The Call to Radicalism, Both at Home and Abroad


After violence broke out between white nationalist protestors and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a 20-year old man from Ohio drove his vehicle into a crowd, killing one counter-protestor and injuring several others. The echoes of a terrorist tactic the world has seen in France and Germany leaves the United States asking questions about the threat of white nationalism and domestic terror on its own soil.

Back in April, The Cipher Brief examined the similarities between right wing and jihadist inspired terrorism and how both forms of violence continue to threaten U.S. national security.

Over the last two decades, the U.S. government, Intelligence Community, and law enforcement apparatus have worked tirelessly to ensure that a repeat of 9/11 does not occur on U.S. soil. Through such efforts, the U.S. national security establishment has thwarted several terrorist plots and mitigated many of the risks posed by foreign and domestic entities seeking to harm the U.S. homeland.

However, despite these successes, individuals in the U.S. remain susceptible to ideological influences. While much attention during the last 16 years has been focused on those drawn to jihadist messaging, right-wing extremist groups continue to exist in the United States.

Both jihadist and right-wing ideologies have been categorized by the U.S. government under the broad umbrella of “extremism,” leading many to ask what are some of the similarities and differences between the radicalization processes of these two types of extremism.

With respect to jihadist messaging, the narrative put forth by al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups targets individuals from various backgrounds who feel alienated by the societies that they live in, and who want a sense of purpose.

One of the leading jihadist ideologues was the U.S.-born al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Prior to his death in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011, al-Awlaki inspired and even helped plan acts of violence in the U.S., including the attempted “underwear bombing” on Christmas in 2008 and the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009. Even after his death, al-Awlaki’s impact was felt following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing when his speeches were cited as inspiration by the two radicalized Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for carrying out the attack.

“Al-Awlaki talked about a very romantic view of what the jihad was and what a future Islamist state would look like,” explains Charlie Allen, Cipher Brief Expert and Former Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “His messages appealed to various people who had trouble integrating or assimilating into American, European, or Canadian society.”

“Al-Awlaki was very well received by the audience he was addressing,” continues Allen, who was also the first U.S. official to publically recognize al-Awlaki as a threat to U.S. national security. “If you’ve ever watched his videos, you can see how they can attract young minds that are not comfortable within American, Canadian, or Western European societies. “

A significant portion of al-Awlaki’s messaging was disseminated via online videos or through al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine that was published in various languages, including English. Part of what made al-Awlaki such an effective recruiter was his ability to harness grievances felt by disenfranchised individuals and provide them with a euphoric sense of opportunity to harm the very societies in which they felt ostracized.

In the years since al-Awlaki’s death, terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda have utilized social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook, encrypted communication applications such as Telegram, and online videos to recruit new members and lure them to either travel abroad and fight on their behalf, or conduct acts of terror in their home countries. The jihadist storyline portrays the West as an enemy of Islam, claiming that the West is trying to impose its will on Muslim lands. Only by participating in jihad against the West will Muslim lands be saved, an Islamic caliphate created, and the world reach a phase of final salvation.

ISIS specifically has transformed this message to appeal to a wide variety of people.

“ISIS’ message is dangerous because it is extremely sticky, but for a counterintuitive reason,” wrote Patrick Skinner in The Cipher Brief in November 2015.

“ISIS rejects almost every other group and belief system, but its message does the exact opposite: it offers something for everyone,” explained Skinner. “The universality of the message makes the group extremely dangerous; it is able to draw in people from across the spectrum of geography, education, nationality, and personality.”

Since 9/11, the jihadist narrative has dominated the attention of many in the U.S. security establishment. Yet, some experts argue that this laser focus on the methods and ideologies of international jihadist groups has left a major blind spot in the public perception of U.S. domestic terrorism. In that blind spot lies a wide constellation of violent white supremacist groups and anti-government right-wing organizations who, according to research from New America, have killed more people in the United States than jihadist groups since 2002. What’s more, many of the methodologies and tactics used by these domestic organizations mimic, or have perhaps even inspired, those used by foreign jihadist groups.

In a recent study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a majority of the 382 federal, state, and municipal law enforcement agencies surveyed by the researchers listed anti-government extremist organizations ahead of jihadists as the most pressing threat of political violence. Given the proliferation and armament of such groups, this is hardly surprising. Cases involving terror plots by such anti-government extremists – many of whom adhere to some form of white supremacist ideology – garner less media attention than jihadist activities, but they occur just as frequently.

For instance, last October the FBI thwarted a plot by three members of a right-wing militia called the Kansas Security Forces, to blow up a community mosque in Garden City, KS, with homemade explosives. According to case documents released by the FBI, the would-be bombers were motivated by virulent Islamophobia and had accumulated many of the components needed to construct a bomb, as well as heavy weapons, and “close to a metric ton” of ammunition.

According to Michael German, a 16-year FBI veteran who spent 20 months undercover with a number of prominent white supremacist groups in the 1990s, a quick comparison between this kind of domestic terrorism and the tactics used by foreign jihadists reveals striking similarities. He argues that “terrorism is a methodology, and all groups that use terrorism tend to follow the same strategies.” When German went undercover with these groups, he expected aimless and violent rage. “Instead,” he says, “they were handing me pamphlets and literature, and signing me up for newsletters.”

Similar to the way an al Qaeda ideologue like Anwar al-Awlaki might hope to indirectly radicalize susceptible individuals simply by spreading his message as far as possible, the white supremacist organizations that German infiltrated largely communicate through open publication in order to “promote broadly the methodologies they expect people to use.”

In fact, this method of cutting the lines of communication between an organization’s leadership and operational arms, and then promoting a virulent ideology to inspire “lone wolf” attacks, may well have been pioneered by American white nationalists. Louis Beam – a former member of the Klu Klux Klan and active member in militant white nationalist groups, including Aryan Nations – published a widely read and translated essay on this subject called “Leaderless Resistance” in 1992. That essay advised militant groups to abandon hierarchical structures and encourage leaderless cells of likeminded militants to organize their own independent attacks. This strategy is almost identical to tactics that groups like al Qaeda, and now ISIS, have employed to get around ever more effective counterterrorism efforts.

In short, when we look at the radicalization process and methods of domestic right-wing extremists, there is a significant – and longstanding – overlap with the tactics used by jihadist groups to radicalize new recruits. However, there is far less focus on the radicalization process in these domestic terror groups. This, thinks German, could be a good thing. Focusing on radicalization, he says, leads counterterrorism policymakers to believe that “the problem is in the head,” and that the best way to defeat terrorism is to combat the ideologies that inspire it. However, he continues, “it is very hard to kill ideas, even very bad ideas.” Better instead to focus on detecting and preventing the criminal violence, rather than waste time fighting the ideologies that inspire it.

This article originally appeared on The Cipher Brief on April 20, 2017.

Bennett Seftel (@BennettSeftel) is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief, and Fritz Lodge (@FritzLodge) is an analyst covering the Middle East and international economics.