Former US president Donald Trump’s term in office was bookended with two of the ugliest outbursts of white nationalist violence in 21st-century America — the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and this year’s storming of the US Capitol by his extremist supporters to sabotage the election results.
Right-wing apologists like to downplay these lethal events or dismiss them as aberrations, but experts have said that this is a form of terrorism that is not only entrenched, but has ballooned to become the biggest domestic security threat in the US.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, more people in the US have been killed by far-right extremists than by domestic Islamist fundamentalists have — but that is often difficult to discern from the way the US government has treated domestic terrorism.
Racially motivated extremists pose the most lethal domestic terrorism threat, an intelligence report said earlier this year, adding that the menace is more serious than potential attacks from overseas.
The White House published a strategy for countering the problem.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the US Congress that the Jan. 6 insurrection was not an isolated event, and that the “problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a number of years.”
White supremacists comprise the “biggest chunk of our domestic terrorism portfolio overall” and “have been responsible for the most lethal attacks over the last decade,” Wray added.
However, warnings of right-wing extremism have long been minimized. Attention and resources have been overwhelmingly channeled into stopping al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group from sending terrorists from abroad or inspiring radical sympathizers within the US to conduct attacks domestically.
“It’s undeniable that federal law enforcement has underplayed and misunderstood the level of white supremacist violence,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
“That’s in part because of the emphasis on the surveillance and investigation of Muslims, immigrants and communities of color that law enforcement views wrongly and unfairly through a security threat lens,” she added.
After anti-government zealot Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people and injuring 680 in 1995 — the worst attack of terrorism on US soil before Sept. 11, 2001 — the threat to public safety from white supremacist violence “never went away — and is now escalating,” Shamsi said.
Many government and non-government experts study the phenomenon of domestic terrorism, reviewing deliberate threats or acts of violence in the US driven by ideological goals that intimidate society.
The New America think tank in Washington has analyzed the 251 killings it has defined as having been perpetrated by US domestic terrorists since the catastrophe on Sept. 11, 2001.
Its report concluded that far-right extremists have killed 114 people spanning more than 30 violent attacks, while US-based individuals that it terms “jihadists” have killed 107 people across 14 attacks.
New America considered far-right domestic terrorism to consist of anti-government, militia-related, white supremacist and anti-abortion violent threats and acts. It outlined domestic “jihadism” as threats or attacks involving those espousing versions of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s ideology aimed at global war to establish theocratic fundamentalist-Islamic regimes, and influenced, but not funded or trained, by overseas terrorist groups.
“Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents,” including those involved in “every lethal attack except one” since Sept. 11, 2001, the report said.
The US Department of Justice cracks down hard on people in the US threatening violence in the name of al-Qaeda or Islamic State, or actions such as donating to such groups, bringing terrorism-related charges often resulting in long prison sentences, regardless of whether an attack was carried out.
However, despite a landscape of rising white nationalist threats and violence, a 2019 Brennan Center for Justice report found that such attacks have been given “inadequate” regard by the US government, charged as lesser crimes of hate or gang violence, not terrorism, with a lack of urgency and consequence, and cases passed from federal law enforcement to state or local law enforcement.
“The far right hasn’t been given as much attention as it should be given,” said David Sterman, one of the authors of the New America report.
Its versions of extremism have apparently proved “harder to police” as a threat, in part because of views hewing closer to mainstream US politics, he said, adding that racism “certainly plays a role, and a big role” in enforcement disparities.
Arguments that more laws are needed to deal with white supremacy are spurious, Shamsi said, adding that US law enforcement has plenty of legal tools and just needs to use them.
“Existing laws and police authority adequately address white supremacist violence, and new and unnecessary power will inevitably be used to wrongly target black and brown people,” Shamsi added.
In the public’s mind, the word “terrorism” might typically be associated with bombings and hijackings, causing mass-casualty events and mentioned in many thwarted plots, but ideologically driven shootings count for the vast majority of domestic terrorism deaths in all categories, sometimes with just one victim at a time.
The Oklahoma bombing put a fresh spotlight on far-right domestic terrorism, but after Sept. 11, 2001, the administration of former US president George W. Bush swung maximum power into fighting Islamist extremists.
During his two terms, while the US launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, seven fatal incidents occurred on US soil that the New America report categorized as far-right terrorism — in total killing 10 and wounding 11 — with motives including retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, anti-gay ideology and white supremacy. Two fatal incidents were described by the think tank as perpetrated by “domestic jihadists,” killing three and injuring nine altogether.
Domestic terrorism escalated during former US president Barack Obama’s two terms, especially white nationalism and anti-government violence. In a dribble of lethal attacks, mostly taking out one to three people per incident, far-right extremists killed 56 people and wounded 40.
In 2009, intelligence officials in the Obama administration issued a chilling warning to US police about the rise in violent right-wing groups, fueled at that time by the economic recession, returning disgruntled military veterans and racist hostility over the election of the US’ first black president.
The warning was pretty much drowned out by conservative backlash politics. In August 2011, the White House released Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, which it described as the first national strategy to prevent violent extremism domestically — but far-right attacks rose.
The Obama administration saw fewer slayings in the name of support for al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group and their ideologies, but the eight incidents that did occur killed and injured many more than far-right attacks.
With a total of 91 dead and 280 wounded, there were the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, by a soldier opposing the Afghanistan war, killing 13; the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, which killed four and injured more than 170; the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California, in which two people killed 14 and were found to have bomb-making equipment; and the 2016 massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, with 49 shot to death and 53 injured.
Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was marked by his white nationalist rhetoric. He put this into action upon taking office, from a travel ban blocking immigrants from a list of Muslim-majority countries to slashing the US’ refugee intake and solidifying the barrier on the US-Mexico border, while separating families and even blocking asylum seekers on the border.
Trump emboldened white supremacist groups and far-right terrorism. The dozen lethal far-right terrorist attacks during the Trump administration killed a total of 48 people and injured 59, and included anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant violence.
While 251 domestic terrorism killings have occurred since al-Qaeda hijackers murdered 2,977 people on Sept. 11, 2001, more than that have died from illnesses related to toxins unleashed at New York City’s “Ground Zero.”
In the US, nearly 660,000 people have died of COVID-19 since January last year; more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the US last year; almost 20,000 people are murdered annually, three-quarters of them resulting from gun violence; and about 40,000 people die annually in motor vehicle accidents.
However, the relatively small death toll from domestic terrorism belies its outsize alarming and divisive effects on US society.
Since the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban last month, US President Joe Biden has repeatedly referred to varieties of related terrorism as “metastasizing” in numerous parts of the world, although it is unclear how much of a threat this is to be to the US from abroad or from within its own borders going forward.
However, Wray, who uses that same word to describe the deepening terrorist threat from the far right on US soil, surely means from abroad and within the US’ borders — the US can never claim that it was not warned.
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