Earlier this month, the FBI arrested a 23-year-old Las Vegas man on suspicion of possessing parts to make a bomb and who allegedly wanted to attack a synagogue, the regional Anti Defamation league office, and an LGBTQ bar.
The man, Conor Climo, was connected to white supremacists who he communicated with in secret online chats, according to the FBI’s criminal complaint, including one of the most extreme white supremacist groups, Atomwaffen Division, which has been implicated in five murders nationwide.
Climo’s next court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 23. He faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Side by side with announcements for future bar-mitzvahs and bat-mitzvahs, Jered Hundley, rabbi of the Lev HaShem Messianic Synagogue— which the Review-Journal first reported as a target of Climo — addressed the threat at services Saturday.
“We live in a dangerous world,” Hundley said. “We live in a time when people threaten our very existence because of the color of our skin or the way we live, the way we worship.”
His synagogue is one of many recently thrust into the national discussion on the rise of white nationalist violence.
“We’re not going to be afraid and hide behind corners,” said Hundley in an interview. “If we show that type of fear we’re giving credence and credibility to what these individuals are trying to do. Terrorism by definition is instilling terror into people into their hearts and minds.”
But terrorism, said Robert Futrell a Professor of Sociology at UNLV and an expert in political extremism particularly white power movements, has largely been seen as an outside threat from foreign powers.
“These acts are just starting to be called terrorism,” Futrell said. “Again it’s part of a larger cultural issue. What do we assume the threats are? Where are they coming from? Who are they coming from? And how do we name them?”
“There is a term that’s used sometimes,” Futrell said. “It’s a term called ‘self radicalization’ and they used it a lot with Dylann Roof for instance. This person was ‘self radicalized’ as if he somehow, in a vacuum, radicalized himself— that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
“The fact that you have individuals lashing out is a white supremacist strategy. It’s a strategy that was talked about and developed by leaders in the 80’s. It’s called ‘lone wolf strategy’ and it’s an effort to decouple those folks that break the law from the organization themselves,” Futrell said.
Radicalization, Futrell said, is a collective effort to reach out and recruit individuals to white nationalist movements.
“These people see this current administration as legitimating them and so they are much more out than they have been in a long time,” Futrell said.
Critics argue that President Donald Trump is largely responsible for the national rise in hate crimes, due to what some perceive as a refusal to condemn white supremacy, like when Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides after the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
The changed face of terrorism
“We’d be kidding ourselves if we weren’t talking about it,” said Fred Haas, a lieutenant with the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center (SNCTC), of white nationalist movements. “We have to look at it and make sure it’s not in our community whether it’s through the gang unit or the counter terrorism section.”
The Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center worked with the FBI during their investigation of Climo, Haas said. It’s one of 59 fusion centers established in the U.S. in the years immediately following Sept. 11, 2001.
The SNCTC is part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a partnership between various federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, as well as The Drug Enforcement Administration. The JTTF includes the Henderson Police Department, the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, and the center.
Haas said recent attacks, including the massacre by a 22-year-old gunman who drove 10-hours to the border town of El Paso, Texas with the intention of targeting “Mexicans” and the attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand by 28-year-old Australian man Brenton Tarrant which resulted in at least 51 deaths has “changed the face of how we look at domestic terrorism.”
The changing nature of domestic terrorism comes with added difficulty, said Haas.
“When we look at 9/11, that was a very elaborate plan. It involved bringing people in from a foreign country, it involved researching flight plans. There were a lot of points to intercede. As you get to people who are radicalized now, that period is much shorter, and if they are isolating themselves and they’re only on these chat rooms it becomes very hard to spot,” said Haas.
The center is a 24 hour 7 days a week operation. When a report comes to the center it goes to the watch desk where it is assessed. The counter terrorism lieutenant who is on duty is notified and they then determine how to move forward.
“It could be anywhere from a full response where we send out an entire squad to deal with it depending on what the immediate threat is, down to suspicious activity that is not criminal in nature,” Haas said.
Still, local law enforcement is constrained in certain ways about how aggressively it can investigate and prosecute potential domestic terrorism threats.
“We have the First Amendment right, we have protected speech and everything else. There’s a fine line,” Haas said, adding that violent language and threats do not always mean a person is radicalizing or planning criminal activity. “But I have an obligation to go find that out.”
White supremacy and sovereign citizens
Bills passed by the Nevada Legislature this year have given local law enforcement more tools to take action against violent threats to public safety, says Haas. Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a firearm safety bill offering a way to take guns away from a person considered to be at risk for violence.
The bill’s provisions allow authorities or family members to seek a court order to take firearms from a person who poses a danger to themselves or others.
“We have those laws now,” in Nevada, Haas said.
Similar so-called “red flag” legislation is languishing in Congress, where Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been non-committal.
During the legislative session, Attorney General Aaron Ford testified that self-described “sovereign citizens” represent the largest terrorist threat facing Nevada, and are often rooted in white supremacy.
Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or “sovereign” from the United States, leading the FBI to deem those in the movement as domestic terrorists.
Authorities connected the movement to the murder of two Las Vegas Police officers and a third man in 2014.
The Metropolitan Police Department have tracked about 500 people who are affiliated with the movement, according to Detective Ken Mead, who testified during a hearing on Assembly Bill 15 meant to more strongly police tactics used by sovereign citizens.
Ford’s office sponsored the measure which makes it illegal to create fake judgments, summons, complaints or most other court documents. Under the law, which went into effect July 1, doing so is a class D felony, punishable by up to four years in prison.
“Our office is attempting to combat white supremacy in the state with respect to the threat of sovereign citizens, and an attorney and investigator from our office are regular and active members of Nevada’s Joint Terrorism Task Force,” said a spokeswoman for Ford’s office via email. “As an elected official, AG Ford has been vocal about the threat of white supremacy, and continues to look for ways to protect our communities.”
A Senior Deputy Attorney General and an investigator have been active members of Nevada’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, and another investigator is due to join in the coming months. Their names were not shared with the Current due to the sensitive nature of their work.
Clear and present danger
The FBI has invited the Lev HaShem Messianic Synagogue to an upcoming training session for a number of houses of worship that have been targeted with threats, said Hundley, adding that he would support a similar conference on a local level.
“This is a wake up call for all of us that this is a clear and present danger and we need to be aware of this so we can protect everyone,” said Hundley, the rabbi of the synagogue.
“(Climo) was in communication with anti-semitic groups and other white supremacist groups and a group by definition is more than one person so our fear is that there are others out there,” Hundley said.
The Anti Defamation League regional office was also on Climo’s list of targets. Jolie Brislin, the ADL regional director said they have been been in constant communication with the FBI since then commend the FBI for their work.
“Are we on heightened alert? I think all communities are on continousous heightened alert,” Brislin said.
Between various internet platforms like 4chan and 8chan and Gab and Discord, “there’s this echo chamber effect,” said Brislin. “It’s as if there’s a nazi rally happening 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” adding that hate speech has started to seep into mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter and Youtub.
“These tech companies have a particular responsibility to take action and they are making some good progress but they need to continue to push themselves and to disrupt extremism on their platform before it happens,” Brislin said.
“There are still laws that can go into place and ADL has been in contact with law enforcement and with our Attorney General and we are working closely to continue to push Nevada to continue to always hold high standards.”