From Charleston to Chattanooga to Lafayette, a series of mass murders has reignited debates over the nature of terrorism and how it is covered by the media—over whether these are terrorist acts to begin with, and—the latest wrinkle—whether or not they might be acts of religious terrorism.
In many ways the controversy has become part of a culture war. Those on the Left argue that an implicitly racist media too often dismisses mass violence by white men as the byproduct of mental derangement; Islam is seen an acceptable predicate for terrorism, but not white supremacy. Those on the Right argue that liberals, especially those in the Obama administration, are too quick to sugarcoat acts of Islamic terrorism as mere extremism devoid of religious impulse—jeopardizing security in the name of political correctness.
But if Americans want to understand and possibly even prevent domestic terrorism in the future, then they may have to abandon neat labels and presuppositions and start to deal in nuance.
The very act of defining terrorism is nuanced, something academics and national security experts have acknowledged for decades. The U.S. State Department (which once designated Nelson Mandela as a terrorist), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the United Nations all offer different criteria for who or what qualifies as a terrorist.
But almost every definition of terrorism includes at least two elements: (1) an intention to strike at civilians or noncombatants; and (2) the hope that the violence will serve as a symbolic act and/or advance some political or ideological outcome preferred by the perpetrator. The compulsion to label any act of mass violence as terrorism is counterproductive as it may create an overreaction to what is a one-off, if shocking and tragic, event.
John Houser, the man who murdered the moviegoers in Louisiana, appears, more and more, to be an actual deranged lunatic rather than a terrorist. His actions did not surprise those who knew him in part because law enforcement officials in Arizona had institutionalized Houser for serious mental disorders in the past, pathologies that manifested in previous acts of violence. His chosen venue and shooting victims do not evidence a political objective. Yes, his acts may have been shaped in the context of white supremacy. But he is not Dylann Roof.
Roof’s choices of targets—African-American congregants at the First AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina—were logically consistent with his racist motivations. Many see Roof as part of a long tradition of white nationalist terrorism in America, symbolized by the Confederate flag he proudly advertised in his photographs. Hundreds of African Americans fell victim to violence perpetrated by men, terrorists in white robes, brandishing that same flag.
Roof, in this interpretation, is a secular terrorist, different from Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, the man who murdered five soldiers in Chattanooga after apparently becoming a self-radicalized Salafi jihadist. As Bruce Hoffman, one of America’s leading terrorism experts, observed, religious terrorists are more willing than secular terrorists to engage in mass, indiscriminate violence to make a point, and are far more difficult to satiate through a political settlement because they want profound, long-term and radical changes in the world. The Irish Republican Army all but gave up violence as part of the Good Friday Agreement with England in 1998—no such outcome seems likely with ISIS or al Qaeda.
But the differences between Roof and Abdulazeez may be less pronounced than people realize. To understand this, one must harken back to another racist who proudly brandished the Confederate flag as the material for a homemade vest. A firebrand agitator, Charles “Connie” Lynch, literally wore the flag on his chest as he traveled to almost every flashpoint in the civil rights era, riling crowds into a frenzy against the prospects of racial integration. He toured the country in a pink Cadillac with his friend, Jesse Benjamin “J.B.” Stoner, a white supremacist lawyer who defended Lynch, time and time again, against charges of incitement.
Together, the men formed what Klan expert Patty Sims called a “two-man riot squad.” Sims described their escapades in her book The Klan:
Lynch once told a Baltimore rally crowd: “I represent God, the white race and constitutional government, and everyone who doesn’t like that can go straight to hell. I’m not inciting you to riot—I’m inciting you to victory!” His audience responded by chanting, “Kill the n-----s! Kill! Kill!” After the rally, stirred-up white youths headed for the city’s slums, attacking blacks with fists and bottles. At another rally in Berea, Kentucky, Lynch’s diatribe was followed by two fatal shootings. Again, in Anniston, Alabama, he goaded his audience: “If it takes killing to get the Negroes out of the white man’s streets and to protect our constitutional rights, I say, ‘Yes, kill them!’” A carload of men left the rally and gunned down a black man on a stretch of highway.
But Stoner and Lynch were more than just neo-Confederates. They were religious zealots whose agendas went beyond simply preserving the so-called “Southern Way of Life.” Both men followed what scholars now call the Christian Identity Movement, a post-World War II theology that recast the Genesis creation story in racist and anti-Semitic terms.
Based on an Anglo-centric religious ideology dating back to 19th-century England, Christian Identity’s seminarians argued, from their headquarters at the Church of Jesus Christ Christian in Los Angeles, California, that Jews came from an evil bloodline—born from a relationship between Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The literal spawn of Satan, “imposter” Jews manipulated people of color (sub-human descendants of the “Beasts of the Field” per Identity theology) in a centuries-long cosmic conspiracy against the true chosen people—white Europeans, the authentic seed-line of Adam and Eve. Like other ordained ministers in the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, the Reverend Connie Lynch believed that the apocalypse prophesied in the Book of Revelations would take the form of a holy race war, with Jesus joining white Europeans as they vanquished the anti-Christ Jews and their sub-human allies.
Through their agitation and by sponsoring provocative acts of violence from the late ’50s onward, Lynch and Stoner hoped to foment that race war by polarizing the races against each other. This idiosyncratic and apocalyptic interpretation of the Bible fell so far outside of the mainstream of conventional Christianity that it failed to find adherents or widespread acceptance even within the Ku Klux Klan. A Tennessee KKK group once even expelled Stoner for advocating violence against Jews. With this in mind, men like Lynch and Stoner concealed their race-war agenda even as they harnessed Southern nationalism to advance their wider goals. Nearly every leading member of the seemingly secular and innocent-sounding National States Rights Party, co-founded by Stoner, privately devoted himself to Christian Identity and to the prospects of a race war.
If such ideas sound familiar, it is because they closely parallel the warped vision of Dylann Roof, who justified his mass slaughter with the goal of igniting a race war. Roof does not appear to be religiously motivated, but he was immersed in a white supremacist milieu fundamentally reshaped by Christian Identity beliefs since the ’60s.
Misunderstood as simple neo-Confederate racists, Christian Identity extremists became leading members of some of the most notorious and violent KKK groups in the country. Appropriation became the modus operandi for Christian Identity zealots for the next two decades—religious fanatics would assume leadership roles in groups that shared their secular objectives while seeking opportunities to exploit said groups in the service of their apocalyptic aims.
Despite its outward political front, the California attorney general called the National States Rights Party the “most active and dangerous” racist organization in his state and U.S. Senator Kenneth Keating attributed at least 16 bombings to the group by 1960.
Identity ministers even influenced new and supposedly rival white supremacist religions, such as racialist Norse neo-paganism (sometimes called Odinism.) James Warner, an NSRP member and Christian Identity leader, provided Else Christensen (called the “Grandmother of racist Odinism” by scholar Mattias Gardell) with the materials she used to start her group in 1969. Not surprisingly Christensen’s neo-paganism is fanatically anti-Semitic and racist and predicts an impending race war. But Christensen earned official recognition for her religion in Florida, and began a prison outreach and ministry, by employing the same tactics embraced by Lynch and Stoner. “You have to go through the back door,” she told Gardell of her covert and militant agenda, “you have to sway with the wind.”
Not everyone of this religious mindset remained coy. By the ’80s, a cell of religious terrorists known as The Order launched an operation in the Pacific Northwest that included robbery, forgery and, infamously, the assassination of Jewish radio host Alan Berg in 1984.
With a martyred leader (Robert Matthews) dead after an armed confrontation with law enforcement, the surviving members did not hide their neo-Pagan and Christian Identity affiliations. In prison some became folk heroes in the white supremacist community. One key member, David Lane, a neo-pagan, provided the slogan for racists of all stripes: the so-called 14 words (We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children). As with Lane’s other lasting contribution to supremacist culture, a call to arms listing 88 precepts to “benefit and preserve” the white race, supremacists across the country adorn their bodies with the tattooed numbers 14 and 88, some unaware of their religious pedigree.
Dylann Roof can be seen in pictures with those same numbers scrawled in the sand on the beach. But media attention has focused exclusively on pictures of Roof with Confederate and Rhodesian flags—secular symbols of hate, symbols that religious terrorists, like Connie Lynch, embraced as they manipulated men like Roof.
It is here that one finds disturbing parallels between Roof and Abdulazeez, or more precisely, between Christian Identity extremism and radical Salafi jihadism. If recent reports hold true, Abdulazeez self-radicalized after studying the sermons and videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric whose message has inspired several jihadi terrorists. Before an American drone strike killed al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011, before investigators linked him to the 9/11 attacks, many observers viewed the Virginia-based Imam as a moderate. At one point Pentagon officials invited him to a luncheon in 2002 and, according to investigative reporter Catherine Herridge, he may even have been a source for law enforcement agencies. If he passed as some sort of double agent, it is because, as scholar Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens observes, Awlaki was able to hide his agenda, especially from his fellow Muslims. Meleagrou-Hitchens argues that al-Awlaki always embraced Salafism, a fundamentalist and ultra-orthodox interpretation of Islam with relatively few followers. Even fewer Salafis (groups like al Qaeda and ISIS) favor violent, offensive jihad against the West and secular Arab governments. For this reason, like Lynch and Stoner before him, al-Awlaki “avoided making any clear statements” about his religious goals according to Meleagrou-Hitchens because, as one cleric told the scholar, “it would alienate and put off a large number of ordinary Muslims.”
Besides its dogmatic fidelity to practicing Islam the way it was practiced during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, religious scholars highlight several features of this radical strain of Islam that deviate from even conservative norms. Salafi jihadists embrace suicide/martyrdom operations (all but unknown save for the last 50 years of Islam’s 1,400-year history); they are also willing to excommunicate and punish as apostates even devout Muslims (as well as Jews and Christians) who do not share their orthodox leanings; and Salafi extremists are also pro-active in trying to foment an apocalyptic holy war.
The third feature, the willingness to use provocative violence to instigate the Battle of Armageddon, is an obvious point of comparison with Christian Identity zealots. But the second defining aspect of Salafi jihadism may represent a more salient similarity: Both Identity and Salafi radicals justify their violence by placing large swaths of people outside of the orbit of their religious moral codes. One does not have to “love thy neighbor” or even his enemy if the Other is either sub-human or demonic. But such ideas are foreign and even offensive to the vast majority of even dogmatic Christians and Muslims.
A full appreciation of these recent events thus confounds the conventional understanding of terrorism, especially religious terrorism. Together, the Charleston and Chattanooga shootings show that no religion is exempt from perversion by extremists, but that such perversion is often about finding ways to not apply religious norms and standards to large swaths of humanity. There is not that much distance between Charleston and Chattanooga.
Stuart Wexler is considered one of the top investigative researchers in domestic terrorism and radical religious activities. His most recent book is America’s Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States, on sale August 2015 from Counterpoint Press.