The process of radicalization, by which disaffected members of society are convinced to embrace violent means to pursue the goals of a terrorist ideology, has been intensely studied since the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, the threat of international terrorism has become one of the main foci of U.S. national security policy. Similarly, the question of how to interrupt the radicalization process of jihadist groups has become the subject of intense research. However, terrorism against the United States is not a new threat, nor one limited to extremist Islamist groups. White supremacist groups have long presented homegrown domestic threat and, in many ways, their operations, tactics, and terrorist recruitment processes bear a striking similarity to those used by jihadist groups such as ISIS or al Qaeda. The Cipher Brief spoke with Michael German, a former undercover agent for the FBI and current Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, about the path to terror.
The Cipher Brief: You worked for 16 years at the FBI and, during that time, you infiltrated several violent white nationalist organizations. Can you tell me a bit about your time undercover, and talk about the groups that you infiltrated?
Michael German: When a colleague came to me with the proposal to go undercover it seemed like an interesting case. In the aftermath of riots after the acquittals of four LAPD police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, the white supremacists that the agent was investigating were talking about accumulating and amassing significant weaponry in anticipation of a second set of riots. In that period of turmoil, I held myself out for recruiting as a criminal and they were looking for the criminal skills that I claimed to possess.
One of the things that we had discovered through our informant was that the various white supremacist groups – then the biggest ones were the Church of the Creator, the White Aryan Resistance, the Aryan Nations, the National Alliance, etc. – did not get along with each other, and in fact hated each other in many cases. Thus, if you actually joined one group, your ability to interact with the other groups was seriously diminished. Luckily, we knew to avoid joining the groups, which also was helpful because it worked against what their profile of an FBI infiltrator would look like, which was somebody who is very eager to join.
Initially we were focused on the manufacture and accumulation of illegal machine guns, but during the course of the investigation we were introduced to a group that had been engaged in a number of bombings and we managed to recover several more explosives, as well as prevent some of the plots they were planning.
TCB: Can you tell me more about the recruitment and radicalization process of these groups, specifically as it related to you and what you saw happen to other entry-level recruits coming into these organizations?
MG: This is an area where there is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding, this concept of radicalization. One of the things that I did to prepare for my undercover stint was to look at the research on what makes somebody a terrorist so that I could craft my persona around that model.
At the time, there were two schools of terrorism research. One, led primarily by psychologists, argued that only some sort of mental defect would allow someone to engage in such a horrific activity – one that harms innocent civilians who don’t have anything to do with the person’s grievances. The other school was made up of political scientists who argued that terrorism is just one type of political violence involved in a political, social, economic scheme, and you can’t understand that one thin slice of violence without understanding the context of the broader political violence taking place.
What the science showed was that there really isn’t a lot of evidence for a mental defect, and what I discovered once I joined these groups is they are very practical and not particularly ideological, because too much ideology causes conflict in groups that have similar goals. All the white supremacists basically agreed on the goal of achieving an all-white nation, but they disagreed on why that was necessary. Some were Christians who believed that white people were the Israelites referred to in the Bible. They were very religious, went to church services, carried Bibles with them, etc. Then there were other groups, like the White Aryan Resistance, who were atheistic and believed that religion was a Jewish creation designed to make the white nation submissive. So you can imagine that those two groups would not get along.
What I found was that the criminal underground recognized this problem and endeavored not to be very ideological in order to interact with these disparate groups. In addition, they considered themselves to be the vanguard of the movement and, in the same way that you wouldn’t expect a 19- or 20-year-old Marine recruit to understand the geopolitical strategy involved in their deployment, you wouldn’t really expect these people – who were much more practically oriented towards operational activities – to engage too heavily in the ideology. So what they were looking for was somebody who I presented, somebody who had been a successful criminal and was able to smuggle materials without getting caught, that’s why they wanted me around. Of course, I pretended to be very interested in their ideology, but it was really my criminal skills that they were interested in.
TCB: So there were two arms of the organizations, the ideological proselytizing wing and the practical operational arm, is that right?
MG: Right. And I think what surprised me most was that the ideological side of it was not directly invested in the violent wing of the movement. The idea at the time was that the ideological side of the movement was in favor of the violence but was just trying not to go to jail, so they kept it at an arm’s distance. I’m sure this was true in some cases but, on the whole, they were opposed to violence because they thought violence would be harmful to their ability to proselytize. They thought that the value of their ideas would win out.
When I was at events with some of these groups somebody would always come up to me and say, “Why are you hanging out with those losers? You seem like a sharp kid, somebody that isn’t covered in Nazi tattoos. We could clean you up, put a suit on you, and run you for office. You could do a lot more to further our ideology that way than doing something where your path is the grave or jail.” This really taught me that focusing on the criminal element was the way to engage in effective, proactive counterterrorism. But unfortunately, after 9/11, the FBI resuscitated this idea of radicalization.
This is interesting if you know the history because basically, by the late 1990s, the psychological theory that terrorism is some kind of mental defect had been debunked. In fact, there’s very little mental illness in terrorist groups, which makes sense if you’re in a clandestine war against a government much more powerful than yourself; you can’t risk having people with mental illness in your group, that’s not a recipe for success. However, rather than acknowledge that, “ok this isn’t a mental defect,” the government resurrected this idea of radicalization, the idea that the problem is in the head of the people that are doing harm. This allowed them to refrain from exploring the idea that this is part of a wider conflict that government policies have some influence on, that it’s a push- and-pull reaction to what’s going on in society.
There are good reasons why the government doesn’t like this context model, because then you would have to talk about how government policies interact with the world. If the government can convince everyone that this is really just a problem of bad ideas and bad people, then you don’t have to look at the bigger picture.
TCB: When you look at these kinds of white nationalist groups and you look at a group like ISIS or al Qaeda, their ideologies are very different but many of their tactics are the same. When you look at these groups, what are the biggest similarities and what are the biggest differences?
MG: Absolutely. When I left the FBI I wrote a book about this called “Thinking Like a Terrorist” in which I tried to explain that terrorism is a methodology and that all the groups that use terrorism tend to follow the same strategies.
One of the things that surprised me when I went undercover was how much these groups published about their methods and motives. I expected aimless violence, anger, and hatred. Instead, they were handing me pamphlets and literature, and signing me up for newsletters. And all this stuff was open-source, partly because these organizations are clandestine. They can’t directly communicate with one another so the way they communicate is through publication. They promote broadly the methodologies they expect people to use.
A former Klansman named Louis Beam published a piece arguing that groups could no longer afford to be hierarchical because police had gotten good at tracing those hierarchies, no matter what secret methods they tried to use. Instead, people should follow a model of leaderless resistance where groups of likeminded people just come together without direct orders and participate in attacks that they expect would help further the cause.
After 9/11, when there was a focus on al Qaeda, everyone was pretending these things were brand new, but if you knew the tactics you could predict exactly each step they were going to make. And again, all this is published. If you look at the al Qaeda manual it’s really not that different from the Irish Republican Army green book or a lot of the white supremacist documents. There’s even a Brazilian Communist, Carlos Marighella, who was one of the first to put all of this on paper in the Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla.
So it was very frustrating to me in the three years after 9/11 before I left the FBI that we weren’t paying attention to those manuals, paying attention to what those tactics were, and trying to get in front of their tactics. Instead, we did what they wanted us to, which was respond emotionally in a very broad way. This helped them to expand the conflict and, as we can see almost 16 years later, we are continuing to expand that conflict across the globe, where it would have been better to respond in a much more narrowly focused way.