Attack on the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin: A Case of Mistaken Identity?

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

On August 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page carried out an act of domestic terrorism gunning down six Sikh worshipers and injuring several others, including a police officer who responded to the emergency call. The shooting took place at a Sikh temple, also known as a Gurdwara, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  As Page was shot and killed by police returning fire, we will never be able to completely understand his twisted motives.  However, we do know that Page sported a tattoo commemorating the victims of 9/11 and that, since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, a number of Sikhs have been targeted in the US by racists who assumed, because religious Sikh men wear turbans and typically grow long beards, that they were followers of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.  According to the organization Sikh Coalition, since 9/11 more than 700 Sikh Americans have sought legal assistance due to alleged discrimination, bullying or hate crimes.   Consequently, it is conceivable that Page targeted a Sikh temple thinking it was a mosque and that his objective was to murder innocent Muslim Americans.

The attack has (albeit through very unfortunate circumstances) made many Americans, perhaps for the first time, aware of the existence of Sikhism and the Sikh community.  The objective of this post is to provide some background information on the Sikh religion and community, a community that has approximately twenty to thirty million adherents worldwide and constitutes the world’s fifth largest religion.  We will also briefly look at the challenge of Lone Wolf terrorism.

Sikhism’s Basics
Sikh FlagSikhism was founded in India in the sixteenth century by Guru Nanak (“guru” is a Sanskrit term that can be translated as teacher or saint) and the religion is based on his teachings and those of nine subsequent Sikh gurus.  Unlike Hinduism, from which Sikhism is derived, the Sikh religion is monotheistic and shares many concepts similar to Western religions, such as human equality before God and the importance of being a good human being and good member of the community.  Like many mystical variants of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Sikhism believes that God resides inside each person and that the aim of the believer is to discover God insider himself/herself.  The Sikh community is known as the Khalsa (the term means “pure”) and members are expected to wear five items, known as the five Ks, that symbolize their faith and sense of community.  These are: 1) Kesh – uncut hair, 2) Kara - a steel bracelet, 3) Kanga – a wooden comb, 4) Kaccha – cotton underwear, and 5) Kirpan - a steel dagger or sword.  Devout Sikh men and women do not cut their hair because hair is considered to be part of God’s creation and therefore represents the willingness to accept God’s gifts.  Sikh men typically wear their hair rolled up on the top of their head, covered by a turban. The colors and manner of folding of the turban differ markedly from those sported by some devout Muslims.  The steel bracelet represents the permanence of God, the comb symbolizes cleanliness, the underwear is a symbol of chastity and the dagger or sword is a symbol of the struggle against injustice and defense of the weak.

The Sikhs in India
In its early decades, Sikhism was often persecuted by both Hindu and Muslim powers in India and consequently the Sikhs developed a reputation as fierce warriors.  In 1801, the Sikhs were able to create an independent state in the northern Indian region of Punjab, but this state eventually collapsed and was subsequently taken over by the British as they began to build their empire in India in the mid-19th century.  The British had a healthy respect for the Sikh’s military capabilities and used them widely in the security forces of British India.  When the British left India in 1947, they partitioned the territory into two independent states: India and Pakistan. The Sikhs found their homeland of Punjab divided between Pakistan and India.  Most of the Sikhs on the Pakistani side fled to India and Sikhs today constitute a dominant group in the Indian state of Punjab, though there are Sikhs in many other parts of the country as well. 

Sikhs in America
In the United States, the Sikh community consists of converts of non-Indian origin as well as Indian Sikhs and their descendants.  Indian Sikhs began immigrating to the United States during the nineteenth century and their religion began to attract a following from among non-Indian converts.  Estimates of the number of Sikhs living in the United States range from half a million to three quarters of a million.  As noted above, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sikh men came to be increasingly targeted in hate crimes because they were mistaken for adherents of Bin Laden.  In general, Indian Americans, including Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, constitute the second largest Asian immigrant population group in the country (after Chinese-Americans) and constitute almost one percent of the overall American population.

Homegrown Terrorism and the Lone Wolf Threat
The attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin underscores the nature of the threat of homegrown, lone-wolf terrorism.  Lone Wolf attacks are not new.  The worst act of domestic terrorism in US history was carried out by a lone wolf terrorist, Timothy McVeigh (though he did have assistance from a few other individuals) when he blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children at a day care center in the building and injuring more than 500 people. 

So-called “lone-wolf” terrorism involves attacks by individuals that are not taking orders from a terrorist organization, or otherwise significantly affiliated with such an organization.  These individuals often get their extremist ideas from radical groups but they tend to inhabit the fringes of such groups. In some cases, they are radicalized over the internet without direct group contact.  These individuals have access to firearms and, in some cases, as with Timothy McVeigh, have bomb-making skills learned in the military, and can be a formidable threat.  They are also very difficult to spot ahead of time because the FBI and other agencies that gather intelligence on terrorist activities in the United States rely on networks of informers and by intercepting communications. If these individuals do not talk to known terrorist operatives or otherwise interact with terrorist suspects, they are unlikely to come across the radar of intelligence agencies.  Despite popular perceptions, law enforcement and intelligence agencies cannot be everywhere and monitor everything. They rely on tips and shreds of information such as a passing contact between a monitored suspect and someone who was not previously on anyone’s radar. Lone wolf types often are simply not known to the authorities, or, as is apparently the case with Wade Michael Page, are affiliated with extremist groups but are simply not deemed an immediate threat just because they advocate extremist ideas. 

Under the US Constitution, there is a clear difference between adhering to and advocating extremist ideas (a protected Constitutional right) and planning and executing acts of violence (which are clearly crimes).  Consequently, law enforcement bodies do not have the resources or the legal right to investigate every white supremacist or other extremist. It is a major challenge to head off such attacks if they are carried out by people who are not affiliated directly with terrorist groups or have provided any indication that they intend to translate their abhorrent ideas into acts of physical violence.

What do you think? Is there more that can be done to identify potential lone wolf threats?

Nadav Morag, Ph.D, is University Dean of Security Studies at CTU. He works on projects for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense and is a published author on terrorism, security strategy, and foreign policy. Connect with Dr. Morag on Twitter @CTUHomeland.

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