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Terrorism on the domestic front

Government agencies and experts warn that the major threat of violence comes not from foreign extremists or antifa, but from armed and violent white supremacists and white nationalists from the U.S.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the main focus on terrorism in the United States has been on radical Islamic groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS. For national security experts concerned with terrorism within the U.S., that focus has changed in the past few years: the most significant terror threat now comes from white nationalist and white supremacist groups.

In a report released in October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) — will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”

According to an Oct. 22 report published by the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “white supremacists and other like-minded extremists conducted 67 percent of terrorist attacks in the United States in 2020.”

The CSIS report noted that white supremacist groups used “vehicles, explosives, and firearms as their predominant weapons and targeted demonstrators and other individuals because of their racial, ethnic, religious, or political identity — such as African-Americans, immigrants, Muslims, and Jews.”

The report also said that the incidence of terrorist attacks from the radical left had increased from 8 percent of the total in 2019 to 20 percent in 2020, with most attacks or plots using explosives and incendiaries.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — a nonpartisan group that tracks hate groups in the United States — lists 941 hate groups in the United States, spread across every state.

Despite President Trump’s efforts to classify antifa as a domestic terrorist organization and contrary to the general right-wing narrative that antifa is an organized, militarized existential threat to lives and livelihood, SPLC does not define the movement as a hate group.

On its website, the organization says that it “condemns violence in all its forms, including the violent acts of far-left street movements like antifa.”

“But the propensity for violence, though present in many hate groups, is not among the criteria for listing,” the statement reads. “Antifa groups do not promote hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.’

In its 2019 database, SPLC lists two groups that are active in Vermont: the Patriot Front, which is a nationwide white nationalist group, and National Socialist Movement, which originated in the American Nazi Party and is also organized nationwide.

“The [National Social Movement] is notable for its violent anti-Jewish rhetoric, its racist views and its policy allowing members of other racist groups to join NSM while remaining members of other groups,” says the SPLC entry. “Until 2007, NSM members protested in full Nazi uniforms, now traded in for black “Battle Dress Uniforms.”

In the states that border Vermont, SPLC also lists four hate groups in New Hampshire, 15 in Massachusetts, and 44 in New York.

In the months since that data was recorded, a significant degree of organization has taken place on both the left and the extreme right.

The neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, which had been active in New England, disbanded last year. According to several reports, AWD has reorganized as the National Socialist Order under leadership that survived the FBI investigation and carries on the same activities.

A long legacy of domestic terrorism

Terror activity on the right has existed for a long time — for more than a century, if one includes white terror in the period from the end of Reconstruction into the 1970s.

The only actual coup ever committed in the United States occurred in Wilmington, N.C. in 1898, when a group of white supremacists rioted and led an insurrection that forced the elected city government, which consisted mainly of Black Americans, to flee office.

In 1921, white attackers destroyed a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, essentially razing an entire area that had been called the “Black Wall Street” and killing scores of people, some of whose remains are being found only now in mass graves.

The single greatest terrorist incident in the United States before 9/11 was the 1994 bombing in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured almost 700. A right-wing extremist, Timothy McVeigh, was executed for the crime.

Still, the situation in the United States is different now. Over the past several years, both alt-right and far-left groups have grown more extensive and powerful. The 2017 “white pride” demonstration in Charlottesville, Va. marked an inflection point, in which hundreds of white supremacists marched through the streets carrying torches and chanting “you will not replace us.”

One anti-racist counterprotestor, Heather Heyer, was killed during the protest when a right-wing extremist drove into a crowd of demonstrators. The event drew widespread condemnation, particularly after President Trump said “there were good people on both sides” — by the interpretation of many, assigning legitimacy to and encouraging the extremist views on display there.

In 2019, the FBI recorded 7,314 hate crimes in the United States, the highest in a decade, up 35 percent from a low of 5,479 in 2014. According to the SPLC, the number of hate groups in the nation has proliferated from 784 to 940, almost 20 percent, during that same period of years.

Extremists recruit in the digital age

Right-wing extremist groups grow and evolve mainly through skillful use of social media, according to Professor Weiai Wayne Xu of UMass-Amherst, who told The Commons that alt-right groups expand recruitment efforts by the use of hashtags, which can easily draw the reader of a Twitter or Facebook post on one topic, such as gun rights, into other posts that are more clearly about white supremacist ideology.

For example, hashtags like #masculine or #alllivesmatter might be used in the same posts as #wethepeople or #itsoktobewhite in ways that could lead the reader down a rabbit hole of right-wing propaganda and misinformation, Xu said. Based on his research, he said this can lead to some strange connections, such as associations between QAnon and anti-vaccination ideology, alternative medicine, or even yoga.

Social media is also essential to forming group identity and communication networks, Xu said. He noted that since mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook have begun to crack down on misinformation and extremist groups, the alt-right has migrated skillfully to less visible platforms that make it harder for scholars and watchdogs to detect and keep track of the many movements of the radical right.

“It’s hard to gauge how large the movement is because of decentralization, and the scope of migrations is large,” said Xu. “That makes the detection dynamics and the analysis of these movements incredibly difficult, because it is just hard to map that community.”

“I like to confront threats that pose the greatest danger to the homeland,” said Kurt Braddock, assistant professor of public communication and a social science researcher at American University who often consults with national and international security agencies. “If you look at it from a data standpoint, the far right is the biggest threat by far to the United States.”

‘They hear the politicians saying these things’

As the transition has unfolded from Trump’s presidency to the new administration that will take office on Jan. 20, it is clear that political divisions at the national level and Trump’s unwillingness to concede the election have only fanned the flames of right-wing anger and discontent.

Trump has called for a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, the day that the Electoral College vote will be certified by Congress, ending any legal chance for Trump to retain the presidency.

Large crowds of Trump supporters are expected in the nation’s capital for a major rally on the ellipse outside the White House. The National Guard has been called out to bolster D.C.’s police force.

A similar rally in December was largely peaceful during the day, with police holding demonstrators and counter-demonstrators apart. In the night, however, numerous street fights broke out, with Proud Boys and members of other groups roaming the streets and sometimes attacking random passersby. Four people were stabbed that night, although who was responsible is still unclear.

“It concerns me how normalized it has become for certain politicians to say things that are implicitly violent, that have real potential to trigger violence on the part of their followers,” said Braddock. “The classic example was Trump’s soundbite telling the Proud Boys to ‘stand [back] and stand by’” during the Sept. 29 presidential debate between Trump and Biden.

“People are still out there saying things like that, and the right-wing groups are listening; they hear the politicians saying these things, and they’re gearing up for it,” said Braddock.

“That’s my biggest concern: not only that these groups are out there, because these groups have always been out there, but that politicians are catering to them and making statements that will motivate them to engage in some sort of violence.”

“I’m concerned about the months following the transition, and I am concerned about the next two or three weeks,” said Braddock.

“Trump and colleagues are getting more and more conspiratorial and aggressive in what they’re saying […] about the election,” he said. “The implicit marching orders are there, and the justification is there, and I’m worried that it is going to come to the point where something happens.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #594 (Wednesday, January 6, 2021). This story appeared on page A2.

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