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August 12, 2015

From Charleston to Chattanooga: The Face of Terror in America

By Oren Segal and Mark Pitcavage
Directors of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism

Terrorism is sometimes referred to as the “faceless enemy,” but it has hardly been faceless in the United States this summer.  Too many people have emerged from the shadows to inflict death and suffering.

The parade of violence has seemed unending, from Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, who attacked police officers providing security for the so-called “Muhammad Art Exhibit” in Texas in May, to John Houser, the Hitler-admiring man obsessed with the moral decay of America who recently opened fire at a Louisiana movie theater showing the movie Trainwreck.

Of the various killers and would-be killers this summer, two stand out.  The first is Dylann Storm Roof, the white supremacist who allegedly confessed to the June massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine African-Americans dead.dylann-storm-roof-gun-confederate-flag-600

The second is Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who in July engaged in a shooting spree targeting a Chattanooga military recruiting center and a nearby naval reserve center.  Abdulazeez, who may have been inspired by radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed five people—all military personnel—before being killed by police.

In many ways, Roof and Abdulazeez personify America’s terrorist threat; they are the faces of the “faceless enemy.”  Most obviously, each represents a major source of terrorism.  Roof was a white supremacist who allegedly hoped to start a “race war” in which whites would prevail.  White supremacists have for decades been the most prolific source of domestic extremist-related lethal violence.  Along with the other main segment of the extreme right, anti-government militia groups and sovereign citizens, they are responsible for the great majority of extremist-related deaths in the U.S.

Abdulazeez, on whom there is less information regarding motivation, may well have latched onto the ideas of al-Awlaki—including his encouragement of attacks on military targets—as a way to atone for some of his personal demons, including drugs and alcohol.  Domestic Islamic extremists have in recent years attempted or conducted a large number of terrorist plots, conspiracies and acts, despite being fewer in number than right-wing extremists.

Both men also chose targets typical of their movements.  For Abdulazeez, it was the military; here he followed in the footsteps of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who killed a soldier at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2009, and Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, that same year.  Other Islamic extremists have also recently plotted attacks against military targets in the U.S., though without success.mohammad-youssef-abdulazeez

Roof went on a shooting rampage against African-Americans.  Sprees of violence against racial, ethnic, or religious minorities are a common type of white supremacist terrorism.  In recent years, there have been a number of such episodes, including Frazier Glenn Miller’s attacks on Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2014; Wade Michael Page’s rampage at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012, and Keith Luke’s attacks on African immigrants in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 2009.

Both Roof and Abdulazeez used firearms for their attacks, which is also typical of American terrorism.  Although the public usually thinks of terrorism in terms of bombs, terrorists like Ted Kaczynski and the Boston Marathon bombers are rare in America.  The vast majority of extremist-related murders involve guns—easy to acquire, simple to use, and deadly.  This is why Charleston and Chattanooga number among the 10 deadliest extremist-related attacks of the past 50 years.  Indeed, with the exception of the Oklahoma City bombing, the “top 10” attacks all involved firearms.

Abdulazeez and Roof were both young men, disaffected, facing personal stresses of different kinds (Abdulazeez also suffered from mental illness).  Although terrorism knows no age limits—Nidal Hasan was 39 at the time of his Fort Hood rampage, while white supremacist James Von Brunn, who attacked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, was in his late 80s—many of the attacks and plots in recent years by both Islamic and right-wing extremists have been committed by men in their mid-20s or younger.

Like Abdulazeez and Roof, a number of these extremists committed their attacks as lone wolves, unattached to any particular group.  Overall, the number of lethal lone wolf attacks in the past two decades has been fairly low, numbering only a few dozen, but in recent years, lone wolves seem to have been emerging at a faster rate.  One reason may be the increasing role played by the Internet in facilitating self-radicalization.  It was through the Internet that Roof educated himself in white supremacy; it was via the Internet that Abdulazeez downloaded recordings of al-Awlaki.

Here one can see a significant difference between right-wing extremists and domestic Islamic radicals.  While they can both easily immerse themselves in a sea of on-line propaganda designed to instill and reinforce extreme views, right-wing extremist Internet sources are primarily based in the United States and, therefore, must watch what they say.  White supremacists who openly use the Internet to encourage violence and terrorism open themselves up to criminal investigation and, if violence occurs, possible civil liability; as a result, their encouragement of violence is often more implicit than explicit.

Domestic Islamic extremists, in contrast, receive most of their radicalizing messages from abroad, from terrorist groups and like-minded supporters who are freer to use the Internet to call for violence and terrorism within the U.S.  Propaganda from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was an inspiration for the Boston Marathon bombing.  In the past two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken such tactics to a new level altogether, employing a virtual army of on-line recruiters who use social media platforms to reach and radicalize susceptible individuals across the globe.  Seeking to instill a deep sense of community and purpose, ISIS supporters encourage Americans to come to the Middle East to help it fight its wars—many of the 80+ U.S. residents linked to Islamic extremist activity since 2014 have made such attempts. But ISIS also urges people to launch attacks in the U.S.

Roof and Abdulazeez were both cold-blooded killers.  Their attacks deeply affected the citizens of Charleston and Chattanooga and, indeed, the whole country, though not always in the same ways.  In particular, the Chattanooga shootings, like some similar attacks before them, stirred anti-Muslim sentiments directed at America’s entire Muslim community, a disturbing phenomenon for which there is no parallel with regard to white supremacist attacks.

But their attacks were similar in that they were both essentially futile, able to achieve little but death and misery.  Indeed, the reactions to the attacks illustrate just how ineffective they actually were.  The Chattanooga attack, for example, inspired an outpouring of support for the U.S. military. The Charleston response was even more powerful.  Far from starting a “race war,” Roof’s slaughter not only brought Charlestonians of all races together but also resulted in a bipartisan effort to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol.

American extremists, of whatever stripe, can hurt and even kill, but the one thing they can’t do is win.

Mr. Segal is an authority on Islamic extremism and terrorism in the United States; Dr. Pitcavage is an expert on right-wing extremism and terrorism in the United States.

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July 23, 2015

Help Take ISIS Videos Off WordPress

Ansar Khilafah promotes terrorist propaganda on WordPress

Screenshot from the site

The Anti-Defamation League contacted WordPress about a website it hosts that features hundreds of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) propaganda videos, statements and publications.

This particular website includes propaganda released by ISIS and other terror groups in English, French, Turkish, Dutch, Arabic and other languages. Among the hundreds of items on the site are beheading and execution videos, as well as videos and articles encouraging Westerners to travel to join ISIS or to commit attacks on its behalf in their home countries.

Help us urge WordPress to remove this website from its platform. Copy this URL and paste it into the WordPress complaint form. Mark it as “abusive” and tell WordPress that it’s NOT OK to support terrorist content.

The propaganda made available by this website comes from various ISIS media outlets, including Al Hayat Media, Al Furqan Media, Al-I’tisam Media and Ajnad Media. The site also has a section for ISIS’ English-language magazine Dabiq.

Ansar Khilafah blog on WordPress features ISIS propaganda

Screenshot from the site

Online repositories of terrorist propaganda are not new. In February 2015, an ISIS supporter created a website called IS-Tube. Similar to the WordPress site, IS-Tube provided access to an archive of searchable ISIS propaganda videos. IS-Tube was hosted on a Google-owned IP bloc, and Google quickly removed the site after ADL notified the company of its presence. Both IS-Tube and the WordPress site appear to have originated in the Netherlands.

In July 2014, ISIS attempted to move its online presence away from Twitter – where its accounts were regularly shut down – to alternate social media platforms Friendica and Quitter. ADL publicized the move and Friendica and Quitter quickly removed all ISIS presence from their platforms.

If you come across such content on other platforms, the ADL’s Cyber-Safety Action Guide provides resources on flagging content directly with host companies.

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May 7, 2015

Minnesotan In Somalia Encourages Americans To Engage In Terror

Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan

Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan

Update – 6/17/2015: Two additional U.S. residents have been linked with Hassan since this blog was first posted: Nicholas Rovinski of Rhode Island, arrested 6/12/2015 for providing material support to terror and his role in a Boston-area attack plot and Munther Omar Saleh of New York, arrested 6/16/2015 for providing material support for terror and a New York attack plot, both reportedly directed messages to Hassan on Twitter.

Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, who authorities believe may have interacted with the Garland shooters, may have inspired as many as 11 people living in the U.S. to take action in the last two years.

Hassan is a permanent U.S. resident who was indicted in 2009 for travelling to Somalia to join Al Shabaab. He is believed to have communicated with Americans through his extensive social media networks, on which he is known as Mujahid Miski or Muhammad Miski. He has actively supported and promoted terrorist propaganda on Facebook, on the social media question and answer site Ask.FM, and on over 30 Twitter accounts.

Prior to the May 3 shooting in Garland, Texas, Hassan reportedly interacted on Twitter with one of the alleged shooters, Elton Simpson. In April, Simpson asked Hassan to follow his Twitter account so the two could privately exchange messages. Then, on April 23, Hassan wrote a tweet urging attacks against the event at the community center that stated, “The brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attack did their part. It’s time for brothers in the #US to do their part.” Later that day, Simpson tweeted at Hassan, “When will they ever learn. They are planning on selecting the best picture drawn of Rasulullah (Muhammad)… in Texas.” Hassan retweeted the tweet.

Notably, Simpson allegedly sought to travel to Somalia to join Al Shabaab in 2009 – one year after Hassan did. It is unknown if the two knew each other in the U.S. Hassan has also interacted online with several other Americans facing terrorism charges, including Abdi Nur, who allegedly traveled to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014. According to court documents, Hassan communicated with Nur on Facebook, asking Nur, “us brothers from mpls (Minneapolis) wanted to know how many you guys are back there in Sham (Syria),” to which Nur responded, “only three of us. The others there are still workin making hijrah (moving abroad).”

The Facebook conversations between Nur and Hassan also indicated that the two may have known each other when they lived in the U.S. Nur asked Hassan to “send [a mutual friend] my salams (greetings) akhi (brother)…please remind him that the salams came from abdiyare [Nur] that you went to southwest [high school] with.” Nur was indicted together with Minnesota resident Abdullah Yusuf in 2014. In 2015, six additional Minnesota residents were charged as part of the same conspiracy to travel to join ISIS.

Elton Simpson promoted Hassan's most recent Twitter account, @LoveHooooooooor

Elton Simpson promoted Hassan’s recent Twitter account, @Love_H0000riyah

A third American, Douglas McAuthur McCain, is alleged to have had contact with Hassan as well. McCain died fighting with ISIS in August 2014. Following McCain’s death, Hassan retweeted multiple statements from McCain’s Twitter profile, @iamthetooth, and wrote, ““The Hard­est thing in Jihad is when a brother u  love is granted Sha­hadah [mar­tyr­dom]. Today im expe­ri­enc­ing those feel­ings. May Allah accept @iamthetooth.”

Hassan regularly interacts with many other unidentified individuals online and is well known in extremist social media circles. Despite his reported membership in Al Shabaab, he advocates for his contacts to join ISIS if possible, although he has tweeted both Al Shabaab and ISIS propaganda too. On January 29, 2014, he wrote, “My Heart is in Sham [Syria], my eyes are in Aqsa [Jerusalem] and My Soul is in Somalia.”

Hassan’s account on Ask.FM, an anonymous question and answer service, is illustrative of the support he provided for English-speakers to join terrorist organizations. For example, one individual on the site asked, “My brother wants to be a mujahid (fighter) but he’s got glasses. Will that stop him from becoming one?” Hassan responded, “He can be a Mujahid and still wear glasses…And don’t worry about loosing (sic) them or braking (sic) them because if you do insha Allah (God willing) you’ll have a new one made for you.” Another individual asked, “What does your last answer mean? Where you said ‘Don’t waste time and try to be one of the builders of the Islamic khilaafah (Caliphate).’” Hassan responded, “It basically means every minute and ever second is wasted if you’re not out there building the Islamic Caliphate. Go out and make hijrah (travel) from the east and west and join the Jihad. Let your blood be the water for the tree of Khilaafah.”

Hassan grew up in Minnesota and attended Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. He is believed to have traveled to Somalia in 2008 and is reportedly still a member of Al Shabaab.

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