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December 3, 2015

Bonnie and Clydes Rare—But Not Unheard Of—In Violent Extremism

Syed Farook

Syed Farook

Background information on Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married perpetrators of the tragic mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, is still sparse, as is clarity concerning the motive behind the vicious attack that left 14 dead and 21 wounded.

However, according to media reports from the in-progress investigation, there is growing concern among law enforcement officials that the shootings may have had a connection to Islamic extremism or that there might have been a mixed extremist/workplace motive behind them.  The FBI has said that it is now treating its investigation of the killings as a counter-terrorism investigation.

One thing that is exceedingly rare in traditional workplace shootings is for there to be multiple perpetrators, as there was in this case.  As one law enforcement official told The New York Times, “You don’t take your wife to a workplace shooting, and especially not as prepared as they were.  He could have been radicalized, ready to go with some type of attack, and then had a dispute at work and decided to do something.”

Multiple perpetrators are certainly common in extremist-related crimes, of course, despite the existence of the “lone wolf” phenomenon.  Women are also frequently involved in extremist-related criminal activity in almost every extremist movement in the United States.

However, when one examines recent criminal cases in the U.S. involving domestic Islamic extremists, one finds that female partners of male perpetrators—even when themselves involved in criminal activities—have not typically engaged in violence.  Overseas, women have sometimes taken on more violent roles, including as suicide bombers.

If an Islamic extremist motive is confirmed in the San Bernardino shootings, the fact of husband-and-wife shooters would be a new wrinkle in the history of the violent tactics of that movement in the United States.

Extremist-related violence involving husbands and wives—or non-married partners—is actually not unheard of in the United States, but it tends to come from a very different source:  right-wing extremism.  Though not what one could call a common phenomenon, such violent “Bonnie and Clyde” couples do emerge with regularity from within both the white supremacist and anti-government extremist movements in the United States.

In fact, right-wing extremism even produced an example of the exceedingly rare phenomenon of a married couple both of whom were on death row:  anti-government extremists Linda Lyon Block and George Sibley.  In 1993, the two sovereign citizens non-fatally stabbed Block’s ex-husband, then while on the run murdered an Alabama police officer in a shootout.  Both were executed in the 2000s.

In more recent years, extremist couples have been involved with everything from standoffs with police to hate crimes to terrorist conspiracies.  But some of the most shocking “Bonnie and Clyde” incidents have involved multiple homicides committed by white supremacists and anti-government extremists:

  • Jerad and Amanda Miller, a young married couple who adhered to the anti-government ideology of the militia movement, targeted two Las Vegas police officers for assassination in June 2014, killing them at a pizza restaurant as they ate their Sunday lunch.  The couple crossed the street to a Wal-mart in anticipation of a final shootout with first responders, where Amanda killed an armed civilian trying to stop them.  As they had intended, they did both die during a shootout with law enforcement at the store, with a wounded Amanda killing herself after Jerad was shot.
  • Jeremy and Christine Moody, white supremacists from Union County, South Carolina, killed a nearby married couple in July 2013 in a particularly grisly double homicide in which both victims were shot and stabbed.  The Moodys had targeted the victim because they wanted to kill a registered sex offender and found the male victim’s name and address on the Internet.  They killed his wife because she had married a sex offender.  Both pleaded guilty to murder in 2014, receiving life sentences with no parole, but were unrepentant, with Christine Moody calling the day of the murders “the best day of my life.”
  • Holly Grigsby and David Pedersen, a white supremacist couple from Oregon, embarked upon a multi-state murder spree in 2011 that totaled four killed before police could find and stop them.  The pair traveled to Washington to murder Pederson’s father and stepmother, each killing one victim, then killed a young man in Oregon to steal his car and because they thought he might be Jewish.  They killed an African-American man in northern California in another carjacking attempt, though they did not end up taking the vehicle, then were finally apprehended by the California Highway Patrol.  Grigsby told the arresting officers that they were to Sacramento to “kill more Jews” when they were stopped.  Both pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes and received life sentences.

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December 3, 2015

Searching for Motives in the San Bernardino Shooting

Investigators at the scene of the shooting in San Bernardino

Investigators at the scene of the shooting in San Bernardino

The motive for yesterday’s shooting in San Bernardino, CA remains unknown. In the speculation for causes, though, several details stand out.

That one of the alleged shooters, Syed Rizwan Farooq, apparently targeted his professional colleagues, might indicate an instance of workplace violence, as does the relatively nondescript, apolitical and private nature of the location targeted. However, the degree of preparation that went into the shooting appears more in line with politically or ideologically motivated violence. Moreover, incidents of workplace shootings rarely ever involve multiple perpetrators but there were apparently two shooters in San Bernardino.

Future evidence will be necessary to understand whether or not extremism, or extremist propaganda may have played any role in the San Bernardino shootings; at this time, it is entirely possible that there is no link at all, although investigators are indicating that Farooq had links to suspected extremists abroad.

A combination of workplace violence and extremist-inspired violence has played out in the U.S. in the past.

In September 2014, Oklahoma resident Alton Nolen was suspended from his workplace, a food processing plant. Nolen, who had a prior criminal record that included violent incidents, went home and then returned to the food processing plant with “a large bladed knife,” with which he beheaded a former colleague and attacked a second.

Nolen’s social media feed indicated an interest in violent extremist propaganda, and particularly the violence associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), even as it became clear that he had no actual links to extremist organizations or comprehensive adherence to extremist ideology.

His online activity suggested that his interest in extremist violence may have informed his decision to undertake a beheading, rather than another form of violence, and spoke to a secondary effect of violent extremist propaganda. His activity did not appear to be politically motivated and he was not responding to terrorist calls for violence, but he was nonetheless influenced by violent extremist content that he found online.

A similar case indicating secondary effects of terrorist propaganda took place in New Jersey in August 2014. The accused per­pe­tra­tor in that case, Ali Muhammed Brown, had a pre­vi­ous crim­i­nal record and is also accused of killing three indi­vid­u­als in Cal­i­for­nia in June. In August, he was allegedly engaged in a rob­bery when he shot a man in a car. When appre­hended, Brown claimed that the mur­der was revenge for U.S. actions in the Mid­dle East.

President Obama has suggested that there may be a combination of motives in yesterday’s shooting although, again, more evidence needs to be found to uncover the perpetrators’ actual rationales.

But the Nolen case teaches that violence and rationale are not singularly-faceted issues, and that violent propaganda online has the potential to influence people who may not themselves be extremists.

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October 23, 2015

Plumbing the Depths: Were the Umpqua Shootings an Anti-Christian Hate Crime?

On October 1, 26-year-old student Christopher Harper-Mercer walked into a classroom at Umpqua Community College in southwest Oregon and opened fire, killing nine people and wounding another nine before killing himself after law enforcement arrived and wounded him.christopher-harper-mercer-hate-crime-shooting

In the weeks since the shooting, Harper-Mercer’s motivation has remained largely a mystery, the subject of speculation and allegations, thanks to the limited, often ambiguous information available on the shooter.

The issue most often raised about the shootings is whether they constitute an anti-Christian or anti-religious hate crime.  Proponents of this theory note that Harper-Mercer asked several of his victims about their religion before shooting them, and that his limited on-line footprint suggests a disdain for organized religion.  On the other hand, it turns out, Harper-Mercer was angry about a great many things, some clearly more so than religion.  He also had a history of mental health and behavioral issues.

What motivated the shooter?  It seems possible that a clear-cut answer will never emerge.  But an analysis of what is known so far about Harper-Mercer and the shootings may offer a slightly clearer picture of what happened that day—and why.

Acquaintances of Harper-Mercer interviewed since the shooting have not revealed much about his attitudes towards religion.  But on an on-line dating profile, Harper-Mercer chose the options “not religious” and “not religious but spiritual” to describe himself.  As a prospective match, he sought someone pagan, Wiccan, or “not religious, but spiritual.”  On the same site, he joined groups called “doesn’t like organized religion,” “magick and occult,” and the “left-hand path,” another occult reference.  However, to date no on-line anti-Christian or anti-religious rhetoric by Harper-Mercer has been discovered.

According to the accounts of witnesses, on the day of the shooting itself, Harper-Mercer walked late into his writing class and fired a gun, apparently to get people’s attention.  He fatally shot the instructor, Lawrence Levine, after telling him, according to the account of one witness, “I’ve been waiting to do this for a really long time.”

Harper-Mercer than ordered the 15 or so students onto the floor.  According to one survivor, Mathew Downing, he “fired a couple of shots into the crowd of students in the center.”  He subsequently ordered several students to stand, one at a time, and asked about their religion, then shot them.  For example, the mother of one victim told reporters that Harper-Mercer asked her daughter, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, about her religion, shooting her in the back when she didn’t answer.

The sister of one Umpqua student told NBC News shortly after the attack that Harper-Mercer asked his potential victims if they were Christian.  If they said yes, he would shoot them in the head.  However, if they said something else, or nothing, “they were shot elsewhere in the body, usually the leg.”  This statement was widely repeated on the Internet.  However, the student, J. J. Vicari, was not actually in the shooter’s classroom at the time, but in another classroom in that building.  When NBC subsequently interviewed Vicari himself, he said that he never heard Harper-Mercer ask about religion—or even heard his voice at all.

The most frequently-repeated account came from the father of victim Anastasia Boylan.  Her father told the media that Harper-Mercer asked people if they were Christian, then said “Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second,” killing people who had identified themselves as Christians.

However, when Anastasia Boylan herself was subsequently interviewed by Good Morning America, her account was different:  “He had us get up, one by one, and asked us what our religions were.  The shooter said [victims] would only feel pain for a couple of seconds, and that [they] would be with God soon.  And then he shot them.”  Boylan’s description makes it seem as if Harper-Mercer was actually engaging in some sort of bizarre attempt to calm or give solace to the people he was about to murder.  He also told the students he would be joining them in death in just a little while.

Other surviving witnesses also questioned whether Harper-Mercer was “targeting Christians.” Rand McGowan said, “He didn’t, really, honestly…Obviously, he was asking what religion, but he wasn’t really just targeting.  He was kind of just saying, ‘Oh, since you have a God, you’ll be joining him in a little bit.’  It wasn’t really like, ‘I’m targeting you and I’m going to kill you.’”

Tracy Heu, another survivor, recalled that Harper-Mercer told victims, “I’m going to send you to God.  You’re going to see God.”  However, she did not think that Christianity or religion were a motive, noting that he shot people regardless of how they responded to his question about religion.

It is not clear how many students Harper-Mercer asked about their religion.  However, it is clear from Downing’s detailed written account that a number of students were shot or shot at without having been asked anything about their religion.

Harper-Mercer killed or wounded most of the students in the classroom (shooting one victim at least five times), regardless of faith.  However, one student he spared, giving him an envelope for police that allegedly included a flash drive and documents, including what has been described as a “manifesto.”

Weeks after the shootings, authorities still have not yet released any of the contents of this envelope.  However, officers or others with apparent access have leaked descriptions and excerpts of its contents to the media.  The document allegedly contains racist language, though race does not seem to have been a motive for the attack (and Harper-Mercer was from a multi-racial family).  It also allegedly contains language about his sexual frustrations—which echoes comments Harper-Mercer made on-line prior to the shootings.  One anonymous source told People Magazine that the shooter wrote, “I am going to die friendless, girlfriendless, and a virgin.”  The source also said that the manifesto had “666” written on it and that Harper-Mercer wanted “to serve darkness”—characterizing the attack as “strictly for Satanic purposes.”

However, in a subsequent People article, an apparently different anonymous source allegedly read parts of the manifesto to reporters, telling the magazine that the manifesto chronicled Harper-Mercer’s life and his frustrations:  “no job, no life, no success.”  According to this source, Harper-Mercer allegedly wrote, “I was hated ever since I arrived in the world.  I was always under attack.  I’ve always been the most hated person in the world.”

Harper-Mercer allegedly wrote in the manifesto about previous mass killers (as he did on-line, prior to the attack), claiming that they too had been denied everything they deserved and wanted.  This source quotes Harper-Mercer making references about demons and Hell, though the references sound as though they may have been more metaphorical than actually Satanic.  However, without being able to see the actual language in its true context, it is hard to know for sure.

So was Harper-Mercer’s deadly attack a hate crime?  Certainly, Harper-Mercer was capable of hatred.  The evidence suggests that he was a supremely disturbed and alienated young man, frustrated by virtually all aspects of his life, from being kicked out of the military, to being placed on academic probation, to being unable to form connections with other people, especially women.

Hate and resentment, Harper-Mercer thus had in full measure. But anger alone does not define a hate crime.  Was his attack directed against Christians or against people with religious beliefs?  The evidence that has so far emerged to support such a proposition is not very strong.  Harper-Mercer appears to have stored up anger against society in general—and when he unleashed his deadly fury, he spared neither Christian nor non-Christian, neither the religious nor the agnostic.

It may well have been the act of shooting and killing people, rather than shooting anyone in particular, that was most important to Harper-Mercer.  And while new information could prompt a re-examination of the entire event, it seems quite possible that profound alienation and resentment, rather than animus directed specifically at Christians or the religious, was the most important motivation in Harper-Mercer’s murderous rampage.

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