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Mass Shooting at Gay Nightclub May Be Act of Terrorism


Authorities have said that they are looking into whether the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub on Saturday night was “an act of domestic terrorism.” The horrific attack, reported to have left 50 dead and 53 hospitalized, continues to develop as details unfold.

The shooter, who was shot and killed by police, has been identified as Omar Saddiqui Mateen, from Port St Lucie in Florida–  a 29 year-old man born in the U.S. to Afghan parents.  According to police, Mateen had military training, used an assault-type weapon, a handgun and potentially explosive device during the attack.

When violent crime results in sweeping and tragic loss of life, post-9/11 Americans invariably suspect that “terrorism” is the root cause. Many times, such a characterization is accurate, while other times, it amounts to nothing more than media hype.

The FBI has published the following definition:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear 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
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

Read together with federal criminal statutes used to prosecute both international and domestic terrorism, this definition clearly requires that a crime have specific motivation to be considered “terrorism.” The Orlando shooting unquestionably meets the first and third prongs of the FBI’s definition. But the second requirement isn’t quite so easy.

Before classifying this attack as “terrorism,” law enforcement would need to gather some evidence about the shooter’s motivation and plan for opening fire on the nightclub. Some sources are reporting that Mateen has ties to radical Islam, while others are reporting that he was known to have anti-gay leanings.

Mir Seddique, Mateen’s father, told NBC News, “this has nothing to do with religion,” and indicated that he believed the shooting may have been related to his son’s recent anger at the sight of two men kissing. It is certainly worth noting that if Mateen had been attempting to use violence to affect U.S. policy regarding LGBT rights, then the attack could be deemed “terrorism” on those grounds.  As evidence is gathered by law enforcement, it will likely clarify whether this attack was motivated by an intent to intimidate the population or influence policy, or whether it was random violence.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos