How Far-Right Terrorists Learned to Stop Worrying and Leave the Bomb
On Sept. 16, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon slowly made its way down New York City’s Wall Street. It came to a stop at the Financial District’s busiest corner, just opposite the J. P. Morgan bank headquarters. And exploded. Thirty people were killed and nearly 150 others wounded. For most of the ensuing century, bombing was the preferred terrorist tactic in the United States. During one 18-month stretch between 1971 and 1972, there were an astonishing 2,500 bombings. Many were committed by radical left-wing groups such as the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the New World Liberation Front. Others were orchestrated by such diverse actors as Puerto Rican independistas, Croatian separatists, anti-Castro Cubans, and a militant Jewish organization.
Today, however, the terrorists’ preferred tactic is the mass shooting. As we argue in our new book, God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America, assault-style rifles have replaced explosives. And the perpetrators come mostly from the far right. Eschewing the time-intensive preparations involved in the careful construction and placement of explosive devices — as seen in Oklahoma City in 1995 and at the Atlanta Olympics the following year — domestic terrorists now prefer shooting, a far simpler tactic that is facilitated by the Second Amendment and entails simply opening fire on a group of ordinary citizens going about their daily lives.
The mass shooting — whether politically motivated (and therefore terrorism) or apolitical — has sadly become a regular occurrence in America. Armed attackers can now create havoc and bloodshed on a scale completely divorced from their training or expertise, in turn making terrorism more accessible to violently inclined persons with a political axe to grind. This threat calls for better enforcing existing gun control laws and enacting reasonable new measures to restrict access to specific types of weapons and ammunition.
John Earnest, the 19-year-old who attacked a Jewish synagogue outside of San Diego in April 2019, encapsulates this new breed of terrorist: A young, lone actor, radicalized online, committing a mass shooting at a place of worship. Earnest was at least on the surface an all-American teenager, having grown up in the idyllic suburb of Rancho Peñasquitos, California — or “Commiefornia,” as he called it. Earnest radicalized rapidly — as he noted in his own manifesto. “If you told me even 6 months ago that I would do this I would have been surprised,” he wrote. Earnest admitted to having only limited firearms training when he decided to launch his attack. This piano prodigy’s lack of technological expertise with firearms likely contributed to his gun jamming, but he was still able claim one life, injure three more, devastate a community he hated, and broadcast his ideology to an audience far beyond his San Diego suburb. Earnest used the firearm now almost synonymous with the American mass shooting: the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the civilian version of the U.S. Army’s standard M-4 carbine and its predecessor, the M-16. As a Washington Post deep-dive revealed, the gun is particularly adept at massacring as many people as possible in almost no time.
Firearms are particularly attractive because they are often seen as central to America’s Revolutionary War and pioneering ethos. They also figure prominently for the country’s far-right extremist fringe. In fact, the trigger for the dreamed-of second civil war — variously termed the Racial Holy War or Boogaloo — is usually predicted to be federal government gun confiscations. Three decades ago it was also the issue that radicalized Timothy McVeigh and led eventually to the Oklahoma City bombing. Indeed, for the would-be accelerationist who seeks to spark chaos in order to engineer a systemic rebellion against the U.S. government, mass shootings with a demonstrable political motive have the additional benefit of further tearing at the fabric of American society and dividing communities into polarized camps based on an individual’s support or rejection of the Second Amendment.
Brenton Tarrant, an Australian who attacked two mosques in New Zealand in March 2019, actually planned his attack with the impact it would have on opinion in the United States in mind. “I chose firearms for the affect [sic] it would have on social discourse, the extra media coverage they would provide and the affect it could have on the politics of United states and thereby the political situation of the world,” he wrote. “This attempted abolishment of rights by the left will result in a dramatic polarization of the people in the United States and eventually a fracturing of the US along cultural and racial lines.” As part of his attack, Earnest also launched an accelerationist appeal to acolytes of the Turner Diaries, one of the defining works in white supremacist literature: “Some of you have been waiting for The Day of the Rope for years. Well, The Day of the Rope is here right now — that is if you have the gnads to keep the ball rolling.” Accordingly, he deliberately copied Tarrant by using firearms as a means to achieve dramatic political effects. “I used a gun for the same reason that Brenton Tarrant used a gun,” Earnest explained. “In case you haven’t noticed we are running out of time. If this revolution doesn’t happen soon, we won’t have the numbers to win it. The goal is for the US government to start confiscating guns. People will defend their right to own a firearm — civil war has just started.”
The shift towards firearms terrorism is intimately connected to at least three other developments in far-right terrorism. Firstly, the movement has been empowered by social media, which has provided a revolutionary boon to all terrorist radicalizers and recruiters. In the far-right universe, this trend has been especially prominent among teenagers on the internet, especially in gaming and social media platforms. In these online milieus, young people — particularly those who lack a sense of belonging, community, or mentorship in their offline lives — are often groomed by older extremists with the ideological legitimacy to impart compelling tales of the adventure and excitement of life underground. Youngsters also have independently banded together to create their own extremist forums. The phenomenon has led to all-youth white-power groups, such as the British Hand, a neo-Nazi group led by a 15-year-old. Perhaps the most shocking example of youth radicalization was provided by Feuerkrieg (“Fire War”) Division, an offshoot of the Atomwaffen Division, located in the Baltics. When the authorities arrested the leader of the group in Estonia, he was found to be 13 years old.
Social media is also providing extremists with a means to speak directly to the psychologically vulnerable and lonely — especially those going through a difficult adolescence. During its short-lived reign, the Atomwaffen Division, for instance, was responsible for five murders (four involving firearms), perpetrated by three different killers. News reporting surrounding the individual cases confirms that each of the group’s killers — Devon Arthurs, Nicholas Giampa, and Sam Woodward — as well as the group’s founding leader, Brandon Russell, all suffered from an array of mental health issues, including in every case varying levels of autism, in addition to schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, and depression. During Russell’s trial, his mother tearfully explained how “he was always looking for something to belong to.” (As if himself personifying the shift from explosives to firearms, Russell was initially sentenced in 2018 for possession of explosive devices, before being re-arrested in early 2023 for a plot to open fire on power substations around Baltimore.) In another Atomwaffen case, the defense attorney described her client as “susceptible to radicalization” because “he has never felt like he fit in.” Christian Picciolini, a former white-power rocker now involved in efforts to turn youngsters away from violence and extremism, claims that almost three-quarters of the far-right extremists he has worked with suffered from autism spectrum-related disorders.
The connection is so strong that Picciolini encourages each new person he works with to see a psychologist or counselor. With social media and extremist forums now pervasive, vulnerable young people are more easily exposed both to radical rhetoric and a variety of radical communities. And with terrorism no longer exclusively the domain of organized groups with coherent ideologies (especially in the domestic space), mentally ill lone actors have come to play a larger role in domestic terrorism everywhere — in turn raising questions about whether the terrorism label might even apply in such cases.
Secondly, the entrenchment of leaderless resistance, first articulated by Louis Beam in 1983 and reiterated in 1992, as the chosen strategy of extremist coordination has led to less complex attacks requiring less planning and logistical preparation than ones using explosive devices. And contemporary social media has empowered extremists to circulate it to an array of lone actors seeking agency and influence by turning their lethal fantasies into real-life violence. Today, even the more organized far-right networks usually prefer the leaderless resistance strategy to the traditional top-down/command-and-control model of terrorism. “The man that is strongest alone is the prime recruit!” Atomwaffen Division’s German offshoot asserted in its internal action plan, which was posted onto open Telegram channels in early 2020. Indeed, all the acts of violence linked to the Atomwaffen Division’s once extensive network — most notably the stabbing murder of a gay Jewish undergraduate in California in January 2018 — were perpetrated by lone actors, without any known coordination by or direction from the group’s leaders. In 2020, the Atomwaffen Division’s successor group, National Socialist Order, re-affirmed, in a document viewed by the authors, “We are dedicated to promoting radical autonomy while fomenting a revolutionary atmosphere.”
Lone-actor mass shootings, then, are the tactical manifestation of this shifting strategic environment. They present an especially formidable challenge to those charged with countering this threat. First, there is limited intelligence value in the capture of a lone actor, who likely has little specific information to share about the organization or ideology influencing him, given that there are often few connections to a broader network or group or anything similar to a traditional terrorist organization’s hierarchy. Second, in a social media world, lone actors have the technology and expertise to create their own propaganda platform. Tarrant’s livestream was shared on Facebook 1.5 million times during the first 24 hours, depriving government and media organizations of the ability to contain this unimpeded broadcasting of wanton death and injury.
Finally, and most importantly, lone-actor terrorism turns counterterrorism into a needle-in-the-haystack exercise of identifying one individual intent on violence amidst a vast digital universe of voices. That challenge has been made more difficult by modern internet culture. Extremists hide behind a façade of “shitposting,” the practice of sharing increasingly inflammatory, extreme, violent, and often humorous material online. Those who take offence or flag concerns are mocked as “liberal snowflakes” or “social justice warriors.” But through that smokescreen, bonds inside the in-group are strengthened and distrust and hatred of the out-group crystallizes, as connections solidify between geographically vast and diverse extremist networks.
Finally, the persistence of mass shooting as America’s preferred domestic terrorist tactic has produced significant changes in the targets — and victims — of this violence. In previous terrorism waves, government facilities were often targeted as symbolic representations of the alleged repression that was at the heart of extremist grievances. Courthouses, Internal Revenue Service offices, and buildings housing government agencies were attacked. McVeigh’s preoccupation with the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is the most notable case-in-point: It contained an office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, one of the leading organizations involved in the federal responses at Ruby Ridge and Waco. McVeigh, accordingly, fastened on an improvised explosive device as the best means for inflicting maximum damage to the government and making his point. As security was tightened at government buildings throughout the country in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, these facilities thus became harder targets to access and therefore attack. Eric Rudolph, for instance, targeted non-governmental facilities with his bombs: a public concert venue in a park just outside the Atlanta Olympics compound, abortion clinics, and a gay bar.
In recent years, however, American far-right terrorists have continued to focus almost exclusively on the same type of publicly accessible soft targets: places of worship. In a recurring trend spanning the religious spectrum, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, and Sikh gurdwaras, as well as community centers linked with these faiths, have been repeatedly targeted. Those who forgo places of worship might look for other locations where their target community typically gathers. Patrick Crusius, for instance, drove 10 hours from his home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to commit his attack at an El Paso Walmart that he believed would be full of Latino shoppers. It is unclear whether Crusius considered other targets, although he did write in his manifesto that “the Hispanic community was not my target before I read the Great Replacement” — Tarrant’s manifesto. They key to effective targeting had been laid out years before by James Mason in his white-supremacist newsletter, Siege: The far-right terrorist’s “greatest concern must be to pick his target well so that his act may speak so clearly for itself that no member of White America can mistake its message.”
The mass shooting model that John Earnest adopted and furthered has struck communities including Christchurch, New Zealand; Baerum, Norway; Halle, Germany; and Buffalo, New York. It poses a range of new counterterrorism challenges, not least by hiding behind constitutional promises and turning any community site into a potential battlefield. And, given its catastrophic success, it shows no signs of slowing.
The most obvious countermeasure — enforcing existing statutes designed to better monitor firearms sales and possession — is often denigrated as the least feasible. However, a more nuanced approach could perhaps surmount previous legislative inertia and dilatory enforcement. Debates over gun control have too often devolved into black-and-white, all-or-nothing shouting matches. Instead, given this rise of mass shootings, the U.S. government should focus on both preventing and thwarting acts of mass-casualty violence, while simultaneously protecting law-abiding individual gun-owners’ rights to self-defense and guaranteeing Second Amendment freedoms.
A more exhaustive and better-enforced gun licensing system, including enhanced and more rigorously conducted background checks, prohibitions against unregistered sales and transfers of firearms, and stronger bans on straw purchases are among the reasonable legal means to address this threat that should be pursued. Potential measures could include discouraging or disincentivizing the private ownership of specific types of high-capacity, high-velocity, rapid-fire weapons, and laws to restrict the sale of the most lethal, so-called “cop-killer” ammunition that can pierce even reinforced ceramic plates. Sensible firearms laws that better protect society but preserve Second Amendment rights should be bipartisan and delicately framed so as to assuage the concerns that coalesced to produce national tragedies like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. They should also be designed in a way that deprives violent extremist groups of a powerful, emotional argument with which to rally support and attract recruits. The Biden administration’s bipartisan gun control legislation, which was signed into law in June 2022 and promised enhanced background checks for young gun-buyers and expanded mental health services, was an important first step in this direction.
But perhaps the most important reason to better mitigate the threat of mass shooting terrorist attacks is because of the range of other equally serious threats confronting U.S. law enforcement. While firearms attacks, as this essay argues, may have become the favored tactic of domestic far-right terrorists nowadays, they are by no means the only tactic or terrorist category threatening the country. If left unchecked, they risk diverting attention from other, potentially even more serious terrorist threats. Attacks on infrastructure, such as the thwarted plot by a former leader of the Atomwaffen Division in February 2023 that would have plunged Baltimore into darkness, underscore the diversity of threats and complex detection and defensive measures required. Similarly, the potential repercussions of the conflict in Gaza on terrorism in the United States was recently underscored by the arrest of a New Jersey man who was charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist in hopes of implementing his plans to bring “jihad … to a US location near you.” And, of course, there is still the omnipresent danger of another Oklahoma City-like mass-casualty bombing, such as the 1995 incident that claimed 168 lives.
Accordingly, if mass shooting terrorism has become the easiest attack to stage, it should receive the requisite attention to diminish its frequency, so that resources can be focused on perhaps less frequent but even more consequential other threats.
Bruce Hoffman is senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council of Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University.
Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and DeSales University.
Together, they are the authors of God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America (Columbia Univ. Press).
Image: Chad Davis on Flickr