White Supremacist Terror Is Going to Get Worse

Alleged El Paso shooter Patrick Crusius. Credit: CNN

Despair has swept the United States in the wake of a white supremacist terror attack on the city of El
Paso, Texas last weekend. People are asking themselves if such attacks can be stopped. The answer is that they can be reduced in much the same way that Islamist attacks have been fought. The problem is that the ideology of white supremacy has found much more fertile ground in the United States than Islamism ever could. The same methods could be used against it, but will we employ them?

You cannot target the leaders of terror groups when there are no leaders. That makes so-called "lone wolf" attackers harder to target than organized terror groups (though I argue that there is no such thing as "lone- wolf" terrorism). While white supremacist terrorists don't have "leaders," they do have influencers. These can be deplatformed—either by platforms like YouTube refusing to host them or other organizations cutting support for platforms, like 8chan, that do. Users find new platforms, but since these are less mainstream, the reach of their messages is reduced. The second approach is classic FBI and police intelligence work: infiltrating such forums and finding out who is planning attacks. This requires a significant time investment to monitor such users and figure out who is likely to become deadly. Nevertheless, just such methods have reduced the threat of Islamist attacks in many countries. Informants from would-be attackers' circle of friends and family are also vital. A plurality of Islamist attacks in America have been stopped that way and numbers for white supremacists could be similar.

Despite all these similarities, white supremacist terror will most likely prove more dangerous and harder to combat than Islamist terror for the simple reason of audience: The Islamist message was never likely to sway many Americans, focused as it was on a small minority group (the majority of whom rejected that message). The white supremacist narrative of grievance is aimed at the majority population. Sure, it's rejected by a majority of that majority, but the potential number of recruits is still far larger. The next difference is related: politics. No American politician ever voiced support for IS or Al Qaeda. Although no American politician would currently admit to supporting white supremacists, there are plenty that use vitriolic rhetoric against immigrants and minorities that emboldens white supremacists and indicates at least tacit support for them. Moreover, as an article in Time recalls, "[i]n the early days of his presidency, the Trump Administration gutted the DHS office that focused on violent extremism in the U.S. and pulled funding for grants that were meant to go to organizations countering neo-Nazis, white supremacists, antigovernment militants and other like-minded groups." Trump's focus was on Islamists, even though the FBI was already warning that white supremacists posed a greater threat. We cannot fight terrorism if we don't prioritize it.

With a large proportion of the population potentially susceptible to its message of white grievance, white supremacist terror is likely to grow worse before it gets better. And it will only get better if Americans and their politicians are united in their opposition to white supremacist ideology and rhetoric of all forms and get serious about better funding domestic counterterrorism operations focused on white supremacy. Politics is the main reason white supremacist terror has been so uniquely deadly in America. Unfortunately, politics is also the only way to stop it.


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