It wasn’t just another Wednesday night. The 170 students who were meeting at the Wedgwood Baptist Church were joyful for the chance to have shared their faith at the annual “See you at the Pole” event. Every year students meet at their school’s flagpole for a time of prayer for their school, teachers, fellow students and country. Tonight was the icing on the cake so to speak, as the joyful students gathered at the church to listen to the praise band belt out anthems to Christ. It also wasn’t just another Wednesday night for another reason. Just before 7pm, Larry Ashbrook walked in carrying two pistols. In the foyer, he began his shooting spree. When he walked into the sanctuary, no one had heard the gunshots because of the loud music, and he began firing into the crowds of youth while shouting obscenities. Pandemonium soon broke out as students began screaming and ducking for cover. Larry fired three magazines full of ammunition and threw a pipe bomb before he sat down on a pew and put one of the pistols to his own head ending the terror. In the aftermath, 4 teenagers, 2 college students and 1 adult had been murdered, seven others wounded and the gunman dead by suicide.
Unfortunately such shootings are not uncommon. Between 1999 and 2009 there have been 274 violent incidences at churches/ministries resulting in 241 deaths. The counter-terrorism community acknowledges churches as ‘soft targets’. Soft targets are those people, places or things that are unprotected and vulnerable to terrorist attack. There is usually little or no security at most churches, and this writer would venture to add that most churches do not have a disaster preparedness plan or even an evacuation plan. Christian theology holds that God is sovereign and that God can take something evil and bring good out of it. This writer wholly agrees, but this should not be used as an excuse for being unprepared for such evil.
There are legitimate concerns over how far a church should go in protecting itself. Jesus has called his followers to be peacemakers. He also tells us to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” Because of Bible verses like these some churches adopt a totally passive and pacifistic view concerning church security. Others, however, point to the fact that Jesus used violence to defend the Temple from thieves and peddlers (Mark 11:15-17). Jesus also exhorted his disciples to take provisions with them as they went out including a sword in Luke 22:36. And, some will argue that Christ tacitly approves the use of force within the context of defense and war when he offers no advice to the Roman soldiers who believed in Him to lay down their weapons or choose a different occupation. As a Southern Baptist, my denomination has been predominantly of the later thinkers. Southern Baptists have served in the military, been police officers, intelligence officers and everything in between. Usually, Baptists have no problem in the use of force to defend people and property especially in the context of the United States, which still allows such means legally. In a recent church shooting in Colorado, an off duty police officer, who was providing church security, shot and stopped the attacker. Though the attacker killed two people, undoubtedly the death toll would have been higher without the armed intervention of the volunteer church security guard. This writer believes that churches should take a closer look at security weather it is a very proactive security such as armed guards or if a pacifist mindset exists the church should still provide less aggressive means of protection and planning.
Most of the acts of violence at churches and ministries in the United States have to do with mentally disturbed individuals and are not political. However there exists an increasing threat to ‘soft targets’ because of the growing radicalization of Moslems in the U.S.
Threat Assessment of Terrorism
There are three disturbing trends within the United States that have increased the threat level for political and religious terrorism. One is the radical Islamic movement within U.S. prisons. Radical Islamic clerics, usually of the extreme Wahhabi Islam, have targeted U.S. prisons as prime recruiting grounds. These clerics take advantage of the First Amendment freedoms of the Constitution to gain access and provide literature to prisoners. Because of the current “political correctness” within our government, it is difficult to weed out the jihadists. “The pervasiveness of the radicalization of Muslim chaplains needs further study because many are not from a supremacist mindset, but the problem is certainly profound.” “The former head Muslim Chaplain for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, Imam Umar, said he found that prisons ‘are a powder keg’ and ‘the perfect recruitment and training ground’ for his Wahhabi ideas and radicalism.” Umar also stated that the U.S. would face a war that would “be carried out by prison inmates converted to radical Islam.”
The second trend is the founding of Islamic training camps across the country. Jama’at al-Fuqra is an Islamist organization in the United States that means “Community of the impoverished.” Mubarak Gilani founded it in 1980. Two front groups for this organization are Muslims for the Americas and the International Quranic Open University. Basically these groups are missionary and training centers for radical Islam. They maintain about 20-30 compounds across America where converts can learn radical Islamic ideology and train in terrorist activities. Radical Islamic converts from the prison system have been trained at some of these facilities. “The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. investigators are discovering that more and more young Muslims are vanishing from mosques, madrassahs, and Islamic centers. The disappearances, the Journal notes, are raising grave concerns among FBI and Homeland Security officials who fear that an onset of jahadi activity will take place on American soil in the near future.”
The third and final trend, that is taking place exacerbating the terror threat level in the U.S., is the conversion and training of Mexican and South American drug cartels. The Iranian backed terrorist group Hezbollah, has established itself in Venezuela with the help of President Chavez. They have training camps and are using drug money to fund terrorism. Latin American gangs MS-13 and MS-18, former rivals, adopted a peace deal in 2007 . “The success of this treaty is demonstrated by the growing number of schools in Honduras, Panama and Venezuela where gang members are taught Arabic and instructed in Islamic fundamentalism while the terrorists who are waiting to be smuggled into the U.S. are taught Spanish and Hispanic culture.” This could be the greatest of all the threats to the U.S. Islamic fundamentalism coupled with the Latin American narcotics trade may provide the very instability that our enemies want. By coupling these two, it provides an endless supply of drugs, money, and weapons and the ability for terrorists to strike into the heartland of America.
Counter-terrorism for the Church
Counter-terrorism is the practices, strategies and tactics employed by organizations to respond to terrorist threats or actions. Given the risks of terror activity to the United States, churches, which are vulnerable to attack as proven already by the increased violence over the last ten years, should adopt strategies in order to mitigate the effects of terrorism. Here are some examples of churches that may be at higher risk for terrorist targeting: 1. Churches in close proximity to military bases and who have many military families in attendance. 2. Churches that are located in close proximity to radical Moslem populations. 3. Churches who specifically and effectually target Moslems for evangelism and conversion. 4. Churches who are outspoken in regards to support of Israel. There are other factors that may come into play but these four have been listed for consideration. However, the greatest risk factor for churches is the fact that they are soft targets and they stand in opposition to an Islamic rule. Churches can take simple steps to begin security. Here are some ideas: 1. Train ushers to watch for weapons. 2. Organize and share with the congregation an emergency exit plan. 3. Install cameras to watch parking lots and exits (with the increased technology, particularly web cams and computer systems, this type of security is less expensive and easier to operate today). 4. Muster volunteer security (off duty police who attend the church or military members are a good place to start). 5. Hire professional security. 6. Contact security consultants who specialize in dealing with churches. 7. In a church leadership meeting, bring up the topic, get ideas and find out the pulse of your churches leadership regarding security and counter-terrorism. In the United States, we still have the constitutional right to freely practice religion and we should be pro-active to protect this right and to make sure our congregations have a peaceful and safe place in which to worship God.