America Has A White Nationalist Terrorism Problem. What Should We Do?

A nation must think before it acts.

Foreign Policy Research Institute
by Clint Watts* 3 May 2019
America Has A White Nationalist Terrorism Problem. What Should We Do?

At the beginning of the decade, American law enforcement received repeated warnings of how the improvised explosive devices (IED) employed by al Qaeda affiliates might soon make their way to the United States. The IED warnings proved correct. On January 17, 2011, police officers in Spokane, Washington, narrowly averted a disaster by re-directing a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. march away from a remote detonated, shape charge loaded with “shrapnel coated with a substance meant to keep blood from clotting in wounds.” It wasn’t al Qaeda or even an al Qaeda supporter that planted the most sophisticated IED to then appear in the United States. Instead of finding an international terrorism connection, the FBI, on March 9, 2011, arrested Kevin Harpham, a former member of the U.S. Army who was affiliated with a neo-Nazi group called the National Alliance.

Not long after the election of President Barack Obama, all indicators pointed to a dramatic rise in domestic terrorism in the U.S. White supremacist threats mounted after America elected its first African-American president. Online conspiracy theories regarding the president’s citizenship and religion helped fuel a rise in racism intertwined with domestic politics. Alongside race-based groups, anti-government groups rose as well, powered by erroneous beliefs about abortion, repealing of the Second Amendment, or declaration of martial law.

Still, the U.S. focused its counter-terrorism efforts on al Qaeda and its spawn, the Islamic State. Homegrown extremists inspired by the groups were a more vexing problem at that moment. The Obama administration crafted policy and programs “to develop community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies . . . including domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists in the United States.” Years of conferences and outreach sessions commenced, but the focus remained on preventing jihadist terrorism and not domestic terrorism. Muslim communities saw law enforcement-led interventions, and I’d spoil these discussions by asking, “Where is the outreach to domestic extremists?” I’d point out that Kevin Harpham arose from Eastern Washington, not far from where FBI Agents in 1992 became embroiled in a disastrous standoff at Ruby Ridge with an alleged, anti-government group. “Why don’t we send some teams out to northern Idaho and eastern Washington to counter domestic terrorism?” I’d ask. No one responded, and the conversation would die because we all knew the answers. Domestic extremists have guns; al Qaeda wannabes generally don’t. Domestic terrorists vote; international terrorists don’t.

A decade of neglect and turning a blind eye to the rising current of white supremacist movements, combined with the rise of political divisiveness built on racial, religious, and ethnic divides, has brought an unprecedented modern wave of domestic terrorism. An African-American church became the scene of a horrible atrocity in South Carolina, and others recently burned in Louisiana. Mosques are attacked abroad and desecrated in the States. American synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego have become the site of mass shootings. White nationalist terrorism has long been on the rise. Why doesn’t America do something about it?

A Big White Nationalist Terrorism Problem

The summer of 2016 brought an unprecedented global wave of Islamic State terrorist attacks. My commentary consisted of several articles and interviews describing how the Islamic State directed foreign terrorist attacks, relied on its network of affiliates and former foreign fighters to conduct others, and spawned as a result a contagion of inspired attacks as their successes rippled through global media. Cascading terrorism, as I referred to it, resulted in one attack begetting another attack, where the frequency and scale of each incident reflected the power of a global jihadi extremist movement.

While the Islamic State stole the headlines, behind the scenes though, my colleagues and I watched Russia’s disinformation storm build heading into the 2016 presidential election. Advancing anti-government conspiracies and amplifying racially charged divides in America represented one of the Kremlin’s principal avenues for infiltrating the electorate. Having stumbled onto the Russian trolls in early 2014, I only became convinced of Russia’s effectiveness in undermining American democracy after watching them elevate the Jade Helm military exercise conspiracy alleging the U.S. military would take over Texas.

After publishing our assessment of Russian influence headed into the election, I did not worry much about the outcome of the vote, but instead worried about domestic extremist groups turning to violence at polling places based on conspiracy theories of election rigging and voter fraud. Shortly after the election, such a scenario occurred when an armed man fired shots at a pizza place in the nation’s capital. The PizzaGate incident showed the power of online conspiracies to propel violence in right-wing circles.

For the last decade, I’ve concluded counter-terrorism courses with a forecast comparing and contrasting the threat of international and domestic terrorism in the U.S. Four variables offer perspective as to where each category of extremist group might be headed. (Figure 1)

Similarities and Differences between International Terrorists and White Nationalist Terrorists

From 2001 to the summer of 2016, the threat of international jihadists far outpaced domestic extremists. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their legions of inspired supporters knew who they wanted to attack and why. They were highly motivated to commit violence to advance their agendas. The challenge for jihadists came down to whether they could gain access to high-profile targets and whether they had the weapons, bombs, skills, and experience to pull off an attack. For domestic extremists in America, nearly all had or could acquire weapons; some even had training, but few were focused on who and where to attack—and almost none were willing to commit violence.

Today, domestic extremist violence outpaces Islamist extremism, and the character of the threat has changed dramatically in the last three years. Right-wing extremists and international jihadists from the last decade have many parallels and some differences. Al Qaeda networked its supporters on websites, YouTube, and in web forums. The Islamic State followed suit on Facebook and Twitter before being kicked off those platforms, and then descended on the lesser-policed app Telegram. Today, white supremacists—having been largely pushed off mainstream social media platforms—use obscure sites like Gab and 8Chan to network, radicalize, share philosophies, and celebrate attacks. At the group’s height, the Islamic State’s social media posts traveled widely and were empowered by global legions of supporters who further distributed the group’s message. Today, white supremacists have grown so highly networked online that the Facebook Live video posted by New Zealand mosque shooter Brenton Harrison Tarrant was removed 1.2 million times at upload, and then another 300,000 copies were removed after posting. The Islamic State never achieved such an intense and capable network of online support.

Al Qaeda and Islamic State supporters looked to group leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for targeting guidance, and to jihadi clerics such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Anwar al-Awlaki for religious justifications of violence. The global white nationalist terrorist movement today has its own heroes in Anders Behring Breivik, Dylann Roof, and now Brenton Tarrant, who inspire others to commit violence and establish their ideological direction through terrorist manifestos.

Both extremist movements have advanced through the inspirational contagion of successful attacks, which raise the respective ideology’s profile, garner media attention, attract recruits, and inspire further plots. The difference between the inspired attacks of international jihadists and white nationalist extremists comes in the direction by which they coalesce.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State formed as named groups that directed terrorist attacks on specified targets. Each group then used violence to recruit, train, and indoctrinate international foreign fighters—creating a global web of supporters and affiliates and launching networked attacks in coordination and under their banners. Directed attacks and networked attacks then cascaded into waves of inspired attacks by those believing in jihadi ideology, but often having no direct connection to the international group. The strength of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the global movement that the two groups inspired could be felt by the breadth and frequency of this full spectrum of directed, networked, and inspired attacks under the banner of jihad—reaching its violent zenith in the summer of 2016. (For reference, see, “Inspired, Networked & Directed – The Muddled Jihad of ISIS & al Qaeda post Hebdo” and Figure 2.)

White supremacist terrorism appears to be following the inverse model of international jihadists by forming from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. White supremacists live and operate largely in Western countries hosting substantial law enforcement. Adequate policing prevents the formation of named groups and squelches the organizing, training, planning, and preparation jihadist groups enjoyed in failing states like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or the Sahel.

Lacking a central core leadership, white supremacists emerge from grass roots, online organizing. Each attack inspires another one leading to a global network of online supporters spreading the ideology and offering technical and tactical assistance when possible to further additional attacks. Whereas jihadists needed money, training, weapons, and access to targets, white supremacists have easy access to African-American, Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, and other minority group targets; enough money to self-finance attacks; and plenty of weapons at their disposal. Continued successful attacks and online networking, if not addressed holistically by Western law enforcement, will likely lead to further in-person networking at rallies, movement to compounds domestically, or even regional or international white supremacist enclaves that could lead to the formation of named, global white supremacist groups. If left unabated, the pattern of jihadists (Top-down, Directed-Networked-Inspired) will reverse itself for white nationalist terrorists as they grow in strength (Bottom-up, Inspired-Networked-Directed). A good current example of this right-wing terrorist formation is Atomwaffen—a Neo-Nazi group linked to multiple murders in the U.S.

The West should now worry equally about the global networking, state sponsorship, and facilitation of right-wing extremists. Russia’s state-sponsored disinformation system amplifies racial divides in America, boosts anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment globally, and helps act as connective tissue linking like-minded white nationalist movements across the West. In Sweden, two of three bombers from the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement received military training in Russia before returning home to attack left-wing activists and a refugee home in Gothenburg. The Balkans and in particular Serbia, home to a long history of ethnic strife, surface regularly in white nationalist terrorism discussions, appear routinely in extremist circles, and may become an attractive hub for like-minded extremists seeking a new home abroad over time. A reminder, the Christchurch mosque attacker, Brenton Tarrant, was not from New Zealand, but Australia.

Signs already suggest the spike in white nationalist violence will likely lead to reprisal terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists and left-wing movements. Sri Lanka’s defence minister said that a preliminary investigation into the Islamic State-linked Easter bombings found the attacks to be “in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch.” New Zealand’s foreign minister later disagreed with this assessment and noted the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility didn’t mention the Christchurch attack. But even the suggestion of such a reprisal attack points to the growing risk of reciprocal Islamic extremist attacks and left-wing inspired attacks in response to right-wing aggression. Literally, the name Antifa comes from “anti-fascists,” as a countermovement to right-wing extremists. This past week, the FBI disrupted a plot by a U.S. Army combat veteran to bomb a white nationalist rally. In sum, unchecked violence begets more violence.

Why the U.S. is hamstrung in the Fight against White Nationalist Terrorism

Americans—whether it’s the government or the media—treat domestic terrorism different than international terrorism. Inside the FBI, international and domestic terrorism investigations employ different rulebooks. Cases against international jihadists generally follow the National Security Guidelines and if a nexus to a foreign power, foreign terrorist organization, or designated foreign terrorist surfaces, investigators can request searches via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to preempt impending violence.

Domestic terrorism investigators use the U.S. Criminal Code to guide their investigations, and have a higher bar to hurdle for investigative approvals, far fewer resources at their disposal, and no formal domestic terrorist organization designation to power preemptive looks into extremist networks. There is a definition of domestic terrorism in U.S. code, but there is no specific criminal statute for domestic terrorism tied to that code. Domestic terrorism investigations thus often result in what appear to be one-off, reactive pursuits after violent attacks, as no legal avenue for upending domestic terrorism exists. As former FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge David Gomez has explained over the years and in discussions with me, “Absent a fully approved investigation into a designated domestic terrorism group, FBI agents are left with investigating dozens or even hundreds of individuals for conspiracy to commit a specific crime.”

Short of violence or a full FBI-designated domestic terrorism investigation, preventing white nationalist attacks becomes nearly impossible for investigators. The First Amendment protects their speech, and the Second Amendment protects their access to weapons. The FBI, however, despite these challenges, should be applauded for successfully thwarting several domestic extremist plots in recent months suggesting those inside the federal law enforcement agency recognize the threat and currently pursue them to the best of their ability despite so many constraints.

The White House and Capitol Hill stymie aggressive policing of domestic extremists. Whether it is Richard Spencer’s rallies in Charlottesville, Congressman Steve King’s comments and actions, or even this past weekend’s white nationalist demonstration at a Washington, D.C. book talk, white supremacists and their law-abiding supporters represent a constituency, and Congress doesn’t like to talk about them. When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tried in 2009 to warn of military veterans becoming right-wing extremists, Congressional Republicans admonished the agency, and the assessment was withdrawn. (Reminder, Kevin Harpham in 2011 was a military veteran). A decade later, DHS disbanded its domestic terrorism intelligence unit as part of a reorganization to eliminate federal redundancy.

What Can Policymakers Do to Fight White Nationalist Terrorism?

Elected leaders could do something more than offer their thoughts and prayers to challenge the growing threat of white nationalist terrorism. Our nation’s legislators could and should enact a federal crime for domestic terrorism (explained best by Mary B. McCord here at Lawfare). Another option for Congress would be to create a law for designating domestic terrorism organizations and domestic terrorists equivalent to the process conducted by the U.S. State Department for international terrorism. However, I have no confidence in our Congress during this time to enact such legislation and then fairly conduct oversight of such a designation process. Current legislative debates place equal emphasis on Black Identity Extremism and anarchists. There have been remarkably few violent incidents by Black Identity Extremists; according to the FBI’s estimate, “Violence has been rare over the past 20 years and there is sparse evidence of any convergence.” The FBI and DHS assess that anarchists and Antifa “principally target property,” not people. FBI Director Wray has publicly called white nationalist terrorism a “persistent, pervasive threat,” and America has watched white supremacists kill and wound hundreds of its citizens. To place Black Identity Extremism and Antifa/anarchists on equal footing is simply silly, and shows gross negligence by our elected leaders and great weakness by our institutions.

Since our lawmakers can’t pass laws designed to deal with the most pressing threats to American security, their committees could start by informing themselves and the public through a series of public hearings on domestic terrorism requesting the following information from the FBI and DHS:

  • Homeland Security & Judiciary Committees:
    • The deaths, crimes, incidents, and estimated number of adherents for each category of domestic terrorism
    • Summary of each incident resulting in casualties at the hands of a domestic terrorist
    • Assessment of each domestic extremist ideology’s threat to people and property
    • A breakdown of resources dedicated to international and domestic terrorism by category
    • An outline of how investigators will handle fringe social media platforms (8Chan, Gab) acting as hubs for domestic terrorists
  • Foreign Affairs & Intelligence Committees:
    • Threat of foreign countries working to coordinate, infiltrate, and influence domestic extremist movements
    • Summary of foreign intelligence collection related to:
      • U.S. persons traveling abroad for ideological indoctrination and training in support of all extremist ideologies
      • Suspected foreign agents inside the U.S. connecting with extremist groups
  • Armed Services Committees:
    • The prevalence of domestic extremism, by type, in the ranks of the Armed Forces
    • Foreign influence operations targeting current and former U.S. military personnel

White nationalist terrorism arises from individuals in a loose network, and the FBI can do something about it. The U.S. just went through a similar period with al Qaeda and Islamic State’s homegrown violent extremists. The FBI Director, ideally with the public support of the Attorney General and the president, should open a nationwide domestic terrorism case for “White Nationalist Inspired Terrorism.” Designating this case would allow for investigators and analysts to conduct assessments for detecting violent plots before they occur. In recent years, a similar case designation for al Qaeda and Islamic State-inspired, homegrown violent extremists helped the FBI catch up to the international jihadist threat.[1] In short, the designation will help the FBI dedicate more resources and personnel to white nationalist terrorism, may help them detect violent plots earlier, and increase the amount of information for sharing with state and local partners who may be better informed and positioned for thwarting extremist violence.

These small, simple steps can help stem the rising tide of white nationalist terrorism, but one thing above all could dramatically reduce domestic extremism: leadership. Offering “thoughts and prayers” via tweets accomplishes nothing. Elected leaders must acknowledge white nationalist terrorism now, publicly refute the divisive ideology, and affirm their commitment to protect all Americans against threats foreign and domestic. Until this happens, these elected leaders fail in their duty to lead our country, and all Americans will remain vulnerable to the violence of a growing strain of white nationalist terrorism.


[1] See, the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG) for the difference between Assessments, Preliminary Inquiries, and Full Field Investigations.

*Clint Watts is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of Messing With The Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News. @selectedwisdom

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