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North County Report: How San Diego Agencies Are Grappling With Domestic Terror Threats

Much of what local law enforcement is doing to combat the threat of domestic terrorists like the Chabad of Poway shooter — providing free security checks and active shooter preparedness classes — is helpful, but largely reactive.

The exterior of the Chabad of Poway synagogue / Image courtesy of NBC San Diego

The man accused of murdering a woman inside Chabad of Poway Synagogue and injuring three others was also charged in connection this week an attempted arson at an Escondido mosque.

Both are places of worship. Both are on the orthodox end of the religious spectrum. But the connection between these crimes goes well beyond John Earnest, the alleged shooter and arsonist.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore released a statement over the weekend saying the suspect had no criminal history and no apparent connection to any white supremacist group. “We believe he acted alone and without outside support in carrying out the attack,” Gore said, according to NBC 7.

While that may be true, statements like Gore’s miss the larger context. There’s a common perception that white supremacists who commit domestic terrorism are “lone wolfs.”

University of Chicago’s Kathleen Belew, who studies the history of white power movements, however, has argued that perpetrators of massacres are united in their violent cause and rhetoric. As such, the shooting in Poway should be seen as a world-connected event, stemming from a coherent, though vile, political ideology.

That ideology did not begin with “The Turner Diaries,” but the dystopian novel has been cited by numerous white supremacists since the late 1970s, including the Oklahoma City bomber. The mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, paid homage to the book by writing a reference to it on his gun.

“The Turner Diaries” — known as the “Bible of the extremist right” — depicts the birth of a new world order through the actions of a few paramilitary warriors who manage to overthrow powerful governments by motivating regular people to their own violence acts. That sentiment is littered throughout the Poway shooter’s letter, as he praises other men accused of murdering Jews and Muslims.

As an ideology, theirs is leaderless and decentralized and harder to contain. Federal law enforcement officials are waking up to this reality — after willfully ignoring it for decades. They’re just not sure how to stop it.

At least one person — a Southern Californian who works in a car dealership — was paying attention. He logged onto 8chan, a message board, on Saturday morning and found the open letter now attributed to the Poway shooter. He quickly contacted the FBI, warning that violence might be imminent. About five minutes after they hung up, the bullets were flying.

This week, I surveyed various law enforcement agencies and groups that investigate threats of domestic terrorism about the types of programs they offer to counter extremism. The FBI office in San Diego pointed me to a website for teens as well as the various task forces, committees and boards set up across the country to leverage resources.

“Beyond the sheer number of disruptions and arrests that have come to light,” said Special Agent Davene Butler in an email, “homegrown violent extremists are increasingly more savvy, harder to detect and able to connect with other extremists,” using technology to spread messages of hate and vitriol onto susceptible individuals.

The San Diego County district attorney’s office, which is part of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force, declined to discuss its tactics. A spokesman said they didn’t want to risk jeopardizing any future investigations.

Other responses, though, suggest that much of what local law enforcement is doing — providing free security checks and active shooter preparedness classes — is helpful, but largely reactive.

Eli Berman, a professor of economics at UCSD and research director for international security studies at the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, told me that the “violent extremist clusters” found online are not like conventional hate groups, so they offer new challenges to law enforcement. The Poway shooter may not have had a co-conspirator in the traditional sense, but as his own family has noted, he was influenced by outside people and ideas.

“‘Acting alone’ is a misleading term,” Berman said. “He had active, intense contact over 18 months with a radicalizing organization, but that organization happens to be a social network.”

What level of responsibility those social networks have in monitoring and removing content that might inspire others to violence is the key question, Berman argued, and an open-ended one. While federal authorities can’t open an investigation into activity that is protected by the First Amendment, the right of free speech does not extend to private platforms.

Meanwhile, the cost of combating and protecting oneself against these threats is growing.

Reports of hate crimes have been rising locally and nationally. And in response to mass shootings in recent years, religious institutions have been requesting more Department of Homeland Security funding. Since 2012, state officials have awarded more than $3.7 million of those federal funds to San Diego County-based nonprofits — most of them Jewish organizations — for their protection. Chabad of Poway is on that list.

At the request of the California Legislature’s Jewish Caucus, Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed to set aside an additional $15 million in state security grants for nonprofits in the next budget, a 30-fold increase over the last. As Ashley Harrington, public affairs manager at Jewish Family Services in San Diego, pointed out on Twitter, the caucus has been advocating for more security funding since another armed man killed 11 people and injured seven others at Tree of Life, a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“Because of the rise of white nationalism, we have armed guards at my office,” she tweeted. “We feed people. Shelter the homeless. Provide support to victims of [domestic violence]. Assist isolated older adults with no one else. And we have to have armed guards [because] of hate. It boggles the mind.”

California has allocated $4.5 million of its own money in nonprofit security grants since 2015. Newsom’s office noted in a press release that the demand has been outpacing the supply.

  • Brooke Binkowski, a San Diego journalist, made the case in the Washington Post that the synagogue shooting is less shocking if you know the region’s past. For instance, the cross at La Jolla’s Mount Soledad is a reminder that Jewish families were not welcome there. In the 1980s, a Fallbrook television repair man named Tom Metzger, who led unauthorized border patrols with KKK leader David Duke, created the White Aryan Resistance.
  • The Los Angeles Times provides some more context on the Chabad movement, which is rapidly growing.
  • Voice contributor Lyle Moran reports that another Jewish temple in Poway voted to open its board to embrace members of other faiths and cultural backgrounds.

Standing United for Freeways

Last week, the San Diego Association of Governments unveiled its “bold” vision for transit in the region, centered on a new network of trains — some underground, and some above ground — to make travel as fast and convenient by transit as it is driving. It would also help the region meet its state-mandated goals of reducing carbon emissions.

Politicians from North County say they’re not opposed to the trains. But they’ve made clear, as Andrew Keatts reported, that they won’t support a plan that doesn’t include the freeway expansions promised to voters in 2004 through a sales tax initiative.

County Supervisor Jim Desmond warned that voters would perceive anything less as a “bait-and-switch.” (He talked more about his position and first 100 days in office on the podcast.) His criticisms were echoed by elected officials from San Marcos, Vista, Escondido and Oceanside as well as East County. They have the official support of the Board of Supervisors. Carlsbad, in the meantime, came out in opposition to SB 50, which would allow developers to construct four- or five-story multifamily housing units within a half mile of major transit stops.

Councilwoman Cori Schumacher complained that the bill would undermine the ability of local communities to make their own decisions on development, the Coast News reports. Councilwoman Priya Bhat Patel — a progressive newcomer who I profiled in January — said the height limits were a major concern.

In recent days, SB 50’s author has made deals to exempt counties and coastal cities with small populations, like Solana Beach, from the legislation’s biggest impacts.

State Lawmaker Wants Tougher Vacation Rental Rules

Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath is carrying a bill that would bar Airbnb and other tech companies from listing vacation rentals in San Diego County coastal zones for more than 30 days a year unless a full-time resident is on site. After failing to pass tougher rules on vacation rentals at various city halls, the state Legislature could toss opponents a line.

But the bill, as my colleague Lisa Halverstadt reported, has a work-around for cities, like Oceanside, that want more flexibility over vacation rentals. Boerner Horvath agreed to language that gives local officials the ability to pass their own regulations renaming residential zones that now host lots of vacation rentals. Boerner Horvath’s bill passed the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee this week.

NBC 7 reports that Airbnb will soon collect a 10 percent Transient Occupancy Tax and 1.5 percent Tourism Marketing District Assessment on behalf of its hosts and guests in Oceanside. The company called it a “partnership.” The city is one of 400 jurisdictions around the world that collect and remit taxes.

Hey, Kids, Good Luck Finding Homes and Jobs

A new report by a Carlsbad-based firm warns that growing economic disparities between coastal and inland North County will exacerbate the housing affordability crisis and deplete “the available workforce as younger and less affluent workers find it harder to live and work in the region.”

As the Coast News noted, the researchers pointed to at least one alarming trend: More than 60 percent of households are spending more than a third of their annual income on rent.

Housing experts say 30 percent is ideal. Spending any more of one’s income on rent is considered a red flag, because it suggests that one will have difficulty paying other bills and for emergencies as they arise.

In Other News

Correction:  A member of the synagogue who fired at the shooter was not a paid security guard, as initially reported.

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