Terrorist Attacks on Houses of Worship: A Vicious Cycle Goes Global

By Scott Stewart
Attacks against houses of worship are a pernicious and persistent threat that has long targeted diverse faiths and involved a variety of attackers. Calls for retribution and the copycat phenomenon could create a vicious cycle of violence, potentially spawning attacks against houses of worship worldwide. Retribution — which could occur locally and globally — for the Easter attacks that hit Sri Lanka will help determine the extent to which this is coming to pass.
A 19-year-old man with a semi-automatic rifle burst through the front door of the Chabad of Poway on April 27 in Southern California, opening fire on worshipers celebrating the final day of Passover in the synagogue. After firing several rounds, his rifle jammed, providing a member of the congregation an opportunity to rush him and chase him out of the synagogue to his car. A second member of the congregation, an armed off-duty U.S. Border Patrol officer, opened fire as the shooter fled, striking his car. Police apprehended the suspect shortly after he left the synagogue, where he had killed one person and wounded three others, including the rabbi. Had his rifle not malfunctioned, the casualty count undoubtedly would have been greater. The Poway shooter had written a manifesto in which he also confessed to setting a fire at Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido, California.


The attack in Poway occurred in the wake of the April 21 attacks against three churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, and the March 15 attacks against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In addition to these ideologically motivated terrorist attacks, mentally disturbed individuals or individuals with personal grievances have also sought to attack houses of worship. For example, on April 17 a 37-year-old New Jersey man was arrested and charged with attempted arson after trying to enter St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York carrying fuel cans.

The Big Picture
In parts of the world where religious minorities have long been targeted for violence and discrimination, attacks against places of worship occur fairly frequently. It is not difficult for religious leaders and members of the congregations in such places to recognize the dangers they face — and to take security measures to help mitigate the threats to their congregations. But the threat to houses of worship has long since moved beyond a few countries or even a few religions: It is a worldwide threat to houses of worship of any sect or faith by would-be attackers with vastly different backgrounds and motivations. In our interconnected world, threats are both local and global. Soft targets of many kinds, including houses of worship, are at risk everywhere — even in countries considered safe, such as New Zealand and the United States.
The recent confluence of attacks on houses of worship has given the subject prominence. Many are treating such attacks as a new thing, but unfortunately, they are not. Attacks against houses of worship are a pernicious and persistent threat that has long targeted diverse faiths and involved a variety of attackers, as the following incidents illustrate:

A plot broken up in October 1991 by Jamaat al-Fuqra, an organization of mostly African-American Muslims, to attack a Hindu temple in Toronto.

The shooting by an Israeli-American follower of the radical Rabbi Meir Kahane in February 1994 at a mosque in Hebron in the West Bank that killed 29 people and wounded 125.

An armed assault by a man associated with the Aryan Nations in August 1999 at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles that wounded five.

The shooting by a man inspired by al Qaeda of three children and a rabbi in March 2012 at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

A Boko Haram attack on an Easter service in April 2012 at a church in Kaduna, Nigeria, that killed 41.


A double suicide bombing in September 2013 at All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Pakistani Taliban that killed 127 people and injured over 250.

The fatal shooting of nine people in June 2015 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist.

A vehicular assault by a British man who harbored anti-Muslim beliefs in June 2017 against a crowd of people exiting Finsbury Park Mosque in London.

The bombings and armed assault in November 2017 at a Sufi mosque in al-Rawada, Egypt, by the Islamic State’s Wilayat Sinai that killed 311 people.

I addressed an earlier rash of incidents involving attacks or plots to attack houses of worship nearly a decade ago. But in what appears to be an emerging global trend, these attacks are now being used as a propaganda tool to help motivate reprisals against houses of worship of perceived enemies. If this is not just a recent anomaly, it could lead to a vicious cycle of violence putting congregations, most of them soft targets, at risk everywhere.

Stoking a Broader Conflict

The motive behind such attacks is not just to kill, but to create division and ethnic or religious strife that will generate a broader conflict. This tactic proved successful for al Qaeda in Iraq, which later became the Islamic State. The group was able to use attacks against Shiites to stoke sectarian tensions, resulting in a Shiite backlash. The backlash in turn convinced Sunnis they needed the jihadists for protection from Shiites, ensuring the organization’s survival after the Anbar Awakening and eventual expansion after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
The motive behind such attacks is not just to kill, but to create division and ethnic or religious strife that will generate a broader conflict.
Jihadist attacks in the West have likewise motivated the United States, United Kingdom and France to become involved militarily in the Islamic world, or to deepen such involvement. So have attacks against places in the Muslim world where Westerners congregate such as houses of worship, hotels and restaurants. And as places like hotels have tightened their security, houses of worship have become more attractive targets.

But that tactic has drawn criticism even among jihadists. In fact, attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq against Shiite mosques drew stern criticism from al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan. Its then-deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, went so far as to write al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a letter in 2005 asking him to stop targeting Shiite mosques and other religious targets. The al Qaeda core leadership had itself received criticism for attacks against synagogues, including attacks in Tunisia in 2002 and Istanbul in 2003, and concern was mounting among the Muslim public about the attacks targeting mosques in Iraq. Al Qaeda’s leadership saw the short-term tactical gains of such attacks endangering its larger strategic goal of winning support among the Muslim masses.

But al-Zarqawi ignored al-Zawahiri and continued to attack houses of worship, a practice that carried over to the Islamic State when it emerged from al Qaeda in Iraq. In fact, this was one of several issues that created tensions between the Islamic State in Iraq and the al Qaeda core that eventually led the former to split from al Qaeda. As the Islamic State was in the process of breaking away, al-Zawahiri formalized the ruling against attacking houses of worship in a document titled General Guidelines for Jihad published in September 2013.

While al Qaeda franchises and grassroots militants have largely adhered to this guidance, the Islamic State — which formally broke away from al Qaeda in early 2014 — rejected it. The group’s franchises continue to attack houses of worship, mosques chief among them. In fact, its deadliest terrorist attack against a house of worship, and one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever, was the Sufi mosque assault in Egypt. Jihadists have also attacked Shiite mosques in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere.
If Sri Lankan Muslims face persecution as a result of the Easter attacks, it could greatly aid jihadist efforts to recruit there, helping radical groups gain a permanent foothold on the island.
Jihadists, obviously, are not the only ones who want to sow division with attacks on sacred spaces. White supremacists use violence in a bid to intimidate and expel racial minorities, and many strains of the movement seek to spark a “racial holy war.” They believe that to be a necessary step to achieve their goal: A separation of the races or the extermination of other races.

Jihadist attacks have also helped stoke anti-Muslim sentiment that white nationalist and supremacist movements use to recruit and radicalize members. In this way, jihadist attacks have contributed to reprisal attacks as in Christchurch and Quebec City. The manifestos penned by the Christchurch and Poway perpetrators praised those who attack houses of worship and called for others to follow their lead.

A Cycle of Retribution

Jihadists use attacks against mosques, in turn, to push the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which helps them recruit new adherents to their ideology, and perpetuate the cycle of violence. The Islamic State’s media arms and supporters made good use of the Christchurch attack in their propaganda, with the initial Islamic State claim for the Sri Lanka attacks stating they were a response to Christchurch. While that was clearly not the case, the claim was nonetheless significant in that it reveals attempts to foment a cycle of retribution.

After the Sri Lanka attack, some Christians fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment rioted, injuring several people and burning some Muslim-owned businesses, causing many to seek shelter and protection. As discussed, this is exactly the response that the Easter attackers hoped to provoke. Christian leaders in the country have appealed to their coreligionists not to blame all Muslims for the attack and to refrain from retribution.

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka, as well, has widely condemned the Easter attacks. Indeed, before the attacks took place, some Sri Lankan Muslims had informed authorities about the radical beliefs held by several of the individual attackers. The attacks appear to have further steeled Muslim public opinion against the jihadists, but as seen in Iraq, if Sri Lankan Muslims face persecution as a result of the Easter attacks, it could greatly aid jihadist efforts to recruit there, helping radical groups gain a permanent foothold on the island.

The phenomenon of copycat attacks is well known, and deadly. The confluence of it and the calls for retribution attacks against houses of worship could help spark a vicious cycle of violence not limited by geography — creating risks to houses of worship globally. Retribution for the Easter attacks, especially as Muslims celebrate Ramadan over the next month, will help determine the extent to which this is coming to pass.
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