March 18, 2021

IntelBrief: Shooting in Atlanta, Georgia Kills 8 People as Investigation Continues

An official stands in front of a massage parlor after a shooting, late Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • A 21-year-old man was taken into custody on Tuesday following shootings at three separate locations in Atlanta that resulted in 8 fatalities.
  • The targets of the attack—massage parlor employees—are reminiscent of an ‘Incel’ attack in Toronto in February 2020 that left one dead and two injured.
  • Police claimed the gunman denied a racial motive, but this early in the investigation, a racial motivation could not be completely ruled out.
  • Across the U.S., hate crimes targeting Asian-Americans spiked in 2020, with Los Angeles and New York City experiencing significant increases.

A 21-year-old man was taken into custody on Tuesday evening following shootings at three separate locations in Atlanta, Georgia during which he murdered eight women. Six of the victims were Asian, raising speculation early on that anti-Asian discrimination and violence, with perpetrators associating victims with the origins of the coronavirus, could potentially be the driving force behind the attack. There have been concerns that such attacks may be encouraged, or at least partly so, by former President Trump’s insistence on labeling COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” or the “kung flu.” Following a press conference Wednesday morning, the police suggested that the attacker’s motives were connected to a self-confessed sex addiction and that he believed he could eliminate his temptation by murdering workers at massage parlors that he frequented. However, his motive, and any broader ideological connection, remains the subject of ongoing investigation, and it’s possible that multiple different motives combined to underpin his actions. When the assailant was apprehended, he was allegedly en route to Florida where he was planning to carry out further acts of violence, potentially against a business linked to the “porn industry.” The characterization of his ideological drivers and motives is likely to spur debate on whether they constitute social or political objectives to be achieved through the use of violence, and whether they constitute ‘terrorism.’

Some have remarked that the target itself—massage parlors—was eerily reminiscent of an attack in Toronto in February 2020, where a Canadian teenager stabbed three people with a machete, killing one and injuring two others. The assailant was charged with “first degree murder with terrorist activity and attempted murder with terrorist activity.” The attacker in that case was determined to be a so-called “Incel,” or member of a highly misogynist subculture known as “involuntary celibates,” who form part of a toxic online culture frequently referred to as the “manosphere.” A joint statement by the Toronto Police Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) categorized the attack as ‘ideologically motivated violent extremism.’ Violent misogyny and a hatred of feminism are also increasingly popular themes among various aspects of far-right extremists, including individuals motivated by white supremacy. Anders Breivik, the far-right extremist who killed 77 people, mostly children, in a 2011 attack in Norway, left behind a racist manifesto pockmarked with anti-feminist beliefs. In February 2020, an individual in Hanau, Germany shot and killed nine people at two hookah bars, and his manifesto blended anti-immigrant beliefs, conspiracy theories, and misogynist ideology.

Police officials, including those involved in the investigation of the attacks in Atlanta, Georgia, claimed that the gunman denied race to be a motivating factor. However, these same officials also noted that since the investigation is still in its nascent stages, a racial motivation could not be completely ruled out until authorities learn more. Moreover, it could be one of multiple motivations. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted that “These murders occurred at a time when anti-Asian violence has been spiking. All officials should do their part to condemn violence and not inflame further discrimination.” #AsianLivesMatter was trending on social media, with individuals expressing condolences and solidarity, with others sharing their own stories of being intimidated or harassed. Even if the police determine that anti-Asian hatred was not a factor once the investigation is concluded, the issue itself remains paramount, and more needs to be done in the United States to protect Asian and Asian-American communities from harassment and violence.

Speaking just last week, noting the spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans, President Biden addressed the attacks, harassment, and scapegoating. He went on to say, “It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.” Hate crimes targeting Asian-Americans rose nearly 150% in 2020, with major cities like Los Angeles and New York City experiencing significant increases. Since the pandemic began, Asian-Americans have reported more than 3,800 “hate-related incidents” across all 50 states, according to a report from Stop AAPI Hate, a non-profit organization that “tracks and responds to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.” Whatever the perpetrator’s original motive, white supremacist extremists have already celebrated the attacks online in horrific memes and warned this may be a false flag operation to enhance government restrictions. Terrorist and violent extremist groups have long demonstrated the ability to coopt grievances and conflicts, and manipulate them for propaganda and recruitment.