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August 12, 2015 0

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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May 3, 2013 0

Boston Marathon Bombers Inspired By Anwar al-Awlaki

Reports are emerg­ing that Tamer­lan and Dzkhokhar Tsar­naev, the broth­ers allegedly respon­si­ble for the April 15 Boston Marathon bomb­ings, were rad­i­cal­ized, at least in part, by rad­i­cal cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.awlaki-boston-marathon-bombing-adl

Dzokhar, the sur­viv­ing Tsar­naev brother, report­edly told law enforce­ment offi­cials that he and his brother were inspired by Awlaki ser­mons avail­able online. Awlaki, an American-born Mus­lim cleric who encour­aged attacks against Amer­ica and the West, deliv­ered his ide­ol­ogy of extreme intol­er­ance and vio­lence to English-speaking online audi­ences for sev­eral years.

Prior to his death in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen on Sep­tem­ber 30, 2011, Awlaki influ­enced a gen­er­a­tion of extrem­ists in the U.S and abroad. One indi­ca­tion of Awlaki’s wide­spread influ­ence is the num­ber of extrem­ists that have been found in pos­ses­sion of his mate­ri­als. In addi­tion to the Boston Bomb­ings, Awlaki’s influ­ence can be seen in at least nine other plots:

  • Quazi Nafis, who pleaded guilty to attempt­ing to bomb the New York Fed­eral Reserve Build­ing in Octo­ber 2012, report­edly watched Awlaki videos and admired him, accord­ing to friends and fed­eral officials.
  • Adel Daoud, who was arrested in Sep­tem­ber 2012 and charged with plot­ting to bomb a Chicago-area bar, shared Awlaki lec­tures with his friends.
  • Jose Pimentel, who was arrested and charged with state-level ter­ror­ism offense in New York for plan­ning to attack mil­i­tary per­son­nel and other tar­gets in Novem­ber 2011, posted at least fif­teen Awlaki videos to his YouTube chan­nel. On his web­site, Pimentel called Awlaki “The Destroyer Of The US” and posted tran­scripts of his mes­sages. Pimentel report­edly accel­er­ated his bomb-building efforts in response to Awlaki’s death in a US drone strike in Sep­tem­ber 2011.
  • Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, who was sen­tenced for his plot to attack a mil­i­tary facil­ity in Seat­tle in June 2011, sub­scribed to a YouTube chan­nel fea­tur­ing Awlaki videos.  In one of the videos Abdul-Latif made him­self, he laments that Pres­i­dent Obama “put a hit out on Anwar al-Awlaki, our brother sheikh.”
  • Anto­nio Mar­tinez, who was sen­tenced for attempt­ing to det­o­nate what he believed to be a car bomb at a Mary­land Army recruit­ing cen­ter in Decem­ber 2010, con­veyed to an under­cover infor­mant his admi­ra­tion for Awlaki.  On his Face­book pro­file, Mar­tinez sim­i­larly broad­cast his appre­ci­a­tion of Awlaki, writ­ing, “I love Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki for the sake of ALLAH.  A real inspi­ra­tion for the Ummah, I dont care if he is on the ter­ror­ist list! May ALLAH give him Kire amen [sic].”
  • Farooque Ahmed, who was sen­tenced for his role in a plot to attack DC-area pub­lic trans­porta­tion in 2010, was found to be in pos­ses­sion of CDs con­tain­ing Awlaki lec­tures and speeches.
  • Faisal Shahzad, who was sen­tenced to life in prison for his failed attempt to bomb Times Square in 2010, told inves­ti­ga­tors he was influ­enced by Awlaki.
  • Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 peo­ple at Fort Hood, Texas, sent 16 emails to Awlaki and received two responses.  In the after­math of the attack, Awlaki claimed he “blessed the act because it was against a mil­i­tary tar­get,” gave Hasan “per­mis­sion to carry out his attacks at Fort Hood,” and instructed him to “kill other Amer­i­can sol­diers,” although his email responses were rel­a­tively innocuous.
  • Five men who con­spired to attack the Fort Dix army base in New Jer­sey in 2007 were report­edly in pos­ses­sion of an Awlaki ser­mon and were also report­edly recorded dis­cussing the lec­ture enthusiastically.
awlaki-samir-kahn-inspire-aqap

Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan

Awlaki was also a con­trib­u­tor to Inspire mag­a­zine which influ­enced numer­ous inter­na­tional and domes­tic extrem­ists moti­vated by rad­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions of Islam. Fed­eral law enforce­ment offi­cials report­edly con­firmed that the Tsar­naev broth­ers got bomb-making instruc­tions from Inspire mag­a­zine.

Addi­tion­ally, Awlaki is believed to have per­son­ally instructed Umar Farouk Abdul­mu­tal­lab to det­o­nate his bomb aboard a transat­lantic flight from Ams­ter­dam to Detroit on Christ­mas Day 2009 over Amer­i­can air­space in order to max­i­mize casualties.

Awlaki’s influ­ence is not lim­ited to plots. His pro­pa­ganda also influ­enced a num­ber of indi­vid­u­als accused of pro­vid­ing or attempt­ing to pro­vide mate­r­ial sup­port to ter­ror­ists. Recent exam­ples include Abdella Tounisi, four indi­vid­u­als from Cal­i­for­nia, Randy “Rasheed” Wil­son and Moham­mad Abukhdair. Notably, sev­eral Amer­i­can extrem­ists com­mu­ni­cated with Awlaki directly, includ­ing Nidal Has­san, Zachary Chesser and Barry Bujol, Jr.

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