When initial reports surfaced alleging Dylann Roof as the gunman in the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting, hate group monitors at the Southern Poverty Law Center felt a twinge of recognition. One of the first photos of Roof to be widely circulated came from his Facebook page, which showed the 21-year-old scowling in a black jacket with patches of the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and white supremacist Rhodesia. “As soon as I saw the picture on Facebook with the jacket, [I thought] he’s probably one of the guys we’re tracking,” said an SPLC staffer, who requested that his name not be used because of security concerns.
As a portrait of Roof emerges, experts on hate groups are finding evidence linking the Charleston suspect to the extreme right-wing community. But it’s not only the content of Roof’s beliefs that may reveal his kinship with modern white supremacists who commit violent acts. It’s also the methods, manner, and choice of firearms over explosives or other deadly weapons to commit his alleged crimes.
The SPLC staffer believed the South African and Rhodesian flag patches were strong indicators that Roof was connected to larger online hate forums, like the notoriously racist Stormfront and Vanguard News Network. Both flags have grown popular with far-right groups in recent years. The staffer was struck by Roof’s relative youth — at age 21, he would have been an infant when the apartheid South African government fell, and Rhodesia hasn’t existed since 1979. That suggests Roof became radicalized online, where such historical materials are readily accessible.
Visitors to Stormfront and Vanguard News Network find discussions not only about racist doctrine but also about “tactics and tradecraft,” says domestic terrorism expert Daryl Johnson, formerly of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives as well as the Department of Homeland Security, where he authored a 2009 study on a possible rise in right-wing extremism in the wake of Obama’s election. While Stormfront strictly moderates its forums to avoid mention of specific planned violent acts, it is filled with discussions about operating as a “lone wolf” and how to acquire high-powered firearms. One 2010 discussion thread focused on how to legally obtain machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, both of which are banned by the National Firearms Act.
Once, explosives were the weapon of choice for violent radicals on the left and the right, from the Weather Underground to the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh. Today, among the white supremacists who’ve largely split off from anti-government groups, guns are all the rage. They’re easy to use, easy to acquire, and difficult to track by law enforcement. “If you build a bomb, it takes a bit of sophistication and training,” says Johnson. Since 9/11, “law enforcement has become very adept at identifying the technical signatures of bomb makers.” Plus, the FBI asks vendors of possible homemade-bomb materials, like fertilizer, to alert them to large purchases.
The SPLC staffer says there are clear comparisons between the Charleston attack and other recent high-profile racially or ethnically motivated shootings, like the ones at the Wisconsin Sikh temple and the Kansas Jewish community center. Though in Wisconsin and Kansas each attacker acted alone, they both affiliated with larger hate groups. (The alleged Kansas shooter, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., posted on Vanguard News Network with increasing frequency before that massacre.) And in both cases, the killers chose guns over explosives before attacking a place of worship or religious facility. In a recent report on acts of domestic terrorism committed by white supremacists, homegrown Islamic extremists, and others, the SPLC found that the vast majority of the acts and attempts from April 2009 through February 2015 were conducted by gun-toting individuals.
In the wake of the Charleston attack, a discussion thread on Stormfront quickly jumped to the implications for gun rights. “Ugh heading to the 24hr Walmart to buy some 223,9mm, and .40 S&W,” wrote WhiteandProudnOhio.