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.

Parkland looks like terrorism

At center, massacre suspect Nikolas Cruz. (Photo: ABC News)
At center, massacre suspect Nikolas Cruz. (Photo: ABC News)

 

The Anti-Defamation League reports that the leader of the white supremacist Republic of Florida has acknowledged that the accused shooter in yesterday’s mass killing at a high school in Parkland, Fla., was associated with his group.

After self-described ROF members claimed on the discussion forum 4chan that Cruz had also been a member, the Anti-Defamation League called the ROF hotline and spoke with an ROF member who identified himself as Jordan Jereb.

Jereb, based in Tallahassee, is believed to be the leader of ROF.  In 2016, he was arrested on charges of threatening a staffer in the office of Florida Governor Rick Scott because he was allegedly angry at the staffer’s son.

Jereb said that Cruz was associated with ROF, having been “brought up” by another member.  Jereb added that Cruz had participated in one or more ROF training exercises in the Tallahassee area, carpooling with other ROF members from south Florida.

ABC News has much more on Nikolas Cruz and his ties to ROF:

ROF has mostly young members in north and south Florida and describes itself as a “white civil rights organization fighting for white identitarian politics” and seeks to create a “white ethnostate” in Florida.

Three former schoolmates of Cruz told ABC News that Cruz was part of the group. They claimed he marched with the group frequently and was often seen with Jereb, who also confirmed to ABC News that Cruz was, at least at one point, part of that group.

Jereb told the ADL that ROF had not ordered Cruz to take any such action. He told ABC News he has not spoken to Cruz in “some time” but said “he knew he would getting this call.” He would not comment further but emphasized that his group was not a terrorist organization.

We spend so much time whipping up fear of terrorists as alien others. Turns out they live right next door. And look just like us.

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.

Trump’s idea of “very fine people”

unitetheright-joinordie
The poster for last Saturday’s rally. See the end of post for the SPLC’s guide to the symbols.

 

Who were those “very fine people” that President Trump chose to defend in his unhinged press conference Tuesday marching alongside in Charlottesville last Saturday?

Here, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a quick overview of the people and groups the president can’t bring himself to denounce:

  • Jason Kessler, the organizer of the the Unite the Right rally, which culminated in the murder of counter protester Heather Heyer at the hands of a self-avowed Nazi, is a white nationalist blogger who bills himself as a journalist, activist, and author. He made his initial splash by trying to unseat Charlottesville only black city councilman.
  • Richard Spencer is another white nationalist whose clean-cut appearance made him something of a media sensation when he first appeared around the fringes of the Trump presidential campaign. His goal is to create a white ethno-state in North America, a white homeland for European-Americans. A so-called “academic racist,” He dropped out of a PhD program at Duke in modern European intellectual history. Spencer has been connected to Trump White House policy adviser Stephen Miller.
  • Christopher Cantwell is an alt-right anti-semitic shock jock who is the focal point of the disturbing Vice News documentary on the violence in Charlottesville. Watch and see for yourself the views that he espouses and which Trump tacitly defends if not outright supports.

  • Matthew Heimbach is a white nationalist who graduated from Towson State University in 2013 with a degree in history, where he founded a campus chapter of Youth for Western Civilization and the White Students Union. He is considered emblematic of the new face of white nationalism in America. He is the training director for the neo-Confederate League of the South.
  • Michael Hill is the neo-Confederate Southern nationalist founder of the League of the South which is dedicated to the revival of what he considers traditional Southern heritage leading to eventual secession from the United States. In 2007 he wrote this: “If the scenario of the South (and the rest of America) being overrun by hordes of non-white immigrants does not appeal to you, then how is this disaster to be averted? By the people who oppose it rising up against their traitorous elite masters and their misanthropic rule. But to do this we must first rid ourselves of the fear of being called ‘racists’ and the other meaningless epithets they use against us.”

These are just some of the leading figures on the American racist and neo-Nazi far right who took part in the events in Charlottesville. The hundreds marching with torches and literally chanting Nazi slogans Friday night, and then filling the streets Saturday with their shields, helmets, and clubs were drawn from a wide range of neo-Nazi, white nationalist, white separatist, and white supremacist groups, including these:

So let me ask you the question that someone ought to ask President Trump: What kind of “very fine people” do you know who would have marched alongside this crowd?

To decipher the symbols in the Unite the Right rally poster at the top of this post, I again turn to the SPLC. From left to right, the groups represented are: (K) “Kekistani,” (AC) “Anti-Communist,” (L) “Libertarian,” (N) “Nationalist,” (I) “Identitarian/Identity Evropa,” (SN) “Southern Nationalist,” (NS) “National Socialist,” and (AR) “Alt Right.” The National Socialist flags depicted include Traditionalist Worker Party and Vanguard America.