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December 3, 2015 Off

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 Off

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 9

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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