On August 6th 2001, then-President Bush received the day’s Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), a top-secret document integrating latest intelligence from the CIA, NSA, FBI, and other members of the US intelligence community. Titled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack US’, this PDB now lives in infamy, with reports stating President Bush responded to the CIA officer present by saying ‘Alright, you’ve covered your ass now’. One month later, al Qaeda brought upon the United States its worst attack since Pearl Harbour.
In one sentence, President Bush taught the world the perils of disregarding the declared intentions of terrorists. For the most part, this lesson has since been learned. For example, most recent statistics from 2017 show that the NSA’s hunt for terrorist communication has tripled, with phone records collected from 2016 to 2017 rising from 151,230,968 to 534,396,285.
This lesson however, cannot be applied to terrorists on the far right. As Jane Reitman observes, the US counterterrorism community has ‘for nearly two decades has been focused almost exclusively on American and foreign-born jihadists‘. What’s more, the 2018 Global Terrorism Index shows that during the years 2014-2017, the United States saw 49 deaths caused by far right terrorism, a figure in sharp increase to the 13 deaths between 2002-2012. Recent events such as Robert Bowers’ October 28th shooting of a Pennsylvania Synagogue are also symptomatic of America’s struggle against far right ideas. As a 2017 ABC News poll found, 9% of the American population (approximately 30 million people), consider neo-Nazi views acceptable, indicating a hotbed within which far right terrorism can continue to thrive.
The numbers are clear: far right terrorism is decidedly on the rise in the US. Of greater concern, as a recent Vice News report demonstrates, is that individuals are transitioning from ‘lone wolf’ terrorism to acts planned as part of coordinated groups. For example, Ben Daley, Michael Miselis, and Robert Rundo, members of the California-based group Rise Above Movement, travelled to Europe in April 2018 to meet European far right extremists. As Seth Jones writes, these initiatives ‘provide U.S.-based groups with an opportunity to improve their tactics, develop better counter-intelligence techniques, harden their extremist views, and broaden their global networks.’ Individuals are also making a concerted effort to coordinate online. One example is the social networking site called ‘The Base’, ironically translating to ‘al-Qaeda’ in Arabic. This site is designed to bring members of the far right together, educating followers on a plethora of terrorism tactics including ‘counter-surveillance techniques, bomb making, chemical weapons creation, and guerilla warfare.’
These factors lay in plain sight the need for a changing outlook on far right terrorism. While we recall Dylann Roof, Robert Bowers, Michael Page, and Glenn Miller Jr. as sovereign authors of their own violence, it is now incumbent upon all of us to challenge this narrative, and ask why this surge from the far right exists as a whole.
The popular route lays the blame at the feet of the President. From Charlottesville, where he called some protesters on both sides ‘very fine people’, to his signature anti-immigration policies capped by his description of Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries as ‘shithole countries‘, the President has certainly added fuel to the fire. Another major factor was the election of former-President Obama. While the overwhelming majority found Barack Obama’s election to be a historic victory for social progress, this enraged and galvanised the far right: a popular neo-Nazi website called Stormfront recorded 32,000 new membership requests during the first three months of Obama’s tenure, almost double the figure for the entirety of 2008.
While these factors acted as catalysts, their explanatory power is limited. Terrorism on the far right does not exist because of today’s White House being embroiled in a racially charged ideology, or because of the election of a black President. It exists by virtue of the inherently violent ideology itself. Analogously, Islamic terrorism is not created by Western foreign policy mistakes, but by adherents to an ideology that demands the destruction of the kafir. This teaches us that our focus must be on understanding, and directly combating the ideology which motivates acts of far right terrorism. To this end, the US Extremist Crime Database identifies the key pillars of this ideology. According to their research, individuals are:
- Fiercely nationalistic (as opposed to universal and international in orientation);
- Suspicious of centralized federal authority;
- Reverent of individual liberty (especially right to own guns; be free of taxes);
They also hold three core beliefs:
- Belief in conspiracy theories that involve a grave threat to national sovereignty and/or personal liberty;
- Belief that one’s personal and/or national “way of life” is under attack and is either already lost or that the threat is imminent; and
- Belief in the need to be prepared for an attack either by participating in or supporting the need for paramilitary preparations and training or survivalism.
Society must shine a light on this ideology if it is to overcome it. It is incumbent on policymakers, academics and journalists to proactively push their work in this field into full public view, allowing America to recognise this threat as a legitimate branch of terrorism in its own right. Until that happens, far right terrorism in America will continue to thrive under the false veil of crazed individuals acting alone.