In the aftermath of last week’s deadly attack on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington — an apparent hate crime by a known white supremacist — security analysts and extremism monitors are assessing the growing threat of so-called "lone-wolf" gunmen.
The Department of Homeland Security recently released a report detailing how political and economic events, nationally and globally, are fueling extremism, including the mass purchase of firearms. A follow-up report is due soon.
The recent shooting of an abortion doctor at his Kansas church, as well as a shooting in an army recruiting station in Arkansas and the Holocaust Memorial Museum incident, in which an African-American security guard was killed, are the apparent result of such extremism.
The first two attacks were allegedly motivated by the religious ideology of Christian and Muslim gunmen, respectively, while the third was attributed to an 88-year-old white supremacist. None of the gunmen had direct ties to organized hate groups that are monitored and in some cases infiltrated by the FBI and other agencies.
As the extremism rises, so does the connection to anti-Semitism.
The Muslim man charged with the recruiting center murder reportedly was found by the FBI to have been researching at least one Jewish site in Atlanta. The man accused of killing a Jewish student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut last month reportedly carried the iconic anti-Semitic tract "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," and a Pittsburgh man who allegedly shot and killed three police officers was found to have been a frequent poster on extremist right-wing Web sites.
And in what could have been the most serious event, four men, ex-convicts who converted to Islam in jail, were arrested in an alleged bombing plot against synagogues in Riverdale, carefully monitored by the FBI.
"We are seeing that words of violence can lead to violence. Incitement has to be taken seriously," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "Hopefully this will lead to greater action on the part of the community in taking precautions."
Paul Goldenberg, executive director of the Secure Community Network, founded by the Presidents Conference and Jewish Federations of North American to take charge of safety planning in the Jewish community and act as a liaison with law enforcement, said lone wolves are viewed as an increasing threat that can rarely be intercepted, as in the Riverdale bomb plot, but could be better deterred through vigilance.
"Lone wolves are extremely difficult to track and monitor," said Goldenberg. "The best way to cease an operation from a lone wolf is to do everything you can to harden the target. That means having a staff trained to understand vulnerability, to understand when you are being surveilled. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if [the gunman] was at the museum before. The majority of these lone wolves do their homework."
The man accused of the Washington attack, James von Brunn, was well known by both the FBI and organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, who carefully monitor and document the activities of hate groups and individual activists.
It is still unknown why von Brunn, at 88, may have decided to act last week, nearly 30 years after he was arrested for trying to take hostages at the offices of the Federal Reserve Board in 1981. Since getting out of jail seven years later, von Brunn has limited his activities to writing a book and posting on the Internet.
"Generally, this type of lone wolf who acts out violently tends to be younger and a bit more engaged," said Deborah Lauter, director of civil rights for the ADL, who also manages its Center on Extremism.
Goldenberg speculated that von Brunn’s alleged act might have been a copycat incident motivated by the Riverdale and Wesleyan incidents. "He may have seen statements in the press about recent events involving the Jewish community and thought this was an opportune time," said Goldenberg.
Another theory, Lauter said, was that von Brunn, whose 89th birthday was approaching in July, wanted to gain notoriety at his current age. "In the extremist hate movement, numerology is very important, and the eighth letter of the alphabet is ‘H,’ so 88 is used for ‘Heil Hitler.’ We see that number a lot."
Lauter said that despite von Brunn’s extensive writings about Jews and the Holocaust, his Web site had been mostly dormant for the past six years, offering little warning of his intentions. "He has been publishing this anti-Semitic tripe for decades, but the Web site itself was stagnant. It wasn’t like he was posting and making threats."
But the Alabama-based SPLC said Thursday it had learned that James von Brunn transferred ownership of the Web site, Holy Western Empire, to a Michigan man, Steve Reimink, on June 1, nine days before the deadly attack.
"It makes you wonder," said the center’s Heidi Beirich. "He had been running the site for nine years and suddenly turned around and handed it off to someone else. It could have been a possible signal that something was coming."
Lauter said that since the shooting of security guard Stephen T. Johns at the entrance of the museum on Wednesday, an act that shocked the nation and increased its focus on rising extremism, fellow white supremacists have held von Brunn up as a hero.
"On Friday [two days after the shooting] a Facebook fan group went up," said Lauter. "But after it was reported, Facebook took it down in less than 10 minutes."
Lauter said concern for copycat incidents was heightened by a growing climate, noted in the DHS report, of racist reaction to the election of a black president, fear about the recession and the government takeover of private corporations, a growing backlash against immigrants and paranoia about gun control.
Add to that angst the sensitive Mideast situation, with a fast track toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the threat of conflict with Iran.
Adding fuel to the fire, some say, is the tenor of conservative talk show hosts who use increasingly inflammatory rhetoric.
"Some of these commentators can gin these people up," says Beirich of SPLC. "When they say things like Dr. Baby Killer, or when [Fox News host] Glenn Beck accuses the Obama administration of being fascist and communist and socialist … You’re stoking rage on the far right and its dangerous … I don’t think there’s any question that this kind of rhetoric contributes to hysteria on the far right."
Most conservative commentators in the mainstream media are pro-Israel and none has denied the Holocaust.
But Beirich notes, "they are hard-core anti-government and a there is a lot of anti-Obama hysteria as well."
One conservative blogger, Debbie Schlussel, last week, pointed blame for the Holocaust museum shooting in a different direction, citing a post-9/11 atmosphere created by Islamic fundamentalism.
"Mr. Von Brunn has been on this planet for 89 years, and he didn’t feel comfortable shooting up a Holocaust museum until now — this new era of ‘tolerance,’ in which we must tolerate the most extremist Muslim behaviors and sentiments," wrote Schlussel on the day of the shooting. "It’s, in general, not 89-year-old white guys telling people at churches worldwide and in religious schools that the Jews are the devil incarnate, a filthy tribe, the sons of pigs and monkeys, subhuman, etc.
"No, it’s guys with names like Mohammed and Ahmed on our own American streets who make Mr. Von Brunn far more at ease in 2009 than he was even in 1999 to attack places associated with the Jews."
A professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, however, argued that preoccupation with foreign terrorism was subverting the threat of homegrown, white supremacist militants.
"What is surprising is that we do not witness more acts of violence from these groups," wrote the professor, Maki Haberfeld, in an e-mail to The Jewish Week after the shooting. "I have my NYPD students writing papers on the local hate groups for the past four years. And each time they are amazed by what kind of dangerous and violent enemy we have operating underneath our nose, so to speak, and their violent predispositions and hate speeches are marginalized by the local law enforcement. "
She added, "In my mind we are very much past due in terms of shifting our attention that is now focused, almost overwhelmingly, on the foreign terrorism and the Islamic homegrown terrorism and start looking at the various modalities of the white neo-Nazis and other hate groups."
The American Jewish Committee set up a memorial fund to benefit the family of the security guard killed at Washington’s Holocaust museum. The organization said it soon will have a place on its Web site to contribute to the fund in memory of Stephen Johns. Those who want to donate immediately should send checks made out to the American Jewish Committee, with "Holocaust Museum Memorial Fund" in the memo line, to American Jewish Committee, Washington Chapter, c/o Melanie Maron, 1156 15th Street, NW, Suite 120, Washington, DC 20005. JTA