(JTA) — A Michigan man who praised mass shooters had outlined a plan to attack an East Lansing synagogue, according to FBI investigators who arrested the man on Friday.
Seann Pietila, 19, discussed his plans to stage a mass shooting in private messages on Instagram, according to documents filed last week when he was charged with communicating a threat across state lines.
Pietila was arrested on Friday after FBI officials were alerted to his communications earlier in the week and worked to confirm his real identity. When investigators went to his home, they found multiple unsecured guns as well as tactical gear and “a red and white Nazi flag,” according to charging documents filed on Friday. A search of his phone revealed a note with the name of Congregation Shaarey Zedek along with a date — March 15, 2024 — and a list of supplies, including guns and pipe bombs.
Pietila told investigators that he did not plan to carry out the attack, which he said he had originally set for this year, and that he planned to kill himself. He lived in East Lansing until recently.
The arrest came a day after a Pittsburgh jury returned a guilty verdict in the trial of the man who murdered 11 Jews in their synagogue there in 2018.
Shabbat services went on as planned at Shaarey Zedek, a Reform synagogue with about 220 families. “I think people are relieved to know that this person is in custody,” Rabbi Amy Bigman told the Lansing State Journal. “I’m sure that some people are nervous and might not come to the synagogue, which is understandable. … It’s stressful, there’s no doubt about that. And it’s scary to live in this world where antisemitism has been on the rise for so long.”
Pietila’s arrest is the latest in a string of arrests in Michigan of people engaged in extremist and antisemitic activity. In March, the FBI arrested a man it said had plotted to kill Jewish officials in the state. Last December, meanwhile, a man was arrested after harassing synagogue-goers in a suburb of Detroit.
It also adds to a string of arrests in cases where officials say they have apprehended potential synagogue attackers. Last November, the FBI arrested a New Jersey teenager who they said was responsible for a vague threat communicated online that resulted in Jewish institutions across the state briefly shutting down. Later that month, two men were arrested in New York City after a Jewish security agency flagged their posts online and alerted authorities.
The charging documents in Pietila’s case indicate an extensive and rapid effort to identify the source of the social media posts, which included chats with an online acquaintance musing about thwarted romantic interests and efforts to find a job. In the posts, Pietila expresses admiration for the shooter who killed 10 Black shoppers in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store in 2022, as well as for the man who massacred 51 Muslims in two mosques in New Zealand in 2019. He also makes extensive antisemitic comments and indicates that he has started to amass the supplies that would be needed to carry out an attack.
The text message exchanges also shed light on complicated role of technology companies seeking to address hate on their platforms. The FBI indicates that both Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and Discord, a secure messaging platform, cooperated with its requests for information about the accounts that shared the threatening content.
But at the same time, Pietila’s conversations show how the platforms allow for the spread of hateful material. At one point, the person he is messaging with says this to explain how he plans to stream his own planned attack: “probably going to use discord as we used a camera to share the mosque and we didn’t get banned for days.” It was a reference to the 2019 New Zealand shooting, which was streamed live online and has inspired multiple mass shooters, including the man who attacked a Poway, California, synagogue a month later.
Pietila responded: “I honestly didn’t know b.t [the shooter’s initials] attacked more than one. 💀 Seriously though, F—ing kikes ruin everything they touch. I’d probably do it on discord for people, so they could screen record and send it to others or post it online.”
The FBI’s charging documents show that Pietila was identified in part because of pictures of himself with a cat that were posted on multiple social media platforms.