How the MAGAbomber and the Synagogue Shooter Were Likely Radicalized
During the week of October 21-27, 2018, the United States suffered three separate far-right terrorist attacks. Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter, and Cesar Sayoc, the so-called “MAGAbomber,” both left substantial social media footprints on Facebook, Gab and Twitter. Bellingcat has combed through as much as we’ve been able to find in order to trace both men’s path to radicalization.
Much of the evidence for this article comes from the Gab account of Robert Bowers. Gab is a social network built as an alternative to sites like Twitter, which founder Andrew Torba described as part of the “left-wing Big Social monopoly.” Gab became a haven for white supremacists and fascists, and was the platform Robert Bowers last posted on before committing mass murder.
Radicalization Followed Familiar Patterns
Earlier this month, Bellingcat published an investigation into the ways 75 fascist activists reported being “red-pilled.” Red-pilling has a variety of definitions, but the most common among fascists involves accepting the existence of a vast Jewish conspiracy. Mass shooter Robert Bowers did not explicitly state how he became red-pilled, but his Gab posts give us some hints into the road he took.
In the repost below, Bowers identified with a meme about going through the “libertarian-to-far-right pipeline,” presumably via his time on 4chan’s /pol/ board.
At least three of the fascists we previously studied noted holding libertarian beliefs immediately before descending into outright fascism. There are numerous other cases among those archived Discord logs of fascists discussing their so-called “libertarian phase.” Fascists seem to consider the influence of /pol/ on converting new fascists to be a matter of common knowledge.
Outside evidence supports this observation. One University College London study of eight million /pol/ posts found that 12% contained “hateful” language, compared to 2.2% in a random sample of Tweets. The most commonly used hateful word on /pol/ was “nigger.” The word “goy” was also prevalent. The study notes:
…that “goy” is used in an inverted fashion on /pol/, i.e., posters call other posters “goys” to imply that they are submitting to Jewish “manipulation” and “trickery.”
Another study from University College London suggests that /pol/ is one of the largest influencers of the meme ecosystem, and that it has a particular penchant for pushing out anti-Semitic memes. Ten of the 75 fascists we previously studied cited /pol/ or 4chan as integral to their red-pilling. Many more at least referenced it as an influence. If Bowers entered /pol/ a libertarian and exited a radicalized neo-Nazi, he would not have been the first.
Cesar Sayoc, the MAGAbomber, does not seem to have been a channer. But his route to radicalization was also one that was familiar in light of our previous research on far-right radicalization. Several of the fascists we studied on Discord cited the 2016 election or Donald Trump’s campaign as the start of their red-pilling process. The Trump campaign also seems to have started Sayoc down the road to extremism.
Readers are by now likely familiar with the numerous Trump stickers pasted onto the would-be bomber’s now iconic white van. It did not always look that way. Kelly Weil, of The Daily Beast, found a YouTube video Sayoc posted in 2015. It showed his vehicle, free of any political bumper stickers or other paraphernalia.
Sayoc appears to have always had issues with anger management. He was arrested in 2002 for threatening to blow up the offices of Florida Water & Power if they cut off his electricity. He was also arrested for battery in 2013. The Trump campaign appears to have given direction to his deep-seated anger. 2016 is the first year he registered to vote.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Sayoc family lawyer Ron Lowy claimed that Cesar had no interest in politics prior to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Lowy stated his belief that Cesar Sayoc, “…was attracted to the Trump formula of reaching out, Trump reaching out to these types of outsiders, people who don’t fit in, people who are angry at America, telling them they have a place at the table, telling them that it’s OK to get angry. I believe that was a motivating factor…”
But there were other motivating factors for Cesar, including an obsession with a very particular subset of right-wing media.
Violent Far-Right Extremists Have Similar — And Specific — Tastes in Media
It’s not shocking that these far-right terrorists subsisted on a diet of right-wing media. What’s interesting are the specific sources, media personalities and memes violent extremists cluster around. The MAGAbomber, for example, seems to have been a fan of Ben Shapiro:
Shapiro is particularly beloved by far-right extremists. He’s the editor-in-chief and a founder of The Daily Wire, a far right news website funded by the billionaire Wilks brothers. Alexandre Bissonnette, who murdered six Muslims at a Quebec City mosque in 2017, read Shapiro more than any other writer and the Daily Wire more than any other website. Several fascist activists whose Discord logs we studied expressed a sometimes intense appreciation for Shapiro’s content, in spite of the fact that Shapiro is Jewish.
Cesar Sayoc also seems to have been a fan of Infowars, another preference he shares with Bissonnette. Eight of the fascist activists we studied credited Infowars or Alex Jones with their red-pilling. A look at the accounts Sayoc followed on Twitter suggests that Fox News also made up a sizable chunk of his media diet.
Fox News also appears to have had an influence on Robert Bowers’ decision to open fire on a crowded synagogue. Eight days before committing mass murder, he reposted their coverage of the refugee caravan:
Here we see Fox News’s coverage of the refugee caravan in Mexico, modified and built upon by fascist users on Gab. That arrow points to a Star of David painted on the side of the truck. In his last post on Gab before the shooting, Bowers explicitly cited his belief that Jewish organizations bring “invaders” into the country. The particular target of his hate was HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS was founded in 1881 to help Jewish refugees from Imperial Russia. Today, they help refugees of all backgrounds.
Bowers also professed a desire to do violence to a variety of left-wing boogeymen, including Antifa, as we see in this reposted Fox News article:
We did not find any posts by Bowers that referenced Patriot Prayer, a far-right organization that has battled anti-fascists in the streets, most prominently in Portland. Patriot Prayer is not officially a fascist/ anti-Semitic organization, but many of its members openly profess an admiration for dictator Pinochet. These shirts are quite common at Patriot Prayer gatherings (and can easily be purchased on Amazon.com):
Robert Bowers seems to share this admiration.
Pinochet fandom is also rampant in fascist activist Discord conversations. Jokes about Pinochet are actually part of a tight constellation of memes shared almost exclusively by violent fascist groups. This constellation includes the imagery of communists being thrown from helicopters, a la the Pinochet regime’s infamous Death flights. Know Your Meme has traced the origin of the helicopter ride meme back to a June 31, 2015 post on /pol/. Here is an example from a February 5th, 2017 conversation on Anticom’s Discord:
Pictures of Toese at other angles show the letters “RWDS” printed on his sleeves. RWDS stands for “Right Wing Death Squads”. This term is regularly associated with the idea of Death Flights and references to Pinochet. Our Discord fascists were also obsessed with the idea of right wing death squads.
It could therefore be argued that Bowers and Sayoc were both attempting to act as their own one-man death squads.
In The Far-Right Media Ecosystem, All Roads Lead to Anti-Semitism
Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter, regularly engaged with neo-Nazi accounts. He seems to identify as a fascist, and expressed an intense dislike of President Donald Trump. In his eyes, the president’s refusal to directly attack Jewish people was proof that he was secretly a part of the vast Jewish conspiracy that, in reality, exists only in the minds of anti-Semites.
Meanwhile MAGAbomber Cesar Sayoc, was vociferous in his distaste for Nazis. He made a number of Facebook posts that accused people he saw as his political enemies, including Angela Merkel and Arnold Schwarzenegger, of being Nazi sympathizers.
On the surface these two extremists look very different. But their interests converged in one area: belief in a Jewish-led conspiracy to control/influence American culture. Bowers was stereotypically open about this. Sayoc’s anti-Semitism was less obvious, and probably less conscious, although his former manager at the pizza restaurant he delivered for has claimed he was outwardly “anti-Jewish.” It may seem odd that someone like Sayoc would believe in a grand Jewish conspiracy and profess to hate the Nazis, but some fascists and anti-Semites do not automatically identify with Nazis.
By CNN’s count, Sayoc tweeted out more than 240 threats to 50 different elected officials, individuals and media organizations. He seems to have considered himself an American patriot, rather than a Nazi revolutionary, but he still wound up sharing anti-Semitic memes. The key here seems to be that these memes focused around Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros, rather than “the Jews” as a group. Soros is commonly demonized by right-wing media throughout the world. Hungary’s far-right government, headed by Viktor Orban, even named a bill that criminalized helping illegal immigrants the “Stop Soros” bill.
The MAGAbomber also followed Glenn Beck. During his Fox News days, Beck accused the Tides Foundation (pictured in the above meme) of being at the center of a web of left-wing causes. In 2010 Byron Williams, inspired by Beck’s rhetoric, got into a gun battle with the Oakland Police when they stopped him on the highway before he could carry out his plan to assassinate members of the ACLU and the Tides Foundation.
Glenn Beck also appears to have been one of the first prominent figures in U.S. right-wing media to demonize George Soros. He’s been referring to him as a “puppet master” as far back as 2010.
In October of 2018, the conservative PAC Florida Strong portrayed Soros as a puppet master. The Forward article linked the prior sentence notes accurately that Jews were often depicted as “puppeteers” in Nazi-era propaganda.
In fact, one of the first bombs Cesar mailed went to Soros. Far-right media has portrayed Soros as somehow “funding” the migrant caravan. Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, is one of the more prominent purveyors of this myth:
Infowars also ran with the Soros migrant caravan conspiracy theory at the same time as Gaetz posted about it.
Blaming George Soros for everything that goes wrong in their world seems to almost be a bridge between far-right and actual fascist groups. In Discord conversations the same fascists who planned the first Unite the Right rally mentioned Soros over five hundred times.
It is possible that Robert Bowers’ anti-Semitic beliefs began coalescing in a similar way. That is the impression one gets when looking at this /pol/ meme he reposted:
A scan through Cesar Sayoc’s full Tweet archive reveals a steady drumbeat of Soros-themed conspiracy theories.
Sayoc’s bandying of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media seems to have been limited to ones about George Soros. It appears that Sayoc was simply at an earlier point in his red-pilling than Mr. Bowers. Even so, he was far enough down the pipeline to have been moved to terrorism.
Both Sayoc and Bowers were unstable individuals long before they found themselves sucked into the far-right media ecosystem. Far-right media does not create unstable individuals, but it has proven remarkably successful at radicalizing them and providing them with targets. In the wake of the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, Gab has found itself thoroughly deplatformed. But its thousands of members are still out there, and still dangerous. One of them posted this the day after the attack (the “JQ pill” is a reference to the “Jewish Question”):
There is, of course, no guarantee that Mr. Little will continue to “manage the rage.”