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Attacks on places of worship by 'homegrown, self-radicalized actors' will continue, says FBI assistant director

Attacks on places of worship have gained international recognition as acts of terrorism following the NZ mosque shooting, the Sri Lanka Easter bombings, and the Cali synagogue shooting

Places of worship have been increasingly targeted by individuals going on terror sprees. In just this year alone, there was a shooting at a mosque in New Zealand, bombings in churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, and a shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California.

Each of the world's major monotheistic religions has had attacks on their places of worship by individuals who have wreaked havoc in the lives of people who just want to stay true to their faith.

Racial and religious supremacists find places of worship the easiest to attack. In the United States alone and just in the past 10 years, there have been neo-Nazi shootings at a Sikh gurudwara in Wisconsin, a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. One can safely say that these attacks began with the KKK bombing of a church in 1963 that resulted in the deaths of four little girls.

Howard Kaye, center, husband of Lori Kaye, carries the new Torah as Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, right, and other members of the Chabad of Poway synagogue celebrate the completion of the new scroll dedicated to Lori Kaye, who was killed when a gunman attacked the synagogue in April on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, in Poway, Calif (Source: Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Then there are the attacks that have happened across the Middle East and in much of Africa and Asia. Jihadists have specifically targeted Christian churches, Ahmaddiya mosques, and Shia shrines.

All of these events are too many to list out and most of them happen around the time of religious holidays and rituals. However, there have been few larger attacks that have gained some international recognition as acts of terrorism aside from the NZ mosque shooting and the Sri Lanka Easter bombings.

In 2015, a shooting that took place on a bus in Karachi killed 45 Shia Muslims. In 2017, the Palm Sunday church bombings in Egypt killed 45 Christians and an attack on a cathedral in the Philippines in 2019 killed 20 people. There have also been extremist attacks on Christians and Jews in Europe. One incident that took place in 2016 France saw jihadists running into a church in Normandy and slitting the throat of Fr. Jacques Hamel.

When you look at the attacks closely, you can see that there is a very simple strategy that is being employed by the attackers: places of worship have a large number of targets and they always have their guards down. It's completely understandable since who even thinks that they're going to get shot or blown up if they go to pray? Since the recent attacks, mosques and synagogues in the country have responded by increasing security measures during services and churches in Sri Lanka have started canceling their services.

In this Sunday, May 12, 2019, photo, Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard at the entrance to Good Shepherd convent and the St. Benedict's College in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Source: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

According to Michael McGarrity, assistant director of the counterterrorism division of the FBI, "The threat posed to the United States has expanded from sophisticated, externally directed plots to include individual attacks carried out by HVEs (homegrown violent extremists), who are inspired by FTOs (foreign terrorist organizations) to take action within the United States. We now see similar insular, self-radicalized actors in the domestic terrorism realm."

There is, however, another motivation apart from the convenience killers find in targetting religious centers. A church, mosque, or synagogue is a place where believers feel the power of their God is at its maximum. They go there because they seek the comfort and safety it is meant to provide. An attack on a place of worship at a time like this is basically attacking believers where they feel the most secure. It's a way for the attacker to assert their dominance over others that they are biased against.

It has been seen not just as a declaration of war on the people who pray inside their houses of worship but also against their faith itself. McGarrity says: "Individuals adhering to racially motivated violent extremism ideology have been responsible for the most lethal incidents, however, and the FBI assesses the threat of violence and lethality posed by racially motivated violent extremists will continue."

In this March 23, 2019 file photo, worshippers prepare to enter the Al Noor mosque following the previous week's mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand (Source: AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

The Christchurch shooter's manifesto gave way to other shooters, such as the gunman at Poway, also coming up with documents that are filled with extremist ideologies. The documents were made to be like FAQs to answer all questions as to why they carried out the attack. McGarrity says: "Through the Internet, violent extremists around the world have access to our local communities to target and recruit and spread their messages of hate on a global scale, as we saw in the recent attack in Christchurch, New Zealand."

The most impressive individuals in these attacks have been the ones who have thrown themselves in the face of danger in order to protect others. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein from the Chabad of Poway synagogue said in a vigil for Lori Kaye, the woman who threw herself in front of him to protect her rabbi from the hail of bullets: "We need to fill up those rooms."

"We need to show them that terrorism and evil will never prevail. Let’s fill up the synagogue, let’s stand tall, let's dance together."