POLITICS
07/09/2015 05:45 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2015

FBI Director James Comey Still Unsure If White Supremacist's Attack In Charleston Was Terrorism

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WASHINGTON -- FBI Director James Comey said Thursday he's still not sure whether the killings of nine African-Americans inside a church in South Carolina last month meets the legal definition of terrorism.

The FBI defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Dylann Roof, 21, who is charged in the fatal shootings of nine people during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, apparently wrote a racist manifesto saying he wanted to "protect the White race" and had "no choice" but to kill innocent worshipers.

"I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight," the manifesto says. "I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."

Before the manifesto surfaced online, Comey said he was unsure whether the shooting was a "political act.” An FBI spokesman said Comey's comments were made while the situation was "still fluid." But now that Roof's motivations are more clear, Comey said he's still not sure.

"I don't know yet," Comey said Thursday, when The Huffington Post asked him whether the Charleston shooting was an act of terrorism. "I was asked about that a day or so after and said that, based on what I knew at that point, I didn't see it fitting the definition. Since then, we're found the so-called manifesto online, so I know the investigators and prosecutors are looking at it through the lens of hate crime, through the lens, potentially, of terrorism."

The label "doesn't impact the energy that we apply to it," Comey added.

"Given the nature of my business, I only operate in a legal framework," Comey said. "I know there's a definition of terrorism that all of us carry around as a colloquial matter. I know from having talked to them the investigators and prosecutors are looking at it through a bunch of different lenses to figure out what, if any ... federal charges might make sense."

Comey said investigators "work very hard to try to understand the facts, and then Justice will figure out what charges to bring. So the answer is I don't know yet, but I know that our folks will look at it from all angles."

Comey's view contrasts with that of former Attorney General Eric Holder, who told The Huffington Post this week that Charleston was "clearly an act of terrorism." It was a "political-violent" act, Holder said.

"With a different set of circumstances, and if you had dialed in religion there, Islam, that would be called an act of terror," Holder said. "It seems to me that, again on the basis of the information that has been released, that's what we have here. An act of terror."

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The Huffington Post asked Comey whether there would be a hesitancy to call the Charleston shooting terrorism if Roof's manifesto had indicated his attack was inspired by the Islamic State.

"I'd investigate it I think probably just as we're investigating now, to understand what his motivation was and whether it was designed to coerce a civilian population," Comey said. "So we'd investigate it the same, and then in deciding what charges to bring, we'd look at it through the framework of the individual statutory provisions to see whether they'd apply."

Comey objected to the suggestion that there was hesitancy to call the Charleston attack terrorism based on the accused killer's white supremacist views that wouldn't be present if the suspect were a Muslim extremist.

"Where's the hesitancy?" Comey asked. "This is where I struggle a little bit. The only world I live in is when you bring charges against someone and charge them with something under a particular provision that is a terrorism statute, and so that's the framework through which I look at it, and I think that makes sense for someone in the government who is doing an investigation to look at it through that framework.

"So I'm not hesitating to define it in any way, except to say that that we want to gather the facts and then find out which statutes make sense," Comey said. "That would be the same whether his manifesto was written in Arabic or in English."

Comey also said during a roundtable discussion with reporters that he believed the FBI was taking the threat of non-Muslim homegrown extremists -- who have killed nearly twice as many people within the U.S. as Islamic radicals in the years since Sept. 11 -- seriously.

"Within the bureau, we have a pretty rigorous process to try and assess threat and press resources against that threat, and I am confident that we are putting the resources against both of these threats that make sense," Comey said. "We try, as you know, to be very careful and respectful of free speech, but we also try and understand when speech crosses the line of First Amendment-protected activity to action or exhorting action that is in violation of the law."

Comey said a "whole lot" of FBI analysts and agents "wake up every day" and focus solely on domestic groups.

"One of the reasons that maybe the ISIL threat gets more attention is that there really isn't a domestic terrorism threat that poses the risk of actors in every state engaging in random, nearly random acts of violence coordinated in the way that ISIL is attempting to inspire direct activities," Comey said. "So there isn't a comparable threat actor in the domestic scene. It's fragmented. There's lots of different groups that are potentially worrisome that we focus on."

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