The man who allegedly killed 20 people and wounded 26 others in a Walmart on Saturday in El Paso can expect to face capital murder and hate crime charges, law enforcement officials said Sunday.
But federal authorities added that the FBI is running a parallel investigation with potentially far-reaching implications for this and other so-called "domestic terrorists" whose motives are to intimidate and coerce the American public.
“We are treating it as a domestic terrorism case,” John Bash, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said at a news conference Sunday. “And we’re going to do what we do to terrorists in this country, which is deliver swift and certain justice.”
The designation would underline the growing threat of white nationalist terrorism across the country. And it would highlight the growing gap between that threat and the country’s narrowly worded counterterrorism laws, tailored after 9/11 to target foreign groups like al-Qaeda.
In this case, at least, Bash suggested that the alleged rampage, by Patrick Crusius, could meet the federal government’s relatively high bar for a domestic terrorism charge. Although law enforcement officials have been interviewing the 21-year-old white man, who’s from Allen, Texas, outside of Dallas, they’ve yet to establish a motive in his alleged slayings.
A would-be “manifesto” thought to be posted by the shooter not only offers sordid clues but also lays out an intent to terrorize the majority-Latino border town. That would be key for meeting the statutory definition of domestic terrorism as designed to “intimidate or coerce” civilians or the government.
Posted just minutes before the shooting on 8chan, a breeding ground for racist and anti-Semitic content, the 2,300-word screed warns of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and pays homage to the white terrorist who shot up a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.
The author nods to many of President Donald Trump’s key messages, including fear of immigration and skepticism toward globalization. And he goes on to spew tenets of the far-right “race replacement” conspiracy theory that elites are conspiring to replace white Americans, detailing how he’ll use an AK-47-style rifle to fight back.
“I am against race mixing because it destroys genetic diversity and creates identity problems,” the author writes. “This is just the beginning of the fight for America and Europe. I am honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction.”
Publishing such a document would put Crusius squarely within an emerging pattern of mass killers who’ve espoused white nationalist views on dark corners of the internet. Officials acknowledged the essay in a news conference Sunday morning but added that they’ve yet to definitively tie it to the suspect.
“We’re going down that road,” El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said. “It’s beginning to look more solidly like that’s the case.”
"We need a domestic terror statute"
Federal law enforcement officials have increasingly warned of such homegrown terror attacks. Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers that the bureau had made nearly 100 arrests of domestic terrorists in the first half of 2019, with many of them “motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
But countering that growing threat on a broader level runs up against the nation’s narrowly worded counterterrorism statutes. While the Patriot Act established a legal definition of domestic terrorism after 9/11, the crime itself only exists in a small subset of specific circumstances. The upshot is that the U.S. government can’t treat a domestic group as a terrorist organization the way it does ISIS.
There have been some attempts to give federal officials more authority to prevent violence by neo-Nazis or other hate groups. And while some Senate Democrats have raised concerns over how it hamstrings efforts to counter these groups, their Republican counterparts have instead focused attention on the left-wing protest group antifa.
“We need a domestic terrorism statute in this country,” former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said on CNN. “Right now the Patriot Act defines what domestic terrorism is — but it is not currently a crime in this country.”
The onus, he said, is on Congress to pass a law defining domestic terrorism and outlawing it.
“It could very easily be turned into a statute similar to the statutes that we have that criminalize conducting terrorism on behalf of a foreign power, and that would put our investigators on a very different footing to attack this problem,” McCabe said.
Cover: Law enforcement agencies respond to an active shooter at a Wal-Mart near Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (Photo: JOEL ANGEL JUAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)