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Assessing the Violent Targeting of Faith-Based Organizations

By Dr. Joshua Sinai

Known as faith-based organizations (FBOs), religious institutions are intended to serve as physical and spiritual sanctuaries and places of peaceful inner reflection from “all the evil” that occurs in the outside world. But for many reasons, however, such as their unwanted role as provocative religious symbols in highly contentious and polarizing political conflicts and vulnerabilities such as minimal security defenses against potential violent assailants, FBOs have recently become major targets for conducting mass killings by three types of attackers: ideologically driven terrorists, psychologically driven active shooters, as well as, on occasion, workplace violence-related attackers.

Violence against FBO facilities and their congregants has long been rampant around the world, particularly in high-conflict regions such as South Asia (particularly Iraq and Pakistan) and the Middle East (particularly in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria). While such high frequency attacks against FBO have not reached America, recent high visibility attacks against FBOs in Charlottesville, SC, on June 17, 2015 (9 killed, one wounded), in Sutherland Spring, TX, on November 5, 2017 (26 killed, 20 wounded), and Pittsburgh, PA, on October 27, 2018 (11 killed, six wounded), demonstrate the severity of the escalating threat in America, as well.

In response to such escalating threats against FBOs in America, their officials have been upgrading their security systems, personnel, and procedures, although areas of vulnerability remain. This was demonstrated in the Pittsburgh attack, where the targeted Tree of Life synagogue lacked any security in place at the time of the attack because its officials had underestimated the severity of the threat situation, believing that heightened security was only required at significant religious events (such as Yom Kippur services) but not “every-day” worship services, even though, to the assailant, this was an especially polarized political period that “required” him to attack that particular synagogue because of the highly negative symbolism it had represented to him, including the presence of a pro-immigration non-governmental organization (NGO) in its premises.

This article will analyze these issues as they affect the security of FBOs in the United States by defining FBOs, the demographic size of FBOs in the U.S., the motivations for attacking them, significant incidents, types of perpetrators, types of weapons used, and the types of security measures being implemented to safeguard such facilities and their congregants.
Defining FBOs

A faith-based organization (FBO) is defined by the U.S. Government, particularly the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), as a “religious entity” if it meets the following criteria: a distinct legal existence and religious history, a recognized creed and form of worship, has an established place of worship, a regular congregation, holds regular religious services, and an organization of ordained ministers.
In addition to providing religious services, many FBOs are also defined by their provision of religiously-based educational schools for students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, in addition to offering after-school programs to various groups.


Size of FBOs in the United States

In the 2010 U.S. census, it was estimated that there were approximately 345,000 religious congregations, consisting of about 150 million members. These FBOs comprised more than 230 different denominational groups, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or other congregations. The sizes of congregations vary, depending on whether they are located in rural or urban areas. In rural areas, congregations are generally small (100 members), while in large metropolitan areas and suburbs, they can exceed 10,000 members.


Vulnerabilities for Attack

One of the key vulnerabilities for targeting FBOs by their violent adversaries is their large gathering of people of a particular faith in a single location at specified times that is publicly known. This predictability of known schedules when members gather for worship makes them vulnerable, during the pre-incident period to adversarial surveillance, and then to choosing the moment to attack when the targeted population is present for its religious service.

A second vulnerability is the perception by potential adversaries that religious facilities are “soft targets” because they have little security in place because of the conventional belief that a violent attack “can’t happen here,” and that people in general, including criminals, view FBO’s as sacred places to be respected and out-of- bounds for an attack or criminal activity.

A third vulnerability is the FBOs open access for all visitors based on their role as a welcoming environment for worshippers and those seeking religious counsel, including those who may be psychologically troubled for various reasons whose future violence may not be anticipated at the time.

A final vulnerability, which likely is being addressed following the catastrophic mass shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, is their limited security budgets, with many religious houses of worship lacking the appropriate financial resources to implement comprehensive security measures.


Significant Incidents

In order to assess the nature and magnitude of the violent threats against FBOs, this section presents an overview of significant mass casualty attacks against FBOs since the early 2000s. The incidents highlighted below consist of violent attacks or attack plots, but note that a larger set of incidents include arson, vandalism, or threats, whether via telephone or ones that are posted in social media.
2002: Leo Felton and Erica Chase, a boyfriend and girlfriend White Supremacists plotted to attack African American and Jewish American targets. These included the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, MA.

May 21, 2006: Anthony Bell, aged 25, an estranged husband, stormed into the service at the Ministry of Jesus Christ Church, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, fatally wounding four people. After abducting his wife, he then killed her at another location. The pastor was among those critically wounded. Bell was arrested.

July 28, 2006: Naveed Afzal Haq, aged 30, shot six women, one fatally, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle building in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle, Washington.

December 9, 2007: Matthew J. Murray, aged 24, used a firearm to attack the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, killing two people, and wounding three others. This followed his earlier killing of two people and wounding two others at the Youth With a Mission (YWAM) training center, in Arvada, CO. The shooter was killed by the church’s safety team. He had been expelled from the Christian YWAM missionary training school several years previously and had been sending it hate mail in the weeks leading up to the shooting spree.

May 20, 2009: Four men were arrested in connection with a plot to shoot down military airplanes flying out of an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, and blow up two synagogues in the Riverdale community of the Bronx, New York City.

June 10, 2009: James Wenneker von Brunn, aged 88, a White Supremacist, was arrested for carrying out shooting at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC, in which Museum Special Police Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns was shot, and later died from his injuries.

October 2010: Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sent from Yemen explosive-laden packages on U.S.-bound UPS and FedEx cargo flights, which were addressed to Chicago-area synagogues. The parcels were discovered, respectively, in London and in Dubai en route to the U.S.

December 28, 2010: Steven Scott Cantrell, aged 26, vandalized the Faith in Christ Church, in Crane, TX, with "racist and threatening graffiti" and then firebombed it. Cantrell’s motivation was reportedly his attempt to join the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. He was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to 37 years in prison.

May 12, 2011: Ahmed Ferhani, aged 26, of Queens, NY, and Mohammad Mamdouh, aged 20, a Moroccan immigrant, were arrested in an NYPD undercover operation for plotting to attack a synagogue in New York City.
August 5, 2012: Wade Michael Page, aged 40, fatally shot 6 people and wounded 4 others at the “gurdwara” (Sikh temple), in Oak Creed, WI.


About the Author

Dr. Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst in terrorism and counterterrorism studies at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), in Alexandria, VA.



 

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