Understanding the El Paso Massacre

The study of lone wolf terrorism takes a significant leap forward in this important book. Hamm and Spaaij provide a thoughtful analysis and critical insights about the nature of lone wolf terrorism and terrorists. The book is a must-read for scholars, policymakers, and law enforcement officials.

~ Steven Chermak, Michigan State University

 

In the wake of last week’s shootings in El Paso,Texas we reached out to Mark S. Hamm and Ramón Spaaij, authors of The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism, to offer insight on this latest massacre.

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In The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism, we advance a series of concepts, historical facts, and empirical findings that have important implications for understanding the massacre in El Paso, Texas. To begin with, definitions matter in comprehending any form of violence. We define lone wolf terrorism as political violence perpetrated by individuals who act alone; who do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network; who act without the direct influence of a leader or hierarchy; and whose tactics and methods are directed by the individual without any outside command.

The arrested gunman in El Paso, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, clearly fits this definition. On August 3, 2019, Crucius walked into a crowded Walmart in El Paso and opened fire with a high-velocity firearm, killing 22 people and injuring two dozen others, including children and the elderly. In a four-page screed posted on 8Chan just 40 minutes before the attack, Crusius revealed a political motive for his rampage by writing that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Crucius did not belong to a terrorist organization; he acted without direction from a terrorist group; and his tactics and methods were self-designed. He was not (merely) a mass shooter but a lone wolf terrorist who acted upon his political grievance by specifically targeting a large gathering of Hispanics for death.

He was not (merely) a mass shooter but a lone wolf terrorist who acted upon his political grievance by specifically targeting a large gathering of Hispanics for death.

To contextualize the problem of stand-alone terrorism, The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism provides a database of all known cases of the crime in the United States between 1940 and mid-2016. We identified 123 cases during the period, including left-wing extremists, white supremacists, jihadists, and other antigovernment militants, and examined each case across 21 different variables. It is the largest and most extensive database ever created on lone wolf terrorism. The database is used as a basis for providing “thick descriptions” of cases, including interviews with five lone wolf terrorists in prison, which are mined for insights into the process of identity transformation whereby alienated young men turn into armed warriors. Foremost among those insights is the process of over-arming for a violent attack.

Over-Arming

There has been a significant shift in the choice of weaponry used by American lone terrorists over the past two decades. From 1940 through 2000, lone wolf terrorists killed 100 people and injured another 305, most in bombings. Notable cases include the Unabomber, who committed 16 bombings over a 17-year period; Muharem Kurbegovic, the so-called “Alphabet Bomber,” who launched 10 attacks in two years; and the Atlanta Olympics bomber, Eric Rudolph. Since 2001, however, there have been only a handful of bombings by lone wolves and they have left no fatalities. This decline may reflect the stringent government controls on the purchase of bomb-making materials enacted in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. From 2001 through mid-2016, the lethality of lone wolf terrorism increased to 156 killed and 184 injured. Consistent with the relaxation of U.S. gun laws since the early 2000s, the lone wolf’s preferred weaponry is now a staggering range of military-grade firearms and ammunition.

Among lone wolf terrorists since 2001, 50 percent used multiple weapons in their attacks, 32 percent used only handguns, and 14 percent used only assault rifles. The deadliest American lone wolf terrorist of the post-9/11 era has been the ISIS-inspired loner Omar Mateen, who used a Remington-made Sig Sauer .223-caliber assault rifle with a collapsible stock and a 9mm Glock pistol to murder and maim 102 revelers inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, during the early morning hours of June 12, 2016. Even though he had been on the FBI’s Terrorism Watch List, Mateen was able to purchase his weapons, along with hundreds of rounds of military-grade ammunition, from a gun store in St. Lucie, Florida, just days before the attack. In short, Mateen over-armed himself for the Pulse nightclub massacre through over-the-counter purchases with no questions asked.

Consistent with the relaxation of U.S. gun laws since the early 2000s, the lone wolf’s preferred weaponry is now a staggering range of military-grade firearms and ammunition.

Over-arming has become a common trait of American lone wolf terrorism. Christopher Dorner used a 9mm Glock, an AR-15 assault rifle, and a silencer-equipped Remington sniper’s rifle in his deadly rampage against Los Angeles police officers in 2013. In his ambush of Texas police in 2012, Thomas Caffall stood inside the front door of his house and fired dozens of rounds at officers from a Tactical Support Rifle, an M91 rifle with a bayonet, and a .40-caliber Glock. For backup, Caffall possessed a Soviet Red Army carbine and a Czech assault rifle. In his 2015 attack on an Oregon community college, Christopher Harper-Mercer carried six guns, including a 9mm Glock, along with six high-capacity magazines.

Over-arming is important for understanding lone wolf terrorists because it represents their obsessive preparation for killing centered on collecting an arsenal of weaponry: the shooter will over-arm himself (they are always men) with far more weapons and ammunition that he ultimately uses. Over-arming is also important because it indicates that an extremist has flipped from aspirational status to being fully operational. The psychological transformation from “thinking about” killing to acquiring the weaponry capable of firing 30 bullets in a matter of seconds allows the would-be assailant to achieve a feeling of omnipotence. Finally, and most important, over-arming is important for understanding lone wolf terrorism because it is an observable behavior—others often witness the amassing of firearms and bullets, be they gun store clerks, private weapons dealers, and sometimes family members and friends. Once the over-arming is witnessed by others, presumably steps can be taken to intervene and alert authorities.

Over-arming is important for understanding lone wolf terrorists because it represents their obsessive preparation for killing centered on collecting an arsenal of weaponry…

Much remains to be learned about how, where, and when Patrick Crusius obtained his weapons and ammunition. What is known is that Crusius arrived in El Paso on Saturday morning, August 3, with a legally purchased AK-47 assault rifle and a sizeable cache of bullets. It is also known that Crusius entered the Walmart, cased the area while getting something to eat, and then returned to his car and retrieved the assault rifle and bullets. He left behind a handgun. Crucius had apparently amassed more weaponry than he was able to use.

Following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, politicians have called for so-called “red flag” laws allowing the police to confiscate firearms from people who are deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others due to suicidal thoughts if they own one or more guns. Lawmakers would be well served by also including those who over-arm themselves with high-velocity firearms while pronouncing violent ideologies.


Mark S. Hamm is a professor of criminology at Indiana State University and a senior research fellow at the Center on Terrorism, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His books include The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism (2017), Terrorism as Crime: From Oklahoma City to Al-Qaeda and Beyond (2007) and The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat (2013).

Ramón Spaaij is a sociologist based at Victoria University and the University of Amsterdam. His books include The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism (2017), Understanding Football Hooliganism (2006), Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivation, and Prevention (2012), and Sport and Social Exclusion in Global Society (2014).

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