When a truck raced down a bike lane in New York on Oct. 31, killing eight people, the incident was quickly labeled a terrorist act.

But less than a week later, when a gunman stormed into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas murdering 26 worshipers, it was called a mass shooting.

Similarly, the Las Vegas shooting on Oct. 1, in which a lone gunman killed 59 people, was also quickly identified as a mass shooting rather than a terrorist attack.

All three incidents were horrific acts. So why the difference in terminology?

From a legal standpoint, a charge of terrorism falls heavily on motive.

The perpetrator in the New York attack, Sayfullo Saipov, a U.S. resident from Uzbekistan, reportedly yelled “God is Great” in Arabic during the attack, claimed he was inspired by ISIS videos and requested to have an ISIS flag in his hospital room.

And that’s enough to fit the FBI’s classification of an act of international terrorism: one “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations. Saipov was subsequently charged with federal terrorism offenses.

But because the motives of the shooters in the two other incidents remain ambiguous, and neither appear to have had any affiliations with “terrorist” groups, or acted with any clear political aims, the possibility of terrorism was quickly dismissed.

Learn more about the loaded term in the video above.

Why Are Some Violent Attacks Considered Terrorism, But Not Others? 8 November,2017Matthew Green


Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a digital media producer for KQED News. He previously produced The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog. Matthew's written for numerous Bay Area publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. He also taught journalism classes at Fremont High School in East Oakland.

Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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