After the 2021 mass shooting at the King Soopers market in Boulder, Colo., al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized on the attack — despite no terrorism motive alleged by prosecutors — to shape one of their “Inspire: Praise & Guide” postmortem analyses. In addition to reviewing “features and merits of the operation” including target and weapon selection, AQAP gave tips on how they thought the attack could have been better executed — expressing their displeasure with what they hoped would be a “martyrdom” operation that instead ended with the accused shooter in handcuffs. “When you work for any operation, always have in your mind the determination to clash until the end with the police and with the enemy and to not surrender to them until death, and for that, take your precautions in terms of ammunition,” al-Qaeda advised.
The Islamist extremist discouragement of attacks ending in arrest has been twofold: desiring a “martyr” whom they can lionize as a jihadist who killed until his last breath (thus becoming a propaganda poster boy to inspire future attackers), or desiring a repeat offender who can escape the scene of an attack and wage a repetitive campaign of terror while leaving some sort of indication that the attacks are being committed in the name of ISIS or al-Qaeda. ISIS, for example, in an issue of its Rumiyah magazine suggested that would-be jihadists conduct knife attacks on random soft targets such as a person strolling on a beach or leaving a bar late at night, with the assailant fleeing and waging a “thousand cuts” campaign of terror single murder by single murder. And while the terror group ecstatically promoted the crimes of the Pulse nightclub mass shooter — and, for a time, desperately tried to claim the mass murders of the Las Vegas shooter with no known terror motive — they clearly have showed their disdain for jihadists whose crimes ended in capture. After Sayfullo Saipov killed eight people along a New York City bike path in a 2017 truck attack (a method heavily encouraged by ISIS after the 2016 Nice cargo truck attack, though Saipov chose a rented pickup) and was arrested while brandishing a paintball gun, his attack was mentioned back on page 3 of ISIS’ weekly al-Naba newsletter. After Akayed Ullah killed no one when he detonated a pipe bomb in an NYC subway tunnel in 2017, and was arrested lying on the ground at the site of the IED blast, ISIS bumped news of his attack to page 11 of a 12-page al-Naba issue.
Domestic violent extremists, though, have a track record of arrest after mass attacks. In some instances it’s expected by the killers, and across the board it’s utilized by those hoping to inspire similar terrorist activity.
Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in the 2011 Norway attacks, was arrested during his attack on Utøya island. Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, was arrested by police in a traffic stop the morning after the attack. Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, engaged in a gun battle with responding officers before hiding and eventually surrendering. Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people in his 2019 attacks on two New Zealand mosques, was arrested on his way to a third mosque. John Earnest, who killed a member of the Chabad of Poway in his 2019 synagogue attack, was arrested two miles from the scene. Philip Manshaus, who killed his stepsister before opening fire at an Oslo mosque in 2019, was subdued and held for police by mosque elders before he could kill anyone there. Stephan Balliet, who tried to get inside a synagogue in Germany and killed two people nearby in 2019, was arrested about 30 miles from the scene. Payton Gendron, who received 11 consecutive life sentences in February after pleading guilty to his 2022 attack at the Tops market in Buffalo, was arrested during the mass shooting.
And Patrick Crusius, who was sentenced to 90 consecutive life sentences last week for killing 23 people in his 2019 attack on an El Paso Walmart, surrendered to law enforcement near the store. He pleaded guilty to all federal charges in February; his trial had been expected to start in January 2024. “Capture in this case if [sic] far worse than dying during the shooting because I’ll get the death penalty anyway,” Crusius wrote in his manifesto that he uploaded online just before his attack. “Worse still is that I would live knowing that my family despises me. This is why I’m not going to surrender even if I run out of ammo. If I’m captured, it will be because I was subdued somehow.”
Out of those considered “disciples” of Tarrant by accelerationist white supremacists — Crusius, Earnest, Manshaus, Balliet, Gendron, and Bratislava LGBTQ bar shooter Juraj Krajčík — only one, Krajčík, killed himself before arrest. While domestic violent extremists don’t consider arrest an optimal conclusion to an attack — some online have referred to imprisonment of one of their own as a “waste” of a white man whose work toward their cause is now halted — and, like ISIS, want their fighters to be able to conduct subsequent attacks, they also don’t dock an assailant’s crimes or the importance to their cause based on an arrest or guilty plea. The Hard Reset, a 261-page accelerationist guide released last year, even includes a page encouraging lone actors to consider “optics” of their appearance as “the day is coming where your face is gonna be on the news in the form of a mugshot or an obituary.”
“I often look at myself in the mirror, thinking ‘if the pigs came knocking right now, how would my photo look on CNN? How would it look on my very own wikipedia article? On my Saint Card?’,” the anonymously authored page states. “There’s no need for our guys to look like they held up a liquor store and got shot on the way out.” Would-be attackers were further told to look like Manshaus instead of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz.
In his manifesto, Gendron detailed his plan to shoot randomly at Black people on the street after the mass shooting at the supermarket. “I should be stopped by police officers eventually in Emslie and then surrender to them,” he wrote. “Or if I find another decent location the day of the attack (example being Walmart) I’ll head there.” Tarrant wrote in his manifesto that dying during the attack was a “definite possibility” but he intended to survive. “Survival was a better alternative to death in order to further spread my ideals by media coverage and to deplete resources from the state by my own imprisonment,” he wrote. Breivik said at his trial that “the certainty of my imprisonment does not frighten me.” Earnest wrote in his manifesto that he would “rather die in glory or spend the rest of my life in prison” than fail to attack Jews.
While Islamist extremists have been known to deduct some credit for their adherents who get arrested, domestic violent extremists have found certain propaganda, recruitment, and incitement benefits in mass shooters who were captured alive:
Unambiguous attribution: Mass shootings that end with the perpetrator committing suicide or being killed by law enforcement or bystanders can leave murky questions about motive, with the exception of killers like Krajčík who left behind a manifesto. While all terrorist movements encourage the use of GoPro cameras to livestream an attack as Tarrant and Gendron did, ISIS and al-Qaeda both have expressed concerns to potential lone actors about their “martyrdom” happening without the requisite PR: AQAP has told would-be attackers to call media “informing them of the operation and its goal, so that they cannot conceal it,” while ISIS publications have encouraged leaving a claim as rudimentary as scribbling a paean to the terror group on a wall near the site of an attack. When domestic violent extremists are arrested for their crimes and are potentially attached to a manifesto, livestream, online message boards, or statements made to the arresting officers — such as Bowers telling police “I just want to kill Jews” — extremist movements learn clearly if this killer is one of their “own” and can be heralded as such in propaganda and recruitment materials.
Guilty pleas: Domestic violent extremists want adherents committing an attack in the furtherance of white supremacist, accelerationist, ecofascist, sovereign citizen, or militia ideology — or some mix of these, along with other motivators such as anarchism or conspiracy theory extremism — to be proud of their actions or at the very least admit they pulled the trigger. Victims’ families said that they doubted his sincerity after Gendron apologized at his sentencing hearing, claiming that he “did a terrible thing” and didn’t “want anyone to be inspired by me and what I did.” However, that has not noticeably affected the affection for Gendron and his crimes in online extremist forums.
Legal proceedings as a soapbox: Though judges who keep an orderly courtroom will do their best to limit the ability of accused shooters to use a trial for extremist outreach, killers have tried to use the intense public interest surrounding their legal proceedings as a soapbox to spread their views and be seen or heard by current fans as well as potential future followers. At his 2012 trial, Breivik declared himself “a representative of the Norwegian and European resistance movement” and — despite being chided by the judge several times — stated that “rivers of blood will run through the cities of Europe” in a future “purifying storm” as he called on “more patriots to shoulder responsibility, as I have done.” At a parole hearing last year Breivik flashed Nazi salutes; Manshaus also took advantage of the courtroom cameras to raise his arm in a Nazi salute.
“Sainthood”: Accelerationist white supremacists bestow “sainthood” upon white killers who meet certain criteria including deliberate intent, motive, inflicting at least one death, and having a neo-Nazi, white nationalist, or far-right anti-system worldview. The aforementioned killers all have been declared “saints” in this movement’s online materials and even have “feast days.” Much as Omar Mateen’s image was used in endless ISIS incitement materials after his 2016 Pulse attack, the DVE “saints” are used in accelerationist memes, videos, and publications that encourage would-be attackers to join the “pantheon.” These killers who have been arrested also result in a living person being attached to a manifesto that, despite the efforts of online censors, will still be circulating in some corner of the web. The aforementioned killers have often cited each other as inspirations; Krajčík stated in his manifesto, for example, that his “two inspirations to carry out an operation” were Tarrant and Earnest — but the “final nail in the coffin” was Gendron, who “gave me the final nudge.”
Motivation to accelerate: Accelerationists whose raison d’être is to hasten societal collapse believe that, in a lawless post-collapse society, their comrades will no longer be imprisoned. “When this revolution starts gaining traction (if I am not killed) I expect to be freed from prison and continue the fight,” Earnest wrote in his manifesto. This belief can serve as motivation for killers who think that if they do happen to land behind bars they won’t be there forever, and for extremists who believe that part of their duty is to liberate domestic terrorists aligned with their cause.
According to the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center’s Mass Attacks in Public Spaces 2016-2020 report, which studied 173 attacks that resulted in 513 deaths, 99 of these incidents ended with the attacker’s arrest. Domestic violent extremists may see that incarceration as offering more benefits than their Islamist extremist counterparts — and will still consider the mass killer behind bars a “martyr” as his image and words are used to recruit and incite future attacks.