The accused South Carolina terror killer represents a new kind of violent racist, a ‘lone wolf’ radicalized entirely on the Internet.
Six weeks before the June 17 massacre in Charleston, S.C., the president of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), raging over an article about crime in Charleston, wrote about “successfully managing the coming race war.”
Dylann Roof, the accused mass murderer, was likely listening. As he wrote in a later manifesto explaining his reasons for killing nine black parishioners in a Charleston church, he drew his first racist inspiration from the CCC.
In the same April post, the CCC’s Earl P. Holt III advised “White Crackers” to buy “a handgun for self-protection, and a shotgun for protecting your home.”
Roof bought a .45-caliber Glock pistol that month.
Three weeks before the slayings, Holt advocated lynching black people in another posting on the CCC’s website. “A tall tree, a short rope, and a good knot are not an expensive endeavor,” the hate group leader wrote.
Roof, according to authorities, was already planning the slaughter.
Five days before the shootings, Holt wrote that “as much as I hate ‘those people,’” he was still “somewhat repulsed at the thought of wreaking revenge on innocent nigros [sic], not involved in crimes against whites.” But then Holt added that black people “think nothing of taking revenge against ANY WHITE.”
Roof, as he wrote later, was enraged by black-on-white crime.
Two days before the slaughter, Holt suggested that
“[o]ld guys like me” should “pretend to be intoxicated, hang-out in ‘the hood,’ and bring along a large-caliber handgun (with backup!) and help mitigate black crime at its source.”
Roof, apparently writing just minutes before the attack on Emanuel AME Church, seemed to respond to Holt directly. “I have no choice,” he wrote on a website, The Last Rhodesian, that authorities later confirmed was his. “I am not in a position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. … We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
To some, this bloody-minded back and forth sounds almost like call and response. Although it will likely never be known if Roof was responding directly to Holt’s violent talk, it is a fact that Roof wrote in his manifesto that he began his racist odyssey by typing the words “black on white crime” into Google and coming upon the CCC site. “I have never been the same since that day,” he wrote.
In the aftermath of the killing, Holt’s most incendiary posts vanished and he receded into the background, replaced as CCC spokesman by a more presentable white supremacist. But no amount of spin, or of the CCC’s insisting its information on black-on-white crime was accurate, could mitigate the fact that a young man full of murderous hate had been directly inspired by an organized hate group.
Growing Up Dylann
Dylann Storm Roof was not the most stable of characters. According to a profile by The Associated Press, he was “a troubled and confused 21-year-old, often drunk and occasionally threatening violence as he alternated between partying with black friends and spouting white supremacist slogans to white friends.”
The story described his childhood in “an unstable broken home amid allegations of marital abuse and infidelity.” His parents broke up shortly before he was born, and the woman his father later married, Paige Hastings, became, in effect, his surrogate mother, according to court filings from their eventual divorce.
Hastings’ mother told the AP that Roof, who she described as “so sweet and bright” as a toddler, became increasingly obsessive about things like germs and his haircuts as he grew up, ultimately failing ninth grade twice and finally dropping out of high school in 2010. In the year before the shootings, things got worse.
Workers at a Columbia, S.C., shopping mall called police in February when Roof began asking suspicious questions about their closing times and schedules, and officers arrested him for possessing the drug Suboxone, the AP reported. The next month, police searched his car and found empty magazines for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. In April, he was arrested again for trespassing at the mall, where he’d been told not to return after the February incident, the AP said.
Meanwhile, Roof had been exploring the world of hate.
According to his own manifesto, “the event that truly awakened me” was the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a white vigilante named George Zimmerman. Roof, who wrote that it was “obvious” that Zimmerman was justified, described finding the CCC website and his “disbelief” at seeing “pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders.”
It seems almost certain that Roof did not have face-to-face contact with CCC officials. But the CCC was highly active and visible in South Carolina.
Roan Garcia-Quintana, for instance, is a CCC board member who ran as a Republican for the state Senate’s District 7 seat in 2008 and came in second with 27% of the vote. He also was part of Gov. Nikki Haley’s re-election committee until he was forced out in 2013, after his CCC role was widely publicized. Another example is Kyle Rogers, the South Carolina-based webmaster for the CCC who was also a delegate to the Charleston County Republican convention in 2007. In 2013, GOP officials in Dorchester County, S.C., confirmed that he was a member of that county’s Republican Executive Committee despite their efforts to dump him.
Rogers also runs an online flag store, Patriotic-Flags.com, that sells, among others, the flag of the former apartheid governments of Rhodesia, today known as Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Roof’s Facebook page included a photo of him wearing smaller versions of those flags, not sold by Rogers, sewn on his jacket. Other photos of Roof showed him posing with the Confederate battle flag, a fact that set off a major backlash against that divisive symbol (see story, p. 40).
It was apparently not only the CCC website that interested Roof. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) used plagiarism software to analyze Roof’s 2,000-word manifesto. It found a number of postings on The Daily Stormer, a guttural neo-Nazi website, that were remarkably similar to parts of the manifesto. The postings were signed by “AryanBlood1488.” In the neo-Nazi lexicon, 14 is a reference to the “14 Words,” a white supremacist slogan, while the 88, because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, represents the words “Heil Hitler.”
Dylann Roof’s rage was reaching the boiling point.
Into the Abyss
At about 8 p.m. on June 17, Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, where a Bible study was under way. The church, originally built in 1816, houses the nation’s oldest black congregation south of Baltimore. One of its co-founders, Denmark Vesey, was suspected of planning a slave rebellion in 1822 and was hanged, along with 34 others, as a result.
Whites then burned the church to the ground, but it was rebuilt and much later became a key space for civil rights organizing known as “Mother Emanuel.”
According to survivors’ accounts, Roof asked for the senior pastor — the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a well-known state senator — and sat down beside him. About an hour later, at 9:05 p.m., he pulled out a gun and aimed it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. But Jackson’s nephew, Tywanza Sanders, reportedly tried to calm him down and asked him why he was threatening the group.
“I have to do it,” Roof said, according to several accounts. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Sanders jumped in front of his aunt and was the first to be killed. Then Roof methodically shot the other victims, reloading his gun five times in the process. According to some accounts, he spared one woman, Sanders’ mother, because he expected to die and wanted a witness to tell the world what had happened.
Although Roof was able to get away after the massacre, he was quickly identified by relatives who saw news footage of several security camera images taken of him at the church. At about 10:45 a.m. the next morning, Roof was arrested in Shelby, N.C., after a witness saw his car, which had also been described in news accounts, and notified police, who pulled him over without bloodshed.
A day later, Roof made his first court appearance, via a videoconferencing system, for a bond hearing. What happened there set the tone for an extraordinary wave of sympathy for the victims from across the country. Survivors of the attack and relatives of several of the victims told Roof in highly emotional and moving remarks that they had already forgiven him and were praying for his soul.
In the aftermath of a state grand jury’s indictment of Roof, the federal government filed 33 hate crime charges that alleged he had chosen his victims based on their race. Federal prosecutors, who are expected to bring their case in January 2016 at the earliest, had not, at press time, decided whether or not to pursue the death penalty.
Roof is scheduled to be tried on capital charges in state court on July 11, 2016.
Age of the Wolf
Dylann Roof is the latest violent actor to dramatize the rise of the radical right in recent years, especially since the 2008 election of Barack Obama highlighted the ongoing demographic shift in the United States, where non-Hispanic whites are expected to fall to under 50% of the population over the next 30 years.
But he also dramatizes two other things: the radicalization of racist Americans exclusively through propaganda found on the Internet, and the rise of the “lone wolf” — a terrorist who acts completely alone, with help from no one.
In the 1990s, when most Americans were introduced to the World Wide Web, many sociologists and related specialists felt it was nearly impossible to recruit individuals to commit radical violence through a computer screen. The prevailing wisdom was that real recruiting only happened in face-to-face encounters.
But there were some early indications that that wasn’t entirely so. In 1999, brothers Matt and Tyler Williams carried out arson attacks on three synagogues and an abortion clinic in Sacramento, Calif., and killed two gay men in their home. It eventually emerged that the brothers apparently had been drawn into the racist theology of Christian Identity solely through their readings on the Internet.
That was a highly unusual case at the time. But as the years passed — and the Internet became a more ubiquitous source of information, especially among younger people — the novelty wore off. First Al Qaeda and, much more recently, ISIS found ways to use the Internet to radicalize people and urge them to terrorist violence.
A more recent case is that of Keith Luke, who shot three black people, killing two of them, on the day after Obama was inaugurated in January 2009. Luke, who later appeared in a court with a bloody swastika carved into his forehead, told police he had intended to go on that evening to kill Orthodox Jews at a local synagogue. He also told them he had spent the previous six months reading racist websites, where he learned that whites were facing a “genocide” at the hands of other races.
Roof may be the clearest example yet. He specifically talked in his manifesto about the galvanizing effect that the CCC website had on him, and no evidence of any personal contact with hate groups or racist activists has emerged.
In the same way, lone wolf terrorists have gone from being relative rarities to the most common form of political violence seen in the United States. A recent SPLC study, surveying the last six years of domestic terrorism in America, found that fully 74% of 63 incidents were carried out by lone wolves. If cases where two perpetrators were involved are added, that rose to a stunning 90%.
It wasn’t always so. During the civil rights era, for example, a large percentage of Klan attacks on civil rights activists and their allies were, in fact, planned and often executed by groups. But as law enforcement has become better at breaking up or punishing such conspiracies, they have increasingly faded.
Again, Roof is an excellent example. Although he occasionally posted remarks on white supremacist websites, there is no evidence at all that he had any help, although he did reportedly speak of violence in talks with friends.
Point of No Return
Dylan Roof’s manifesto, while far from a piece of polished writing, did reflect a close familiarity with the white supremacist movement — a familiarity he gained through three years of reading the CCC and similar racist websites.
He talked about “the Jewish agitation of the black race.” He claimed that depictions of slavery as brutal were “based on historical lies, exaggerations and myths.” He defended segregation as a benign tactic simply meant “to protect us from them.” He asserted that black people have “lower Iqs [sic], lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels” than others. He decried white flight to the suburbs, defended “race mixing” white women as victims, and discussed why East Asians — who he claimed “are by nature very racist” — are important potential allies.
And, at the end of these years of indoctrination, Roof arrived at a frightening conclusion: “[B]y no means should we wait any longer to take drastic action.”
The message of the CCC and the universe of white supremacist websites had finally gotten through to Dylan Storm Roof. And as a result, nine black churchgoers attending a Bible study in Charleston, S.C., would not live to see another dawn.
New DVD for Law Enforcement on ‘Lone Wolves’
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is releasing its fourth training video for law enforcement officials, “Understanding the Threat: The Rise of Lone Wolves.” A DVD is bound into the law enforcement edition of this issue of the Intelligence Report, but may be viewed by others at the SPLC’s website.
The video, a short film designed to be shown at roll call, focuses on the rise of terrorists and other violent political activists who act entirely on their own, without the help, financing or guidance of other individuals or groups. Although many terror attacks were once orchestrated by groups, that is no longer true. In fact, a recent SPLC analysis found that fully 74% of domestic terrorist attacks over the last six years were carried out by lone wolves. If attacks undertaken by two people are added to the lone wolf cases, they amount to a stunning 90% of some 63 incidents.
Earlier SPLC law enforcement training videos have focused on “sovereign citizens,” people who believe most laws don’t apply to them; racist skinheads, known for their brutality and affinity for violence; and Aryan prison gangs, which in recent years have increasingly spilled from behind bars onto city streets.
All four videos, along with a number of other materials specifically meant to assist law enforcement officials, are on the SPLC’s “Law Enforcement Resources” page.