What links ISIS-inspired terrorists and white supremacist ones like the Poway shooter?
On Saturday, a 19-year-old student allegedly walked into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., armed with a semiautomatic rifle and opened fire on the congregation that was commemorating the last day of Passover, killing a 60-year-old woman and injuring three others.
In 2016, another 19-year-old walked into a church in Normandy, France, slitting the throat of an 84-year-old French priest, Jacques Hamel, and injuring another.
These two attacks took place nearly three years and more than 5,000 miles apart. Yet they represent a common feature of political violence in the 21st century: not only did the perpetrators attack the faithful in their houses of worship, they were also acting in the name of global, virulent ideologies that both, paradoxically, emerged in response to globalization.
The first young man appears to have been inspired to violence by white nationalism, the second by ISIS. They took it upon themselves to murder in the name of a greater cause, aiming to use symbolic violence to generate mass media attention that could inspire sympathizers and intimidate targeted groups. Such acts have a long history, and the best way to combat them is to deprive these terrorists of the attention they crave and use the very same media channels they aim to manipulate to fight back.
These sorts of terrorist attacks fall under the umbrella of “propaganda of the deed,” a category that dates to the anarchist violence of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While such attacks may not be coordinated, they intend to use mass media to propagate their ideas, inspire other similar actions and provoke fear among their perceived enemies. As such, it is no surprise that this sort of violence first arose in tandem with the emergence of mass media, particularly the mass circulation of newspapers in the 1880s.
Between 1894 and 1901 during this “first wave” of modern global terrorism, anarchists assassinated five heads of state: President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot of France, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Prime Minister Antonio Canovas del Castillo of Spain, King Humbert of Italy and President William McKinley. The assailant who targeted McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, was not part of any organization; he acted alone. But that was the power of propaganda of the deed: a single person could kill a head of state, and the newspapers would amplify the act, bearing witness to the state’s frailty.
The anarchist violence at the turn of the 20th century, inspired by an idea, ignored national boundaries. But after World War II, the confluence of nationalism, de-colonization and Cold War proxy conflicts led to propaganda of the deed that was based within one nation or launched by members of a single ethnic group. Groups such as the Basque ETA in Spain, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey all sought a future nation of their own within an existing state. And Marxist groups like the Italian Red Army or Peru’s Shining Path, used propaganda of the deed to influence newspaper, radio and TV within their own countries or sought to get international media to pay attention to their national cause.
This terrorism aimed to create spectacles for the TV era. The journalist Murray Sayle describes his experience on the tarmac of a desert airstrip outside Amman, Jordan in September 1970, waiting for what he describes as “the world’s first made-for-television news story.” The Palestine Liberation Organization had hijacked four airplanes, not to kill the hostages, but to parade them in front of television cameras, first for Arab media, then for English media, while the group read their manifesto. Once the hostages were removed, the four planes were detonated. According to Sayle, “What stuck in the world’s collective memory was not words of the hijackers, but the images of commandeering the planes and destroying them.”
Two years later the Palestinian Black September group kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, hoping to capitalize upon the Games being broadcast live for the first time around the world.
Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS emerged after the Cold War in response to increased globalization and the rise of American power, when the United States was the sole superpower that could shape events in the Middle East and other Muslim nations. They unleashed a religious wave of terrorism that marked a return to an era of global organizing but added to it a set of religious ends quite different from the secular anarchists of an earlier age.
Unlike al-Qaeda, and though it is a hierarchical organization, ISIS adopted the playbook of the anarchists of the earlier era by encouraging individuals to conduct their own propaganda of the deed on the group’s behalf, and used online forums to encourage if not coordinate such attacks. Less than an hour away from Poway is San Bernardino, Calif., where a Muslim couple, inspired by ISIS’s violence, went on a killing rampage in December 2016.
In an age of hyper-globalization, al-Qaeda and ISIS paint this violence as a response to threats to Muslims stemming from everything from a hegemonic American superpower to decadent Western culture to illegitimate governments in the Muslim world.
In the past decade, white-power terrorism has turned to propaganda of the deed to advance its political aims in ways as similar to these groups’ methods as their ideas are different. They too claim to be under siege from global forces. White supremacists claim that white populations are under threat and need to maintain their identity in a globalizing world lest they face elimination from minority groups and immigrants aided by “leftist elites.”
The Poway attack was an anti-Semitic hate crime, but the white assailant appears to also have sought to attack both Jews and Muslims in order to protect white people. In an online manifesto believed to belong to the alleged assailant, the writer also claimed responsibility for a March 24 arson attack on the Islamic Center in Escondido, Calif.
His attempt at burning down the mosque was apparently inspired by the March 15 shooting rampage against two mosques in New Zealand, which killed 50. The New Zealand attack in turn was inspired by Anders Behring Breivik, who in 2011 detonated a bomb in front of Norway’s parliament and then massacred teenagers at a summer camp affiliated with the country’s Labour Party, killing 77 people. Both used their violent deeds to draw attention to their manifestos.
According to local authorities, the Poway attacker was a “lone actor” terrorist who operated without the support of any organization. However, these terrorists, whether they are inspired by ISIS or fellow white-power terrorists, do not act alone. There is a fertile cyber-discourse that nurtures and legitimizes such violence, and these terrorists are enacting violence for an audience. The New Zealand attacker, for example, live-streamed his attack on YouTube, and Facebook struggled to prevent the numerous uploads of the video.
A debate emerged after the New Zealand attacks over whether white supremacy can be compared to ISIS terrorism. Rather than enter this debate, we should consider how both groups fit into a longer history of “propaganda of the deed” and the media technologies that enable it.
To combat these attacks it is essential to understand that these terrorists crave attention, hoping to inspire other acts of violence and terrify the groups they hope to marginalize or destroy.
Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, refused to name the perpetrator of the New Zealand attacks to deprive him of fame and notoriety and media outlets should do the same for all such acts to limit the effectiveness of this tactic.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, developed artificial intelligence as well as teams of Arabic speakers to root out ISIS communications. The same effort now needs to be invested in preventing messaging that inspire or glorify attacks from New Zealand to Poway, a much easier task given this discourse is in English.
The propaganda of the latest attack is that the faithful — in this case Jews celebrating Passover — cannot feel safe in practicing their faith. The way forward in refuting this propaganda is using the very same media that the terrorists used to condemn this attack and mourn its victim regardless of one’s origin, race, faith or religiosity.