Terror where we pray: What gets attacked?

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana (AP Photo)
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana (AP Photo)

 

Three weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, suicide bombers attacked three churches in Sri Lanka in coordinated acts of terrorism. More than 250 people were killed and some 500 injured.

Two days later, ISIS claimed responsibility, though it remains unclear just how involved in the plot the organization really was. The Sri Lankan government had detailed advance warning of the plot and failed to act to prevent them.

Closer to home, in early April a series of arson attacks targeted African American churches across a rural parish of Louisiana. A suspect, the 21-year-old son of a deputy sheriff, was charged with hate crimes in the incidents.

Later that month, a 19-year-old member of an evangelical Christian church entered a synagogue outside San Diego and opened fire, killing one and wounding three others. In a manifesto he posted online, the suspect rooted his actions in biblical justification, belief in his own salvation, and a narrative that blames Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. He has been charged with federal hate crime and civil rights violations.

All of these incidents, as well as the mass shooting at mosques in New Zealand in March, got me wondering how frequently American places of worship are the targets of terrorist attacks, and what those incidents might tell us about the nature of terrorism in the United States. All of the data I am going to discuss below comes from the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland.

By stateFrom 1998 through 2017 there were 559 separate terrorist incidents in the United States. Of those, 80, or 14 percent, targeted places of worship. 2016 was the worst year for terrorist attacks on places of worship, with 23 separate incidents, though there were several years (1998, 2000-2003, 2006-2007) in which no terrorist attacks on religious targets were recorded.

As the chart here shows, attacks occurred in 28 states, with the highest number recorded in New York (10) followed by California (9), Florida (8), and Texas (8). The others in the dataset come in with five or fewer separate attacks. More noteworthy, however, are the kinds of places of worship that are targeted.

Targeting 2The most commonly targeted places of worship are not churches but mosques, accounting for 37 percent of all incidents during this 20-year period. Synagogues account for 17 percent of targets, and African American churches another 10 percent. Other churches account for 33 percent of cases. Others (Sikh and Hindu temples) make up the final three percent.

What does this tell us? That two-thirds of all terrorist attacks targeting places of worship are directed against religious or racial minorities.

Attacks on these minority places of worship have also been the deadliest. In 2012, six people were killed at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, a case I’ve written about before. In 2014, three were killed in shootings at a Jewish community center and retirement home in Overland Park, KS. In 2015, nine were killed at an African American church in Charleston, S.C. In 2016, two were killed in a shooting targeting an imam in New York City.

When the data is updated through 2018 we will be able to add the killing of 11 worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh to this awful list.

Only two other fatal attacks on places of worship were recorded between 1998 and 2017. In 2008, two were killed in a shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, TN, by perpetrators targeted the congregation because of its liberal social and political positions. And in 2017, one person was killed and eight wounded in a shooting at a church in Antioch, TN. There was no specific motive behind this attack.

Of the 80 attacks over the 20-year period covered here, only two were the work of Muslim extremists or jihadi-inspired perpetrators. No one was killed or injured in either incident.

What all these attacks suggest is that in the United States, terrorism targeting places of worship is consistent with the standard truth about American terrorism that I have been writing about since almost the beginning of this blog. Most of it is perpetrated by white nationalist or racist extremists on the far right of the political spectrum.

And thus a familiar pattern gets that much more familiar.

A lot of people watching and a lot of people dead

(Image credit: Newshub.co.nz)
(Image credit: Newshub.co.nz)

 

“Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

American terrorism expert Brian Jenkins wrote these words in 1974, and for nearly three decades this was common wisdom. The lethality of terrorist groups, Jenkins argued, was a product not simply of limited access to weapons, but also self-restraint.

The logic was straightforward. Acts of violence that are too extreme and produce too many casualties are counterproductive because:

  • They damage group cohesion through the revulsion the group’s own members feel.
  • They alienate the terrorist group’s constituents and supporters.
  • They spark public outrage and harden attitudes among the terrorists’ target population.
  • This outrage triggers intense government crackdown on the group and its supporters, putting the movement’s very survival at risk.

Clearly things have changed, as today’s massacre of 49 people in terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand demonstrate. But the attacks today add a deeply troubling new dimension that shows how far the pendulum has swung from that earlier understanding.

The alleged terrorist, a 28-year-old Australian white supremacist named Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed video of his attack while it was in progress. It then metastasized, almost instantaneously, across the Internet.

More than eight hours after the shooting video at one of the mosques was first live-streamed on Facebook — apparently by the man who killed 49 people in a mosque in Christchurch — it still was getting uploaded and re-uploaded continuously by other people onto YouTube.  …

The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit. Even hours after the shooting, the social-media giants Facebook, Twitter and YouTube continued to host versions of the shooting video, even as New Zealand authorities said they were calling for it to be taken down.

Ahead of the attack, Tarrant posted online a 74-page manifesto in which he described himself as an ethnonationalist and a fascist, rants about “white genocide,” and spews anti-immigrant hate. (I will not post any link to his manifesto here, nor quote his words.)  And, as one terrorism scholar pointed out on Twitter, he orchestrated an online media blitz to spread his message as widely as possible.

Today’s attacks in New Zealand are vivid examples of the changed face of terrorism and the perverse synergies between readily available means of mass killing and access to communications technologies that allow for near-instantaneous dissemination of the terrorists’ message.

Mass casualties have become the means by which the terrorist cuts through the noise and static of our oversaturated media environment. To publicize the cause it is no longer enough to simply kill “a single man in Algiers which will be noted the next day by the American press,” as Ramdane Abane once said in explaining the FLN’s decision to initiate a campaign of urban terrorism in French-occupied Algeria in the 1950s.

Changes in both the organizational structure of terrorist movements and in the types of ideologies that motivate them have also immunized terrorists from what were assumed to be the negative consequences of killing too many people in too horrific a fashion. Radicalized and networked individuals and self-contained cells following the doctrine of leaderless resistance and moving within extremist online circles where mass casualty attacks are hailed, not reviled, have little fear either of alienating fellow true believers or that a government crackdown will silence their movement.

That’s why, writing in 2007, Brian Jenkins updated his earlier dictum to reflect a new reality — many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. New Zealand is now a case in point.

The logic of terrorism

paulhasson

Nearly lost in the daily deluge of news last week (and almost forgotten already) was the report that an active-duty Coast Guard officer, Christopher Hasson, had been arrested for plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” The federal prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson in prison pending trial minced no words:

The defendant is a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect government conduct.

Rarely do we get to see an example of a case that so clearly fits with the logic of terrorism that academics have long written about and that we try to help our students understand. I want to walk through a little bit of that here, but before I do, let me dispense with two immediate points:

  • As I have written repeatedly in this space, Hasson fits the picture of the typical American terrorist. He is an angry, right-wing, middle-aged white male.
  • Hasson is representative of another dynamic I’ve written about before, the recurring problem of violent white nationalists and other right-wing extremists in the U.S. armed forces.

Prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson pending trial (the judge in the case ordered him held without bail for 14 days, pending further charges) contains evidence that cuts right to the larger question of the logic behind terrorism. With Hasson, as with all terrorists, the issue isn’t that he holds extreme political views and espouses extreme political objectives, but that he believes these objectives can only be accomplished through violence.

As leading scholars of terrorism like Bruce Hoffman and Martha Crenshaw have long argued, terrorists are often driven by a powerful sense of impatience, that the concerns that motive them are so dire and pressing that there is no time to wait for the slow processes of normal politics to play out. The terrorist cannot sit and wait for the ideas that motivate him to take hold among the wider population.

In making this point, Hoffman and others have drawn on the writings of 19th century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane and his theory of “propaganda by deed.” Hoffman summarizes it this way:

“The propaganda of the idea is a chimera,” Pisacane wrote. “Ideas result from deeds, not the latter from the former, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.” Violence, he argued, was necessary not only to draw attention to or generate publicity for a cause, but also to inform, educate, and ultimately, rally the masses behind the revolution.

In a draft email (the misspellings, abbreviations, and strange syntax are in the original) recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson points to the necessity of violence to awaken white America to his cause (emphasis mine):

Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence. It should push for more crack down bringing more people to our side. Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.

In September 2017, Hasson wrote a letter to leading neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington, who had called for the establishment of a white ethnostate in the Pacific Northwest. In that letter, also recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson argued that Covington’s dream of a establishing a white homeland in America could not be achieved without violence (emphasis mine):

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence. … We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost. How long can we hold out there and prevent niggerization of the Northwest until whites wake up on their own or are forcibly made to make a decision whether to roll over and die or to stand up remains to be seen. But I know a few younger ones that are tired of waiting

The scholar Ted Gurr, in a classic discussion of terrorism in democracies, wrote that terrorism can emerge when activists with extreme political views lose patience with conventional politics and therefore look for new tactics that will have greater impact. Tactics like terrorism.

If federal prosecutors are right, that’s Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson.

Hate in the ranks

James Douglas Ross, an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq, shown in his barracks room. (Guardian photo.)
James Douglas Ross, an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq, shown in his barracks room. He leads a neo-Nazi group in Washington state. (Guardian photo.)

 

According to a new poll, one-in-four US troops say they have seen examples of white nationalism among fellow service members, and they rate white nationalism a greater national security threat than Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Fears that far-right groups had infiltrated the US military have been around for years. In 2008 the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that white supremacist leaders were making aggressive efforts to recruit active-duty soldiers and recent combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two years earlier SPLC warned that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups were taking advantage of lowered recruiting standards to infiltrate their members into the armed forces. They could then apply their weapons and combat training to the inevitable racial holy war to come.

This background is one reason why, after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, VA, and President Trump’s less than full-throated denunciation of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists responsible, the chiefs of the four service branches came out publicly to condemn racism and extremism.

They spoke out for good reason. As Andrew Exum, former Army Ranger and now a respected national security analyst pointed out at The Atlantic, we’ve been there before:

[T}he U.S. military has long struggled with hate groups—and specifically white supremacists—in its ranks. White supremacist groups and their sympathizers were especially present in the ranks of the U.S. Army’s combat arms units and the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1986, an exasperated Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, ordered the military to crack down on these groups, and another purge was ordered after U.S. Army veteran Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb that almost leveled the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people. 1995 was the same year a paratrooper from the Army’s 82d Airborne Division murdered a black couple outside Fort Bragg. …

The military’s service chiefs are among the last men in the U.S. military who still remember those bad old days in the 1980s and 1990s. They are proud of the way they have largely purged the ranks of extremists and want to keep it that way.

But this is the first time I can recall these concerns coming from within the ranks of active-duty troops rather than the top brass. The poll conducted by Military Times lays out the basis for these fears in stark detail:

Concerns about white nationalist groups were more pronounced among minorities in the ranks. Nearly 42 percent of non-white troops who responded to the survey said they have personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military, versus about 18 percent of white service members.

When asked whether white nationalists pose a threat to national security, 30 percent of respondents labeled it a significant danger, more than many international hot spots, like Syria (27 percent), Pakistan (25 percent), Afghanistan (22 percent) and Iraq (17 percent).

But a notable number of poll participants also bristled at the assertion that white power ideology is a real problem.

Nearly five percent of those polled left comments complaining that groups like Black Lives Matter — whose stated goal is to raise awareness of violence and discrimination towards black people — weren’t included among the options for threats to national security.

Back in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis released a report on right-wing extremism, pointing to an economic and political climate that was fueling a resurgence in radicalization and recruiting. Of particular concern to DHS were disgruntled military veterans:

(U//FOUO) DHS/I&A assesses that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat. These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists—including lone wolves or small terrorist cells—to carry out violence. The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.

— (U) After Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991, some returning military veterans—including Timothy McVeigh—joined or associated with rightwing extremist groups.

— (U) A prominent civil rights organization reported in 2006 that “large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.”

— (U//LES) The FBI noted in a 2008 report on the white supremacist movement that some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups.

And two years earlier, in 2007, in assessing the potential for white supremacists or other far-right groups to adopt suicide terrorism, the FBI warned of the possibility of extremist US military personnel bringing those methods back home having seen their effectiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With another large gathering of white supremacists, pitched as a “White Lives Matter” rally, planned for this weekend in Tennessee, it’s worth keeping in mind something I’ve been arguing almost since I began writing this blog.

If you want to know where the real terrorism threats to this country lie, look first at the denizens of the white nationalist, white supremacist, anti-government, far right. Including those profaning the uniform of the United States of America.