May 30, 2019 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1457

Online Non-Jihadi Terrorism: Identifying Potential Threats

May 30, 2019
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1457

By: Yigal Carmon and Michael Davis*


Democracies find themselves fighting jihadi and non-jihadi terrorism with their hands tied behind their backs due to a paradox. Although it is widely accepted that misdeeds are driven by words, these words may be protected under freedom of speech – and the result may be inaction on the part of authorities until it is too late.

However, its legality notwithstanding, online hate speech can prove to be a vital tool that can alert intelligence and law enforcement agencies to potential dangers. This paper will show that online hate speech can and should be used to thwart terrorist attacks.

Two misconceptions dominate the public discourse about jihadi terrorists and about non-jihadi terrorists. These misconceptions are shared not only by the uninformed but also by politicians, academics, and even law enforcement officials. This impedes the possibility of understanding attacks and their perpetrators, thus making it more difficult to thwart them. The first is framing these terrorists solely as "criminals" or "lunatics," without taking their motives into account. The second is that terrorists unaffiliated with an established organization act as "lone wolves."

The first misconception is quickly refuted by what these individuals wrote prior to their actions. Their writings reveal that they followed an Ideal, and articulated it. However cruel, despicable, and revolting their ideals are, they should still be viewed idealists.[1] They are pursuing a quest for meaning in their lives, and find it in the form of a Mission that suits their personal worldview – for example, eliminating threats to the group with which they identify and/or avenging its humiliation, or rectifying a perceived injustice. This is stated explicitly in the manifesto written by John Earnest,[2] who carried out the shooting at the Poway, California synagogue: "My act of defense is… the statement that I made. There is at least one European man alive who is willing to take a stand against the injustice that the Jew has inflicted upon him. That my act will inspire others to take a stand as well."

Like jihadis, they are fanatical and sincere believers in their ideology who feel that they act in self-defense. This is the key to understanding their state of mind and the depth of their ideological commitment. Thus, what these extremists write online provides vital information about them and about possible actions they could take.    

As to the second misconception: Wolves are highly social animals, and live in packs, and the same goes for these terrorists. They generally operate in "online packs" across the Internet. It is here that they find social support, even if they do not go by their real names; it is here that they find others who share their beliefs; and it is here that their convictions are strengthened.

Of these participants in extremist online groups, some are impatient, heeding their own inner voices, planning to act, and calling others to immediate and violent action. They sometimes "signal" in the form of texts or images that hint at their intentions – making it possible for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to identify early signs of imminent danger and allowing them to locate potential perpetrators and thwart their acts.

Although in recent years authorities have been able to thwart jihadi terrorist attacks through early identification of threatening content online, the similarity between jihadi and non-jihadi – i.e. white supremacist – terrorism has not been recognized in practice. This may be because jihadi terrorism is derived from a millennium-old tradition generally perceived to be deeply rooted, whereas white supremacist terrorism is based on ideologies that have existed for a mere century, perhaps mere decades. Despite its relatively short history, the symbols, heroes, and coded language developed by white supremacist extremists are as effective as those of jihadi terrorists, and they spread very quickly across social media.

Understanding the ideology, motives and discourse of these white supremacist extremists may assist intelligence and law enforcement agencies with more effective early identification of individual hate group members that merit special attention. Such early identification requires detecting the more threatening signals in the background noise of extremist content on social media, through continuous monitoring by personnel with the relevant expertise. This is the same methodology used by authorities combatting jihadi terrorism, and draws on their experience. The ability to identify the few individuals who pose a more concrete threat narrows the focus and allows human and other resources to be allocated to thwarting real, serious threats.

This paper examines information that could have alerted authorities in advance of three attacks in the West in 2018 and 2019 – had resources been allocated for identifying it as they are already allocated for identifying information that leads to the thwarting of jihadi terror attacks, and had the similarities between jihadi and white supremacist attacks been recognized. These attacks are Robert Bowers' October 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting;[3] Brenton Tarrant's March 2019 New Zealand mosque shooting;[4] and John Earnest's April 2019 Poway, California synagogue shooting.[5]

For example, two weeks before he attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers wrote online about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) – which he blamed for illegal immigration into the U.S. from its southern border – for bringing in "hostile invaders to dwell among us." Shortly before he launched his attack, he posted: "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

What Can Be Found Online, and Where?

White supremacists' writings are not widely dispersed across the Internet, but their  "online packs" can be identified, monitored, studied, and researched. Examining the platforms they use and mapping the activity of users posting extreme and violent content can provide information identifying the main "online packs." For example, Bowers, Tarrant, and Earnest were active on two of the leading white supremacist platforms, 8chan and GAB (for more on the different platforms promoting online incitement see MEMRI Special Report No. 44, Online Incitement Against Jews, People of Color, Muslims, And LGBTQ, March 22, 2019).

The first, broader indicator is violent discourse, which is commonly found in some of these online communities.

The second indicator is the potential attackers' positive mention of attacks carried out in the past by attackers who ask that others learn from them and follow in their footsteps. Thus, all online activity focusing on such attacks merits special attention. This includes writers who reveal a state of mind indicating willingness to act and a need for doing so immediately. For example, John Earnest showcased his commitment to carrying out his attack by quoting from the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant – who himself had shown similar traits:

"Tarrant was a catalyst for me personally. He showed me that it could be done. And that it needed to be done. 'WHY WON'T SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING? WHY WON'T SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING? WHY DON'T I DO SOMETHING?'—the most powerful words in his entire manifesto."

Upon posting his manifesto on 8chan, Tarrant demonstrated his willingness to move from words to deeds by carrying out the attack:

"Well lads, it's time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post. I will carry out and attack against the invaders, and will even live stream the attack via facebook… If I don't survive the attack, goodbye, godbless and I will see you all in Valhalla!"[6]

Below are examples of posts supporting and praising Tarrant, Dylann Roof,[7] and Earnest, even depicting them as saints:

Support for Brenton Tarrant on 8chan, where users wrote "Press F for Pay Respects" and "Godspeed anon [i.e. anonymous]" (

Support for the attacks by Earnest, Tarrant and Roof on GAB (

Support for Brenton Tarrant on GAB depicting him with a halo, in military helmet with the Go-Pro camera with which he livestreamed his attack on Facebook, and with the rifle he used in the attack and a copy of his manifesto (

The following diagram shows Andres Breivik and his July 2011 attack[8] as Tarrant's main inspiration; Tarrant wrote in his manifesto: "[I] only really took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik." Luca Traini (2018),[9] Roof (2015), Anton Lundin Pettersson (2015),[10] and Darren Osbourne (2017)[11] are also shown as having inspired Tarrant – who in turn, together with Bowers, inspired Earnest.

Note that the interval between the earlier attack and the subsequent attacks reflects the intensity of the earlier attack's influence. The bolder lines between Breivik and Tarrant, and between Tarrant and Earnest, indicate the powerful influence of Breivik's attack on Tarrant, and of Tarrant's attack on Earnest.

Early Warning

As Tarrant did, potential attackers may reveal their intentions by posting images of their weapons or messages about an imminent attack they intend to carry out. A day before his attack, Tarrant tweeted images of his rifle and magazines inscribed with the names of previous attackers and dedications to them, more than 24 hours before he began shooting – and this could have been an early alert.

Another example is an individual who posted photos of an axe, and wrote: "I don't put it back in the sheath until I wipe the blood off the blade." This same individual also posted photos indicating a community of possible victims, ominously labelled "Yid watch" – indicating Jews as a target. This may suggest serious intent:[12]

An additional type of information that may be an early warning is allusion to specific dates – in research on jihadi activity, commonly termed "alert days" – that may have ideological significance in extremist communities. For example, jihadi dates include the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks,[13] or the month of Ramadan[14] which in Muslim tradition is the month of jihad and martyrdom, particularly Laylat Al-Qadr.[15] Dates of importance for white supremacists include such as August 1, "The Day of the Rope"[16] mentioned by Earnest in his manifesto in encouraging his followers to carry out additional attacks against "race-traitors", as well as dates of previous attacks, religious holidays, and memorial days. Such dates may trigger extremists to carry out attacks and to link them to symbolic elements.


Hateful and aggressive content is easily found online, and only a very few of those posting it, commenting on it, or sharing it actually plan to carry out attacks. However, the price society pays for such terrorist attacks is high – dictating a need for special efforts to thwart them. It has been shown above that in some cases this is possible if, among the recognized members of the "online pack," we can identify those with a concrete intention to attack.

In order to accomplish this, there is a need to intensively study the language that these individuals and groups use, to learn to identify the symbols and codes with which they communicate, and to gain familiarity with their sources of inspiration. In this way, it is possible to close in on imminent danger.

It should be noted that there are not very many platforms on which these threats are posted, allowing for effective searching and identification. On some, such as 8Chan and GAB, extremely disturbing content is posted daily.[17] Both Earnest and Tarrant were active on 8chan, publishing their manifestos on it prior to their attacks. Bowers was active on GAB; seven months before his attack, he wrote alarmingly, "Jews are such heathenish creatures. Their extermination cannot come soon enough… The synagogue of satan and his slimy offspring will soon cease to exist."[18] As noted, just before the attack, he posted: "I'm going in."

Authorities have used this methodology for years in the fight against jihadi terrorism. Implementing a similar methodology in fighting non-jihadi terrorism can significantly contribute to society by thwarting terror attacks.

*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI; Michael Davis is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[2] For more on John T. Earnest, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1454, The Anti-Jewish Manifesto Of John T. Earnest, The San Diego Synagogue Shooter, May 15, 2019.

[3] On October 27, 2018, Bowers shot and killed 11 people and wounded six at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

[4] On March 15, 2019, Tarrant shot and killed 51 people and wounded dozens of others in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

[5] On April 27, 2019, Earnest shot and killed one and wounded three others at Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, CA.

[7] In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans at a Charleston, South Carolina.

[8] In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik carried out two terrorist attacks in Norway. The first was a van bomb which killed eight people in Oslo in July; in the second, he shot and killed 69 campers at a Norwegian Labour Party youth summer camp on the island of Utøya.

[9] In February 2018, fascist activist Luca Traini shot and wounded six African immigrants in Macerata, Italy.

[10] October 22, 2015, Anton Lundin Pettersson carried out a sword attack at a school in a neighborhood of Trollhättan, Sweden that has a high immigrant population. He killed three people, including a student, wounded another student, and was shot by police and later died of his wounds.

[11] On June 19, 2017, Darren Osborne carried out a vehicle-ramming attack against Muslims Finsbury Park, London, killing one person and wounding nine others.

[13] See MEMRI JTTM report Al-Qaeda Celebrates 17th Anniversary Of 9/11 Online, September 13, 2018.

[14] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8096, Egyptian Clerics, Articles: Ramadan Is The Month Of Jihad And Victories, May 30, 2019; see also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6085, Ramadan – The Month Of Spirituality, Devotion, Jihad And Martyrdom, June 29, 2015.

[15] One of the last 10 nights of Ramadan, on an odd day, usually the 27th.

[16] The Day of the Rope, marked by white supremacists on August 1, refers to the 1978 novel The Turner Diaries by white supremacist William Pierce. It describes the aftermath of violent attacks and public executions of "race traitors" to the white European race – for example, "White women who were married to or living with Blacks, with Jews, or with other non-White males."

[17] See MEMRI Special Report No. 44, Online Incitement Against Jews, People of Color, Muslims, And LGBTQ, March 22, 2019.

Share this Report: