Attacks on Religious Institutions is a Global Problem: Is there a solution?

by Stephen Bryen

Church attack in New Delhi

Church attack in New Delhi

Attacks on religious institutions, churches, schools, community centers and offices, is far from only an American problem, although the United States has had plenty of it.

In our country churches, synagogues, mosques and temples have been attacked and worshippers going to and from these places have been murdered. Whether we are speaking about Christian churches, Catholic churches, Sikh Temples, Mosques or Synagogues, all of them have been hit by terrorists. I strongly prefer the term “terrorist” to racist or anti-Semite because it best describes what we are up against.

Around the world terrorism against religious institutions is rampant. Whether we talk about Pakistan where religious school children are wantonly murdered, or India, or Iraq and Syria we find such atrocities. In Europe there have been attacks on synagogues and churches and murders of citizens for example in France, Belgium and Denmark among many others.

While some of the attacks are clearly by radicalized individuals, others involve state backing or, state complicity. The bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina which killed 85 people in the building and wounded more than 100 others, there is little doubt, outside of the corrupt politicians of Argentina that the bombing and murder was accomplished by Iranian operatives perhaps in a conspiracy with Argentinian politicians or police.

State sponsored attacks are a growing threat. Outfits like al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and Boko Haram can operate because they are sponsored and supported by nation-states, providing them with equipment, intelligence and even naming targets. Coptic Christians would not be murdered in Egypt without the help of the Moslem Brotherhood, which the Obama administration befriended. Chechen terrorists in Russia have got backing from Saudi Arabia either directly or through religious cutouts.

For Americans the question is how to confront the problem. It is one thing to try and build community support against terrorism and racism, but at the end of the day there isn’t any empirical evidence that this is a sufficient strategy to combat such crimes. In fact it may act as a deterrent to hard headed preventive strategies that are badly needed. But there is one thing the community writ large can be encouraged to do: when they see a threat either because someone says something or writes something or threatens someone, people do need to respond and bring it to the attention of the larger community and make law enforcement aware. Here we can talk about the importance of social responsibility and the need to act against terrorists, racists and anti-Semites.

Most religious institutions in the United States are unprotected. The same is true in other countries. Their doors are open to terrorists and externally their perimeters are easily penetrated by bombers, either on foot or in vehicles. Few have active surveillance or even passive barriers to prevent such attacks.

There is no single technology that can guarantee complete protection against a fanatic or group of fanatics, and particularly against professional killers like the ones in Buenos Aires. Even so, protection helps reduce the frequency of successful attacks, helps to identify the perpetrators, and can save lives.

The most important first step is to understand the nature of the threat and to have critical intelligence if the risk level is high. More importantly, real time intelligence may help identify the person or persons who plan an attack.

It is no secret that a lot of this information can be found on social media. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old man charged with the murders at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, had a Web page with his outrageous rantings posted since last February. No one paid any attention. Law enforcement can easily track social media, but they need to be more proactive and not only warn about risk but also confront those threatening the community. Had information on Dylann Roof been distributed to churches and synagogues (he hated Blacks and Jews and many others), they would have been on the lookout for him and maybe the tragedy could have been prevented. Just distributing his photos (from his web site) could have alerted the folks at the A.M.E. Church.

This is a far better strategy than opining about gun control. Gun control is not going to stop a fanatic any more than it is going to stop a determined criminal.

Once you have information that is useful, you must implement a proper organization to aid in protecting a religious institution. Technology can help, but without a good organization and equally vital good training, the risk remains.

While some synagogues have put in place perimeter protection because of their exposure to constant threats, and some have hired guards, there is not much in the way of organization or training of lay people. There is even less at churches.

The Department of Homeland Security has provided funds here and there to buy defensive equipment such as surveillance cameras or alarm systems, but the Department has not thought to provide organizational training. Some police departments do make an effort to help, but usually they have to be asked to do so and often they themselves are not trained to provide perimeter protection services.

Unfortunately the ball has mostly been dropped, which is why alleged terrorists like Dylann Roof can operate and why the greater threat of state sponsored terrorist attacks on religious institutions in the United States is not far from us.

Surely we can do better.

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