There have been three mass shootings in the United States since July 28 involving angry, young white men. The July 28 shooting at a food festival in Gilroy, California, and the Aug. 4 shooting outside a nightclub in Dayton, Ohio, appear motivated by factors other than white supremacism. Even though most of the Dayton shooter's victims were African Americans, as of this writing, he does not appear to be a white supremacist based on his ideology and history. But when a man walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3 and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle, killing at least 20 people and injuring dozens more before being captured by the police, he became the third high-profile white supremacist mass shooter of 2019.
White supremacist ideology is just one of many motivations underlying mass public attacks. In fact, the majority of such attacks occur in response to a grievance rather than in connection with any ideology. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the ideology and tactics associated with white supremacist terror so attacks can be detected and hopefully thwarted as the attacker progresses through his attack cycle.
Before his attack, the El Paso shooter, who I will purposefully not name to deny him the attention such killers seek, posted a four-page statement to the website 8chan. This is the same website that the perpetrators of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque attacks in March and the Chabad of Poway, California, synagogue attack in April posted their statements to. The El Paso shooter began his statement by praising the Christchurch killer, but said he was targeting Hispanics, who he claimed were invading Texas. He specifically mentioned the "great replacement theory," the idea that white people are going to be replaced by people of color. This concept, sometimes referred to as "white genocide," has been linked to a number of other killers, including those in Christchurch and Poway. These three massacres raise the question of why we are seeing more white supremacist attacks.
The answer lies in the internet, and in white supremacists following the jihadist example. By adopting the leaderless resistance model of terrorism, we saw jihadists follow the lead of the white supremacist movement. Now, it appears the white supremacist movement is following the jihadist groups' successful use of the internet for the radicalization and recruitment of lone attackers.
The Violent History of White Supremacism
White supremacist terrorism in the United States is not a new phenomenon. Even before the Ku Klux Klan raids and lynchings began in the 1860s, it was a problem, one that persisted through the bombing and burning of black churches in the 1950s and 1960s. More recently, during the 1980s white supremacist groups such as The Order and the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA) sought to launch a race war that would result in the overthrow of the U.S. government, which they considered a "Zionist Occupied Government" controlled by shadowy Jewish interests.
When a major trial highlighted how the white supremacist movement was riddled with informants, leaders of the movement changed the way they thought about terrorism and terrorist operations.
In recognition of the white supremacist terrorist threat, the U.S. government in 1987 indicted a large group of white supremacists, including members of The Order and the CSA, on charges of sedition through a federal grand jury in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The group of men indicted in the sedition case also included high-profile white supremacist movement leaders such as Texas Klansman Louis Beam, Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler and National Alliance leader William Pierce. Though a jury acquitted the men in 1988 of the sedition charges, the trial highlighted the fact that the movement was riddled with informants. This caused its leaders to change the way they thought about terrorism and terrorist operations.
The change in attitude was illustrated by the evolution of the writings of William Pierce. Using the pen name Andrew Macdonald, in 1978 Pierce wrote a book called The Turner Diaries that used fiction as a vehicle to provide a blueprint for creating a domestic terrorist group. The group in The Turner Diaries was called "The Order." A group of Pierce's followers would go on to create the real domestic terrorist group bearing that same name.
After the Fort Smith trial, Pierce again used fiction to highlight a different model for terrorism, one that would have better operational security than a hierarchical group: leaderless resistance. Again using the nom de plume of Andrew Macdonald, in 1989 Pierce published Hunter, a novel highlighting the exploits of a lone domestic terrorist who operated under the principles of leaderless resistance. Pierce dedicated the book, which functions as a how-to manual for lone wolf attackers, to Joseph Paul Franklin. A white supremacist terrorist who operated alone, Franklin conducted a string of deadly arson and sniper attacks across a wide swath of the United States during 1977-80.
In February 1992, Beam published an article called "Leaderless Resistance" in his aptly named newsletter, The Seditionist. His article openly borrowed from the work of Col. Ulius "Pete" Louis Amoss, a retired U.S. intelligence officer. Frustrated by poor operational security in intelligence operations designed to overthrow communism, Amoss designed what he considered a better model, one less susceptible to detection and disruption by communist security services; this model was leaderless resistance. He published a work by that name in 1962 that expounded upon his model, which Beam thought could similarly be used to thwart the efforts of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to infiltrate and disrupt the white supremacist movement, and so Beam began to promote it.
Pierce came out of the American Nazi Party and Beam was a Klansman, but other sectors of the radical right also embraced the concept of leaderless resistance around the same time. These included Richard Hoskins, an influential Christian Identity leader who published a book called Vigilantes of Christendom in 1990 discussing the concept of "Phineas Priests," or lone attackers anointed by God to conduct attacks against the enemies of the white race. Skinhead leader Tommy Metzger also began heavily promoting the leaderless resistance model in the 1990s, frequently encouraging his followers to take violent action as lone wolves.
Despite these appeals to violence and leaderless resistance, terrorism by white supremacists has so far never reached the levels these ideologues aspired to. Even the occasional large attack such as the April 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City did not spark the racial holy war and overthrow of the U.S. government they had hoped for, or even inspired much in the way copycat attacks. Not until 2011 would another white supremacist vehicle bombing occur, this one in Oslo, Norway.
While the Olympic Park bomber did succeed in escaping from the authorities to conduct a series of four smaller bombings during 1996-98 before being captured in 2003, even his highly publicized (and in some quarters heavily romanticized) run from the law failed to generate much in the way of additional terrorism. Certainly, there were cases in which a reputedly "former" Aryan Nations member would shoot up a Jewish day care center, or a "former" World Church of the Creator member would go on a multistate shooting spree. But other than some occasional clusters such as the so-called "Summer of Hate" in 1999, white supremacist terrorism remained a persistent, though mostly low-level, threat. This might be changing now.
The Internet as Driver of Mass Shootings
I believe the propaganda on the internet is a strong factor driving the increase in white supremacist attacks. I have discussed how the media has long served as a terrorism magnifier, and how modern terrorism has from the beginning been inextricably linked to developments in the media, whether rise of the mass distribution of newspapers or the advent of television news. Now, the internet has democratized the news and has permitted terrorists — even those who operate alone under the leaderless resistance model — to be their own media. Thus, the Christchurch killer broadcast his attack on Facebook Live, and the Poway shooter attempted unsuccessfully to follow suit. This was also on display in the way the Oslo bomber, the Christchurch killer and now the El Paso killer each posted statements to the internet outlining their motives in the hope of influencing others to join their cause. The internet has also fostered transnational connections between these attackers, with the Christchurch killer referencing the Oslo attacks, and the Poway and El Paso killers referencing Christchurch.
Along with jihadists, white supremacists were early adopters of the internet.
White supremacists have long used the internet. Along with jihadists, they were early adopters. The white supremacist website Stormfront and the jihadist website Azzam.com both appeared in the early days of the internet. White supremacists in fact have had a robust presence on the web since the days when Internet Relay Chat and Usenet were the primary social media outlets. Bearing in mind the lessons of the Fort Smith trial, most white supremacist websites tended to be fairly careful about calls for violence, even suspending some users for advocating violence. Instead, these websites sought to create a place to inculcate visitors with their ideology, and permit them to make connections that would facilitate subsequent terrorist operations. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in overt, over-the-top calls for violence by white supremacists on outlets such as 8chan, Gab and Discord — sites being linked to the recent high-profile attacks. Unlike older white supremacist websites such as Stormfront and even Vanguard News Network, these websites are totally unfiltered.
In many ways, this shift in white supremacist propaganda reminds me of the change in jihadist propaganda when the Islamic State and its supporters began circulating graphically violent content. Young male jihadists embraced and devoured this content over relatively stuffier al Qaeda propaganda releases. I believe that this propaganda plus the Islamic State's battlefield successes played a large role in the spike of grassroots jihadist attacks seen globally during 2014-2016. Absent a physical white supremacist equivalent of the Islamic State's caliphate, the spike in white supremacist attacks may prove less dramatic, but for now, its virulent propaganda appears to be gaining traction.