An unsettling week of threats and bombs sent to various high-profile political figures and pundits culminated in the arrest of a suspect in south Florida, a reckoning online, and a whole slew of conspiracy theories around the bombs and the culprit.
Cesar Sayoc, Jr. already had a long list of convictions by the time he was arrested for and quickly charged with sending homemade pipe bombs to various high-profile critics of United States president Donald Trump, including a history of domestic violence, petty crime, and at least one previous bomb threat:
In 2002, he called FPL because he was upset about the amount of his bill, court records show. “The defendant then stated that he didn’t deserve it and that he was going to blow up FPL,” according to files released by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.
“FPL will get what they deserve and will be worse than 9/11,” Sayoc said, according to the case notes.
Sayoc also told an FPL employee that he “was going to blow her head off,” according to the case file. The call was recorded and Sayoc was later arrested by state law enforcement agents. He was sentenced to one year of probation.
Sayoc also showed a marked bent toward conspiracy theories and violent imagery. He had reportedly been behaving erratically for years and had been driving a van covered in strange pictures for some time before he sent the bombs:
Gureghian, the general manager of New River Pizza and Fresh Kitchen, said that Sayoc worked as a delivery-truck driver for several months but quit in January. The white van he drove to deliver pizzas was covered in disturbing images, she said, so the restaurant required him to park it on the side where it could not be seen.
“It was puppets with their heads cut off, mannequins with their heads cut off, Ku Klux Klan, a black person being hung, anti-gay symbols, torchings, bombings, you name it, it was all over his truck,” Gureghian said.
But at some point he changed. “This is not a criminal mastermind by any stretch of the imagination, but he has had numerous interactions with law enforcement,” Miami defense attorney David Weinstein, who formerly served as the chief of the counter-terrorism section in the U.S. attorney’s office, told the Miami Herald. “Something obviously triggered in him to take it one step further than he had ever gone before.”
Reporters and disinformation experts who looked over his social media presence say that his posts and tweets showed a clear, marked transformation — what they call his radicalization — in 2016:
The genesis of Mr. Sayoc’s partisan awakening may never be known, but hints of it first appeared on his Facebook feed in early 2016, as the primary season for the presidential election was starting.
That February, he posted a link to a conspiracy theory video on YouTube titled, “Is Barack Obama THE ANTICHRIST — 100% PROOF Is There!” Days later, he posted a second YouTube video, “Satan Sent Obama to Destroy America,” and a clip featuring Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, which was called, “MUST HEAR: Sean Exposes Illegal Immigrant Crime Stats.” He posted several anti-Obama videos multiple times on his feed, interspersed with stories about personal finance and his favorite soccer players.
By the summer, Mr. Sayoc’s social media activity was all politics, all the time.
Before that, Sayoc’s social media presence had been innocuous and relatively quiet. Suddenly, though, things changed, says media and disinformation expert Jonathan Albright:
On Twitter, he had a brief period of activity in June 2016, not long after he created his account on April 27, 2016. After that, his activity was low from July 2016 until early 2018. It jumped on Feb 2, 2018 – and except for April, he was very active from that point on.
— J0nathan A1bright (@d1gi) October 26, 2018
What caused this leap? It’s not clear, but his radicalization seems to have truly begun in April 2016:
I’ve looked carefully through 2 years of Facebook posts. Around April 28, 2016, I’d say Cesar Altieri was radicalized. Before, cars, women, real estate, bodybuilding. His entire demeanor changed on that day. The beginning of his decline started w/a “jewsnews” shared story.
— J0nathan A1bright (@d1gi) October 26, 2018
By 2018, he was posting obsessively about people like the Clintons, the Obamas, George Soros, and others, culminating in glass-packed bombs sent by courier or hand-delivered to the objects of his hatred — at least thirteen in all. His former boss told the Washington Post that he was very angry at the world, particularly black, Jewish, and gay people:
Gureghian, who is lesbian, said that Sayoc made constant remarks about her sexuality.
“He used to tell me all the time that I was deformed and Jesus made a mistake in me,” she said.
She said Sayoc quit in January and told her he had trained to be a truck driver hauling hazardous materials, with a “top secret” clearance.
“He would categorize himself as a white supremacist,” she said. “He would just say, ‘Take back the world. That’s what he would always say, ‘Take back the world.’ ”
He openly threatened public figures on social media, but platforms did nothing about it:
Many recipients of Mr. Sayoc’s social media wrath most likely disregarded it, or wrote him off as just another overzealous troll. But the few who tried to sound the alarm appear to have been ignored. This month, Rochelle Ritchie, a Democratic political commentator, complained to Twitter that Mr. Sayoc had sent her a threatening message after she appeared on Fox News. The company replied that Mr. Sayoc’s tweet did not violate its rules against abuse.
Disinformation purveyors and professional trolls had been pushing the line that the attacks were “false flag” events, designed to frighten the populace with fake news of planned (but ultimately harmless) attacks. Most of them went abruptly silent on the topic immediately after the suspect was arrested.