After the shooter who randomly killed three people in Fresno on Tuesday shouted “praise god” in Arabic, some were quick to label him a terrorist – but experts say that’s not the case.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer called Kori Ali Muhammad, a 39-year-old black man, a “calloused” racist, but said he is not a terrorist and doesn’t claim to be.
“(Muhammad) said he was not a coward,” Dyer said in a news conference Wednesday. “He said that’s what differentiated him and a terrorist, in that a terrorist does extreme acts – kills people – but dies for that cause. And that’s not what he was going to do.”
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Fresno police said the federal government decides what constitutes terrorism. When asked about Muhammad’s acts, an FBI representative pointed to policies that define terrorism as premeditated violence that is “intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.”
Muhammad told police he was not affiliated with any terrorist group.
But according to past social media posts and online videos, Muhammad is a supporter of the Nation of Islam – labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Nation of Islam has been rejected by most Muslim groups, and has been criticized for promoting black supremacy and antisemitism.
Muhammad told police he is Muslim, but is not affiliated with any local mosques.
He’s not a terrorist. He is a racist, filled with hate.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer
Muhammad also showed support online for black nationalist groups, and for the Moorish Science Temple of America – a black religious group of the Islamic faith that has been criticized for its followers’ anti-government beliefs and involvement in the “sovereign citizen” movement.
Personal brand of extremism
Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, calls some people’s haste to affiliate Muhammad with foreign terrorists “the bumper sticker analysis.”
“His rantings are not part of a violent Jihadist movement. He’s not inspired by ISIS or Al-Qaeda. He’s someone who has crafted his own brand of extremism,” Levin said. “Some of these violent extremists craft their own idiosyncratic ideology from a buffet of often related hatred that exists on social media – and that’s what happened here.”
Levin compared Muhammad to Dylann Roof – a white supremacist who killed nine black church-goers in South Carolina in 2015. Like Roof, Muhammad was likely a loner who became radicalized on the internet, Levin said.
“What we’re seeing is, even movements that may not have large numbers of people can still influence and radicalize unstable, angry individuals,” he said. “Unfortunately, these ticking time bombs exist. We are seeing people who are loners have their anger and violence amplified by an ideology on the internet.”
While the label “terrorist” is up for debate, “racist” is less contested. At Wednesday’s news conference, Dyer called Muhammad a “calloused” racist who is “filled with hate.” Muhammad has said his victims were targeted because they were white.
“It seems that Muhammad’s alleged shooting spree may have been just such a deliberate attempt to kill white people. However, in this case, unlike the previous incidents, the violence does not appear to have been an attempt at retaliation against law enforcement officers, but rather was directed at random white people,” the ADL said in a statement Wednesday.
Some of these violent extremists craft their own idiosyncratic ideology from a buffet of often related hatred that exists on social media – and that’s what happened here.
Brian Levin, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino
Hate crimes of this magnitude are rare, and perpetrators don’t typically look like Muhammad, according to Phyllis Gerstenfeld, chair of the criminal justice department at California State University, Stanislaus. Gerstenfeld, of Turlock, has been studying hate crimes for nearly 25 years.
“The average hate crime offender is a young white male who doesn’t have a criminal history and isn’t affiliated with organized hate groups,” Gerstenfeld said. “Whites aren’t the most common victim of hate crimes, but it certainly happens.”
Gerstenfeld says that when hate crimes result in extreme violence, the individual likely has mental health problems and is using their chosen form of discrimination as an excuse.
“In situations like these, what the person says may be religiously or racially motivated, but there’s something else going on in their head. They’ve latched onto race or religion as a sort of impetus,” she said. “People who are mentally ill aren’t anymore violently dangerous than anyone else, but many of the people who are mass murderers, in general, do tend to have some mental health issues.”
Questioning mental health
In the aftermath of mass shooting, questions about the mental stability of the shooter are often raised, according to Dr. Jonathan M. Metzl, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society.
Society needs a way of processing something that is horrific and doesn’t make sense, he said. “And a senseless killing is beyond the bounds of sanity, as we define it.”
Metzl, who has done research on mental illness and mass shootings, on Wednesday was talking on the subject to doctors at a hospital system in New York. He could not comment specifically on the Fresno incidents, but said many mass shooters do have psychiatric symptoms: delusions, paranoia, hallucinations.
“About 60 percent of mass shooters have some sort of psychiatric history, some kind of symptom at least,” Metzl said.
However, blaming mental illness as the sole cause of mass shootings allows society to lose sight of other factors, such as substance use, access to firearms, or a past history of violence, he said. “It would be like almost all mass shooters are men, but you would never just say masculinity is the cause. Mental illness is just one of many factors that lead people to commit crimes like this.”
And most people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators of it, Metzl said. “When we blame mental illness and say it’s the only cause (of mass shootings), we over-generalize and stigmatize and we lose the other narrative that could explain the violence,” he said.
60 percentOf mass shooters have some sort of psychiatric history.
Research on mass shootings has shown that people with serious mental illness represent less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides. In contrast, deaths by suicide using firearms account for the majority of yearly gun-related deaths.
The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3 percent –and an even smaller percentage of them are found to involve firearms, according to researchers at SUNY Upstate in New York.
“Somebody without a mental illness is more capable of causing people harm than someone who has mental illness,” said Dr. George D. Annas, deputy director of the forensic psychiatry fellowship program at SUNY Upstate.
Annas also could not comment on the Fresno shootings that left three dead, but said he finds it hard to believe that mental illness itself would lead to a mass shooting.
Muhammad was convicted in 2006 of being a crack cocaine dealer and a felon in possession of a firearm. According to court documents from a 2005 hearing in federal court in Fresno, Muhammad had been diagnosed with psychosis “with a substantial degree of paranoia.”
In the court proceedings, Muhammad’s lawyer described him as “eccentric with some bizarre beliefs” and had Muhammad evaluated by a licensed forensic psychiatrist, who said he was not competent to stand trial. And according to the psychiatrist, “due to his paranoia he views the system, including his defense counsel, as conspiring against him.”
Substance use is a factor that psychiatrists consider when assessing the risk for violence in a patient, said Tamar Kenworthy, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant University Fresno campus.
Extensive substance use can contribute to paranoia and delusions, Kenworthy said. “We can have things that appear delusional when without the substance abuse it might go away.”
Any type of stimulate, such as cocaine or methamphetamine, have the potential to lead to paranoia, Kenworthy said. “Longtime use can impact one’s ability to think rationally, to differentiate from what’s real and what’s not real.”