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Pittsburgh Shooting – How Social Media became a Platform for Decentralized Radicalism and Political Violence – USA Special Analysis Report

This intelligence report was written by: Ollie Wiltshire, Regional Director of Intelligence for Europe and the Americas 

Executive Summary

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting by a white nationalist underscores the decentralized nature of radicalism in the USA, which is increasingly found on online domains.

The comments and influence that the social media site Gab had on the Pittsburgh shooter underscore the potency of some online political communities in catalyzing violence.

Further incidents of violence are likely to stem from similar cases of online radicalism, coming in the form for far-right, far-left, and Islamist attacks.

Public, private, and third sector organizations are advised to increase their awareness of threats on social media through the use of threat monitoring services.

Please be advised

On October 27, 2018, at 09:54 (local time) a white male entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1.6 km east of Carnegie Mellon University and 8 km east of downtown Pittsburgh, with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and at least three handguns. Upon entering the synagogue he was able to discharge his weapons, killing 11 worshippers and wounding six others, including four police officers. The suspect, who was taken into custody following a shootout with security forces, was later found to be Robert Bowers who will be charged with 29 federal criminal counts. While inside the synagogue, which was relatively full due to the Shabbat morning services, the shooter reportedly shouted a number of anti-Semitic statements, including saying to the police while surrendering, “all Jews need to die”.

The suspect, Robert Bowers, is a 46-year-old resident of Baldwin, Pennsylvania, a southern suburb of Pittsburgh. He was an active user of the social media platform Gab, where he registered in January under the handle “@onedingo”. His account description read ‘”jews are the children of satan. (John 8:44) — the lord jesus christ is come in the flesh (sic)”’. His cover picture was a photo with the number 1488, which is commonly associated with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. While using the platform Bowers published a number of posts, as well as reposting the content of others, which indicated that he was a believer that white people were being targeted for genocide in the United States and that Jews were responsible. In addition, Bowers criticized President Donald Trump for not being a nationalist and being controlled by Jews. Many of Bowers’ views appear to have surrounded the idea that Jews were catalyzing immigration into the US to the detriment of white citizens. Bowers had no known connections to any organized militant group.

Bowers reportedly made anti-Semitic posts directed at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) National Refugee Shabbat, in which Tree of Life Synagogue was participating, in the weeks before the shooting. The event was held to show support from the Jewish community towards various pro-refugee and immigrant initiatives. According to his social media, Bowers claimed that the group was aiding members of Central American caravans moving towards the United States border and referring to members of those caravans as “invaders”. Shortly before the attack, in an apparent reference to immigrants to the US, Bowers posted on Gab that “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Background

The attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue came just two days after the arrest of Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr., a Florida resident, in connection with a series of letter bombs in the United States which targeted liberal and pro-Democratic public figures. Sayoc was a registered Republican and was reported to be active on social media, where he would often post views deemed “extremist”, particularly with regards to his support for various right-wing policies and anti-liberal messages. Similar to Bowers, Sayoc was believed to have acted alone and had no known connection to any organized militant groups.

Of the 14 incidents which were considered “terrorist” attacks in the US between the beginning of 2016 and the end of October 2018, only four had any connection with an organized militant group (in this case, the Islamic State), and these were only claims of allegiance. On three occasions, the Islamic State (IS) or IS-linked media stated that the attack was inspired by them. On one occasion, the claim came from the assailant himself, who stated that he had carried out the attack in the name of the group. Of all the militant incidents that have happened in the US since 2016, none were found to have been specifically planned or conducted by an organized militant group. On the contrary, all of the violent attacks carried out by non-state actors with the intention of catalyzing a climate of fear for political purposes were carried out by unaffiliated individuals. The vast majority of these individuals had been radicalized online, through both regular and social media.

Assessments & Forecast

Recent US attacks underscore lack of clarity between organized militancy and lone-wolf incidents

The shooting in Pittsburgh, the mail bombs across the USA, and the vast number of IS-inspired incidents in the country and throughout the West, illustrate that the difference between organized militancy and lone-wolf attacks has become increasingly convoluted. While traditionally both governments and the media had differentiated between “terrorism” and lone-wolves, the increase in radicalization online and individuals carrying out attacks on their own volition has shown that militancy has become democratized.

Those who carry out attacks no longer need to have any relation to charismatic militant leaders; they can be radicalized online. They no longer need to be in a specific geographical location to find ideologically like-minded extremists; they can be recruited to carry out attacks through social media. These individuals also no longer need large networks of criminal and militant connections to acquire attacking expertise or equipment; they can research and purchase such materials via the internet. Moreover, it has become ineffective, in many cases, to organize a militant group in a single location, where police are more likely to be alerted to activities. It is more effective to gain influence in online spaces, encouraging radical ideas and calling for attacks, which will then catalyze the individual’s motivation to carry out a shooting, stabbing, or vehicular ramming. In many cases, targeted individuals may have pre-existing issues with mental health, potentially making them more susceptible to radicalization.

Such was the case with Robert Bowers, who was not known to have any militant links but had engaged with extremist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic rhetoric on the Gab social media platform, which likely exacerbated pre-existing views. He did not appear to have been encouraged by any politically-motivated central organization to choose his target or carry out the attack; the shooting was entirely of his own doing. Nonetheless, there are also political ideologies within the US which will benefit or use the shooting to further their extremist views, with far-right users online praising Bowers and conspiracy theorists arguing that the attack was a “false flag” intended to cast a negative light on pro-white ideologies.

Social media created a base for extremism, increasing difficulty in countering radical ideologies, as well as opportunities for countermeasures

The use of websites such as Gab and the encrypted messaging network, Telegram, has become a base for a number of radical and pro-militancy groups, both far-right and jihadist. Through such social media websites, they have found a unique platform with which to discuss their ideologies, unchallenged and unaffected with the outside world; an environment which breeds radicalism due to the continued validation of their beliefs. While such platforms do not, themselves, encourage militancy, they are preferred by more extremist groups due to the premium that they place on privacy, particularly from government oversight, and on free speech, with both platforms being preferred by covert and fringe groups. FORECAST: Further cases of radicalization and militancy being planned, announced, or inspired on such websites will continue going forward, with this framework for attacks likely becoming among the most common in the West. This will particularly be the case in the US which is increasingly experiencing a climate of political violence and lone-wolf attacks.

With an understanding of militancy which moves away from a structured organization of fighters to a loose ideology which can recruit individuals across the world, comes new problems with regards to counter-militancy. Attempts to mitigate and stop attacks before they arise can no longer rely on methods of surveillance and infiltration of small cells while attempting to neutralize leaders. Rather, it is necessary that governments and private institutions take a more active role in analyzing such social media platforms for general trends with regards to possible targets, methods, and attacker profiles. Ideological and “meme” trends on such platforms can give indications of tendencies, while deep and dark web infiltration can allow for greater access to information on possible attacks. For example, the comments from Bowers in which he ends with “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” – indicated an imminent attack and could have been found, through online monitoring, prior to the incident to aid with mitigation attempts.

How the recent developments in militancy impact global corporate security

It is evident from both the Pittsburgh shooting and, perhaps more pertinently, from the mail bomber, that, unlike with IS attacks, the targets of this decentralized paradigm of militancy are not necessarily random. In fact, in both cases, they were highly specific. In the case of the Pittsburgh attack, it was the local Jewish community and in the case of the mail bomber, it was a number of prominent pro-Democrat individuals, including private businesses. With this in mind, global corporations and prominent individuals or institutions are liable to be targeted by such militants due to their political stance on various issues, and the interest in such targets can be tracked online. Unless serious investigations into the perceptions of a company’s political footprint are uncovered, it is far harder to understand whether or not there is a threat from extremist groups. It is important to gather whether or not a company is linked, or perceived to be linked, to an issue which is on the radar of online radicals, so appropriate steps can be taking towards securing the firm’s employees, assessments, and reputation.

Through a campaign of online social media, deep and dark web brand monitoring, companies are able to identify threats or sentiments which could result in violence prior to attacks. Unlike with militant groups who speak in highly clandestine circles, modern social media radicalism is relatively easy to survey and track. Private companies and individuals possess the abilities to monitor the perceptions of their brand from a security standpoint, to ensure they are not becoming the focus of political or Islamist radicals.

Recommendations

Public, private, and third sector organizations are advised to increase their awareness of threats on social media through the use of threat monitoring services. Increased awareness of an organization’s political footprint and perceptions from fringe online groups can help uncover potential violent actors and plots before they occur.

New military campaign in North Sinai likely linked to upcoming March 2018 presidential elections – Egypt Analysis

Current Situation

On February 9, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAAF) Spokesperson announced the commencement of a large-scale “comprehensive” military operation to “eliminate all terrorist elements” across the country, called “Operation Sinai 2018”, with special emphasis placed on the Sinai Peninsula, Nile Delta, and Western Desert. The Spokesperson also announced an increase of the country’s alert level due to the operations.

As part of the of the campaign, the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) intensified the frequency of its airstrikes targeting militant hideouts throughout North Sinai Governorate, especially in the Rafah-al-Arish-Sheikh Zuweid triangle and Central Sinai District. The Egyptian Navy increased its activity along Sinai’s coastal region, while heightened security protocols were recorded at ports and border crossings. Security forces also increased presence in the vicinity of vital infrastructure and installations. Reports from February 9 indicate that civilian Suez Canal crossings from mainland Egypt to the Sinai, including by vessel and through tunnels, have been closed to civilian traffic due to the military campaign.

On March 8, the EAAF Spokesperson stated that Operation Sinai 2018 had yielded the deaths of 105 Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Wilayat Sinai fighters and the arrests of hundreds of the group’s militants, and that 16 soldiers had also been killed since the beginning of the campaign. The Spokesperson also announced that the EAAF destroyed 1,907 hideouts and weapon storehouses.

Assessments & Forecast

The Egyptian government has achieved partial success in containing militancy threats over the past year, with a reduction in the overall number of attacks. However, the persistence, albeit reduced frequency, of attacks in North Sinai Governorate and mainland Egypt likely motivated this recent operation, demonstrating efforts to mitigate threats from multiple groups, particularly the IS-affiliate Wilayat Sinai. The large-scale attack at a mosque in North Sinai’s Bir al-Abd on November 24, 2017, which killed over 300 people, also likely triggered the operation, and it took a period of months to prepare and mobilize for the current operation.

However, considering the timing of its commencement and execution, the primary motivation for the military campaign is likely political and connected to the upcoming March 2018 presidential elections, in which President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is the leading candidate. President al-Sisi likely initiated the operations in order to boost his status among the Egyptian populace and project an image of power, stability, and intensified efforts to tackle the threat of militancy. Al-Sisi also likely timed the operation to deflect domestic and international criticism away from the election’s perceived lack of legitimacy and toward the issue of counter-terrorism, following the withdrawal or arrest of most of his electoral opponents over the past several weeks. To a lesser but still significant degree, the operation was also likely launched to draw attention away from Egypt’s poor economic conditions and towards a different public issue, namely militancy, and measures taken by authorities to tackle it.

The operations also follow international media reports about Israeli airstrikes against Wilayat Sinai in North Sinai in recent years. The Egyptian government likely intends to use the operations to demonstrate their sovereignty over North Sinai Governorate and their ability to mitigate militant threats with their own forces. This is particularly likely in light of the heightened criticism regarding al-Sisi’s close cooperation with Israeli authorities vis-a-vis the threat of militancy stemming from Wilayat Sinai elements.

Strategically, the nationwide campaign aims largely at isolating Wilayat Sinai militants in North Sinai Governorate. The reported closure of Suez Canal crossings to the movement of civilians, as well as the intensified activity by the Egyptian Navy along the Sinai coastal region, are meant to prevent reinforcements and smugglers from aiding Wilayat Sinai militants, thus putting further pressure on the Sunni jihadist militant group in North Sinai Governorate. The heightened security measures in the vicinity of vital infrastructure and installations likely were put in place to prevent reprisal attacks by militants, which in turn, would embarrass the Egyptian authorities.

FORECAST: The EAAF will likely continue implementing a strategy aimed at further isolating Wilayat Sinai militants in their aforementioned strongholds of Central Sinai Distinct and the Rafah-al-Arish-Sheikh Zuweid triangle. By carrying out simultaneous assaults on these two areas, the EAAF likely seeks to fix militants in their positions, preventing them from reinforcing the two respective areas or conducting attacks to the rear of security forces. The intensified aerial bombardments are meant to hamper militant movements, which in turn, may impede their ability to regroup or conduct attacks in order to force the deployment of Egyptian troops away from the frontlines. Furthermore, tighter inspection is liable to be enforced between Egypt and Gaza at the Rafah border crossings.

Israel permitted Egypt to deploy a large amount of forces into Sinai, as according to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, Israeli permission is required for such a move. This highlights the increased coordination between the two countries, as they both perceived Wilayat Sinai as a strategic threat. In order to complicate and discourage the security coordination between the two countries, Wilayat Sinai may target southern Israel with rocket fire over the coming days and weeks. While in the short-term, the number of Wilayat Sinai attacks may decrease, given precedent of previous operations by the EAAF in North Sinai Governorate, over the coming months the Sunni jihadist militant group will likely renew its elevated activity in the region. The group will likely lower its profile in order to facilitate this, which would enable it to regroup and carry out multiple attacks against Egyptian security forces.

Recommendations

Travel to Cairo and Alexandria may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations.

Avoid all travel to the North Sinai Governorate and border areas with Libya, Sudan, and Israel due to the persistent risk for militant attacks, kidnappings, and general lawlessness.

We further advise to avoid nonessential travel to the Southern Sinai Peninsula, while maintaining heightened vigilance in the Suez Canal Zone, the Upper Nile area, and the Nile Delta region due to an increased risk of unrest and the heightened risk of militant attacks. Before traveling to Sharm al-Sheikh, confirm that flight operations are continuing and have not been impacted by recent militant threats.

As a general security precaution, remain vigilant in areas surrounding and avoid the immediate vicinity of government installations, police stations, and religious centers, particularly churches, as these locations remain under elevated threat of militant attacks. When traveling in central squares, or in areas with persistent police deployments, avoid the immediate vicinity of security forces, particularly fixed traffic booths, as such personnel and facilities have increasingly come under attack by militant elements.