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April 13, 2016

Firearms Increasingly Weapon of Choice in Extremist-Related Killings

extremistkillingswithfirearms1970-2015In the popular imagination, the bomb is the weapon typically associated with terrorists or extremists—but in the U.S. extremists seem to be killing more people with firearms than with any other weapon, and that use may be increasing.

It is certainly true that many of the high-profile terrorist attacks in the United States over the past century have been bombings, including the 1919 anarchist bombing campaign, the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, among many others. Extremist serial bombers such as the Weather Underground, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and Eric Rudolph have all gotten their share of headlines.

However, extremists use a wide variety of deadly implements to commit their crimes, terrorist-related or otherwise, from fists and boots to airplanes. The most common tool of violence seems to be the simple firearm, a weapon that extremists can use when committing terrorist acts, hate crimes, assassinations, armed robberies, and all manner of traditional crime. In the United States, firearms are easy to obtain and easy to use. American extremists of all possible types, from the far left to the far right, as well as religious extremists, have used firearms to commit deadly acts.

How common is such firearms use in the United States? The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism examined 890 murders committed by domestic extremists in the United States from 1970 through 2015—both ideological and non-ideological killings by extremist perpetrators—and discovered that around 55% of these killings involved use of a firearm; all other weapons combined made up the other 45%.

This figure signifies both the popularity of firearms among extremist movements in the United States, especially right-wing extremists, as well as the fact that attacks with other types of weapons may be less likely to end in death. Attacks using knives or fists, for example, may possibly result in non-fatal injuries more often than firearms. On the other end of the scale, bombings are more difficult to carry out—with many extremist bombing plots detected and prevented by law enforcement from ever being executed.

When one breaks down the numbers by decade, it appears that, after a dip in the 1980s and 1990s, firearms are becoming more popular than ever as the deadly weapons of choice for American extremists. Not only have the numbers of domestic-extremist related killings in the U.S. increased over the past 20 years, but so too has the frequency of firearms as the weapons in such killings.

In the 1970s, extremists—primarily coming from the far left—used firearms in 61% of domestic extremist-related killings in the United States. Many of these incidents involved members of left-wing extremist groups such as the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army attacking police officers.

The percentage of firearms use in extremist-related killings dipped in the 1980s, to only 46%, then dropped drastically in the 1990s, down to 20%. This latter figure is greatly distorted by the Oklahoma City bombing, which itself resulted in 168 deaths, but even if the bombing were left out of the calculations, the new number would only be 42%. There are several reasons that seem to account for these lower figures, including the rise of white supremacist prison gangs committing murders behind bars and the growth of the racist skinhead subculture in the United States, whose adherents often eschewed firearms for beating and stabbing attacks.

However, in the 2000s, firearms once more were the deadly weapons in the majority of killings, with 62% of the killings between 2001 and 2010 involving one or more firearms. So far in the current decade, the percentages are even higher, with 72% of the domestic-extremist related deaths from 2011 through 2015 involving firearms.

What accounts for this increase? Several factors seem to have played a role. One is the increased use of firearms by several extremist movements. Racist skinheads seem to use firearms with greater frequency in the 2000s than they did in earlier decades, while the growth of white supremacist prison gang activity on the streets—as opposed to behind bars—has allowed their members much greater access to and use of firearms.

Even more concerning is the apparent gravitation of domestic Islamic extremists towards firearms as a weapon of choice. In the early years of this movement, following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, much of the energy of those extremists with violent impulses were directed at elaborate plots involving bombs or even military weapons—plots typically stopped by law enforcement before they could ever be carried out.

Since 2009, however, there have been a number of high-profile incidents in which Islamic extremists have used firearms to conduct shootings (and one instance, the Boston Marathon bombing, where the perpetrators used both bombs and firearms), including shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and San Bernardino, California.

The rise of ISIS in the past several years may have contributed to the increase in attempted small arms attacks; Al Qaeda generally favored high-spectacle and symbolic attacks, whereas ISIS has been more practical, urging adherents to commit any attack they think they can pull off.

Most of the Islamic-related shootings were mass shootings, which may be the final piece of the puzzle. Though most extremist killings continue to take one victim at a time, the number of multiple victims in deadly extremist-related incidents (both ideological and non-ideological) has certainly grown. Since 2001, there have been 24 domestic extremist incidents in which at least three people were killed—and firearms were the weapons used in the vast majority of these cases, including such deadly shooting sprees as the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting and the 2015 Charleston church shooting.

The increased number of multiple victim incidents by extremists is also one of the reasons why the death toll has been rising. From extremists on the right such as white supremacists and anti-government extremists to religious extremists such as domestic Islamic extremists, gun violence seems more likely to increase than decrease in the coming months and years

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March 21, 2016

Winston Shrout: The Rise and Fall of a Sovereign Citizen Guru

Federal prosecutors in Portland, Oregon, obtained a 19-count grand jury indictment in mid-March against Winston Shrout, a Hillsboro, Oregon, resident and one of the most prominent sovereign citizen gurus in the United States, a man whose videos and seminars have attracted thousands of people to the anti-government extremist movement.

Winston Shrout

Winston Shrout

Shrout was charged with 13 counts of using fictitious financial instruments in connection with an alleged debt elimination scheme. Fictitious financial instruments are bogus checks, money orders, or similar documents that purport to be payments of money but are not in fact genuine. Since the early 1980s, sovereign citizens have been fascinated with fictitious financial instruments, using them for everything from escaping their own debts to perpetrating major frauds and scams, especially against indebted property owners. Passing them became a federal crime thanks to a law passed after the 1996 Montana Freemen standoff; the Freemen having been energetic promoters of such bogus instruments.

Debt elimination schemes are also extremely common within the sovereign citizen movement; sovereigns use their pseudo-legal language and concepts to convince victims that, for a fee, their mortgages or other debts can simply be made to vanish. Often, fictitious financial instruments and debt elimination schemes go hand in hand.

The federal indictment accuses Shrout of creating and spreading more than 300 bogus “International Bills of Exchange” and “Non-Negotiable Bills of Exchange,” instruments with a combined face value of over $100 trillion (but worthless in fact). The indictment claims that Shrout used such instruments himself and also marketed them as a way for others to pay off their debts. Shrout is also charged with 6 counts of willful failure to file income tax returns.

The indictment is a superseding indictment, adding the fictitious instrument charges to the tax charges, which were originally filed against Shrout in December 2015. Since that original indictment, Shrout has declined to use an attorney—a common tactic for sovereigns—and has defended himself using sovereign citizen filings that, among other things, declare his refusal to consent to the jurisdiction of the federal court or to be taxed by the IRS.

Shrout, 67, has been one of the most influential leaders of the sovereign citizen movement in the 21st century. Sovereign citizens believe that, long ago, an evil conspiracy infiltrated and replaced the original “de jure” government with an illegitimate, tyrannical “de facto” government. They claim that the “de facto” government has no authority or jurisdiction over them, which allows them to rationalize ignoring or breaking virtually any tax, law, regulation, or court order. The movement is dominated by a coterie of gurus, the people who come up with the movement’s pseudo-legal theories—as well as its often-illegal tactics—and teach them to their followers.

Shrout grew up in Kentucky but resided in Utah for much of his life before finally moving to Oregon. Shrout has said he is a college graduate but worked various blue-collar jobs such as carpenter, welder, and construction worker until 1998, when, as he put it, “as luck would have it I was able to retire.”

Following this early “retirement,” Shrout encountered the sovereign citizen movement at a time when it was enjoying a burst of popularity. This was due to a new compilation of sovereign citizen theories and tactics, often referred to as “redemption” or “straw man theory,” which swept through the movement in 1999 like a wildfire and still remain quite popular to this day. Longtime sovereign citizen guru Roger Elvick came up with redemption theory—acting on it would eventually land him in prison—and shared it with a group of disciples who became gurus travelling the country, holding seminars and selling manuals and videos explaining redemption theory and its various associated tactics. Many of those disciples are now themselves in federal or state prison.

Shrout has at times seemed to imply that he learned redemption theory from Roger Elvick, but Shrout’s earliest sovereign citizen filings appear to date from 2000, by which time redemption theory was already quite popular in the movement. In August 2000, he filed a notarized document explaining—in sovereign citizen pseudo-legalese—how he had refused to sign or accept a traffic citation from a Washington County, Utah, sheriff’s deputy.

Two months later, Shrout filed his first bogus lien—a common harassing tactic that sovereigns use against perceived opponents or enemies. Shrout filed a $1,340,000 lien dubbed an “Affidavit of Obligation” against Unified Industries, Inc., which is a corporation that holds resources and business enterprises associated with the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), one of the major fundamentalist Mormon polygamist sects in Utah. The lien stemmed from some sort of dispute Shrout had with El Rancho Motoqua, a subsidiary company of Unified Industries established to create a polygamist community in southern Utah. In such communities, properties are often not owned by individual business owners or residents but rather by a holding company or trust run by the sect. Shrout seems to have been permitted a residence in Motoqua and came into conflict with the polygamists running the community. In the bogus lien, Shrout complained that he had been threatened with “removal” from his house and that he was “excluded from participation in the religious ceremonies and usages” held inside a community building.

Was Shrout himself an adherent of the polygamist AUB? It is not entirely clear from the lien document, though at one point Shrout refers to himself “and several thousand other fundamentalist Mormons.” However, non-adherents have sometimes resided in AUB communities. Some adherents of polygamists sects have gotten involved with the sovereign citizen movement. Shrout’s stepdaughter, April Rampton, was a resident of Motoqua as late as 2012, before she herself was convicted in federal court on nine counts of filing false tax claims while engaged in a common sovereign citizen and tax protest scheme.

Before the end of 2000, Shrout filed a series of redemption-related documents and he soon became a redemption guru, teaching the theory to sovereign audiences. In 2004, Shrout and Patricia Bekken formed an entity called Solutions in Commerce to market sovereign seminars and workshops. Shrout proved to be a popular speaker, with a folksy demeanor that he deliberately played up, referring to it once as “hillbilly shtick.” The debt elimination schemes that Shrout promoted were also popular; one admiring extremist in 2004 referred to Shrout as a “top dawg” among such promoters.

Shrout’s reputation within the sovereign citizen movement grew in the mid-2000s, but it was the social media revolution that really helped propel him to the top ranks of sovereign gurus, as YouTube videos of some of his appearances and seminars began to circulate widely by 2008-2009, bringing him far greater attention and popularity. This same time period corresponded with the beginnings of the great recession and the mortgage crisis, events that helped spawn a major resurgence of the sovereign citizen movement by creating a large pool of angry and desperate people who were potential recruits.

Shrout held seminars across the country but hardly limited his activities to the United States. In the 1990s, the sovereign citizen movement had taken root in Canada, so Shrout spoke to attentive audiences in that nation—until Canadian authorities finally prohibited him from entering the country. But Shrout found other international audiences, holding seminars in Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain, helping to bring the sovereign citizen movement to all of those countries—to the dismay of authorities.

More recently, Shrout expanded beyond strictly sovereign notions to express himself on UFOs and other “New Age” issues, claiming that in the early 2000s he and friends of his have been visited by alien “Pleiadians.” He’s made references to everything from incarnated fairies to “Hollow Earth” theory. Several years ago, Shrout set up a new website, dubbed Exo-Commerce, to provide “insight from a universal perspective,” which appears to be an attempt to blend sovereign citizen theories and tactics with “New Age” beliefs. It is difficult to determine whether these are sincerely held beliefs or merely a cynical attempt on the part of Shrout to expand to another gullible audience.

The new federal charges against Shrout could put an end to such opportunism, cynical or sincere. If convicted on all charges, Shrout may face what could be an effective life sentence.

 

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August 31, 2015

Virginia Shootings Spur White Supremacist Vitriol

Within hours of the deadly August 26 on-air shooting of television reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward in Roanoke, Virginia, the on-line white supremacist world erupted in hateful rhetoric and discussions of violence.vamurderscomment

The shooter, Vester Flanagan (also known as Bryce Williams), was someone whom white supremacists could easily exploit to generate anger. His victims were white; Flanagan was a black, gay man with a history of filing discrimination complaints against former employers, including the television station where the slain journalists worked.

Flanagan killed himself as police caught up to him, but not before he faxed to ABC News a lengthy suicide note/manifesto, detailing a litany of grievances and perceived mistreatment because of his race and sexual orientation. Moreover, in his note he directly referenced the June 2015 Charleston shootings, in which white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof killed nine African-American churchgoers. Flanagan tried to explain his murders—seemingly committed for personal reasons—as a retaliation for Roof’s own killings. Referring to Roof’s hope that a race war would result from his shootings, Flanagan wrote “You want a race war…THEN BRING IT.”

Reactions from the racist right were swift and involved well-worn anti-black and anti-Semitic tropes. Among them: that black people shouldn’t be allowed to own guns, because they have “no impulse control,” and that the victims, as members of the “Jewish media,” deserved to die. And above all, an echo of Roof’s call for race war: The hope that the shootings would spark a “revolution” of whites rising up against their ostensible oppressors (blacks and Jews) and striking back.

The New Order, a small Wisconsin-based neo-Nazi group, presented a typical anti-black response, issuing a statement headlined “White Lives Matter” that described the shootings as a crime committed by “a deranged anti-White Negro” and claimed that “The murder, rape and assault of White people by racist Black criminals is a daily event in the United States.”

Anti-Semitism shaped the responses of many white supremacists. On Stormfront, the large white supremacist discussion forum, poster RedBaron claimed that reporter Parker “was part of the Jew controlled media. The propaganda she helped to put on the air came back to haunt her (to death).” The “Jewish plot” trope was repeated by another Stormfronter: “I don’t think the Jew power structure wants a fully awake white public right now. They’ve been doing everything to drug us into a stupor as they incite blacks to murder us.”

At the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, poster GuiMaster also had little sympathy for Parker: “But how do we know that this woman was ‘noble?’ She was working for the anti-White media. How aware was she that her job involves spreading communist anti-White hate propaganda?” On Facebook, another white supremacist labeled Parker’s father, who had appeared on Fox News to plead for more gun control measures, a “Zio-Marxist” pushing a “Jewish” agenda.

For many white supremacists, though, it was Flanagan’s reference to “race war” that most exercised them. For them, the sole bright spot in the killings was that they might speed the start of an anticipated racial conflict. At the Daily Stormer, for example, one commenter wrote: “When the ‘race war’ comes, it’s gonna be us killing them in short order.”

On Stormfront, longtime Arkansas white supremacist Billy Roper hoped the killings would “awaken more of our people to see it as the reprisal act it was in a war which is just beginning, in fits and starts, as they so often do.” Meanwhile, on the Facebook page of “American White History Month,” Jon Winslow wrote: “White people! Start rioting now!”

Others seemed interested in actions more serious that rioting. Stormfront poster 14words_of_truth wrote: “People keep asking me ‘when is the race war going to start?’ It started a long time ago; it is not going to start, it is going to change. The change will be that the White Man will start fighting back.”

To which Stormfront editor JackBoot replied, “Well said. So far we can’t escalate from the war of words on our side, and that escalation is long past due. They’ve been spilling our blood for years, and I’m not talking only about the Jews’ proxies. We got a lotta catch-up to play.”

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