Bottom Line Up Front
- Between 2009 and 2018, 73.3% of all domestic extremist-related killings have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists.
- On February 15, authorities arrested an active duty Coast Guard lieutenant who had plotted to kill Democratic politicians and members of the media.
- By every metric, right-wing extremism is the most serious terrorist threat facing the U.S. although jihadists still garner the lion’s share of media attention.
- There needs to be a full-scale reappraisal of social and legal efforts to reverse the growing threat posed by domestic hate groups.
The U.S. government and a sizeable portion of the public are understandably focused on the threat posed by jihadist terrorism. However, the same sense of urgency has not extended to terrorism or political violence perpetrated by individuals or groups motivated by right-wing extremism and ideologies. Indeed, there is a disproportionate amount of media attention dedicated to groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, leaving a glaring blind spot when it comes to understanding the magnitude of the threat posed by right-wing terrorist groups. There has not been a fraction of the effort or funding to counter the threat of domestic terrorism as there has been in countering ‘jihadist’ terrorism.In 2018, right-wing terrorists in the U.S. killed 15 Americans, while jihadists killed only one American over the same period. Indeed, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, between 2009 and 2018, 73.3% of all domestic extremist-related killings have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists, compared to 23.4% perpetrated by terrorists motivated by Salafi-jihadism and 3.2% by left-wing extremism.The United States has a major terrorist problem; it’s just not the one that politicians are talking about.
On February 15, authorities arrested an active-duty U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant who worked at the Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C.—Christopher Hassonhas been charged with weapons and drug violations. In court, prosecutors stated that Hasson was ‘a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect governmental conduct.’ They stated that they found the writings of infamous right-wing or white-supremacist murderers like Anders Behring Breivik(who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011), Timothy McVeigh (who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995), and Eric Robert Rudolph (serial bomber). Prosecutors were given 14 days to file additional charges, presumably terror-related before Hasson’s lawyers could file for bail. The data makes it abundantly clear that right-wing terrorism has eclipsed jihadist terrorism as the most pernicious threat facing the United States, even as politicians focus more on San Bernardino and Orlando than on Pittsburgh and Parkland.
The Hasson case is far from an anomaly. The U.S. is in the midst of a surge of right-wing terrorism that has been metastasizing in plain sight while generating only a muted response from domestic counter-terrorism authorities. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a study on February 20 that listed 1020 hate groups; the SPLC criteria for ‘hate group’ does not require violence, just that the statements, beliefs, or actions of an organization negatively target an entire group of people. The groups are a medley of white supremacists and racist groups. Some of these groups have tried to mainstream their virulently racist views by labeling themselves as ‘white nationalist,’ a trend that became apparent in the aftermath of the racist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Even as individuals and groups openly displayed Nazi symbols and gestures while chanting anti-Semitic slogans, the term ‘white nationalists’ was commonly used to refer to the groups. President Trump infamously refused to condemn the racist marchers, saying there were ‘good people on both sides.’ And while building a wall on the southern border might be appealing to certain demographics during a reelection campaign, it will do nothing to prevent the spread of an odious ideology that is deeply ingrained in right-wing groups already present in the U.S.
To counter this, the U.S. needs to acknowledge the scope and the scale of the threat. The U.S. continues to struggle with persistent racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and many other prejudices and hatreds that impact the daily lives and opportunities of millions of Americans. To counter such a multifaceted threat, the U.S. needs to work locally and federally in two parallel efforts: first, the federal government needs to act as it did in the 1960s and 1970s when it dismantled the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups. By making the detection, disruption, and legal prosecution of violent domestic terrorist groups a priority, the Department of Justice can diminish the capabilities of these groups that are now operating in the open. Politicians will need to stop the tacit approval of racist groups. Finally, there needs to be an honest and prioritized social effort at countering the ideology of hate, not just from the adherents of bin-Ladenism but the vitriol of hate now passing itself off as white nationalism. This effort should be a main national security priority and the primary driving force behind U.S. counterterrorism efforts as the government reassesses how to properly allocate the resources needed to counter the growing and apparent threat posed by right-wing terrorist groups and their ideologies of hate.