By John Altdorfer
PITTSBURGH (Reuters) – A gunman yelling, “All Jews must die,” stormed a Pittsburgh synagogue during Saturday services, killing at least eleven worshippers and wounding six others, including four police officers, before he was arrested.
CNN reported at least 10 dead, while the Washington Post put the death toll at 11. A federal law enforcement official had told Reuters earlier that at least 8 people were killed.
“It’s a very horrific crime scene, one of the worst that I’ve seen,” Pittsburgh public safety director Wendell Hissrich told a news conference near the scene.
“This falls under hate crime,” he said, adding there was no active threat to the community and that the shooter had been taken to a hospital.
KDKA television cited police sources as saying the gunman walked into the building and yelled “All Jews must die.”
Three police officers were shot and one was injured by shrapnel, Alleghany County spokeswoman Amie Downs said in an email. Two of the six people injured were in critical condition, Downs said, but would not immediately say if the count of six injured people included the suspect.
Authorities and elected officials were expected to provide more details at a 4 p.m. (2000 GMT) news conference. The Federal Bureau of Investigation will lead the probe into the attack.
Two sources identified the suspect as a 46-year-old Pittsburgh man, Robert Bowers.
A social media post by Bowers said a Jewish refugee organization, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, “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.”
The comment was posted on Gab, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based social networking service created as an alternative to Twitter. In a statement, Gab.com confirmed the profile belonged to Bowers.
“Gab took swift and proactive action to contact law enforcement immediately,” it said. “We first backed up all user data from the account and then proceeded to suspend the account. We then contacted the FBI and made them aware of this account and the user data in our possession.”
The shooting, for which one federal law enforcement official said Bowers used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, prompted security alerts at houses of worship around the country. It follows a spate of pipe bombs found mailed in recent days to prominent political figures, mostly Democrats including former President Barack Obama.
The Tree of Life synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, a heavily Jewish area, was holding a Shabbat religious service at the time of the shooting.
Police are normally only present at the synagogue for security on high holidays, Michael Eisenberg, former president of the synagogue, told KDKA.
“On a day like today, the door is open, it’s a religious service, you can walk in and out,” he said.
Around the time, three congregations amounting to about 100 people would have been using the building, Eisenberg said. Most of the congregants were older people, according to a former rabbi interviewed by local media.
Shortly after reports of the shooting emerged, U.S. President Donald Trump said in a tweet he was watching what he described as a “devastating” situation.
Trump told reporters later that the killings might have been prevented if there had been an armed guard in the building.
“If they had some kind of a protection inside the temple maybe it could have been a much more different situation, they didn’t,” he said when asked about a possible link to U.S. gun laws.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “This is likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”
On April 13, 2014, a pair of shootings occurred at a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish retirement community, both located in Overland Park, Kansas. A total of three people were killed in the shootings.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was heartbroken, describing the attack as “horrendous anti-Semitic brutality.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said, “I want to express our sadness and support to the American people.”
France is home to western Europe’s biggest Jewish population and many in the 400,000-strong community have complained for years of a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes.
In 2015, vandals desecrated 250 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France days after four Jews were killed in an attack on a kosher grocery in Paris.
In the United States that year, a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans during a prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina.
In 2012, a neo-Nazi gunman with white supremacist ties walked into a Sikh gurdwara – or house of worship – in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and murdered six Sikh Americans.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Jarrett Renshaw in New York and Mark Hosenball, David Brunnstrom and Timothy Gardner in Washington and Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris; Writing by Nick Zieminski; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Chizu Nomiyama)