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Return of the Violent Black Nationalist

During a single month last year, America witnessed two of the most horrific shooting attacks against law enforcement in recent memory. 

On July 7, 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed Dallas police officers during a peaceful protest against police brutality, killing five officers and wounding nine others. Ten days later, Gavin Eugene Long shot six officers, killing three, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Both Johnson and Long were reportedly motivated by their strong dislike of law enforcement, grievances against perceived white dominance, and the recent fatal police shootings of unarmed black men under questionable circumstances, specifically the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Although many Americans were understandably upset and angry over the deaths of Sterling and Castile, killing others as retribution is certainly not justified. Authorities would later learn that Johnson and Long had ties to black hate groups.

That same month, six Christian churches in St. Louis, Missouri, were either burned or vandalized. Graffiti left at the crime scenes made reference to “Negroes Are the Israelites,” “Wake Up!,” “The Real Israelites Are Rising.” These statements are indicative of Black Hebrew Israelite ideology, which portrays Christianity as “evil” and may point to motivation for the property destruction. As details developed about the Dallas, Baton Rouge and St. Louis attacks, it was apparent that a domestic terrorist threat had re-emerged — a threat not seen since the 1970s. This cluster of attacks would later signify the return of the violent Black Nationalist.

On the rise

According to counter-terrorism experts and scholars, Black Nationalism as a movement arose in reaction to the white supremacism endemic in America’s system of governance from the country’s founding until the passage of voting and civil rights reforms in the mid-1960s. This makes black nationalism categorically different than white nationalism, in that black extremism is a reaction to real and brutal oppression. Regardless, the groups and individuals in this movement promote explicitly racist and bigoted ideas.

In general, Black Nationalist hate groups espouse hatred toward whites, the LGBT community, and Jews. Black Nationalists have also advocated for a separate territory for African Americans within the country (similar to white nationalists who argue for a white homeland in the Pacific Northwest). According to their propaganda, Black Nationalists would like a portion of the Southeast United States reserved for a black nation. Further, they are known for their antigovernment and anti-police sentiments due to their long-held views on government corruption and police brutality. Given the historical treatment of black people in the U.S., including such things as lynchings up to modern day mass incarceration, this concern is clearly not entirely unfounded.

Like most extremist movements in the United States, Black Nationalism’s worldview is shaped by conspiracy theories, including the idea that white people were created in a test tube. Among other things, they believe wrongly that Jews ran the slave trade. Some are Holocaust deniers. Similar to other hate groups, some Black Nationalist groups conduct prison outreach programs to recruit inmates into their extremist cause. Some have also been known to recruit street gang members.

Micah Johnson and Gavin Long were not simply motivated by hate, they subscribed to a radical belief system seeking social and political change. For example, Johnson was motivated to shoot 14 police officers not only to avenge perceived unjustified killings of unarmed black men, but also to bring increased attention to these killings and, perhaps, change government policy. Johnson was later linked to Black Nationalism through his racist rhetoric and photos posted to social media. He also reportedly attempted to join a Black Nationalist group, the New Black Panther Nation (NBPN), but was ousted by NBPN leader Quannel X because of his radical views and perceived mental instability. Similarly, Gavin Long espoused antigovernment beliefs and affiliated with the Washitaw Nation, a Moorish sovereign citizen group comprised mostly of African Americans. Moorish sovereign citizens, like Long, do not recognize the authority of law enforcement or other government officials. Long regularly spoke of perceived police brutality on his social media accounts and chose to retaliate against the police, a symbolic target, as a result of his extremist views.

The recent rise of violent Black Nationalism may well have begun months before the Dallas and Baton Rouge attacks with the 2014 ambush shooting deaths of two New York Police Department officers in Brooklyn, New York. The NYPD officers were sitting in their marked patrol car when the shooter, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, came up to the passenger side window and opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol. Both officers died instantly after being shot multiple times in their heads and upper bodies. At the time, politicians and the media characterized the NYPD officers’ deaths as “assassinations.” And they were. Brinsley boasted on social media hours earlier that he wanted to murder cops in revenge for the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown (in Ferguson, Missouri) and Eric Garner who died during a struggle with police in New York City. In fact, Brinsley’s violent action came just weeks after a jury acquitted the NYPD officer charged in Garner’s death. “I’m putting wings on pigs today,” Brinsley wrote on Instagram. “They take 1 of ours … let’s take 2 of theirs,” he said. Brinsley later killed himself. Despite having no known ties to Black Nationalist groups, Brinsley’s violent actions appear to have been influenced by the killings of unarmed black men and anti-police sentiment which are indicative of today’s Black Nationalist narrative.

Not long after Brinsley’s attack, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan made violent statements against the government. On July 30, 2015, in response to the suspicious deaths of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, Farrakhan issued what amounts to a call to violence during a speech at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Miami, Florida. During his speech, Farrakhan said, “Retaliation is a prescription from God to calm the breasts of those whose children have been slain.” He hatefully proclaimed, “So if the federal government will not intercede in our affairs, then we must rise up and kill those who kill us; stalk them and kill them and let them feel the pain of death that we are feeling!” Farrakhan’s remarks that day likely inspired increased radicalization and mobilization towards violence among other Black Nationalists.

Black soldiers and white devils

More recently, another violent Black Nationalist lashed out at innocent civilians a week after killing a security guard at a motel. Kori Ali Muhammad mortally wounded three white males during a targeted shooting spree in Fresno, California, on April 18, 2017. According to his social media posts, Muhammad expressed a strong dislike toward “white people” as well as government officials. He made reference to “a race war against whites,” the evils of “white devils” and being a “black soldier.” Such racially charged terms, themes and phrases originated with the Nation of Islam. Since many Black Nationalist groups have splintered from the NOI, they too use these terms in their extremist propaganda and rhetoric.

Although not necessarily violent as organizations, groups such as the Nation of Islam, New Black Panthers, New Black Liberation Militia, the New Black Panther Nation and the Five Percenters are incubators of radical fanaticism. They attract violent individuals whom they indoctrinate, like Johnson, Long, Brinsley and Muhammad, encouraging criminal activity and violence.

Many Black Nationalists self-identify as “Muslim” and incorporate what they claim as “Islamic” teachings into their life to promote a sense of higher purpose. According to Chris Zambelis, a scholar on radical trends in African-American Islam at the Jamestown Foundation, “many African Americans see in Islam an opportunity to formally break with the injustices of the past [e.g. slavery, forced conversion to Christianity, severe discrimination, etc.].” Further, “others believe that they are reverting to the faith of their enslaved ancestors and hence are adopting a proud native tradition that they can call their own,” says Zambelis. In a sense, African Americans’ conversion to Islam traditionally represents an ethnic and racial identity in a society they view as replete with discrimination, injustice and alienation. These aspects of Islam are appealing to Black Nationalists seeking racial separatism and sovereignty.

Mainstream followers of Islam, however, reject Black Nationalist assertions that they are “Muslim.” This is primarily attributed to various unorthodox teachings found in Black Nationalism such as the notion of blacks being God’s elect as well as declarations of black sovereignty. Of particular concern to law enforcement, some Black Nationalists have expressed support for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. For example, on May 4, 2017, the FBI arrested Clark Calloway — who sympathized with ISIS and wanted to start a “race war” — for unlawful possession of a machine gun. Calloway had also expressed hatred toward white people and wanted to attack law enforcement. Also, in July 2006, the FBI arrested seven members of a Black Nationalist religious cult in Liberty City, Florida, called the “Universal Divine Saviors” and charged them with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and attempting to wage war against the U.S. government. Some group members reportedly had ties to Moorish-affiliated groups. In this respect, Black Nationalism may serve as a gateway to foreign-based extremism and international terrorism.

Radical ideology

The surge of Black Nationalism can be attributed to current social, economic and political factors over the past decade or more. Since 2000, the number of Black Nationalist groups in the United States has jumped dramatically from 48 groups to 193 in 2016. In 2007, Black Nationalism increased in response to the recent rise in White Nationalism. In 2014, another trend upward coincides with the increased media attention covering fatal police shootings of unarmed black men throughout the country. Johnson, Long, Brinsley, and Muhammad made mention of such events before carrying out their deadly shooting attacks.

Of further concern, some Black Nationalists have shown interest in bomb-making and manufacturing explosives. In November 2014, two Black Nationalists were arrested for plotting to detonate explosives during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown earlier that year. According to the FBI, the suspects, Olajuwon Davis and Brandon Orlando Baldwin, were reportedly affiliated with the New Black Panther Party (NBPP). Another recent example includes a Moorish sovereign citizen who was injured while building a bomb to be used in an armored car robbery in Columbus, Ohio, during April 2016.

Black Nationalist groups, such as the NBPP and New Black Liberation Militia (NBLM), have also recently mobilized rallies and protests of black activists in response to perceived acts of police brutality. Some Black Nationalists have even carried semi-automatic shotguns, bolt-action sniper rifles, and modified AR-15 assault rifles under the guise of self-defense at these protests, which points to an escalation in Black Nationalist tactics.

Other contributing factors to the increase of Black Nationalism in the U.S. include the rise of white supremacy since 2000 and the current Presidential administration’s perceived animosity toward Muslims. (For example, the attempts to institute a travel ban for six Muslim countries, calls to increase the fight against Islamic extremists abroad, changes to the U.S. countering violent extremism program, etc.).

The U.S. has not experienced this level of violent Black Nationalism in nearly 40 years. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD), there were 73 terrorist attacks on police officers in 1970, killing 11. This was the first year that GTD tracked U.S. terrorist attacks. It was also the deadliest year for domestic terrorist attacks (prior to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) against U.S. law enforcement. Violent Black Nationalists carried out 28 of the 31 fatal attacks against police officers in the U.S. between 1970 and 1974. In 2015, Black Nationalists killed eight officers, wounding 12 others, in only two shooting attacks.

The Black Nationalist Movement represents a swath of antigovernment, anti-police, racist, and radical religious ideologies. While organized groups have refrained from violence, they attract adherents (e.g. “lone wolves”) who are motivated to commit violence, criminal behavior, or other subversive acts as a result of Black Nationalism’s radical ideology. As a result, lone individuals prone to violence who are affiliated with Black Nationalism, pose a potential threat to law enforcement, government officials and others. Like other domestic extremists, the merging of antigovernment, racist and religious extremist ideologies is cause for concern. Historically, this convergence of extremist beliefs serves as a catalyst for radicalization and mobilization towards violent action for some members and affiliates.

Black Nationalist Groups of Concern

Although not necessarily violent themselves, groups such as the Nation of Islam (NOI), New Black Panther Party (NBPP), New Black Panther Nation (NBPN), and the Five-Percent Nation attract violent individuals whom they indoctrinate and push toward extremism. The following list of groups represents the more prominent organizations within the Black Nationalist movement in the United States today.

Nation of Islam

Led by Louis Farrakhan, and headquartered in Chicago, the NOI has a nationwide presence. Founded in 1930 by Elijah Muhammad (deceased), the group is the ideological precursor to many Black Nationalist movements. It claims to be an Islamic movement but embraces a radical viewpoint of Islam that does not adhere to core Islamic tenets. Although its members believe in the “truth of the Bible;” the NOI considers the Bible “tampered with” to the point where it must be “reinterpreted” to remove “falsehoods” added to it. The group is virulently anti- Semitic, and in 1991 published The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a book that asserts that Jews created and funded the African-American slave trade, which it calls the “Black African Holocaust.” The book is frequently referenced in Black Nationalist speeches and writings.

New Black Panther Party

The New Black Panther Party (NBPP) was formed as a community activist group in 1989 in Dallas, Texas. Its ideology draws heavily upon the beliefs of the NOI movement, which advocates political, economic, social and cultural separation from whites. Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, the NBPP has approximately 32 chapters in large metropolitan areas throughout the United States. The group is highly bigoted and publicly outspoken regarding its racist and anti-Semitic views.

New Black Panther Nation

Headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, and with a few chapters scattered throughout the United States, the New Black Panther Nation (NBPN) is an offshoot of the NBPP and influenced by former members of the NOI. Quannel X is the leader of NBPN’s Houston chapter. Dallas shooter Micah Johnson was supposedly ousted by Quannel X because of his radical views and perceived mental instability. NBPN is known for organizing rallies and protests.

New Black Liberation Militia

The New Black Liberation Militia (NBLM) was formed in 2009 and is based in Atlanta, Georgia. The group is currently led by Dawah Yisrael. According to its website, the NPLM’s has chapters in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. NBLM members are known to participate in rallies and protests (often arming themselves with long guns), but have yet to engage in violence. NBLM claims to operate a National Training Center for paramilitary training activity and a Black Theology Institute for preserving their ideology and history.

Five Percent Nation

The Five Percent Nation is an offshoot of the NOI and headquartered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. It embraces a black supremacist, rather than a separatist, ideology, and adheres to a radical brand of Islam that claims that black men represent God. Five Percenters claim they are not accountable to anyone. They refer to African Americans collectively as “Allah,” but believe that only five percent of the black race has reached supreme divinity.

Black Hebrew Israelites

Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI), also known as the Nation of Yahweh, Church of God and Saints of Christ, advocate the superiority of the black race and that African Americans represent God’s true “chosen people.” As God’s “true” Jews, BHI adherents believe that Jews who self-identify with Israel are “scam artists” and imposters. BHI adherents believe they are divinely empowered by God with superiority. Some BHI adherents have been prone to violence, which they feel is justified by God, as long as it helps rid the world of evil. BHI members have targeted whites, “fraudulent” Jews, Asians, abortion providers, and homosexuals. The BHI movement is well-known for its street preachers, often called “camps,” who can be found at busy intersections, parks, bus terminals and subway stations in major cities in the U.S. BHI street preachers are often aggressive and very intimidating to onlookers, because they use racial epithets and shout at people.

Moorish Nation

The Moorish Nation, primarily comprised of African Americans, is a loose-knit network of independent groups that arose in the early 1990s as an offshoot of the antigovernment Sovereign Citizens Movement. They borrowed concepts from the Sovereign Citizens Movement and applied them to their African heritage. Moorish adherents have come into conflict with U.S. law enforcement over their refusal to obey laws and government regulations. Until recently, they have shown little inclination toward armed violence, preferring to retaliate against government authorities through financial means, a process often referred to as “paper terrorism.” Moorish sovereigns believe African Americans are endowed with special rights and privileges due to their Moorish heritage, placing them beyond all federal and state law. Examples of Moorish sovereign groups include the Free Moorish Nation, the United Mawshakh Nation of Nuurs, the Nuwabian Nation of Moors, Washitaw Nation and the Al Moroccan Empire.