In November, authorities in Colorado arrested a suspect accused of plotting to blow up a synagogue in the city of Pueblo. On Facebook, the suspect expressed support for the Holocaust and indicated that he was “getting ready” to kill people. He also reportedly posted anti-Semitic slogans and pictures of clothing festooned with white-supremacist symbols. It’s possible that his arrest prevented a tragedy similar to the 2018 shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed and six injured.
Such incidents have exacerbated Americans’ concerns about domestic terror motivated by white supremacist groups (even if, as the 2019 Dayton shooting and the emergence of Antifa have illustrated, left-wing extremism also is a rising concern). According to one count, 175 people were killed worldwide by white supremacists from 2011 through August, 2019. That is less than one percent of the worldwide terror-related death toll from 2017 alone. But the threat remains significant, especially in countries where politics have become radicalized along racial lines.
This month, The Lancet published an article arguing that people of color were dying at the hands of people “defending whiteness.” And white supremacist terror has been compared in the media to Islamic terror, and to ISIS more specifically; with the radicalization processes of the two being presented as comparable. Some have suggested aggressive countermeasures. This includes the FBI Agents Association, which has urged that “acts of violence intended to intimidate civilian populations or to influence or affect government policy should be prosecuted as domestic terrorism regardless of the ideology behind them.” Shortly after the August 3, 2019 El Paso mass shootings, allegedly conducted by a gunman who’d posted a white nationalist manifesto on 8chan, former FBI agent Ali Soufan wrote in The New York Times: “Having spent almost 25 years fighting jihadi terrorism here and abroad, I see disturbing parallels between the rise of al Qaeda in the 1990s and that of racist terrorism today.” He urged that law-enforcement agencies be allowed access to “the full suite of monitoring tools” that had been deployed in the war against terrorism that began on September 11, 2001.
Yet my own analysis suggests that drawing parallels between white supremacist mass murderers and Islamist terrorists may not always be particularly helpful. If we are looking for an appropriate comparison, it may be more useful to examine white supremacists in the context of school shooters, not ISIS or al-Qaeda.
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Prominently reported school shootings in the United States include the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. In most cases, the gunman (or gunmen, in the case of Columbine) tended to be described as loners—much as with the recent cluster of high-profile white supremacist murders.
White supremacist killers, like school shooters, tend to be male, young and (as one obviously might expect) white. Almost none are married. They frequently grow up in single–parent households affected by divorce (as was the case with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, although it’s questionable whether he can be put in the same category as modern white supremacists) or one featuring a parent who passed away when the killer was young. In two prominent examples I have studied, the killer had divorced parents and lost one of them. Among white-supremacist murderers who grew up in two-parent families, I’ve noted, a higher proportion were older, often more than 50 years old. The data seem to suggest a generational gap among white supremacist killers, with a broken household being a more common background element in the case of younger killers.
These patterns emerged from a database I assembled, which includes (a) any information I could find on worldwide school shootings since 1999 in which the killers attempted to kill as many random students as possible (a condition that excludes targeted killings, such as gang-related violence and acts of revenge); and (b) white supremacist mass murders since 2011 in which the killer sought to kill large numbers of people in the name of white supremacy. (I chose 2011 as my cutoff because it corresponds to Anders Breivik’s act of mass murder in Norway, a crime that inspired similarly horrifying hate crimes in other countries.)
Caution is indicated because of the small size of the sample. However, the data I have collected indicates that the profile of typical white supremacist terrorists is unlike that of male Islamist terrorists in Europe, North America and Israel. While some members of all groups that perpetrate violence tend to be afflicted with mental health issues, the nature of their backgrounds tends to differ, as does the underlying radicalization process.
Most (but not all) Islamist terrorists responsible for lethal attacks, such as the London bombings of 2005, the Madrid train bombings of 2004, the Paris attacks of 2015, the Berlin Christmas attack of 2016, and the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, grew up in two-parent households. Some were older, and some married with children. In a study of 78 members of Islamist terrorist cells in Europe, it was found that about half had been previously arrested, and 28 served time in prison. Half had previously fought in foreign countries for Islamist causes.
Islamist terrorists-to-be usually befriend other radicalizing youth or connect with Islamist radicals in person, at local mosques or jails. Some become radicalized online, and some had both online and real-world connections. But many, if not most, are radicalized through intimate connections with friends or preachers, or grew up in a radicalized home. They tend to be organized in cells, while white supremacists are not. Islamist terrorists use the internet for inspiration, much like white supremacists, but they combine it with other, more traditional, locally rooted means of networking.
One report concluded that “European jihad is a family or collegial affair,” with 26 percent of 197 studied individuals having joined Jihadi networks through friends or family. In 105 out of 197 studied cases, friends of Jihadists were involved in terrorist activities. There were also numerous additional face-to-face connections between Islamist terrorists and Islamist radicals. Many became radicalized five years or more before first being arrested. Sometimes, even what appeared initially to be a “lone wolf” attack involved other people. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who killed 86 people in Nice in 2016 with a truck, was aided by at least five accomplices. They provided him with logistical support and a pistol. One of them showed up a day later to film the aftermath of the attack.
The recent white supremacist attackers, on the other hand, share different characteristics. They typically didn’t have many face-to-face meetings with other extremists. They didn’t attend church to hear a hate-mongering preacher, and most did not socialize personally with neo-Nazis in summer camps or public areas (though at least two did). Most weren’t members of organizations such as Aryan Nation or the Ku Klux Klan (although one was a member of a small but violent Neo-Nazi network, another may have been radicalized on a US Army base, and two of the oldest killers, Gianluca Casseri and Frazier Glen Miller, were involved with neo-fascist and neo-Nazi organizations).
John Horgan, a psychologist who interviewed a large number of terrorists, concluded that they tend to have seven common traits. They “Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised; believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change; identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting; feel the need to take action rather than just talking about a problem; [and] believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.” These five seem to hold true for most terrorists. White supremacists, however, lack the two other common traits identified by Horgan: Like school shooters, they don’t need to “have friends or family sympathetic to the cause,” and they don’t need to join a movement for “social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.”
To the comparatively limited extent that white supremacists interact with other extremists, such interaction tends to take place on sites like 8chan—where no fewer than three recent killers or would-be killers posted their manifestos during a six-month period. (They also tend to express admiration for other killers.) But these sites are based more around sloganeering, threats, taunts, boasts, and the spread of pornography and hate speech than genuine community-building among people with real common interests.
Earlier killers such as Brevik (2011) and Dylan Roof (2015) left long manifestos, as did Timothy McVeigh in 1995, unlike most Islamist terrorists. I believe this may be traced to the fact that Islamist terrorists don’t feel the need to create their own substantial manifestoes, as they imagine that their actions simply channel the instructions and imperatives contained in the works of influential radical Islamist philosophers and writers, from Sayyid Qutb to Abu Musab al-Suri. The canon of white supremacists, by comparison, is much less developed, aside from The Turner Diaries and a handful of similarly lurid tracts. Islamist radicals have a script written for them. White supremacists need to write it themselves. Which helps explain why the farewell videos of Islamist suicide bombers tend to contain soaring religious rhetoric recited in a high Koranic style, whereas white nationalists seem angry, immature and incoherent.
Most of the school attacks and failed attacks I have catalogued in my database occurred in the United States. However, the list also includes three Germans, two Finns, four from the United Kingdom, three from Brazil, one Spaniard, one in Crimea, and one in France. Almost all school attackers used guns (or planned to use guns), but some planned to use bombs as well. (One used only knives but nevertheless managed to wound 21 victims.) One case didn’t take place in a school, but the shooter had an obsession with school shootings, called his target “Officially Columbine” and claimed that had his former high school not been closed and demolished, he would have attacked it.
Most school shooters were either bullied or claimed to have been bullied. Almost all were males. As with white supremacist killers, many came from single-parent households. Of the 98 school shooters whose family background is known to me, about 50 parent certainly or probably grew up with divorced parents, lost a parent at a young age or were adopted. By way of comparison, as of 2016, almost 70 percent of the children in the United States were living in a two-parent home.
Although virtually all ethnicities and genders were represented among school shooters, most were white and male. Quite a few were immigrants—including such “model minorities” as Koreans, Vietnamese and Indians. Most were lone wolves. (And they had good reason to act alone: Many school killing plots were exposed when the would-be killers attempted to recruit others or tell others about their plans.) There were only two “cell”-based operations, numbering 11 youngsters in total. (The largest cell, in Alaska, was composed entirely of 13-year-old children, whose plan was partly chilling and partly outlandish.)
Many school shooters, perhaps most, planned their killings over the course of months and even years. At least 25 that I know of were fans of the Columbine killers, and were intent on copying the Columbine massacre, or even surpassing its death toll. Quite a few others referred to the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007 or the Sandy Hook Massacre. (This seems to reinforce Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis that the effect of Columbine and other school shootings was to lower the action threshold for future killers.) All three of these mass shootings—Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech—were perpetrated by killers who had no particular political goal or ideological agenda. Later killers seem to have admired these killers for no other reason than that they killed a lot of people.
At least 23 of the 98 school shooters I’ve catalogued left manifestos, detailed diaries, Youtube videos or the like. In addition, some left short suicide notes. One did not leave a manifesto but referred to the video manifesto of the Virginia Tech shooter. One would-be shooter told two friends he was going to “pull a Columbine” at his high school. Many were radicalized on the internet, or at least learned the vocabulary of political radicalization online. Forum members sometimes encouraged the future attackers directly or indirectly. Some school killers were racists and anti-Semites to a degree that made them hard to distinguish from white supremacists. In at least one case, a planned massacre was clearly influenced both by white supremacist ideas and earlier school shootings.
Why don’t African-Americans and Hispanics attack their schoolmates as whites do? The answer could be that they do attack, but in a different way. Most school shootings in the United States are not random acts of nihilism, such as those described above, but rather acts of personal revenge or gang-related violence. Available data suggests that juvenile gang members (up to age 17) in the United States are disproportionately black and Hispanic. Most gang members don’t live with both biological parents, and many (although not most) are poor. These affiliations would provide an alternative outlet for teenagers with violent impulses. In many cases, gang violence and indiscriminate school shootings may represent alternative action paths for individuals predisposed toward violence.
There is one significant difference between the profiles of the school shooters and those of white supremacist mass killers: Quite a few school shooters murdered their relatives, or planned to do so. (By contrast, only one white supremacist killer in my sample set murdered a relative—his stepsister—in an act motivated by racial hatred.) But overall, members of the two groups share many similarities. In both cases, they tend to be loners with troubled family backgrounds whose murderous grievances are nurtured internally, with encouragement from online hate forums. This is distinct from the profile of many Islamist terrorists, who are more likely to be born into functional households, and whose extremism tends to be deeply rooted in real-life communities.
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None of this is to suggest a moral difference between the crimes of white supremacist terrorists and Islamist terrorists. But our strategies for fighting each must be tailored to the nature of the threat. In the case of Islamist terrorists, there has been an effort to reform the nature of Muslim doctrines that sometimes are exploited by extremists as a means to recruit and inspire terrorists. But, like school shooters, white supremacist mass murderers generally are universally reviled figures who are completely unable to self-organize through civil-society groups and religious movements. And their beliefs bear no connection to any sort of sanctioned mainstream doctrine.
This helps explain why, for all the talk of the white supremacist threat, the global death toll from white supremacist murder remains tiny compared to Islamist terrorism. Consider that even the infamous far-right 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia managed to attract only about 250 people—even though its organizers boasted that it was the largest of its kind in years.
There are some useful comparisons that can be made with Islamist terrorism, however. Just as it was inaccurate and counterproductive for some conservatives to accuse all Muslims of being potential terrorists in the years after 9/11, it is equally pointless to tag conservatives, immigration skeptics, nationalists and even populists as potential white supremacists. Such reductionism makes it harder to distinguish between the small number of truly dangerous extremists and those who simply have conservative views. Our efforts should focus on preventing and delegitimizing violence—not on leveraging the threat of violence to stigmatize, or even criminalize, an entire swathe of opinion, a move that could simply reinforce the exaggerated sense of victimhood and paranoia that infuses white-supremacist attitudes.
As with preventing school shootings, a more realistic approach to fighting white supremacist terrorists would focus on the warning signs that sometimes emerge on message boards. This would require international cooperation, since users of the most notorious online groups come from all over the world. And it should draw on best practices that have been developed by nations that have been facing the threat of lone-wolf attacks for years.
That would include my own country, Israel, where a wave of Palestinian stabbing and car attacks in 2015-16 claimed the lives of 39 people. Most of the attackers were young, and some of them made the decision to attack impulsively. To the extent there were any warning signs, they had been posted to social networks. As scholar Harel Chorev has written, “while SNS [Social Networks] are not responsible for the fundamental motives for the attacks, social media simultaneously reflected and shaped reality by nourishing and amplifying it in a way that ultimately had a decisive impact on structuring its dynamics,” and “prospective attackers derive legitimacy for their intentions from the feedback they receive through social media.” Indeed, Israel has successfully employed data mining, pattern analysis and surveillance to track down many potential attackers. Rather than pushing hate-filled websites offline, we should be infiltrating and monitoring them. All over the world, would-be plots have been foiled when the would-be attackers exposed themselves on forums, social media and other sites.
It’s also important to remember that today’s patterns may change. Back in 1999, following the Columbine attacks, an expert told the Chicago Tribune that, according to his study of 1990s-era data, school shooters typically were “good students, maybe on the honor roll…able to blend in with the woodwork until they actually go ballistic.” But among school shooters since Columbine, few followed that trend. In some cases, in fact, friends and teachers stated that they were not surprised that these individuals executed the attack.
Let’s remember that terrorism will always be a moving target. And so we can never afford to embrace a one-size-fits-all solution to fighting it.
Dr Yagil Henkin is a fellow at the Jerusalem institute for Strategy and Security. He teaches military history at the IDF Command and Staff College.
Featured image: Columbine killers Eric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold (right), recorded on their high school’s surveillance cameras, shortly before their suicides.