Terror attacks like El Paso aim to topple the government, experts say

Melissa Rossi
Contributor
Rene Aguilar and Jackie Flores pray at a makeshift memorial for the victims of Saturday's mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Andres Leighton/AP)

BARCELONA, Spain — As horrific as Saturday’s mass murder in El Paso, Texas, was, the motivation behind attacks such as these is even more frightening, according to experts who study extremist right-wing movements. It’s more than racism, they say: It’s about provoking a race war — and ultimately bringing down the federal government.

Patrick Crusius of Allen, Texas, has been accused of killing 22 strangers shopping at a Walmart, almost all of them Hispanic. The killings are being investigated as a hate crime, based on social media posts that have been linked to Crusius.

“What the white power movement is looking for is not just a single act of mass violence, but to use these acts of violence to bring people to the movement — and to eventually wage war against the federal government and racial enemies,” says Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

A race war leading to the overthrow of the U.S. government and the creation of an all-white homeland is, broadly speaking, the goal of movements that fuel these seemingly erratic, independent attacks, Belew and other experts in the field believe. Their strategy is known as “accelerationism,” the hastening of social upheaval, a term that appears often on scantly monitored white-supremacist and neo-Nazi message boards such as 8chan, where the alleged killers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and in El Paso posted screeds shortly before their rampages. (8chan was offline on Monday, after the plug was pulled by network provider Cloudfare, which called it a “cesspool of hate.”)

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein hugs a member of the congregation of Chabad of Poway, Calif., the day after a deadly shooting took place there in April. (Photo: TNS via ZUMA Wire)

“There’s a whole online ecosystem telling perpetrators that the actions they’re taking are not crazy,” says Louie Dean Valencia-García, an assistant professor of digital history at Texas State University, who often writes about extremist groups. “While to most people these shootings may seem random, for them there’s a reason, there’s a logic.”

The starting point is the “Great Replacement” theory, the idea that dark-skinned peoples, abetted in some versions by Jews, will overwhelm countries in North America and Northern Europe, threatening Western civilization. The “logic” behind mass shootings is not to kill a few random Muslims, Jews, blacks or Hispanics, but to provoke a crisis that will lead to a race war and the collapse of democratic governments and liberal society. Or as one post on neo-Nazi site Stormfront describes the accelerationist idea, “For Western civilization to be reborn it must first be destroyed and broken down so that it can be remolded once again." As a speaker on a strange BitChute video about accelerationism that intersperses shots of artillery, garbage, an industrial chicken hatchery and even Charlie Manson (who himself was believed to be trying to trigger a race war) explains, “We don’t want to rock the boat, we want to sink it.” And white supremacist groups from Atomwaffen Division and the Base to alleged killers Brenton Tarrant and Crusius himself want that new world to be separated into ethno-states defined by race.

After the El Paso shooting made headlines, posts on 8chan began hailing the alleged murderer as “Saint Crusius” (alongside Saint Brenton Tarrant and Saint Dylann Roof) and mocking the carnage and the victims. And peppered throughout the message boards about the most recent massacre were assorted calls to “Accelerate! Accelerate!”

“That’s very alarming,” says Belew, when told of the posts, which she interprets as “people calling for an increase in the frequency and scale” of violent acts in the hopes of “larger paramilitary attempts at a race war” and a toppling of the federal government.

“There’s a reluctance,” says Valencia, “to believe an overthrow of the government is actually possible.” Belew concurs: “It seems a little preposterous to think of a fringe movement achieving that kind of radical change against the U.S., which is the most militarized society in the history of the world.” But she says that fictional works, including “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel about a government overthrow and race war, are inspiring white supremacists by giving them a road map to follow. Timothy McVeigh took a page from the book when he detonated a truck bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, an attack notably similar to a bombing of the FBI building in D.C. described in the novel.

A memorial service in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on May 5, 1995. The blast killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. (Photo: Bill Waugh/AP)

On Monday, when President Trump made a statement on the weekend’s violence — which included a separate shooting spree in Dayton, Ohio, whose motive remains unclear to authorities — he didn’t mention accelerationism, the Great Replacement or the “Hispanic invasion” that was mentioned by Crusius in the essay he is believed to have posted on 8chan minutes before the attack.

While Trump fleetingly condemned hate, racism, bigotry and white supremacy and recommended stopping video games that glorify violence, he devoted much of his speech to denouncing the perpetrators of shooting sprees as “mentally ill monsters,” saying, “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger.”

Blaming these massacres exclusively on insanity is “entirely wrong if they’re saying [these actions] are not part of an ideology,” says Matthew Feldman, director of the London-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. And it’s the white nationalist ideology that’s the real issue, he says, as it often leads to political violence and terrorism. He says that what Crusius allegedly did on Saturday “fits a pattern of right-wing extremism — radicalization online, a kind of broadcasting of intent, and the use of assault-style weapons to target ethnic and religious minorities.”

Belew adds that posting pre-rampage screeds on social media is a means of telegraphing key unifying ideas, conveying tactical information and inspiring others in white power movements. Crusius, for example, cited reading about the Great Replacement as his motivation in targeting Hispanics, going on to explain his choice of weaponry, before adding, “This is just the beginning of the fight for America and Europe. I am honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction.”

To Feldman, who advises governments on the new face of white terrorism, accelerationism helps to “explain the motives for many on the radical right who cheer the shooters and encourage others. The fascists among this group typically believe in a destruction followed by a social rebirth — that’s a core feature of fascist ideology: a revolution from the right that destroys the old (liberal) order and replaces it with a racist, belligerent, social-Darwinistic regime.”

President Trump speaks alongside Vice President Pence about the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

He adds that James Mason, author of a collection of fascist articles called “Siege,” introduced the century-old concept of accelerationism into the American neo-Nazi scene, “arguing that it was the only realistic prospect for fascism in the U.S.” The neo-Nazi movement “was too weak, too hated by the mainstream. … The only pathway to success, for Mason, was to rise from the literal ashes of liberal democratic societies.” And Mason — who advises the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, some of whose members are in prison awaiting murder trials and some of whom have plotted, authorities believe, to attack nuclear plants and bring down the U.S. power grid — has also encouraged white power groups to act as independent cells, with one to a dozen members.

White nationalists have rallied behind a president who tweets about “an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs,” but they are also looking at the changing demographics of the U.S. Given projections that the proportion of “non-Hispanic whites” will drop below 50 percent by 2045, white power groups believe that they are “under apocalyptic threat by racial changes,” says Belew. And the U.S. government hasn’t been effectively monitoring them, she says, allowing them to sink deep roots.

Even though the FBI ran operations such as Cointelpro in the ’80s to disrupt radical groups, the agency, says Belew, “always put more money, more personnel and more violent action” into investigating leftist groups and people of color, she says. While groups of the Ku Klux Klan (and other white nationalist groups) were infiltrated, Belew says they were never effectively broken up. “We have the past half century of ineffective surveillance and prosecution of these groups on the right,” who, she says, were aligning with other white power groups (including neo-Nazis) and launching strategies of working in small cells that never communicated with each other or their leadership.

Feldman says many counterintelligence agencies in the U.S. and Europe have been using outdated cut-and-paste models of violent attackers trying to identify potential white nationalist terrorists of the 21st century. “If you’re looking for people like the Unabomber, who lived in a shack in Montana and used the postal service, you’re not going to find today’s terrorists,” who are a new “particularly online generation of disconnected people who share the same ideology.”

More recently, the FBI has begun taking the threat more seriously. An internal memo obtained by Yahoo News has added fringe conspiracy theories, often associated with right-wing violence, to the list of domestic terror concerns that could trigger an investigation.

Feldman and Belew are encouraged that Americans finally are beginning to discuss an issue that’s been under their noses for decades. “Only after the Christchurch shooting,” Feldman says, “has there been a willingness to talk about this.” He says he’s seen “more discussion on the matter in the past six months than the past 15 years.” And that is at least the first step in dealing with the problem.

A message to the attacker reads "You haven't scared anyone" to pay respect to the 50 victims of the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, in May. (Photo: Adam Bradley/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Melissa Rossi is an American journalist based in Spain who writes frequently about international fascist and far-right movements.

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