Tracking Domestic Extremist Groups

Image by Elvert Barnes

The mail bomb campaign perpetrated by Cesar Sayoc and the mass shooting committed by Robert Bowers in Philadelphia are a stark reminder that the threat of domestic right-wing violence is growing. In the aftermath of 9/11, the majority of government intelligence, security, and investigative resources were directed toward countering Al-Qa’ida and like-minded Islamist extremist groups.

In the intervening years, however, the threat from white nationalist, neo-Nazi, and other extreme right-wing actors has grown while the attention of security services was focused elsewhere. According to a recent Quartz analysis of START data, out of 65 terrorism incidents recorded in the United states in 2017, 37 (or two-thirds) were tied to “racist, anti-Muslim, homophobic, anti-Semitic, fascist, anti-government or xenophobic motivations.”

And 2017 was not an outlier: a partial list of deadly incidents in the last four years indicates that we must improve our efforts to understand and be prepared to meet the rising threat of domestic right-wing extremism:

In 2018:

  • The perpetrator of the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, who killed 17 people, was involved in racist hate group activity online.
  • A member of the neo-Nazi Attomwaffen Division murdered a former classmate in a suspected hate crime in California.
  • A member of the KKK and Aryan Nations murdered a black woman in her home in Kansas.

In 2017:

  • A neo-Nazi attending a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer.
  • A man in Kansas killed two Indian men who he believed were “Middle Eastern.”
  • A white nationalist killed a black man with a sword in New York City in a “practice run” to kill other black men.
  • A man stabbed three good Samaritans on a train in Portland who intervened in his verbal attack on a Muslim woman.
  • A follower of the “Alt-Reich Nation” killed a black student (and newly commissioned Army officer) in Maryland.
  • A white nationalist killed two students in a high school shooting in New Mexico.

In 2016:

  • Three men in Kansas were arrested for plotting a series of attacks targeting Somali immigrants.

In 2015:

  • A white supremacist killed nine people in racially-motivated mass shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
  • A neo-Nazi supporter opened fire in a movie theater in Louisiana, killing two people.
  • A white supremacist killed nine people in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
  • Four men from Minnesota were arrested for a shooting at a Black Lives Matter rally in Minneapolis.

In 2009, Department of Homeland Security analyst Daryl Johnson was a voice in the wilderness sounding the alarm about the growing threat of domestic extremist groups. He prepared a nine-page report for law enforcement use that generated a media firestorm when it was leaked. Under political pressure by conservative media groups to retract the report,  DHS rescinded it. Following Sayoc’s bombing campaign, media outlets drew attention to his story, and Johnson recently published an op-ed describing how his report was silenced.

However, Johnson was not alone in his recognition of the evolving threat in the United States. In 2013, The Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point also published several prescient reports on the “violent far-right” in America.

There are many other organizations that track or study nationalist, extreme right, and other hate groups:

  • The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland publishes a Global Terrorism Database and other excellent research papers on all forms of terrorist violence.
  • The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) studies and tracks anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. Their website has resources on hate symbols, profiles of hate groups, and information on the tactics, techniques, and procedures of many groups.
  • University of California Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies has a series of academic research papers on right-wing extremist groups.
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center also studies and tracks hate groups.

These organizations offer data about groups, their activities, and their leadership, and they can serve as a resource for anyone who needs to get up to speed about the nature of the threat posed by domestic hate groups.

For anyone seeking to learn about the paths to radicalization, much of the work done to study Islamist terrorist groups remains highly relevant in understanding right-wing extremist radicalization. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police published an succinct “awareness guide” to introduce key concepts about the path to violent extremist action.

In the same way that many security leaders learned about terrorism, recruitment, and radicalization after 9/11, we must now educate ourselves on right-wing extremism, which is truly a home-grown threat.

Lianne Kennedy-Boudali
Lianne Kennedy-Boudali
Lianne is Vice President for Strategy and Intelligence.