The following is an adapted excerpt from SITE Executive Director Rita Katz' new book, Saints and Soldiers: Inside Internet-Age Terrorism, From Syria to the Capitol Siege (Columbia University Press), which is available via Amazon and other major book sellers. This adapted excerpt originally appeared in Foreign Policy.
On Oct. 27, 2018, my husband and I went on a nature hike. We were on a weekend visit to the college where our daughter, the youngest of our four children, had just started as a freshman. I silenced my phone and tucked it away, hoping no urgent work-related matters would interrupt us.
My phone began buzzing in my pocket, but I ignored it. After the fifth buzz, I realized that something was wrong. I looked at my phone. My staff was feverishly sending news reports: “Emergency situation at US synagogue,” “gunman opens fire at US synagogue,” “Pittsburgh police confirms active shooter at synagogue, multiple victims reported.”
“We’ve got to go back right now,” I told my husband.
I sat with my laptop in the passenger seat as he drove.
As I dug through those early details of the event, my mind kept going back to the evening before, when our daughter sat across from us at a nearby restaurant with a grim expression. She told us how she and her friends from the college’s theater club were putting on a play with LGBTQ characters and how the local Ku Klux Klan caught wind and held a demonstration outside of the building. The professor running the production tried to calm the cast and crew before the opening night, but their fear couldn’t be dissolved. It was 2018, and right outside of the halls of the music theater was an organization notorious for lynching and bombings that was laser-focused on our daughter and her friends’ performance.
“How is the Klan not illegal?” she asked me and my husband. “Aren’t they a terrorist organization?”
I’ve spent many years digging through the details of terrorist attacks and gory executions, but I’ve never grown able to stomach the images. I sat in the passenger seat scrolling through information about the synagogue attack, and that same wave of disgust was creeping up as strong as ever.
We needed to determine who was behind the attack. Both jihadi and far-right terrorism were plausible, given that Jews were the target. At the time, jihadis were still calling for attacks following then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital the year before. Meanwhile, white supremacists were particularly outraged over U.S. policies regarding Latino migrants, which, like other issues, they always managed to blame on Jews.
Once the shooter was named as Robert Bowers, we immediately identified his online presence—and motive. Prior to his attack, the 46-year-old made a final post on a so-called free speech social media platform called Gab, which provided white supremacists an increasingly appealing safe haven, especially as major social media platforms ramped up their censorship efforts. Bowers’s post accused the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)—which the synagogue’s Dor Hadash congregation had recently campaigned with—of trying to “kill” white people by bringing migrants into the United States.
“Screw your optics, I’m going in,” his post ended. This line was a statement addressed to the far right.
In the decade before his attack, violence was a controversial topic among white supremacist and neo-Nazi communities. For every white supremacist who cheered on Charleston, South Carolina, church-attacker Dylann Roof or Norway attacker Anders Breivik, there was another who saw their violence as harmful to the public’s perception of their cause—or, as it was more commonly put, their “optics.”
White nationalists were having this exact optics debate in the aftermath of the Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was, as most recall, a disaster—with fights between protesters and counter-protesters and a woman killed and others injured in a vehicular attack.
“Make sure you do what worked so well in Charlottesville,” a user wrote with vicious sarcasm on Stormfront, a popular white nationalist forum. “Whites brawling with each other in the streets was such good optics.”
This was where Bowers’s “screw your optics” declaration came from. He was declaring his rejection of an optics-driven far right and the nonviolence it espoused.
Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue just five minutes after three separate services had begun. Armed with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns, he opened fire in the entrance. Some people at the synagogue initially mistook the shots for something more innocuous—perhaps “a coat rack falling over” or “a senior citizen falling [who] might have needed help.”
Eleven people were killed in the attack, and six people were injured. Those killed ranged in age from their mid-50s to late 90s.
Far-right message boards and social media platforms were flooded with celebratory memes and posts justifying the shooting and hailing Bowers as a hero.
Bowers’s embrace of violence was strewn across his Gab profile. In those last few days before his attack, he reposted threats against the HIAS by “Farmer General,” a popular neo-Nazi Gab account with Nazi swastikas and Waffen-SS bolts in its very name. Farmer General posted them to a Gab group called “Gabstapo.” Farmer General’s posts showed pictures of HIAS refugee advocates while exclaiming, “How about GTFO [get the fuck out] jews!”
“Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” Bowers wrote while posting information of an HIAS event that month. He posted HIAS’s list of participating congregations, threatening, “We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.”
As details of Bowers and his attack emerged, far-right extremists were all the more joyous. Far-right message boards and social media platforms were flooded with celebratory memes and posts justifying the shooting and hailing Bowers as a hero. I had been tracking white supremacists for a decade by then, but I had never seen a post-attack celebration so massive. Bowers had tapped into something horrifying. A harsher, uninhibited contingent of the far right felt it was finally having its day.
This widespread embrace of Bowers’s “screw your optics” declaration was chillingly similar to the sentiments expressed by the Islamic State and its supporters after its rise to power in the early 2010s. Although the “jihad” of groups like al Qaeda was primarily framed as a struggle against oppressors, the promise of a caliphate—a fundamentalist form of Islamic statehood and governance—was the light at the end of the tunnel. Al Qaeda and its spiritual leaders led the jihadi community with a grand vision of gradual steps toward establishing a caliphate. However, decades of not getting a caliphate made room for the Islamic State, once al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, to become a loudspeaker of dissent against its perceived incremental and pragmatic approaches.
“The al Qaeda of today is no longer the al Qaeda of jihad,” the Islamic State declared to the global jihad community in April 2014, three years after U.S. Navy SEALs killed then-al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The Islamic State was, of course, paving the way to declare its own so-called caliphate just a couple of months later in June 2014, something that drove jihadi scholars, spokespeople, militants, and others to cry bloody foul. Al Qaeda chided that “the announcement of such a serious step” as declaring a caliphate required far more scholarly consensus. Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen called the declaration “unjust,” warning it would lead to “breaking of relationships” across different factions.
None of the condemnation mattered though because the Islamic State’s bold move worked. Factions around the globe pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and jihadis from all over the world flocked to its territories. The Islamic State’s movement was energized. It was no longer waiting around for the old generation to take things further.
And just like the Islamic State’s supporters, a very loud and dangerous portion of the far right was now ready to challenge the status quo of their own movement. For decades, the far right’s leaders played the political game, but the United States and other Western countries were no closer to ethno-statehood. The United States, which elected its first Black president in 2008, was seeing growing racial and ethnic populations while strictly white populations were, to the far right’s dismay, lacking growth.
With these changes came cultural anxiety. Amid escalating culture wars and refugee crises, polling across the United States and Europe showed growing senses of “white solidarity” and fear of “foreign influence.” The West’s new changes—and the anger they were causing—served as proof to many in the far right that their long-standing movement establishments, and all of their concerns with optics, were failures. Weak. Useless. It only took a disturbingly zealous extremist like Bowers to come along and say “screw your optics” to ignite a flame to this percolating anger.
Bowers’s “screw your optics” declaration was chillingly similar to the sentiments expressed by the Islamic State and its supporters after its rise to power in the early 2010s.
Now add to that the immeasurable power of social media.
“Screw your optics, I’m going in” became an instant mantra in far-right social media spaces, spread across countless memes, artwork, and posts. Bowers’s act was, to many in the far right, the only way to “fight back” against the changing world they saw as an existential threat to their race, something the old guard of the movement didn’t have the stomach to take on.
“Fight or Die,” said a user on Stormfront in the immediate aftermath of Bowers’s attack. “No other choice. … They have imported so many 3rd World scum they can not keep pushing White people and not expect people to push back.”
The optics camp was still chiming in, but they were suddenly on the defensive by a much louder, and seemingly larger population of terrorism advocates. Alex Linder, owner of the neo-Nazi Vanguard News Network forum, exclaimed bluntly, “Violence works.”
“Voting etc won’t do anything—not unless there’s a White Racial Loyalist armed force,” he stated.
To those in the far right still trying to characterize Bowers as a stain on the white supremacist movement, one Stormfront user wrote:
Here is a thought.
Maybe a non medicated, healthy minded, normal, average White man finally said enough is enough.
Where would he go to seek vengence?
Just maybe it is not a false flag, slobbering lunatic that hates his mommy, but a man that sees the writing on the wall.
A man that knows how and what the jews truly are.
This emboldened current within the far right was unapologetically embracing antisemitic violence.
The day of Bowers’s attack, there were 465,000 members on Gab. (In recent years, the company has put that count well past a million members.) Many of these users, even if not yet radicalized, would be exposed to users like Farmer General and the scores of other accounts posting the same type of content. For it to remain online would be a recipe for more violence, whether it be against Jews or other minorities threatened on the platform.
Yet law enforcement—and lawmakers—seemed to ignore these activities for the most part. Perhaps the most pressing concern was in the United States’ blatant double standard at that time: When an Islamic State supporter posted a message about attacking America, it resulted in an investigation. But when a neo-Nazi like Bowers and thousands of people like him posted messages urging the death of Jews and other groups, they received no attention from law enforcement or the companies providing them online venues.
The day after the Pittsburgh attack, my husband and I joined some family friends at their synagogue for a meeting on the event. It felt like a funeral.
The head of the congregation promised increased security around the synagogue, describing in detail the new fences and gates that would be installed and how the place would now be fully guarded.
It sounded like a prison—or a war zone.
The rabbi then consoled us. He talked about our history as Jews, about how suffering and perseverance were part of who we are. He told us that the solution to what threatened us lied not in anger and sorrow but in forgiveness and unity.
It is indeed sad how in the United States, a country founded on principles of freedom, a religious group can so easily be left to fend for its own safety.
As we all sat in that room, there were thousands of people elsewhere cheering on what Bowers did and calling for more. How could we address this problem if so few people even knew it existed? I wanted to see Jews—alongside Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists—protesting this unwritten contract that some peoples’ freedom of religion or safety takes the back seat to others’ distorted notions of “free speech.”
I wondered whether short attention spans and the indifference of our government policies, mixed with the far right’s new mantra of “screw your optics,” was laying the groundwork for a violent new normal.
Bowers’s “screw your optics” declaration was heard by extremists around the world. Just as so many of the Islamic State’s lone-wolf terrorists acted on its behalf without talking with a recruiter, far-right terrorism after Pittsburgh evolved into a radically new beast of its own: mass shooters from Europe and the United States to Oceania, who had never spoken to one another and didn’t act on behalf of a group, attacking with striking uniformity.
Less than five months later, on March 15, 2019, an image was uploaded to 8chan with a file name winking to Bowers: “Screw your optics.jpg.” It was accompanied by a manifesto and livestream link. The poster was 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, who carried out a mass shooting on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that day. Tarrant’s attack provided a template for future attackers: a video game-like livestream of the carnage via a head-mounted camera and a manifesto filled with meme references and white birth rate statistics. More, he directly appealed to—and harnessed—the culture of his fellow 8chan extremists, writing: “[P]lease do your part by spreading my message.”
One month later, on April 27, another post appeared on 8chan stating: “It’s been real dudes. … I’ve only been lurking for a year and a half, yet what I’ve learned here is priceless. … Livestream will begin shortly.” It was a 19-year-old dean’s list college student named John Earnest, who shot up a synagogue in Poway, California, killing one person and injuring three people. Earnest’s attempt at livestreaming the attack failed, but his manifesto revealed his deep hatred of Jews and admiration of Tarrant and Bowers.
Just over three months later, on Aug. 3, 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius posted his manifesto to 8chan and shortly after shot up a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. His writing cited Tarrant as an inspiration. Then came the shooting a week later at the al-Noor Islamic Centre in Baerum, Norway, by 21-year-old Philip Manshaus, who cited Tarrant, Earnest, and Crusius as inspiration. That was followed on Oct. 9, 2019, by Stephan Balliet, who livestreamed his attack with homemade weapons across Halle, Germany, killing two people and injuring two others.
Seen separately, all of these attackers seem miles apart—geographically and ideologically. Earnest hated Jews while his idol, Tarrant, didn’t seem to have a problem with Jews, even writing in his manifesto, “A jew living in israel is no enemy of mine.” Crusius defended Trump and rejected the label of “white supremacist.” He even stated, “the Hispanic community was not my target” before he read Tarrant’s manifesto. Clearly, a new kind of terrorism was taking shape.
These attackers’ incompatible (and often incoherent) ideological justifications didn’t matter because far-right extremists of the “screw your optics” current embraced them with open arms. Just as the Islamic State canonized its so-called lone-wolf attackers as “soldiers of the caliphate,” neo-Nazis and white supremacists dubbed their own attackers “saints.” This wasn’t a movement driven by ideas. It was about keeping the violent momentum going.
The chain of attackers grew link by link—sometimes in a wave, sometimes intermittently—all the way to the livestreamed shooting at a predominantly Black neighborhood’s supermarket in Buffalo, New York, on May 14. The attack by Payton Gendron, 18, was, like others, a reenactment of Tarrant’s massacre. As Gendron himself wrote, “Brenton’s livestream started everything you see here.” He described how not long after being radicalized, it was Tarrant who gave him the idea to join the same chain of terrorists, writing in part: “But then after browsing /pol/ [section of 4chan] one day I saw a short gif of a man walking into a building and shooting a shotgun through a dark hallway. … That person was Brenton Tarrant … I eventually found his manifesto and I read it, and I found that I mostly agreed with him. … I then found other fighters, like Patrick Crucius, Anders Breivek, Dylann Roof, and John Earnest. These men fought for me and had the same goals I did. It was there I asked myself: Why don’t I do something?”
Just as the Islamic State canonized its so-called lone-wolf attackers as “soldiers of the caliphate,” neo-Nazis and white supremacists dubbed their own attackers “saints.”
But while Gendron expressed general racism, antisemitism, and a belief in a “great replacement” as those before him, he also exemplified a significant evolution in the far right since those attacks. His manifesto was filled with content sourced from popular QAnon and anti-vaccination conspiracists on extremist blogs like 4chan and 8chan, Telegram, and other venues. The “screw your optics” current had evolved as the far right did, attaching itself to the new conspiracy theories and rally cries emerging in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump presidency.
With every new copycat attack from ideologically incompatible actors around the world, the more everything once known about terrorism changed. What did terms like “terrorist network” or “lone wolf” even mean anymore? More pressing was a larger question: If there is no concrete agenda or cause driving these attackers, can it actually be fought?
Mass shooters like Gendron are products of movements created by the internet—and that exist almost entirely on it. They are shaped by extremist hives devoid of physical bases, coherent ideologies, and organizational structures. Take away the internet, and there’s barely anything left.
That said, more accountability must be demanded of the internet communication technology sector—and not just of a few fringe social media platforms that terrorists gather on, but the larger infrastructures giving them life: registrars, content delivery networks, web hosts, app stores, e-commerce services, and so on. And as the world’s successes against the Islamic State’s online radicalization machine show, it is no longer a question of what the technology sector is able to do, but how much it is willing to do.
Considering our current reality—in which the internet systematically turns susceptible minds and misfits into mass shooters—it is critical to direct efforts toward the root of the problem. What is born on the internet must be fought on the internet.
Saints and Soldiers is available via Amazon and other major book sellers.