Catalysts of Terror: The Prevalence and Danger of Copycat Attacks
Communicating through a WhatsApp group titled ‘Christian White Militia,’ Morgan Seals and Gabriel Longo were devising horrific plans. Following the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 51 dead, the two had allegedly disseminated white-nationalist ideologies and bomb-making handbooks in an attempt to encourage the execution of a similar attack. These individuals, known as copy-cat attackers, draw from the inspiration of deadly terrorist acts and often take steps to carry out other acts of violence using similar methods and strategies. While copy-cat individuals are nothing new to the law enforcement community, concerns of more attacks following the deadly mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso have reached an epitome, with CNN reporting that “more than two dozen people have been arrested over threats to commit mass shootings in the weeks since [the attacks.]” In this report, The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will look at past trends of copy-cat attackers and offer recommendations to news organizations to counter their startling rise.
Since the mass shootings at an El Paso Walmart on August 3, 2019 and at Dayton Nightclub on August 4, 2019, over 25 arrests have been made of individuals threatening to carry out mass shootings from August 4-21st. Targets of their attacks included Walmart stores, synagogues, Jewish community centers, schools, universities, federal and state government agencies, police officers, and workplaces. The ages of those arrested ranged from 13 to 38 years old. 27 arrests in 14 days is an average of roughly 2 mass shooting threats per day. The majority of threats came from males, although there were a few females also arrested. By August 7th Walmart CEO vowed to make changes after acknowledging its products, such as violent video games and guns, may have played a role in terrorist activity. However, on August 15th, a 15 year old was arrested after posting a picture of Walmart’s gun case displaying rifles with the caption “Don’t come to school tomorrow.”
In many of the arrests, ammunition and firearms have been seized, signaling that the individuals were very much looking to execute an actual attack. Many of the individuals may have seen the Dayton and El Paso attacks as a “call to arms,” becoming motivated to kill others in an attempt to air out grievances or cope with a loss. To fully understand the multifaceted issue of why individuals become inspired to carry out copy-cat attacks, we must learn from the past.
Perhaps no other mass shooting incubated more of a substantial cult-like following than the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. According to Mother Jones, there were 75 known attacks that imitated the Columbine shooting, with 14 planned on its anniversary as of 2015. As CTG’s Extremism team published in The Enduring Legacy of Columbine in May 2019, one high-profile individual attempted to “recreate” the shooting on its 20th anniversary, placed over 20 schools in lockdown and closing several hundred. The rise of these events is in line with research from John Jay School of Criminal Justice faculty Ralph Larkin, who cited that Columbine generated profound effects on mass shootings to follow, with individuals given a baseline of methods to use in subsequent attacks, as well as an inspiration to not only carry out similar attacks, but the suggestion to use violence to deter humiliation and other personal injustices. This startling revelation reveals that a deadly attack 20 years ago is still influencing the behavior and methods used by future attackers. The inspiration from Columbine is not only a domestic threat; many international perpetrators have cited the Columbine shooting as their underlying motive for plotting attacks against schools. The amalgamation of these startling trends suggests that deadly attacks fuel inspiration, ambition and validation carried out in similar attacks, serving as catalysts of terror.
The role of news organizations and subsequent coverage of terrorist activity play a large role in inspiring copy-cat actors into taking action. Brigitte L Nacos, a political science professor at Columbia University, cited historical examples from the 1960s, where Palestinian terrorists used prolonged hostage-taking in an attempt to gain press coverage and inspire others to do the same thing. Nacos also cited the fact that researchers found that “statistical and graphical data from 40 U.S. cities indicate” that [terrorist] incidents “were followed by unusual increases in the number of violent crimes” following the coverage of violent acts, adding “media reports affected simply what method of attack the group selected as most likely to succeed from what one would assume were several options the extremists considered.” Traditional media has also provided terrorists with an incentive to document their ideologies through manifestos, in addition to filming and documenting their actions, in hopes of becoming sensationalized martyr figures. This issue is exacerbated by the use of social media, where the facts and timeline of an event can become distorted. Michigan State University researcher Steve Chermak wrote that “people only know what they see or read, so the immediate panic social media – and then on the news – perpetuates rumors and creates fear. This is exactly what terrorists want…” While the media does not promote terrorism, the way in which terrorism is covered serves as a call-to-action for many copy-cat attackers who seek the notoriety and fame that comes from committing it.
Several initiatives and policy briefs have been created to counter the notoriety given to the perpetrators of terrorist acts through news coverage, and counter copy-right attacks through strategic actions. One of the most prominent campaigns is Don't Name Them, an initiative created by the ALERRT Center at Texas State University, as well as the FBI, among others. The campaign seeks to prevent media from disclosing the name of attackers, in an attempt to thwart giving them credibility, and instead focus on the names of the victims and brave individuals who saved others and attempted to stop an attacker. This methodology is consistent with the No Notoriety campaign, which seeks to support research in preventing mass killings, in addition to not naming the perpetrators of violence. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), a non-profit organization dedicated to suicide prevention, provides a policy brief for news organizations, urging them to not “oversimplify or sensationalize” incidents by making statements like “the worst attack since Columbine,” and to sparingly reveal the perpetrator’s photo. By leveraging the insight and suggestions made SAVE and the several initiatives, members of the media can ensure that the perpetrators of violence do not receive any form of notoriety, and that the focus on terror remains on those affected.
Copy-cat attacks remain a central problem in the fight against domestic and international terrorism. Through the execution of successful attacks, combined with sensationalized news coverage, those with an inclination of violence become inspired to carry out violence using similar methods. By taking the steps to re-think terrorist coverage, news organizations around the world can prevent terrorists from gaining notoriety and prevent many individuals from becoming inspired by cowardly acts of violence.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is dedicated to the fight in detecting, deterring and defeating terrorism. CTG manages a Global Intelligence & Security Operations Center (GISOC) that monitors terrorist activities and counterterrorism efforts, criminal activity, and hazards worldwide in order to give clients a daily situational awareness of threats that may impact their agency, organization, company or individual activities. CTG’s NORTHCOM team, in collaboration with CICYBER, Extremism and Behavior and Analysis, provides timely historical analyses into domestic terrorist actors and the concerning rise of copy-cat attackers. CTG’s NORTHCOM team also monitors the activity of white nationalist groups to better prepare and counter threats. If you would like to request CTG services, do not hesitate to contact us.
1. South Shields man accused of encouraging copycat Christchurch attacks via WhatsApp group, The Shields Gazette, April 2019, https://www.shieldsgazette.com/news/south-shields-man-accused-of-encouraging-copycat-christchurch-attacks-via-whatsapp-group-375249
2. Dozens of people have been arrested over threats to commit mass attacks since the El Paso and Dayton shootings, CNN, August 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/21/us/mass-shooting-threats-tuesday/index.html
3. How Columbine Spawned Dozens of Copycats, Mother Jones, October 2015, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/10/columbine-effect-mass-shootings-copycat-data/
4. The Enduring Legacy of Columbine, The Counterterrorism Group, May 2019, https://www.counterterrorismgroup.com/single-post/2019/05/06/The-Enduring-Legacy-of-Columbine
5. Comprehending Columbine, Temple University Press, 2007, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1bw1ktw
6. Revisiting the Contagion Hypothesis: Terrorism, News Coverage, and Copycat Attacks, Perspectives on Terrorism, http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/73/150
7. Using Social Media to Weaken Wrath of Terrorist Attacks, MSU Today, November 2018, https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2018/using-social-media-to-weaken-wrath-of-terrorist-attacks/
8. Recommendations For Reporting on Mass Shootings, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, https://www.reportingonmassshootings.org