The FBI is seeking help from the community in gathering intelligence that could help prevent future hate crimes in the Pittsburgh area.
Four FBI agents joined Brad Orsini, director of Jewish community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, on Jan. 29 for a discussion at Rodef Shalom Congregation on extremism and hate crime indicators. The purpose of the program was not to talk about the massacre that happened at the Tree of Life synagogue building last fall, but to empower community members to identify and report indicators that could prevent the occurrence of future hate crimes, Orsini said.
“Anti-Semitism is increasing, and it is increasing in our community,” Orsini explained. “My job is to help the community recognize the signs of hate.”
Orsini held up a small plastic bag, one of many containing literature purportedly from the KKK that had been found a few weeks ago around Squirrel Hill.
“I’ve been here in Pittsburgh since 2004, and I never heard from the KKK until three or four weeks ago,” he said. The bags were filled with bird seed to give them weight so they would not blow away.
If a community member finds such a package, he should leave the bag unopened and call the police, Orsini instructed. The bird seed should not be touched, and no photos of it should be posted on social media.
Hate crimes against Jews in America rose by more than a third in 2017 and accounted for 58 percent of all religion-based hate crimes, according to data released in November by the FBI. The report noted a 23 percent increase in religion-based hate crimes in 2017 to 1,564, representing about 20 percent of all hate crimes.
While distributing a bag with literature and bird seed is not a hate crime, it is “hate speech,” Orsini said, and should be reported.
“We need puzzle pieces to put together a picture,” said FBI supervisory intelligence analyst Matt Trosan. “The more puzzle pieces, the better the picture, the more likely we are to mitigate the problem.”
The panelists explained that a federal hate crime is defined as one in which the offender is motivated by bias against race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity. The crime does not necessarily need to rise to the level of violence.
“Any defacing or hateful graffiti on a religious establishment” can be a hate crime, said intelligence analyst Jade Burka. If any such graffiti is discovered, community members should document it with photos and report it to Orisini, local law enforcement or the FBI.
The FBI “cannot and does not ‘surf’ for offensive or hateful speech or materials,” he noted. But, “if a community member says he feels threatened, that opens the door to the FBI to go looking.”
To help the approximately 200 community members who turned out for the program identify indicators of the presence of hate groups, FBI staff operations specialist Madisyn Moore projected a slide of 15 common symbols used by hate groups including the KKK, the Aryan Brotherhood and the Keystone State Skinheads.
“Our goal is to make sure these incidents don’t occur in the first place,” Moore said, again urging the crowd to report any sighting of any of the symbols or any other indicators of hate.
Behavioral indicators can include “leakage,” revealing “some kind of observable behavior that sounds like it is alluding to violence,” and the increased dissemination or sharing of propaganda.
While there is no profile for a perpetrator of violent extremism, “statistically it’s white men,” she said.
In about 73 percent of hate crimes, the offenders have a connection to the attack site; 77 percent of anti-Semitic attacks were preceded by a week or more of attack planning, Moore said. That typical week of planning “is an opportunity for the community to report something suspicious.”
Racially motivated extremists have been shifting “away from the fringes to the mainstream,” Moore cautioned. The trend is a movement away “from the stereotypical look of a KKK member,” aiming to “come across as respectful, fill political seats and increase recruits.”
The internet has facilitated the proliferation of extremists, allowing them to radicalize without even formally affiliating with a hate group, according to Moore.
Because social media and other internet posts can be deleted, community members seeing hateful speech or symbols online should preserve them with screenshots, she added.
Supervisory intelligence analyst John Fulcastro cautioned against engaging with extremists online, warning that such debate could make one vulnerable to both cyber attacks and physical attacks.
Offensive words or actions do not need to rise to the level of a hate crime in order to report them, the agents stressed.
“Some things that were reported to Brad [Orsini] led us to significant investigation in a school district,” revealed Fulcastro. “You may have stopped a school shooting.”
Everything “has intelligence value, everything fits into our puzzle some way,” said Burka. “It may not rise to the level of a federal hate crime, but we are looking at the big picture.”
To report suspicious or hateful activity, the panelists encouraged community members to get in touch with Orsini at BOrsini@jfedpgh.org, call the FBI at 412-432-4000 or go to www.fbi.gov/tips.
To report an immediate threat or danger, call 911. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at