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NYC subway shooting suspect had a history of posting offensive material online


Now an update on the worst attack on the New York City subway in decades. Sixty-two-year-old Frank James was arraigned today in federal court. James is accused of shooting 10 people and injuring at least a dozen more at a busy Brooklyn subway station Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, investigators are searching for signs of a motive, and so are extremism researchers. They have been poring through his apparent social media presence, and so has NPR's Odette Yousef. She covers domestic extremism, and she joins us now. Hi, Odette.


ESTRIN: First, we should be clear that, at this point, Frank James is just a suspect who's been charged. But what can you tell us about his social media activity?

YOUSEF: Well, Daniel, early yesterday afternoon, it seemed that several accounts apparently connected to James stopped being publicly available or publicly viewable. But prior to that, I was able to find at least two Facebook accounts, Twitter and Instagram accounts. And the place where he seemed to be most active was YouTube. I found at least four YouTube channels where he was posting just tons of videos of himself giving talks or rants that appeared to be directed to a primarily Black audience. But nothing that I or the extremism researchers I spoke with suggested that James was connected with any established extremist organizations.

ESTRIN: OK. So you reviewed those accounts before they were taken down. What did you gather from his online presence?

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YOUSEF: Well, to be honest, you know, what I saw was kind of a cocktail of conspiracy theories, bigoted views about gay people, immigrants and interracial couples, lots of pro-gun posts and an apparent belief that there would inevitably be a race war in the United States. You know, I think a lot of extremism researchers' antennae went up because some of his user handles incorporated the number 88, which is an alphanumeric phrase that neo-Nazis use for the Hitler salute since H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. But, you know, James' use of that also could have been a reference simply to his birthday, August 8. But altogether, his online presence didn't necessarily cohere to any known extremist ideology. Here's Carla Hill. She's an extremism researcher at the Anti-Defamation League.

CARLA HILL: Even though we don't agree with extreme ideology, extremists can be quite cohesive, you know, explaining their ideology and be consistent over time. And that's not what we find here.

YOUSEF: You know, James did post one item on Facebook from a neo-Nazi group called The Base, suggesting that maybe Black people could take lessons from how it organizes and trains. And some on social media seemed eager to brand him an extreme leftist or affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that simply wasn't clear. He seemed to be for Black liberation, but he also discounted civil rights and social justice movements as a waste of time.

ESTRIN: OK - not a very consistent ideology. But in all of this material he was posting online, were there any signs that he could carry out violence, or were there any red flags that should have been spotted?

YOUSEF: I asked Caroline Orr Bueno about this. She studies online extremism at the University of Maryland. She said the many references he made to violence may read as significant. But, you know, sometimes things are clearer in retrospect.

CAROLINE ORR BUENO: Honestly, I don't know how much that would have stood out because the content he was posting was not that different than you'd see from, you know, a fair number of people online.

YOUSEF: I'll mention that, you know, his lawyers have asked the court for a psychological evaluation of him. But I'll note that, you know, in the stuff he posted days before the attack, there was no clear articulation of a plan to commit violence.

ESTRIN: OK. NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.