California has more organized hate groups than any other state — it has chapters for street-fighting skinheads and black nationalists, Holocaust deniers and Muslim haters.
But the perpetrator of a mass shooting at a synagogue near San Diego on Saturday, law enforcement officials said, was not a member of any of them.
Instead he was the product of a landscape that is both increasingly restive and fractured, where hate groups have gone underground, avoiding social gatherings and concerts, and newcomers need only the internet to become self-radicalized and violent.
Lone actors who come out of the blue present a daunting challenge for law enforcement, even in a region where investigators have a solid grasp on extremist organizing networks. The attacker on Saturday, identified by officials as John Earnest, 19, claimed to have been inspired by last month’s massacre of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a self-radicalized white supremacist and to have begun planning his attack just four weeks ago.
“This guy was nothing before,” said a local law enforcement official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about active investigations. “So how many others are having the same ideas?”
It is frustratingly hard to know.
On Monday, the FBI said it had thwarted a terrorist attack by a man who had recently converted to Islam and wanted to exact vengeance for the Christchurch killings by targeting white nationalists, Jews, churches and military bases. The suspect, a U.S. military veteran, aimed for “multiple targets” at several locations in Southern California, including Huntington Beach, the port of Long Beach and the Santa Monica Pier.
The FBI also said it had received a tip about an online threat only minutes before the synagogue shooting in Poway, near San Diego, too late to stop it.
Earnest, like the gunmen in New Zealand and at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, drew inspiration and support from the virulent bigotry that flourishes in online communities like 8Chan, where layers of self-referential memes and jargon can appear almost indecipherable to outsiders, making it that much more difficult to track and identify people drifting toward extremism.
Such forums offer “instant feedback,” said Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst who studies right-wing extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“We’ve started referring to them as the apocalyptic community, these online groupings that are marked by a sense of urgency” about the perceived threat to white dominance, he said.
Even so, Hankes said, the suspected Poway gunman’s own timeline of radicalization is remarkably fast, and should be looked at in light of whatever other factors existed in Earnest’s private life. “This happened over 18 months on 8Chan, according to the manifesto,” Hankes said.
Federal law enforcement officials said they have noticed a worrisome trend among both radical Islamic terrorists and domestic terrorists: There is less time between the moment they fall under the spell of dangerous online propaganda and the moment that they commit violence. Experts refer to this interval as “flash to bang.”
Monitoring social media for domestic terror threats is tricky, however, because hate is not illegal. The FBI cannot open a terror investigation based on activity protected by the First Amendment. The Justice Department has long discouraged collecting information that might be considered free speech and surfing for content like what was published on social media by this most recent gunman, or that of the Pittsburgh synagogue gunman, said James W. McJunkin, a former top FBI counterterrorism official.
That makes agents more dependent on tips from the public, such as those that came in minutes before Saturday’s shooting. “The FBI thanks the alert citizens who saw and reported the post,” the agency said in a statement.
As of late last year, the FBI was tracking about 900 domestic terrorism cases, while another 4,000 fall under international terrorism, according to a senior bureau official. Two regions of growing concern are the West Coast and the states around the Great Lakes, where the agency is seeing more arrests than in other parts of the country, the official said.
Federal agencies have come under criticism for not giving sufficient attention to the dangers of right-wing extremism. Earlier this month the acting homeland security secretary, Kevin McAleenan, announced the creation of the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, which he said would allow the agency to more efficiently coordinate resources with state and local communities.
Earnest is expected to be arraigned Tuesday on charges of murder in the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, and three counts of attempted murder, all four of which have been classified as hate crimes. He is also charged with setting fire to a mosque in Escondido, about 15 miles north of Poway, in March.
On Sunday, the rabbi of the synagogue, Yisroel Goldstein, called for the government to step in and pay for added security, like armed guards, at places of worship. On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that his budget would propose to increase a grant program to help nonprofit groups at risk of hate crimes pay for security measures, to $15 million from $4.5 million.
“The state will do what the federal government is not doing,” he said.
There was a heavy police presence on Monday as hundreds of grieving people gathered at Kaye’s funeral.
“The hate right now in California, and the whole country, it’s worse than I ever remember,” said Joseph Lind, 63, of La Jolla. “I’m not sure who to blame. Do we blame the parents? Do we blame the schools? Do we blame the administration? I don’t know. I just don’t know if it’s going to get better or worse. Something like this shouldn’t happen in a community like Poway.”
California eclipses all other states when it comes to hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks them, and it has the largest racist skinhead population in the country, predominantly in Southern California, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
According to an audit to be released on Tuesday by the Anti-Defamation League, a civil-rights group that has been tracking and fighting anti-Semitism for over a century, California led the nation in anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, followed closely by New York. In 2017, California also had the highest number of anti-Muslim incidents, 871, according to the Council of American-Islamic Relations, a leading civil rights group. That was more than double the number in the second-highest state, Texas, with 395. New York had 232, and there were 145 in Florida.
California is the most populous state and has among the highest Jewish and Muslim populations.
One of the most deadly attacks in recent years came in 2015, when a husband and wife inspired by foreign Islamic extremists opened fire on a gathering at a government office in San Bernardino that left 14 dead. The couple was not on the radar of federal authorities.
The Anti-Defamation League’s audit found that more than 100 incidents in California were attributed to anti-Semitic robocalls that Patrick Little, a white supremacist who ran an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate against Dianne Feinstein, is accused of leaving. Little received 1.3% of the vote, or 89,867 votes.
On the calls, the voices of a man and woman accused Feinstein of being an Israeli citizen, a common anti-Semitic trope insinuating that American Jews are disloyal to the United States. The calls promised that Little would “rid America of the traitorous Jews.”
A California law enforcement agent who monitors white supremacists said that the movement has been extremely active in the state during the past three years, since a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim ended in a bloody clash between Klan members and anti-fascist counter protesters. Similar skirmishes took place at the state capital building in Sacramento in summer 2016, as well as in Huntington Beach, Berkeley and San Bernardino the following year.
“It’s the most active I’ve seen in my career,” the official said.
Southern California in particular has long figured among the nation’s most active regions for extremism, a dynamic driven in part by the region’s rapid demographic change over the past few decades, the lasting influence of white supremacist gangs in California prisons, and a tradition of right-wing radicalism and anti-immigrant sentiment that goes back decades.
In the 1980s, Tom Metzger, a San Diego County resident and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, who once led vigilante border patrols with David Duke, created White Aryan Resistance, a group which later would be investigated by the FBI for attacks on Jewish organizations and connected with the murder of an African immigrant.
In recent years, San Diego has been the center of gravity for the Western Hammerskins, a chapter of the largest skinhead gang in the United States. In 2012, Wade Michael Page, a member, killed six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group that has since rebranded itself as the American Identity Movement, was founded by Nathan Damigo, a former Marine who was radicalized after he served a prison term stemming from robbing an Iraqi immigrant cabdriver after a drunken night out in San Diego.
The state’s diversity has increased tolerance among many people who live and work close to others who are different from themselves, but for others it has fueled a sense of alienation and threat, said Lawrence Rosenthal, the chairman of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
“California is obviously the largest state, and it is already majority minority. Which is the nationalists’ and the nativists’ nightmare,” he said.