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Feds say man planned mass shooting of Black people to start ‘race war’

The headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigations on a foggy morning on Dec. 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C.  (Samuel Corum)
By Justine McDaniel Washington Post

An Arizona man plotted to target Black people in a mass shooting this spring with the goal of inciting a “race war” before the 2024 election, a federal grand jury charged this week.

Mark Prieto, 58, of Prescott, Arizona, made plans to carry out the attack in Atlanta, hoping to target African Americans and other non-white people, according to the indictment. From January to May, he allegedly discussed the idea with people who he believed to share his racist beliefs – but who turned out to be an FBI source and an FBI undercover agent.

Prieto made the plans with them during meetups at gun shows across Arizona, fixating on the racist messages he wanted to send and the desire to “fight back” against Black, Jewish and Muslim people, according to the criminal complaint.

He “wanted it clear that the attack was racially motivated,” FBI Special Agent Ryan Harp wrote in the complaint. Prieto allegedly said he planned to leave Confederate flags at the shooting venue and to shout phrases including “Black lives don’t matter, White lives matter.”

The concert he wanted to target was not identified by name in the court documents. Its dates and location align with an appearance by the artist Bad Bunny at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. Prieto sought to target a rap concert because he believed Black people would be there, the complaint says.

Prieto was charged with firearms trafficking and related counts after allegedly selling two rifles in February and March to the undercover agent. He was jailed in Arizona and has no attorney listed in that case. An attorney in New Mexico, where Prieto was arrested, did not return a call from the Washington Post on Thursday.

According to the indictment, Prieto said his attack needed to happen before November’s presidential election. He allegedly spoke about a desire to incite a race war and his belief that the government would impose martial law after the election.

In his conversations with the FBI source and undercover agent, Prieto allegedly strategized about what type of gun to use, what to wear, how to escape, how to broadcast messages during the attack and other logistics. He allegedly sold an AR-15 rifle to the undercover agent and told him to use it in the attack.

In early May, Prieto allegedly said he was going to travel to Atlanta to do reconnaissance work. He decided he may not carry out the attack at the concert and instead talked about attacking a mosque later in the summer, according to the indictment.

On May 14, law enforcement officers stopped Prieto as he drove through New Mexico. He said he was going to visit his mother in Florida and allegedly acknowledged he had discussed carrying out an attack in Atlanta but said he did not intend to do so, according to the complaint.

A trial date had not been set as of Friday.

In recent years, factors including extremism online, mistrust of government and the growing influence of Christian nationalism – including ideas promoted by some conservative elected officials and candidates – have had an influence on U.S. politics. The country has seen racially motivated mass shootings in El Paso, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; Buffalo, New York; and elsewhere.

The rise in extremism has deep historical roots in the United States, said Alvin Tillery Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Democracy and Diversity at Northwestern University. After the Civil Rights Act was passed, demonstrations of white supremacy became “more reserved … and now we’re in a more open phase again,” he said.

The belief in a need to “stop the theft of this country” by liberal or non-White people has led to cases of political violence, said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

“This case is symptomatic of the state of political violence and extremism in the United States today,” Lewis said. The idea of committing an “act of mass violence with the hopes that it will trigger a cascade of violence … is an increasingly common narrative within a lot of these far-right neo-Nazi spaces.”