First I’m going to present a couple of perpetrator types which, between them, account for almost all terrorist acts and rampage killings. Later I’ll point at some edge cases and exceptions.
Our first perpetrator type is what I’ll call a “terror soldier”. This is not a term in use among professionals, I’m presenting it here in order to avoid pre-empting the term “terrorist”.
The terror soldier does not act alone. He has a network behind him; the network provides him with, at minimum, ideological and tactical direction. It may also provide him with safehouses, money, and weapons. Because the terror network has public political objectives, it either has an above-ground political arm or a deniable conduit to a “legitimate” political organization that can operate as its propaganda and recruiting arm.
The opposite archetype is the lone wacko. The lone wacko doesn’t have a network. His motivations are not public and political but personal and, usually, delusional. He is likely to have been a former mental patient, or to have a history that clearly indicates previously undiagnosed mental illness when it is scrutinized after he has gone violent. More often than nor he will have been on long term use of SSRIs (more than five years) or some other prescription antidepressent or antipsychotic medication, and the violent break will be associated with going off or changing his meds.
The San Bernardino shooters were terror soldiers, not lone wackos. There was more confusion about this than there should have been until Tashfeen Malik’s declaration of allegience to ISIS was discovered. Some people are still confused by the fact that ISIS didn’t provide them material support. But this is exactly what makes ISIS novel and dangerous – it has built a doctrine and toolkit for running soldiers with ideological and tactical direction only, purely through its propaganda arm.
By contrast, the Aurora Theater shooter, James Holmes, was a classic lone wacko. So was Elliot Rodger, the shooter in the 2014 Isla Vista killings. So were Harris and Klebold, the Columbine High School shooters. No network, no ideology, just boiling cauldrons of private hatreds and resentments.
Almost all terrorists or rampage killers fit one of these two profiles. Very occasionally you get some outliers that break the classification. Timothy McVeigh was one – politically motivated, military demolition skills, not mentally unbalanced: every attribute of a terror soldier except the network.
The Unabomber was similar, except borderline crazy. Unlike McVeigh he might not actually be an exception to the usual rules but, rather, best understood as an exceptionally intelligent lone wacko. In the real world, you can never count on category boundaries being perfectly sharp.
One recent borderline case deserves special attention: Dylann Roof, the virulent racist who shot 9 people in a Charleston church in June 2015. Dylann is best understood as a would-be terror soldier who, in contrast to the self-radicalized San Bernardino shooters, failed to find a network to hook up to. There was no ISIS for him; his Facebook stream included complaints that he couldn’t find any racists to hang with.
But I emphasize that Roof and McVeigh and the Unabomber were exceptions; 99% of the time it is very obvious that you are dealing with either a terror soldier (backed by a network) or a lone wacko from just the modus operandi of the killing, and there is almost never any need to change this assessment later.
Now I’ll get to the controversial part. A lot of the confusion about terror and rampage killings is politically generated and unnecessary. The operators on the ground are seldom in much doubt about what species they are dealing with, but they’re used to seeing their analyses spun into garble, vagueness, and sometimes outright fabrication by their superiors and the news media.
There are two major reasons for this. One is that for PR reasons, the U.S, government has chosen to underplay the role of Islamist indoctrination in recent terror incidents, implicitly binning terror soldiers as lone wackos. Perhaps the single most egregious example of this was in the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, which the government insisted on publicly categorizing as “workplace violence” despite the fact that the shooter screamed “Allahu akbar!” while firing and the Joint Terrorism Task Force found him to have been communicating with a jihadist imam in Yemen. Co-workers had been aware of the shooter’s increasing radicalization for years.
Another major reason is that the left end of the American political spectrum is heavily invested in the belief that “right-wing terrorism” is prevalent in the U.S. and a greater danger than either left terrorism or Islamism.
This belief is a myth. One recent indicator is the fact that Dylann Roof, a natural hard-right-wing terrorist soldier if there ever was one, never found his network. Another is that anybody can name Islamist terror organizations that operate in the U.S. – ISIS, al-Qaeda – but only specialists know about U.S. incubator networks like The Order and the Christian Identity movement.
In fact, the potentially-terrorist hard right in the U.S. is tiny, isolated, and so incompetent that it can barely find its own ass with both hands, a flashlight, and GPS guidance. It is also heavily infiltrated. (This is not just my opinion, it is what any pro in the field will tell you if you can get them to talk.)
What sustains the myth that right-wing terror is more prevalent than jihadism is, basically, the news media instantly counting any lone wacko with a white skin as a “right-wing terrorist” and sticking to that categorization even when facts contradict it.
This bias is so extreme that Joseph Stack, who flew a light plane into an IRS office in 2010, is still routinely described as “right-wing” even though his suicide note ended by quoting the Communist Manifesto! Another notable example is Jared Lee Loughner, characterized as “right wing” even though his political connections were an incoherent mess of mainly left-wing conspiracy theories and a former classmate testified that he was “left wing, quite liberal” before retreating into private psychosis.
I have to single out for particular opprobrium the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that used to do noble work in civil rights but has in recent years been particularly persistent and dishonest in promoting the myth of pervasive right-wing terror. Journalists still treat them as a reliable source, and should not.
Another political hobbyhorse that gets ridden after every mass shooting, whether terrorist incident or rampage killing, is gun control. This article is not really the place to fully analyze the kind of dimwitted magical thinking involved, but I will note one relevant fact: both terror soldiers and rampage killers are known to preferentially seek out posted “gun-free zones” – venues where they are reasonably confident their victims will not be able to shoot back.