Robert D. Bowers, who authorities said attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue during Saturday morning services, appears to have targeted Jewish people on a social media account rife with anti-refugee, anti-Semitic and white supremacist posts.
Gab, a social media site similar to Facebook and Twitter that is popular with white supremacists and other far-right figures, confirmed that it had deactivated an account in Bowers’s name following the shooting.
The account, which appeared to have been started in January, included a bio that reads: “jews are the children of satan.” His background photo was a radar gun that reads “1488,” a number that combines two codes — the “14” referring to a 14-word white supremacist slogan and the “88” being a neo-Nazi symbol meaning “Heil Hitler.”
The account frequently reposted from others, including a cartoon referencing the phrase “zionist occupied government,” which white supremacists use to suggest that the government is controlled by Jewish people.
It also posted photos of bullet-riddled targets at a shooting range from July. The text of that posting read: “anyone looking for a 9x19 striker fired handgun? i recommend you take a look at the walther ppq. amazing trigger.”
The scene following the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting
The user also made reference to President Trump and challenged his views.
“Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist,” the user posted after a rally this week in which Trump declared himself a nationalist.
Trump has repeatedly slammed “globalists” in his public rhetoric, despite warnings that the term is understood to mean Jews in anti-Semitic circles. “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a k--- infestation,” the user wrote, using a slur for Jews.
The postings, which law enforcement officials have yet to confirm as authentic, may offer the clearest clues available about what may have motivated the suspect, who appears to have lived near Pittsburgh for several years and otherwise had a limited presence online.
Robert Allan Jones, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office, said Saturday that “at this point, we have no knowledge that Bowers was known to law enforcement before today.”
Members of Bowers’s family could not be reached for comment, and it is unclear whether he had a job. One former neighbor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, remembered Bowers as unremarkable.
“He stayed to himself,” said the man, who said that he lived across the street from Bowers on Fieldcrest Drive in Pittsburgh . “He smoked out on the front porch all of the time, and then would go in without saying much.”
Bowers moved out of that house in 2015.
The attack on Tree of Life is the deadliest U.S. attack to target Jewish people, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
It is at least the third mass shooting in recent years in which an aggrieved white man wielding an assault rifle has threatened a house of worship.
In 2015, nine parishioners were shot and killed at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who was sentenced to nine consecutive life terms.
Last year, 26 people were killed in a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., in a shooting carried out by Devin Patrick Kelley, who later shot and killed himself.
And last week, police said Gregory A. Bush, 51, attempted to enter Jeffersontown First Baptist Church, a historically black congregation in Louisville. After finding the door locked, they said, he went to a nearby grocery store where he shot and killed two black shoppers. He has been charged with murder, and federal investigators are considering charging him with a hate crime.
The most recent postings on the Gab account believed to belong to Bowers specifically targeted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, known as HIAS, which is one of nine organizations that works with the federal government to resettle refugees in American communities.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” Bowers is suspected of writing hours before authorities said he opened fire at Tree of Life.
In one posting, which seems to have been published several weeks ago, the author appears to threaten participants in the HIAS’s National Refugee Shabbat project, for which more than 200 congregations across the country held celebration and worship services centered on refugees last week. The organization, founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing Russia and Eastern Europe, now works to resettle displaced people from around the world, including Muslim and Central and South American nations.
“Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided,” the poster wrote before linking to the Web page that lists all of the participating congregations.
“He clearly decided that HIAS was a Jewish agency and he was going to attack Jews,” said Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive of the HIAS, which has no formal relationship with Tree of Life synagogue. He said he was unaware of the threatening postings until after the shooting.
“Clearly, he hates both Jews and refugees,” Hetfield said. “Usually, people who hate others don’t just hate one group, they hate many.”
Hetfield said he was attending a bar mitzvah in the District when his phone began buzzing in his pocket with dozens of calls and messages about the shooting and the suspect’s alleged posts about the HIAS.
“Clearly, there is a lot of space and tolerance right now for intolerant speech, and that has to end,” Hetfield said. “No one should be looking the other way when they hear hate speech. We have to stand up to hate speech.”
Hetfield said that the HIAS has helped many refugees resettle in Pittsburgh, having placed 233 people in the region in 2016 and 122 in 2017. But the group managed just 42 placements this year after the Trump administration placed a historically low cap on the number of displaced people allowed to resettle in the United States.
“Our agency is the oldest refugee agency in the world, and we’ve seen some horrible dark periods in our time, and we’ve seen plenty of hate, and refugees by definition are fleeing hate,” Hetfield said. “But the United States is supposed to be a place of refuge, and a synagogue is supposed to be a place of refuge.”
Julie Tate, Abby Ohlheiser, Jennifer Jenkins and Alice Crites contributed to this report.