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.
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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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