The State of Georgia will be expanding its definition of domestic terrorism. The new definition will take into account the terrorist’s ideological motivations.
Senate Bill One (SB 1) comes amidst death threats aimed at mosques in Atlanta and Jewish centers across the country. The Madina Institute in Duluth Georgia received email threats in early March. The institute’s director, Sheikh Muhammad Ninowy, said that these developments are not new, but a culmination of opposing attitudes towards Muslims.
“People are frightened, we’re worried about kids. On weekends we have children’s classes, we have teenager’s classes, we have women’s classes. This is what worries us, but what do we do? I don’t know,” Ninowy said.
Ninowy said the institute is a place for gathering when the Atlanta muslim community is under pressure, a sentiment resonated by the institute’s communications manager, Nidal Ibrahim.
“It’s as much a mosque as it is a community center, so people socialize on the grounds all the time,” Ibrahim said.
In light of mosques being threatened, the new bill expands the definition of Critical Infrastructure–sectors of society that serve as a back bone for a country’s economy, security, or health–to include religious and educational institutions.
According to Majority Leader of the Georgia Senate, Bill Cowsert, the current definition of terrorism in Georgia pertains to any individual that intends to kill ten or more people. The current law does not put much emphasis, however, on the motivation of such attacks.
“SB1 changes the definition of ‘domestic terrorism’ so that a terrorist is defined as someone who intentionally tries to do serious harm to people or kill people – or intends to destroy critical infrastructure – all with the intent to advance a belief or an ideology,” Cowsert said.
The bill does not specify the nature of any one ideology that might be advanced through terrorism; so long as the perpetrator is committing the act in the name of any belief, they will be deemed a terrorist.
“[The bill’s] intended is to protect potential victims from anyone who would use intentional violence to advance an ideology regardless of the ideology. Too often, terrorists do not care who they are attacking, as long as the violent act gives attention to their cause. This bill more accurately defines what terrorists are trying to achieve, hopefully, to help law enforcement agencies (from the smallest county’s sheriff’s office to the GBI, the Georgia Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI) identify and stop the acts before they happen,” said Cowsert.
The bill, however, drew criticism from some in the Senate. most notably from Sen. Lester Jackson of the Legislative Black Caucus. He posited that the bill’s language could potentially infringe on protesting rights. However, Cowsert assured that the bill will not limit the rights of protesters.
“When I was made aware of those concerns, I immediately contacted Sen. Lester Jackson, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. With his help, we added language to the bill ensuring it cannot be used to stifle constitutionally protected speech, assembly, or redress. After we amended the bill, Sen. Jackson voted in favor of it,” Cowser said.
Cowsert noted that under the bill, the Attorney General Office of Georgia will have greater jurisdiction to prosecute terrorists if they attack in in more than one judicial circuit. The bill will also change the structure of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
“The law removes the state’s Homeland Security Director from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and places the position under a new Department of Homeland Security guided by a Board of Homeland Security connected to the Governor’s office,” Cowsert said.
In spite of the crackdown on domestic terrorism that the bill presents, Ninowy said that in terms of the bill’s effect on the current situation with Atlanta’s Muslim community, it is merely a stepping stone.
“It’s a short term remedy, the long term remedy is to stop normalizing islamophobia and to stop demonizing American muslims,” Ninowy said.
The bill will be moving to subcommittee on March 15.