El Paso Attack Meets 'Classic Definitions of a Terrorism Charge,' Says Fmr. Counterterrorism Official

Outside the scene of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, August 5, 2019. Photo Credit: LARRY W SMITH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
August 5, 2019

Local, state, and federal officials will be investigating Saturday's mass shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which took 22 lives, as an act of domestic terrorism.

"This meets all the classic definitions of a terrorism charge. It's ideologically motivated. It's meant to cause terror to people. It's not just the act of the shootings themselves, but what is the intent behind it, and the motive behind it, that really gives us what qualifies for a federal terrorism charge, and a state terrorism charge," Jarrod Bernstein, a former Obama official for counterterrorism and community outreach, told Cheddar.

Among the evidence investigators will consider is an online manifesto that appears ⁠— but has not been confirmed ⁠— to have been authored by the shooter clearly expresses anti-Hispanic, xenophobic, and white supremacist ideology.

On Sunday, U.S. Attorney for Texas' Western District John Bash said the Justice Department is investigating the El Paso shooting as an act of domestic terrorism.

"We are treating this as a domestic terrorism case, and we're going to do what we do to terrorists in this country which is to deliver swift and certain justice," said Bash in a press conference, explaining that his office is considering federal hate crime and firearm charges.

The attack in El Paso is likely the seventh-deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history and the 251st mass shooting of 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive. That database reports that 80,000 people in the U.S. have been killed by gun violence (excluding suicides) since 2014.

"It's a long time overdue for the Justice Department to begin charging these mass shootings under terrorism statutes and calling them what they are," said Bernstein.

"We really need to examine what's going on in our political discourse today, and how our leaders are talking to one another, and about each other," he said. "Every single day the president of the U.S. is going on T.V. and giving a wink and a nod to ideologically-motivated groups."

The federal government does have a definition of domestic terrorism, but it is not considered a specific crime according to U.S. Code, so mass shooters are typically charged with other crimes.

"[The] FBI can investigate an incident jointly as both a hate crime and domestic terrorism investigation - the two are not mutually exclusive," said the El Paso branch of the FBI in a statement on Twitter.

"The FBI remains concerned that U.S.-based domestic violent extremists could become inspired by these and previous high-profile attacks to engage in similar acts of violence," said the agency's national office in a statement. "The FBI asks the American public to report to law enforcement any suspicious activity that is observed either in person or online."

The FBI's Counterterrorism-Hate Crimes fusion cell is assisting in the investigation of the shooting.

On Sunday, six former senior directors for counterterrorism of the National Security Council called for the shootings to be evaluated as domestic terrorism.

"Even as we await the full investigations of the tragic events of the last 48 hours, it has become abundantly clear over many months that more must be done to address acts driven by extremist views of all types, including acts of domestic terrorism," those former officials said in a statement. "We call on our government to make addressing this form of terrorism as high a priority as countering international terrorism has become since 9/11."

Following the El Paso shooting, nine people were killed at another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. This weekend's two mass shootings followed a shooting last week at a festival in Gilroy, California when a gunman shot and killed 3 people before shooting himself.