Violence by far-right groups and individuals has emerged as one of the most dangerous terrorist threats faced by US law enforcement and triggered a wave of warnings and arrests of people associated with those extremist movements.
The most recent in-depth analysis of far-right terrorism comes from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
In a report released last week, the Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States, CSIS analyses 25 years of domestic terrorism incidents and finds that the majority of attacks and plots have come from the far right.
The report says “the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of rightwing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years”, with the far right launching two-thirds of attacks and plots in 2019, and 90% of those in 2020.
The report adds: “Far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators.” The second most significant source of attacks and plots in the US has been “religious extremists”, almost all “Salafi jihadists inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaida”.
The report shows the far left has been an increasingly negligible source of attacks since the mid 2000s. At that time the FBI defined arsons and other forms of property damage as domestic terrorism during a period some have called the “Green Scare”.
The CSIS study came during a new wave of terror attacks and plots from white supremacist and anti-government extremists.
Last Monday, the Department of Justice announced that it had brought an array of charges, including terrorism related offenses, against a US army soldier who subscribed to a mix of white supremacist and satanist beliefs which are characteristic of so-called “accelerationist” neo-nazis like Atomwaffen Division.
Last week, federal charges were brought on Steven Carillo for the murder of a federal security officer and a sheriff’s deputy. Like the three men arrested for an alleged terror plot in Nevada earlier this month, the FBI says Carillo identified with the extreme anti-government “boogaloo” movement, which is principally concerned with removing government regulation of firearms.
But critics question the timing and motivations of the intelligence community’s pivot to combatting rightwing extremism as it comes at a time when some are arguing the legal and institutional counterterrorism apparatus developed to combat overseas terror groups should now be adapted to domestic extremists.
For some that has deep implications for civil liberties and constitutional rights, especially when it comes to suggestions that new laws should be drafted to certify such groups as domestic terrorist organizations.
Eric Ward, executive director of the civil rights nonprofit the Western States Center, said: “We are deeply concerned by the idea of any type of law that creates a legal definition around domestic terrorism. There are significant laws already on the books that meet the challenges of this moment.”
Ward said that rather than new laws, “we need a responsible leadership that is actually willing to use the tools that are already on hand”.
Ward added: “Too often we have to respond to political crisis with criminalization. And I think that is a mistake”.
But the push for new laws is an ongoing one.
In April, a joint report from George Washington University’s Program on extremism (GWU PoE) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) included a proposal for a “rights protecting domestic terrorism statute”. They said the law could provide “more tools for the investigation and prosecution of groups and individuals” associated with rightwing extremism.
The report did acknowledge “significant constitutional questions” would be raised by such a statute, and the possibility of “unintended consequences, particularly for members of minorities”.
There are also concerns around the creation of a surveillance state.
The GWU/ADL proposal called for increased information sharing between law enforcement agencies, increased data collection and increased resourcing.
Congressman Max Rose, a New York Democrat, has gone further in calling for the formal designation of US-based groups with international connections as Foreign Terror Organizations.
The FBI, meanwhile, is increasingly prepared to make comparisons between right wing extremists and Islamist terror groups.
Seth Jones, the lead author of the CSIS report, offered qualified support for the formal designation of terror groups, saying: “I still think it’s important to think through the first amendment implications and other pros and cons. But I do support taking a serious look at designation.”
Designation could open the way, he said, to also investigating people who support such groups without having formal membership in any.
But critics are alarmed by what they see as the application of ideas derived from the “war on terror” to domestic extremists.
Mike German, Brennan Center fellow, is a former FBI agent who investigated rightwing extremists but is now focused on law enforcement and intelligence oversight and reform. He sees arguments for domestic terror statutes as part of a broader reorientation of the “national security establishment” away from conflicts in the Middle East.
German attributes this move to a realization “that Isis and al-Qaida were were not as threatening to Americans as they had been, and that foreign counter-terrorism in general was sort of running out of steam”.
German said: “It’s a way of expanding the target realm that gives the counterterrorism enterprise targets that they can use to to get statistical accomplishments, rather than looking at whether or not the violence itself is reduced.”
German has argued federal authorities should prioritize the investigation of the violent crimes of far right extremists, and call them terrorist acts where appropriate, but that they should be prosecuted using existing laws, with a consideration of alternative responses like restorative justice.
He added: “When I worked these cases in the 1990s, no one suggested that we didn’t have sufficient legal authority.”