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Redefining terrorism? Tardy labeling of violent black nationalist revives charges of politicization

Has political pressure left law enforcement squeamish about classifying left-wing extremist violence as terrorism?

Published: April 13, 2022 9:05pm

Updated: April 14, 2022 11:31pm

The arrest of a man for shooting 10 people on a New York City subway train this week has shined a spotlight on what experts call the arbitrary way in which authorities use the label of terrorism when investigating attacks across the country.

Frank James, 62, was taken into custody on Wednesday afternoon about 30 hours after a bloody shooting on a Brooklyn subway car during rush hour that left five victims in critical condition.

Federal prosecutors charged James with a terrorism-related offense for firing 33 rounds on a Manhattan-bound train Tuesday morning. Beyond the 10 people who suffered gunshot wounds, another 19 were treated for other injuries.

James fled after the attack, triggering a massive manhunt. Prosecutors wasted no time in charging him once he was arrested for violating a statute prohibiting terrorist and other violent attacks against mass transportation systems. James could face life in prison if convicted.

The charge came after New York City officials said Tuesday they were not investigating the shooting as an act of terrorism, although the city's police department (NYPD) didn't rule out the possibility.

Former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik told Just the News he agreed with the terrorism charge but was "irritated" at law enforcement's apparent reluctance to consider the incident a terrorist attack.

"This is a classic example of domestic terrorism," he said. "That classification comes right out of the FBI's definition."

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as "violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature."

Kerik argued this is part of a larger issue of law enforcement selectively applying the terrorist label due to political influence.

"Wait a minute — you had people who protested at the U.S. Capitol who were locked up, basically called domestic terrorists," said Kerik, referring to the hundreds of Americans who were arrested and imprisoned for alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach of last year. He noted most didn't hurt anyone or damage property, and many never entered the Capitol.

In total, more than 750 people have been imprisoned for Jan. 6-related crimes without a trial. Democrats and federal prosecutors have labeled them insurrectionists.

Kerik compared them to James, who expressed black nationalist and other extremist, hateful ideas on social media, where his postings indicated he was obsessed with race and believed a race war between blacks and whites was coming.

"We need to see more mass shootings," James said in one video. "There has to be more mass shootings to make a n***er understand ... It's not about the shooter; it's about the environment in which he is, he has to exist."

In another recorded rant, James added, "White people and black people, as we call ourselves, should not have any contact with each other."

James, who's black, posted one meme that read, "O black Jesus, please kill all the whiteys."

James also posted an image of the controversial late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, using his preferred title, "The Messenger of Allah." The current Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, routinely makes anti-white and antisemitic remarks.

Other posts contained bigoted language about Hispanics, Asians, and even blacks.

Multiple media outlets reported James was on an FBI watch list before being cleared in 2019, when he was interviewed by bureau agents. However, Michael Driscoll, assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York field office, said Wednesday, "We have found no record of any investigation of Frank R. James by an FBI office before the shooting yesterday."

James's support for black nationalism isn't new. Those charged in recent attacks in Wisconsin, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. expressed similar ideological views.

In a 2017 intelligence assessment, the FBI warned what it called "black identity extremists" could launch violent attacks in the United States, especially against law enforcement. After the report leaked, liberal groups including the Congressional Black Caucus pressured the bureau to drop its categorization, according to Heritage Foundation senior fellow Mike Gonzalez, who detailed the chain of events in his 2021 book "BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution."

That led the FBI to eliminate its category of "black identity extremism" as a potential motivation for terorrism and instead adopt the term "racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist," which is supposed to cover all ethnically motivated violence but, according to critics, is used to focus on white supremacists.

"I fear that failing to stick with the definition of terrorism in itself could be furthering terrorism," said Robyn Gritz, a retired FBI special agent who worked in counterterrorism for years. If we are not able to fully define the enemy, how can we prevent, investigate, combat, and prosecute it?

Terrorism is defined by methods, not by identity or beliefs, argues Gritz. "Terrorism is defined as the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims," she said. "Terrorists are terrorists no matter gender, creed, sexual identity, ethnicity, or any other identifying data."

Gritz said James's stated beliefs indicate he's a terrorist who connected his actions to his politics. James discussed a range of political issues online and even castigated New York City Mayor Eric Adams in his online rants.

But law enforcement isn't necessarily being trained to connect such dots when the suspect is black, according to some experts.

As a result of the political pressure on the FBI to stop referring to black extremists, "there has been minimal study and training done to educate law enforcement on the intricacies of the black identity extremist thought, and its various strains and idiosyncrasies," according to a new report by Kyle Shideler, director for homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy. "Instead, the tendency is to deny that such attacks are politically motivated, and thus deny any terrorism angle for further investigation."

Black nationalists aren't the only ones whom authorities have been reluctant to identify as terrorists. In 2009, for example, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood in Texas and injured dozens of people. Despite many experts calling the shooting a terrorist attack, the Obama administration, including the FBI, described it as "workplace violence." Hasan had been in contact with the late Al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al Awlaki.

More recently, many Democrats and law enforcement officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, have refused to describe members of the far-left Antifa network as terrorists or come under criticism for dismissing the threat they pose.

"The terrorism definition is applied arbitrarily," said Kerik. "Here's how I know: What Black Lives Matter and Antifa did in Portland, Oregon, assaulting a federal courthouse for two months straight, firebombing it, arson, extreme violence — that was an anti-government attack. Yet none were charged with domestic terrorism."

Former President Trump said while in office he wanted to designate Antifa as a domestic terrorist group, but the designation was never implemented.

As another example of the politicization of the "terrorism" designation, Kerik cited reports indicating coordination between the Justice Department and the National School Boards Association (NSBA) concerning potential investigations into parents who protest mask mandates and the teaching of critical race theory in the classroom for engaging in "domestic terrorism."

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security, put out a "National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin," which cited "false or misleading narratives regarding unsubstantiated widespread election fraud and COVID-19" as forces fueling "domestic terrorism."

"We need to stop defining crimes based on political agendas and stick to the statutes like the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York is by charging Frank James with a federal terrorism statute," said Gritz.

Kerik expressed similar concerns, saying that law enforcement inconsistently investigating attacks as acts of terrorism due to political pressure is "more than dangerous."

"It sends a signal to every American that there's a two-tier criminal justice system," he said. "And it gives the government the ability to target people for political reasons. That's the problem. There's no greater threat to our democracy than a government that weaponizes the criminal justice system to target civilians and take away their freedom and ability. And that's what this Justice Department is doing."

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