Right-Wing Terror Is Worsening—and It's Just Getting Started


Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, (Michigan Governor’s Office/Reuters)

The FBI has for years warned that far-right groups pose the greatest threat to US domestic security. Right-wing ideologies find a much larger audience and more fertile ground in the US than Islamism ever could. Politics is allowing the problem to worsen—but politics is the only thing that can fix it.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post entitled White Supremacist Terror Is Going to Get Worse. In light of recent right-wing terror plots against the governors of Michigan and Virginia, I am re-posting a revamped version here. Most of what I wrote a year ago is still true and much of my prediction has unfortunately been proved correct. I am broadening the identifier to "right-wing terror". Though there is no denying that Wolverine Watchmen members have displayed symbolism often associated with white supremacy, there is no need to get caught up in the details of just what sort of right-wing ideology groups may profess when speaking about the entire phenomenon. (Though an intimate understanding of individual groups is of course necessary to combat them via the "classic FBI and police intelligence work" cited below.) I have also updated the post with references to more recent events.

The recent revelations of a kidnapping plot against the governors of Michigan and Virginia has spread fears among non-right-wing Americans. Anyone who isn't far-right is asking themselves if future attacks can be stopped the way the kidnappers were (and the way the El Paso shooter last year was not). The answer is that attacks can be curtailed in much the same way that Islamist attacks have been fought. The problem is that right-wing ideologies have found much more fertile ground in the United States than Islamism ever could. The same methods could be used against them, but will we employ them?

Groups like the Wolverine Watchmen are "easy" to target compared with "lone wolf" actors. They operate more openly and have command structures and hierarchies that can be exploited. Research from the use of targeting killing in counterterrorism shows that "decapitating" a group rarely creates a sustained disruptive effect large enough to prevent attacks among the decentralized (Islamist) groups with cell-like structures most of that research was conducted on. Infiltrating so-called militias and arresting members caught committing and plotting crimes, however, would likely deter all but the most hardcore members—those willing to go off the grid and form cell-like structures. Such a decentralized group would be harder to combat due to the protective layers of secrecy inherent in its structures, but it would also be much harder to sustain in a well-run place like Michigan or Virginia than in a zone of "competing governance" like Gaza or Pakistan. For that reason, "lone wolf" actors would likely replace more organized groups as they are broken up—if they are broken up.

You cannot arrest 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 we have to be careful with the term "lone-wolf terrorism"). While lone wolf 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 (advertising and other) support for platforms 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 right-wingers could be similar.

Despite all these similarities, right-wing 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 right-wing 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 has ever voiced support for IS or Al Qaeda. Although no American politician would currently admit to supporting far-right groups, many have come very close and there are plenty who use vitriolic rhetoric against immigrants and minorities that emboldens right-wing groups 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 has been on Islamists and left-wing groups and movements, even though the FBI was already warning that right-wing groups 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 grievance, right-wing 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 right-wing ideologies and rhetoric of all forms and get serious about better funding domestic counterterrorism operations focused on right-wing groups. Politics is the main reason right-wing terror has been so uniquely deadly in America. (Un)Fortunately, politics is also the only way to stop it.


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