Report: Conspiracy theorists fuel extremist killings

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Newer strains of far-right movements, fueled by conspiracy theories, misogyny and anti-vaccination, contributed to a modest rise in killings by domestic extremists in the United States, according to a report released Tuesday by a Jewish civil rights group.

Killings by domestic extremists rose from 23 in 2020 to at least 29 last year, with right-wing extremists killing 26 of those people in 2021, the Anti-Defamation League said in a report first made available to The Associated Press.

The ADL’s report states that white supremacists, anti-government sovereign citizens and other supporters of longstanding movements were responsible for most of the 19 deadly attacks it counted in 2021. The New York City-based organization’s list also included killings related to newer right-wing movements that have been spreading online during the coronavirus pandemic and former President Donald Trump‘s presidency.

The ADL concluded that about half of the killings in 2021 had no clear ideological motive, consistent with a pattern going back at least a decade.

The group’s record included a shooting spree by Lyndon James McLeod in Denver in December, killing five people before a police officer fatally shot him. McLeod was involved in the “manosphere,” a toxic masculinity subculture, and harbored fantasies of revenge against most of his victims, the ADL report says.

Right-wing conspiracy theorists killed five people in two incidents last year, both involving “troubled perpetrators,” the ADL report said.

In August, the owner of a surf school in California, Matthew Taylor Coleman, was accused of killing his two young children with a harpoon in Mexico. Coleman told an FBI agent that he was “enlightened” by conspiracy theories, including QAnon, and believed his wife passed “snake DNA” to his children, according to a court affidavit.

A Maryland man, Jeffrey Allen Burnham, was accused of killing his brother, sister-in-law and a family friend in September. Indictment documents said Burnham confronted his brother, a pharmacist, because he believed he was poisoning people with COVID-19 vaccines.

“Before the coronavirus, the anti-vaccine movement in the United States had no particular ideological focus and included both left-leaning and right-leaning activists,” the ADL report said. “The politicization of the coronavirus and other factors such as these have produced many new adherents to the anti-vaccine conspiracy and have given the anti-vaccine movement a distinctly right-wing tone that it did not have before.”

The QAnon conspiracy theory has been linked to other acts of violence in the real world, including last year’s riot in the US Capitol. In June, a federal intelligence report warned that QAnon supporters could use even more violence to target Democrats and other political opponents.

A core idea QAnon espouses is that Trump has been secretly fighting a Satan-worshiping child sex trafficking cabal of “Deep State” enemies, prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites. QAnon didn’t go away when Trump left office.

Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the ADL’s Center on Extremism and author of Tuesday’s report, said the QAnon movement is still evolving and increasingly overlapping with other extremist movements, including anti-vaccine ones.

“Could it somehow dissolve into these or could it find some kind of new focus or new life? Or could it just stay that way if Donald Trump is re-elected in 2024 and then takes on a new form?” Pitcavage said during an interview. “It’s difficult to predict the future of these movements, so it’s difficult to predict if they will continue to have these types of similar impacts on people.”

A lack of mass killings in 2021 meant last year’s figure was far lower than the total for any year between 2015 and 2019, when the number of killings by domestic extremists ranged from 45 to 78.

Otherwise, the 2021 ADL data reflects long-term trends.

Right-wing extremists have killed at least 333 people in the US over the past decade, accounting for three-quarters of all extremist-related homicides, the report said.

The ADL distinguishes between killings it believes are ideologically driven and those it believes are not ideological or lack a clear motive. His report states that the numbers for each category have been nearly the same over the past 10 years. The ADL concluded that 14 of the 29 extremist killings in 2021 appeared to be at least partly ideologically motivated.

The ADL attributed 13 killings last year to white supremacists, three anti-government extremists, two black nationalists and one to an Islamist extremist.

The group did not count the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick during the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot as an extremist homicide. Sicknick collapsed and died hours after he was attacked by rioters who stormed the Capitol and disrupted Congress’ confirmation of President Joe Biden’s election victory. In April, the Washington, DC Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Sicknick had suffered a stroke and died of natural causes.

“While it is clear that the attack on the Capitol may have contributed to, or even triggered, the strokes that brought Sicknick down, it cannot be definitively proven that he was murdered by a Capitol striker,” reads the ADL Report.

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