Call it terrorism in Charleston

Story highlights

  • The attack at the historic Charleston, South Carolina, church is being investigated as a hate crime targeting African-Americans
  • Peter Bergen says such instances of extremist terrorism have been more prevalent in the U.S. than jihadist activity since 9/11

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." David Sterman is a program associate at New America.

(CNN)The horrific attack at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, was allegedly carried out by a young white man who appeared to have deliberately targeted the church simply because it was serving African-Americans. Witnesses say the suspect said he was there "to shoot black people," a law enforcement official said. By any reasonable standard, this is terrorism, which is generally defined as an act of violence against civilians by individuals or organizations for political purposes.

But do the thought experiment: If this attack on the church in Charleston had been conducted by a Muslim man shouting "Allahu akbar," what is already a big news story would have become even bigger, as it would appear to fit so well into the political and media narrative that Muslim militants are the major terrorist problem in the United States.
That's a false narrative, as it turns out. In fact, deadly acts of terrorism by virulent racists and anti-government extremists have been more common in the United States than deadly acts of jihadist terrorism since 9/11.
There is something particularly shocking in a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious society about murdering people simply because of who they are. That's true whether it's African-Americans in Charleston attending a Bible study group or spectators at the Boston Marathon. These attacks are acts designed to terrorize, and we should call them such.
According to a count by New America, since 9/11, 26 people have been killed in jihadist terrorist attacks in the United States, while extremist right-wing racists and anti-government militants have killed 48, if we include the nine people who were killed in the attack in Charleston, which is being investigated as a hate crime.
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Last year alone saw four such deadly extremist right-wing attacks that killed eight people.
• On April 13, 2014, Frazier Glenn Cross shot and killed a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and then drove to a Jewish retirement community, where he killed a third person, authorities say. Reports say Cross shouted "Heil Hitler" after he was taken into custody. He has pleaded not guilty.
• On June 8, 2014, married couple Jerad and Amanda Miller killed two police officers in an ambush at a pizza restaurant in Las Vegas and also killed another person at a Walmart as they left the scene before committing suicide. The shooters possessed white supremacist paraphernalia and had previously spoken of targeting law enforcement officers and expressed militant views, according to their neighbors.
• On September 12, 2014, a police officer was killed in a shooting at the Blooming Grove police barracks in Pennsylvania. State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan identified Eric Frein as a suspect. Noonan said that Frein "has made statements about wanting to kill law enforcement officers and also to commit mass acts of murder" and "has expressed anti-government leanings in the past, especially toward law enforcement." Frein was taken into custody after seven weeks on the run. Prosecutors added terrorism charges against Frein, citing a letter in which he allegedly called for a revolution. He has pleaded not guilty.
• On November 22, 2014, Curtis Wade Holley ambushed and killed a police officer in Tallahassee, Florida. According to local police, Holley had planned the ambush, held anti-government political beliefs and had made previous threats against police that had put him on a watch list. Holley was killed by police officers in a shootout.
In addition, since 9/11, none of the roughly 290 people indicted or convicted in the United States of some act of jihadist terrorism has acquired or used chemical or biological weapons, while 13 people motivated by right-wing extremist ideology, one person motivated by left-wing extremist ideology, and two with idiosyncratic beliefs used or acquired such weapons or their precursors.
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Although a variety of left-wing militants and environmental extremists have carried out violent attacks for political reasons against property and people since 9/11, none has been linked to a deadly attack, according to research by New America.
Jihadist violence continues to dominate the news and the attention of policymakers. Some of this is quite understandable. After all, on 9/11, al Qaeda killed almost 3,000 people.
Yet, as a matter of the public safety, there really is no difference between terrorism that is purportedly committed in the name of Allah and killing that is committed for other political ends, such as the racist beliefs about African-Americans that appear to have motivated Thursday's attack in Charleston.