The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting's anniversary shows what's needed to defeat white terrorism

Violent white supremacy is being carried out and encouraged by a global network. We need a 9/11-style plan to deal with this metastasizing threat.
Image: Shooter Opens Fire At Pittsburgh Synagogue
Tammy Hepps, Kate Rothstein and her daughter, Simone Rothstein, pray a block away from Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.Jeff Swensen / Getty Images file
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By Lev Golinkin

In Judaism, the anniversary of the death of a loved one is called a yahrzeit, and the first yahrzeit is a particularly important time to both mourn and reflect. A year ago Sunday, a white supremacist obsessed with an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory gunned down 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life, a Pittsburgh synagogue. On these victims’ yahrzeit, it behooves us to not only mourn their loss but also to ask whether we’ve ensured that their deaths weren’t in vain. In other words, in the 12 months since the largest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, what has America done to combat the scourge of white terrorism?

The unpalatable answer is almost nothing.

There are multiple parallels between modern white supremacists and Islamist terrorists. The difference is that, after 9/11, the U.S. government enacted a wholesale overhaul of our national security apparatus.

As a reminder, the Pittsburgh terrorist was motivated by more than mere anti-Semitism. The killer’s statements make it clear he was driven by white genocide theory: The notion that white-majority nations in Europe, America and Australasia are being turned into white-minority states via immigration. Many white genocide theory adherents, including the Pittsburgh terrorist, believe the immigration is being orchestrated by Jews.

This wasn’t the first blood spilled by fanatics fixated on white genocide. We saw their fingerprints on the 2011 Oslo attacks, the 2015 Charleston church shooting and the deadly Unite the Right Charlottesville rally in 2017.

Nor was Pittsburgh’s the last. In the months since, adherents of white genocide theory carried out horrendous mass murders in Christchurch and El Paso, as well as attacks on synagogues in California and Germany. Most notably, manifestos by the Christchurch and El Paso shooters referenced previous massacres — underscoring the way white terrorists are increasingly inspired and venerated by fellow crusaders across the globe.

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If this sounds similar to the descriptions of Islamist terrorism we’ve been reading about since the 9/11 attacks, it should: As former FBI agent Ali Soufran, hate group experts and journalists such as myself have pointed out, there are multiple parallels between modern white supremacists and Islamist terrorists.

The difference is that, after 9/11, the U.S. government enacted a wholesale overhaul of our national security apparatus to combat the Islamist threat. Of course, the Tree of Life shooting was nowhere near the magnitude of 9/11, but still, one would expect Pittsburgh, Christchurch and El Paso — three massive acts of white terrorism, all inspired by the same ideology and all occuring within months of each other — to galvanize serious changes on the federal level.

Tracking this evolving transnational hydra will require a highly specialized unit devoted solely to white terrorism. Just like Islamist counterterrorism, this will necessitate analysts fluent in over a dozen tongues and intimately familiar with regional history, cultures and jargon. It’ll require field agents, social media monitors, liaisons with foreign security agencies and watchdogs, and the development of informant circles, all of which will have to be integrated into the wider matrix of homeland security.

Under the best-case scenario, creating this infrastructure will take years, not months; at this point, a year out from the Tree of Life massacre, we’ve only taken the first wispy steps toward envisioning a real defense.

The three most proactive federal reactions to Pittsburgh, Christchurch and El Paso have been a congressional resolution condemning white supremacy; the Department of Homeland Security adding white terrorism to its list of threats; and a letter spearheaded by New York Democratic Rep. Max Rose asking the State Department to add three white supremacist groups to its list of foreign terror organizations.

The resolution condemning white supremacy is essentially the legislative equivalent of thoughts and prayers. The DHS decision and the congressional letter are steps in the right direction, but nowhere near enough to match the magnitude of the problem of transnational white supremacy.

To understand why, consider one of the three overseas groups mentioned in Rose’s letter: Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, which was heavily featured in a recent report released by the Soufran Center, a New York-based nonprofit focusing on counterterrorism.

Five years ago, I was one of the first Western commentators to warn against Azov in mainstream U.S. media. The group began as a paramilitary formed to fight the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine when the conflict there began in the spring of 2014. At the time, Azov was composed of about 200 fighters, with the core coming from neo-Nazi street gangs; it was organized, committed and motivated, but nevertheless containable.

Since then, Azov has grown into a regiment in Ukraine’s National Guard. The group also formed a political party, as well as the National Druzhina street patrol unit, which quickly distinguished itself by carrying out pogroms of Roma communities and LGBT groups.

But Azov has not limited its sights on Ukraine alone. Their aggressive international outreach initiative was heard by neo-Nazis across the world, including the U.S. Over the past years, the group’s military wing provided battlefield experience to white supremacists from nations as far away as Australia and Brazil. Last October, the FBI arrested members of the California white supremacist Rise Above Movement who had allegedly trained with Azov in Kiev. Earlier this year, the FBI intercepted a man planning to bomb a newsroom; the would-be attacker had hoped to train with Azov. And the Christchurch shooter mentioned Ukraine in his manifesto, as well as wore the sonnenrad neo-Nazi symbol used by Azov.

Azov is only a single group in a single country. There are others scattered from Sweden to New Zealand, Russia to Brazil. They speak dozens of languages. They are steeped in regional history and cultures obsessed with obscure white warriors and battles stretching back to the Middle Ages. They’re holding conferences, concerts and martial arts tournaments designed to bring together like-minded radicals from abroad. Every day, they communicate, inspire, recruit, train and amplify each other in what they see as the global stance against the extermination of the white race.

The Trump administration has showed a disturbing lack of interest in combatting white terror, going so far as to cut resources to DHS.

On several occasions, the Trump administration has showed a disturbing lack of interest in combatting white terror, going so far as to cut resources to DHS. Some might feel that real changes cannot be made until the next president enters office. But Trump’s lackluster response makes it even more crucial for Congress to fill in the void in the meantime.

Congress must urgently form a select committee dedicated to meeting with experts, hate group monitors, and law enforcement and national security professionals with the aim of laying out the framework and steps required to ensure America has the resources to address this deadly terror in all its facets.

As we commemorate the yahrzeit of Pittsburgh, let us mourn, let us act, and let us pray we use the next year wisely — lest we are forced to mourn again.