NEW YORK (AP) – What police have labeled the latest act of terror in New York City didn’t involve an international conspiracy, a high-profile target or a bomb – just an unemployed loner wielding a hardware-store hatchet on an unremarkable street.
New York Police Department officials’ characterization of the assault on a group of officers last week in Queens by Zale Thompson raised questions about what qualifies as terrorism in an era 13 years removed from the Sept. 11 attacks.
Though police say there is some evidence suggesting Thompson was influenced by extremist Muslim rhetoric on the Internet about a struggle to the death with the West, he also had contact with a Black activist about fighting racism at home.
The FBI, which normally takes the lead on terror investigations, has offered no similar assessment that Thompson should be viewed as a terrorist.
“We can’t really think of him as being in the same category as the Zazis and Shahzads of the world,” said Karen Greenberg, a national security expert at Fordham University, referring to the men behind failed plots against the New York subways and Times Square.
The case points up the need for law enforcement to come up with new language to define crimes with only loose connections to terrorism, Greenberg said.
“You don’t want to overuse the word ‘terrorism,’” she said. “It would lose its meaning.”
Jitters over terror hung over the investigation of the hatchet attack. It came a day after a gunman’s deadly rampage at Canada’s war memorial and Parliament that is also being characterized as a terrorist act.
The questions about the 32-year-old Thompson began soon after he pulled a hatchet out of a backpack and, in broad daylight and without warning, charged a group of uniformed officers and began hacking away. One officer suffered a serious head wound before other officers shot and killed the assailant.
Initially, police officials said there was no obvious link to terrorism. But on Friday, after examining Thompson’s social media and Internet search activity, they described him as “self-radicalized” Muslim convert and “lone wolf.”
“This was a terrorist attack, certainly,” Police Commissioner William Bratton said when pressed by reporters at a news conference.
The attack differed from previous ones in which the suspects were U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim descent, received training or funding from Middle East-based terror groups, and chose public transportation, tourist attractions or financial institutions as targets to cause maximum mayhem, said John Miller, the NYPD’s top counterterrorism official.
Extremists are using a mass-marketing recruitment campaign on the Internet, believing that “if just a few buy into that narrative and act out independently, that will be enough,” Miller said.
Investigators found that Thompson had frequented websites propagating the views of the Islamic State and other terror groups. He complained in his own writings about “Zionists and Crusaders” occupying the Islamic world, saying the solution was to “cut the head off the beast,” police said. Family members said he spent long stretches alone in a bedroom in his father’s home and seemed depressed.
But Thompson’s motive remains murky. The Black activist he was in touch with has said Thompson expressed opposition to terrorism and violence against police. In one Facebook posting, the activist accused authorities of “lying and trying to make this into some form of violent conspiracy against law enforcement.”
One witness, former radio reporter Walter Ocner, said terrorism never occurred to him when he took cover amid gunfire and saw Thompson fall to the ground.
But he has since heard news accounts and now believes the case shows that terrorism “can happen anywhere,” he said. “I’m definitely a bit on edge.”