The FBI is treating Sunday’s attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, as a “possible act of domestic terrorism” — raising the possibility that the face of domestic terrorism in the United States looks different than the homegrown jihadism many have forecasted.
At a press conference in Wisconsin, FBI agents investigating the shooting said the rampage had killed at least six and wounded a police officer, and that the shooter was a 40-year old former soldier named Wade Michael Page. FBI special agent-in-charge Teresa Carlson told reporters that Page’s motives “are still being assessed,” but Page appears to have acted alone, killing his victims with a legally purchased 9-millimeter handgun. Carlson called the ongoing investigation a “big undertaking” for the bureau.
Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards disclosed that Page had critically shot “eight or nine times” a 51-year old police officer, Lt. Brian Murphy, a 20-year veteran who was first onto the scene. Page himself was shot by officers relieving Murphy — who told his colleagues to continue into the temple to help victims rather than assist him. Representatives from 28 federal, state and domestic agencies came on the scene, with air support and SWAT teams, and conducted a search of 200 residences in the area to ensure there were no additional attacks. Carlson disclosed that the FBI is looking to interview an unnamed “person of interest” who showed up at the temple during the shooting, drawing suspicion from onlookers.
While counterterrorism analysts have long predicted a rise in domestic terrorism from American jihadis, there haven’t been any successful attacks pulled off by homegrown Islamic militants — with the prominent exception of the 2010 Fort Hood attack committed by Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. (Others, like would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, tried and failed in their attack attempts.) But there have been non-jihadist terrorist attacks committed by people who were extremists, but definitely not Muslims: the white supremacist attack on the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2009, for instance, and the 2010 airplane attack on an Internal Revenue Service building in Austin.
According to information released by U.S. Army spokesman George Wright, Page was an enlisted man who left the Army in 1998 after five and a half years of service, meaning he was never a combat veteran. A psychological operations specialist, Page served at Fort Bliss and Fort Bragg, and earned several awards and decorations, including the Army Commendation Medal and the Humanitarian Service Medal. Edwards said Page was honorably discharged, but all Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Lisa Garcia would say was that Page was “administratively discharged.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which analyzes hate groups, Page was in a white-power band called End Apathy, but Carlson did not corroborate that claim.
It is not yet known why Page, who did not survive the assault, attacked the temple. But if it should turn out that Page was motivated by a misdirected desire for revenge on the 9/11 attackers — Sikhs are not Muslims; and a statistically insignificant number of Muslims are terrorists — it would recall last year’s attacks in Oslo by the anti-Islam extremist Anders Breivik. In the immediate wake of 9/11, there were few attacks on Muslims — although Sikhs confused for members of the Islamic faith were sometimes the targets of misguided reprisals. Yet as memory of the attacks has receded, a number of anti-Muslim activists have gained prominence by arguing Islam itself poses an extremist threat to America, an argument that has been made by an FBI intelligence analyst and an Army lieutenant colonel who lectured at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia.
The fact that a white non-Muslim man pulled off a prospective act of terrorism is a reminder that terrorism is not limited to any race, color, religion or creed. Counterterrorism experts have long warned against racial, ethnic or religious profiling, since terror organizations recruit from non-Arab communities (British-Jamaican would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid; Nigerian would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab); and because terrorists can be non-Muslims who have not attracted the suspicions of law enforcement. Carlson said that Page had “contact with law enforcement in the past” but not enough to warrant an investigation.
It’s worth remembering that U.S. history is filled with terrorist attacks from anarchists, Puerto Rican nationalists, left-wing militants like the Weather Underground, white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan, U.S.-allied right wing governments; and more. Yet Muslims have come under a collective suspicion within the United States. The FBI keeps pattern-of-life “geomaps” of American Muslim communities unconnected to the commission of a crime. In New York City, police keep tabs on Muslims who change their names; surveil mosques; and examine Muslim students throughout the Northeast. The congresswoman and former GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann has accused a senior aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of having secret ties to the Muslim Brotherhood; last year, Rep. Allen West (R-Florida) sponsored a Hill briefing alleging that thousands of Muslims in the United States represent a subversive element.
Muslims may have been the primary target of collective terrorism suspicions since 9/11, but other groups have been quick to warn when they come under a similar shadow. American conservatives warned of precisely the same kind of collective persecution after the Department of Homeland Security assessed in 2009 that there was a terrorist threat from homegrown right-wing extremism. Page’s military background has set off alarm bells for veterans and servicemembers who already are understandably sensitive to media portrayals of themselves as ticking time bombs riddled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The common denominator running through all these cases is that domestic terrorism doesn’t look like the experts predicted. While the FBI claims to have broken up several domestic terrorist attempts, Hasan stands alone as a successful domestic jihadi. Studies suggest that homegrown American jihadis are typically less competent than those who train overseas. Counterterrorism officials fear that the future of terrorism inside the United States will come from a so-called “lone wolf”: someone unconnected to known terrorist groups, acting on his own — and very hard for intelligence or law enforcement officials to spot.
That would appear to be borne out by Page’s attack. Except that there is a massive government surveillance apparatus that seeks to spot signs of al-Qaida’s advance into the United States. But it may not be focusing on the right threat.