:

    “Just Me” wrote:

    Does the target only have to be civilian to be considered terrorism?

    Yes. If the target isn’t civilian it isn’t terrorism.

    then where does the 1983 marine barracks bombing fit into the definition?

    If the targets were only marines then it wasn’t terrorism.

    I do think one difference I am seeing, that makes me consider the Hood incident perhaps more terrorism than not is that the military people being targeted were not in a position to reasonably defend themselves. They did not carry weapons, and in fact were prohibited from carrying them. For all intents and purposes, those soldiers on that army post were little more than civilians

    Combatants don’t suddenly become non-combatants just because they or their commanders make the mistake of letting their guard down.

    I’m not saying that it was OK for these soldiers to be targeted. It was evil for them to be targeted. But it wasn’t terrorist evil. It was another variety of evil. Perhaps just the plain old ethnic or religious war variety of evil.

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  33. James Joyner says:

    Combatants don’t suddenly become non-combatants just because they or their commanders make the mistake of letting their guard down.

    But non-combatants don’t become “combatants” by mere virtue of putting on a uniform. Fort Hood is not a combat zone.

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  34. Critic says:

    But non-combatants don’t become “combatants” by mere virtue of putting on a uniform. Fort Hood is not a combat zone.

    The US military isn’t considered terrorist because it attacks uniformed soldiers in bases behind enemy lines while they’re unarmed because their commanders made the mistake of making them leave their weapons in the arsenal. The enemies of the US know that they are subject to attack at any time, wherever they are. That doesn’t make the US terrorist, and it doesn’t make our adversaries terrorist for doing the same thing we do.

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  35. An Interested Party says:

    We should be careful what we label “terrorism”…

    [If] one accepts that broadened definition of “terrorism” — that it includes violence that targets not only civilians but also combatants who are unarmed or not engaged in combat at the time of the attack — it seems impossible to exclude from that term many of the acts in which the U.S. and our allies routinely engage. Indeed, a large part of our “war” strategy is to kill people we deem to be “terrorists” or “combatants” without regard to whether they’re armed or engaged in hostilities at the moment we kill them. Isn’t that exactly what we do when we use drone attacks in Pakistan?

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  36. anjin-san says:

    I am seeing, that makes me consider the Hood incident perhaps more terrorism than not is that the military people being targeted were not in a position to reasonably defend themselves.

    Not sure I see the validity of this. If we identify an Al-Queda base and take it out with a predator, did the dead terrorists get a “reasonable chance to defend themselves”? Spend some time on military.com, there are a lot of videos of opposition forces dying without ever seeing it coming. We are great at it. (and I don’t have a problem with that, if you have to fight, kick the other guys ass fast, hard – and dirty, if need be)

    After all, the Powell doctrine called for a strategy of “hitting ants with sledge hammers” or something along those lines.

    This is the way we should be fighting. Once the killing starts, the name of the game is kill the other guy with maximum chance of success and minimum risk to your own forces, to the extent possible.

    What we do have to be careful about is being too smug about our moral high ground. Killing is killing, dead is dead. There are a lot of people in the world who think we are the terrorists. We should work a little harder at trying to understand why they feel that way.

    I would wager that most of the people we are fighting do not wake up in the morning thinking they are evil bastards off to spend another day doing evil. They are probably quite convinced of the rightness of their cause.

    A little self-examination and a willingness to take an honest look in the mirror makes us stronger, not weaker.

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  37. Wayne says:

    Trying to define terrorism and making unjust comparisons to our military by over simplifying actions to fit your agenda sound like the typical liberal mentality.

    By some of yours warp logical process, cops are assassins since both kill people at times and both get paid to do it. Let’s forget intent and purpose and go solely by simplified actions. Warp thinking at its worst.

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  38. [...] 2009 President Obama’s speech at yesterday’s memorial service for the victims of the Fort Hood massacre was touching and struck the right chords. Marc Ambinder and Taegan Goddard both say it was his best [...]

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