Newspaper article International New York Times

'Terrorism' as Label Often Has Uneven Application

Newspaper article International New York Times

'Terrorism' as Label Often Has Uneven Application

Article excerpt

When mass killers show affinity for jihadists, their acts are labeled terrorism. The label appears less often when their inspiration is right-wing extremists. The Munich attack reveals shifting labels.

Munich's police chief, Hubertus Andra, the morning after a gunman killed nine people and then himself, offered two pieces of information that seemed at odds.

The massacre, he said, appeared likely to be "a shooting rampage" rather than an act of terrorism. But when asked about Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people exactly five years earlier, Chief Andra answered that "this connection is obvious."

"We must assume that he was aware of this attack," he said, referring to the Munich gunman, 18-year-old Ali Sonboly.

Information about Mr. Sonboly is still emerging. But regardless of what details surface, Mr. Andra's classification of the attack -- as potentially inspired by a notorious terrorist attack, yet not terrorism itself -- reflects more than the increasingly blurry line between mass assailant and terrorist.

It also highlights that this line is often drawn differently depending on the attacker's apparent ideology.

When mass killers show even minor hints of affinity for jihadist groups, as they did in recent attacks in Orlando, Fla., and Nice, France, their actions are swiftly judged to be terrorism. But when their source of inspiration appears to be right-wing extremism, as Mr. Andra speculated could be the case in Munich, they are often treated as disturbed loners.

This has fed concerns by civil rights groups and Muslim organizations, in Europe and the United States, that there is a lower bar for labeling something as terrorism when it can be linked to Islam. This tendency, they warn, feeds into anti-Muslim sentiment at a time when far-right populist movements are calling for special restrictions on Muslims.

The Islamic State has contributed to the blurring of this line. Because it encourages individuals to act alone, it can be nearly impossible to differentiate an attacker acting on behalf of the group from one who is merely grasping for justification to commit violence. The group benefits from this uncertainty, playing up claims of responsibility to better terrorize faraway communities that it might otherwise strain to reach.

But nonjihadist ideologies, though they might receive less scrutiny, are also capable of inspiring violence.

Mr. Breivik, in planning his 2011 attack, appeared to draw ideologically on European far-right websites on which he was an active commenter, according to a research paper by Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at King's College London. Mr. Breivik wrote a 1,500-page manifesto that, like the propaganda of the Islamic State, provides ideological justification and some tactical advice for anyone interested in following his model. …

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