Pittsburgh Shooting And Other Cases Point To Rise In Domestic Extremism

Oct 30, 2018
Originally published on November 1, 2018 7:53 am

Three men are in custody, charged in three separate cases of domestic extremism last week.

Two were deadly shootings — one at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., the other at a grocery store in Louisville, Ky. — and the third involved explosives sent through the mail from Florida.

The suspects fit a pattern well-established in recent years: troubled, American-born men who appeared to be acting alone and driven by hate.

The 2001 attacks by al-Qaida led to a national-security focus on Islamist terrorism originating abroad, but those attacks have always been the exception.

Over the past 17 years, deadly attacks in the U.S. by the far right have outnumbered those by radicalized Muslims 70 to 26, a ratio of nearly 3-to-1. The figures come from the U.S. government and private groups that track terrorism.

The total death toll from both types of attacks is roughly the same, with the far-right and Islamists both accounting for around 125 deaths during this period. The far-right tends to target minorities, while Muslim extremists tend to go after the public at large, notes Bill Braniff, director of the START consortium at the University of Maryland, which tracks terrorism.

A steady rise

Attacks by the far-right and white supremacist groups began increasing about a decade ago, and have become even more common in the past three years or so, according to Braniff. He said research into the phenomenon points to an often expressed far-right obsession that white Americans are at risk.

"What are the characteristics of an individual that allows them to go from non-violence in support of one of these ideologies, to violence? We find that believing in this collective sense of victimhood is a near necessary condition," Braniff says.

Robert Bowers, the man accused of shooting to death 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, posted anti-Semitic remarks on his social media accounts. Gregory Bush, the Louisville suspect charged with the shooting deaths of two African-Americans in their 60s, had a reputation for racist comments. And the mail bomb suspect in Florida, Cesar Sayoc, told co-workers that he admired Hitler and thought gays, Jews and blacks should be "eliminated."

A 1,000 investigations

Testifying to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security on Oct. 10, FBI director Christopher Wray said the bureau considers the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland to be Islamist extremists radicalized here in the U.S.

But he noted that the FBI has about "1,000 active investigations into domestic terrorism ... the full range of extremist ideologies from right to left, and everything in between." He didn't break it down, but made clear this number did not include suspected Islamist extremists in the U.S.

Attackers often leave plenty of clues in their social media accounts foreshadowing what is to come. Sayoc, for example, had active yet mundane accounts for years, where he talked about bodybuilding, sports and night life. His focus shifted dramatically in 2016 as he became an ardent backer of President Trump and a harsh critic of prominent Democrats, sometimes making veiled threats.

However, thousands of American men express similar views and those who study social media say it's impossible to predict who will act, and who's just ranting.

President Barack Obama's administration created a program, Countering Violent Extremism, which gave grants to local groups to try to prevent different types of radicalization. The program was small and results hard to measure. How do you know how many people weren't radicalized?

The Trump administration has scaled the program way back and placed little emphasis on far-right threats, despite their growing numbers.

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In just the past week, we've seen three high-profile cases of domestic extremism; two were deadly shootings, one at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, the other at a grocery store in Louisville, Ky. The third was the explosives sent through the mail to a prominent Democrats. All three of the suspects now in custody are men born here in the U.S. NPR's Greg Myre joins us now to talk about the common threads between these incidents. Hey, Greg.


SHAPIRO: We hear so much about international terrorism and efforts to stop people from other countries. These incidents are all homegrown. How common is that?

MYRE: Absolutely. You know, 9/11 really concentrated the mind on radical Islam from abroad. But the numbers since then tell a very different story. Deadly attacks by the far-right white supremacists outnumber those by Muslim extremists by a ratio of 3 to 1, about 70 attacks versus 23. The death toll in the past 17 years - about the same - about 125 on both sides here. The far right tends to target small minorities in smaller numbers than the indiscriminate attacks that many of the radical Muslims have carried out.

SHAPIRO: And when you look at the three people who are accused of these attacks in the last week, they all look similar to each other - men born in the U.S. Should we read something into that? Is this the new face of extremism?

MYRE: It's sort of been the face of extremism. These are American men acting on their own and they account for a solid majority of extremist attacks - really started picking up about a decade ago. The man accused in Pittsburgh made anti-Semitic remarks on social media. The Louisville suspect had a reputation for racist comments and the mail bomb suspect in Florida always told worker co-workers that he admired Hitler and thought that gays and Jews and blacks should be eliminated. I spoke to Bill Braniff, the director of the START consortium at the University of Maryland. They study terrorism, and his research points to this far-right obsession that white Americans are at risk.

WILLIAM BRANIFF: What are the characteristics of an individual that sort of allow them to go from nonviolence in support of one of these ideologies to violence? And we find that believing in this collective sense of victimhood is a near-necessary condition.

SHAPIRO: Greg, we've seen so much in the way of government efforts to fight Islamic extremism. Is there the same effort to stop this kind of domestic far-right extremism?

MYRE: Probably not the same level. Christopher Wray, the FBI director, was before Congress just a couple weeks ago. He said Islamist extremism - he still sees that as the greatest threat. But then he noted very quickly there are a thousand active investigations inside the U.S. And he said this covers everything from right to left and everything in between. He didn't break it down further than that, but he specifically said this was not Islamic extremists he was talking about here. And the challenge, of course, is how do you find people? There are - is the social media trail. But there are so many American men expressing the thoughts these days, it's hard to tell who will act and who's just ranting.

SHAPIRO: We're going to hear more in a moment about one social media site that's become a platform for these rants. But first, the FBI is describing the scope of the problem. What is it and the Trump administration more broadly doing about it?

MYRE: The Trump administration hasn't shown a lot of interest. The Obama administration created a program, Countering Violent Extremism, giving grants to local groups to prevent radicalization. The Trump administration has cut that way back and hasn't really focused on far-right threats despite the growing numbers of attacks.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.