Is The Austin Serial Bomber A 'Terrorist'? Not Legally – Yet.
When Natalie Rogers defines the word "terrorist," she starts with the root.
“It is someone who is trying to invoke terror,” said Rogers, a 36-year-old software engineer in Austin.
To some residents, the serial bomber successfully did that.
“I had a friend who lived on the same street as one of the package bombs and for her to be scared to go to a park, that’s a terrorist,” Rogers said. “Someone who changes peoples’ lives for the worse and making them feel terrorized to go out and do the normal things they would do every day.”
Since March 2, explosions in Austin have killed two people and injured four. Another bomb exploded at a FedEx distribution center in the San Antonio suburb of Schertz. A final bomb exploded in Round Rock, detonated by serial bomber Mark Anthony Conditt as police closed in on him.
So was Conditt a terrorist? Law enforcement officials have avoided using the word because for something to officially be considered terrorism, the fear and terror stoked by violence needs to have an aim.
"Even though the words are enormously similar, there's a vast difference between being terrorized and what terrorism is."
“Even though the words are enormously similar, there’s a vast difference between being terrorized and what terrorism is,” said Bruce Hoffman, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Inside Terrorism.
According to the federal government’s definition of domestic terrorism, Conditt would have had to have used violence to attempt to coerce a group of people to do something – be it with a political or ideological goal in mind.
On Thursday, interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley weighed in, saying the legal definition was beside the point.
In my opinion he did create terror in our community & therefore his conduct was terroristic regardless of the specific ideology we look for to meet the legal definition for prosecution. My heart remains with the victims & families deeply impacted by these senseless crimes. https://t.co/jRpug4WYgU— Chief Brian Manley (@Chief_Manley) March 23, 2018
Even though there is no criminal charge for domestic terrorism, the government can still use the legal classification to investigate or surveil someone.
“We can’t look at the perpetrator,” Hoffman said. “We have to look at what their motivation is and how they are justifying and legitimizing that act of violence, if at all.”
This can run the gamut: anything from the shooting of workers at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, which some elected officials called “terrorism,” to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Consider the 2015 shooting in Charleston, S.C. A 21-year-old white man killed nine black parishioners at a church. The motive? To incite a race war. That would seem like ideological coercion.
"In my view, there’s not much of a debate whether someone like Dylann Roof is a terrorist or not because he has ascribed political motives to horrific killings,” Hoffman said.
But Roof was charged with other crimes because there’s actually no federal criminal charge for domestic terrorism.
On Wednesday, law enforcement officials revealed that Conditt had left behind a 25-minute video confession, in which he described how he assembled seven bombs, including the one set off in his vehicle during the police pursuit. But Manley said the recording did not reveal anything that would lead law enforcement to call Conditt a terrorist or what he did terrorism.
“He does not at all mention anything about terrorism nor does he mention anything about hate,” Manley said at a press conference Wednesday.
That doesn’t mean the serial bombings won't eventually be deemed terrorism. But Erin Miller, who manages the Global Terrorism Database, said without clear evidence of Conditt’s motive, it might be hard to prove.
“If you’re trying to send a message to someone and we don’t know what the message is, it’s not working,” she said. The Global Terrorism Database, which is run out of the University of Maryland and funded mostly by the federal government, is an open-source collection of data on terroristic acts.
Miller said a recent example of this is the case of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, where 64-year-old Stephen Paddock shot and killed 58 concertgoers from a hotel window.
“At the end of the day, we have zero indication whatsoever that he was ideologically motivated," she said, "and if he was, he certainly didn’t do a good job of sending that message.”
But whether Conditt’s acts constitute terrorism, it’s hard to argue that people weren’t terrorized – especially people of color after the first three bombings killed or injured black and Latino residents. University of Texas professor Eric Tang published an op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday, detailing historic fear among minority communities in Austin who faced segregation and now face displacement.
“In another 100 years, when local history buffs recall the ‘serial bombings of 2018,’ I wonder whether they will acknowledge the racial terror that struck East Austin," he wrote. "Fear, I know, crept into the hearts of all Austinites. But the events of this month have left this city’s African-Americans and Latinos wounded in ways that few others will ever truly know. These are wounds that never seem to heal.”